Champika The Ultra-Nationalist Hardliner Shows Signs Of Mellowing


By Ranga Kalansooriya –

I was watching an interview with Patali Champika Ranawaka on a private television channel on Wednesday night and it made me realized the extent of change that had happened to this one-time ultra nationalist hardliner.

With his erudite arguments and thoughtful opinions, Patali Champika proved the fact that he has converted from ultra-nationalism, or rather hardline radicalism to moderate statesmanship.

If one analyzes the journey from Janatha Mithuro to present day Jathika Hela Urumaya, this change is a paradigm shift. Together with his “Sansaara-buddy” Athuraliye Rathana Thera, Champika, to my mind, rewrote the definitions of Sinhala nationalism while successfully engaging in changing the political history of Sri Lanka on January 8.

Champika RanilDuring long conversations I used to have with him in early 90s via endless cups of plain tea at the Open University canteen where he was a visiting lecturer, I realized that this ‘rubber-slippered loner’ had a long way to go. I thought that he had a better understanding on politics than the engineering related subjects he taught at the university.

Nationalism is not a bad connotation. Neither does radicalism. Only radicals, who would think and act different, would come up in life and make a change in the society. If you google for definition of radicalism, it would provide plenty of results but the most common would be “radicalism is a noun that means political orientation of those favoring revolutionary change. In political science, the term radicalism is the belief that society needs to be changed, and that these changes are only possible through revolutionary means.”

But the danger comes when this sense of radicalism conjoins with violence as it seeks to reach its goal through “revolutionary means.” Radicalism has now become a menace, mainly in the Muslim world but it now slowly spreading to Buddhist societies as well. The emergence of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Sri Lanka could not be considered in isolation where the 969 movement in Myanmar led by the radical monk Wirathu who was identified as Bin Laden of contemporary Buddhism by Times magazine and several other similar initiatives in Thailand. The commonality in many of these radical movements is the direct or indirect blessings from the State.

Strategically Champika – Rathana led JHU moved away from this ethno religious radicalism mainly after the completion of the war in May 2009. One could argue the fact that the emergence of BBS was to target the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka in the absence of Tamil militarism as the then political leadership sought a path to become the sole savior of Sinhala Buddhists. Though it was a strong coalition partner of the then UPFA regime, JHU was tactical in moving out of this trap and emerging as an acceptable force in a multi-dimensional political platform – mainly in the rainbow coalition.

This should be discussed in the context where federalism has again entered into the Sri Lankan political discourse. Many hardliners are of the view that this is the revival of Tamil Terrorism and especially Mahinda Rajapaksa camp is strongly advocating the opinion that it is a sign of LTTE raising its ugly head.

But I was happy to see one-time hardliner Champika explained it as an electioneering strategy of the TNA, comparing it with similar political objectives of those like JVP who had peoples’ revolution as their goal which never did materialize. But the irony of it is TNA is still playing its own nationalism card for elections, which could be justified from their own political point of view.

On the other hand the ultra-nationalism camp of Mahinda Rajapaksa is also spreading similar sentiments in its electioneering process. Saving the country from emerging Tiger threat has become the main slogan, not only of Rajapaksa himself, but his supporters as well. At a meeting of Buddhist clergy with Rajapaksa last week, a leading monk in his speech claimed that not only Tamil extremism, Muslim fundamentalism too is raising its ugly head in Sri Lanka and urged Sinhalese to be vigilant.

Champika had a solid argument to this issue. He compared the Tamils in the north with those in the upcountry. The effects of the war had made once academically and socially thriving North into a vacuum whereas the upcountry Tamils have gained much development through political means during the past thirty years, he said. Thus, the ultra-nationalist political leadership of both sides should understand this reality and unite to develop the war-affected Sri Lanka nation, he argued. This is the statesmanship, I suppose.

Nationalism is commonly viewed as a double edged sword: it can unite or fragment a country, says Pakistani writer Dr Moonis Ahmer. It is a sense of loyalty towards a nation which is shared by people having a common past, cultural or religious heritage. Nationalism seeks to identify a behavioral entity i.e. the nation and then to pursue certain political and cultural ethos, goals on behalf of it, according to Dr Ahmer.

His country provides a classic example where the state could play a vital role in dragging a country into radicalism for mere political gains. Pakistan is considered one of the leading breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism that led to Islamic radicalism and terrorism. But Jinnah’s Pakistan never had any features of fundamentalism, but rather totally opposite. It was a secular state and a thriving nation with multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi religious landscapes. His successor Zulficar Ali Bhutto, too, continued on the same path, but it was military dictator General Zia Ul Haq who changed the Pakistani doctrine into religious fundamentalism. Having captured power in a military coup and hung Bhutto through a kangaroo court, General Zia wanted to become the savior of Islam for his own political survival. Thus he changed the entire country from secularism to Islamic fundamentalism even through changing the school text books. Pakistan, within mere two decades, started reaping ‘benefits’ of this dangerous path. Sri Lanka just escaped from dictatorship; otherwise we would have followed the same path, probably in the name of Buddhism.

Politically incompetent leaders would use religion or ethnicity for their own survival. We have seen it in many parts of the world. Hitler is in the top of that list. There are some here, too.

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