20 April, 2024


2023: Saffron, Kurahan, Red Or Green?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Winds don’t blow as ships desire.” ~ Arabic proverb

Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there was SWRD Bandaranaike. Before Organic Only, there was Sinhala Only. And the related transformation of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara from monastic colleges to secular universities. Like Sinhala Only, this was an election promise; like Sinhala Only, this was implemented with no forethought or planning. 

The first signs of the coming malaise were evident by 1962 prompting the government to appoint a three-member Universities Commission, headed by DCR Gunwardane. In its report, made public in 1963, the Commission called the 1958 bill an ‘ill-considered and irresponsible’ piece of legislation pushed through by ‘political Bhikkus’ who “dictated policies, dominated public affairs, and incited actions which people in their normal senses would have considered even possible.” These political monks were also “responsible in large measure for inflaming the racial and religious passions that erupted in such sickening fashion in the early part of 1958,” the Report pointed out. The commissioners, all of them Buddhist civil servants, concluded that as “the higher education of Bhikku and higher education of the laity cannot be brought under one organisation, the two pirivena universities should cease to exist at the earliest possible moment.” The fusion, if continued, “would have a disastrous effect on the entire Sangha,” the Report warned. (All quotes are from Prof. HL Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings).

The warning was ignored and the Report consigned to oblivion even though the Commission was appointed in response to widespread societal concerns about the effect of the two universities on ‘mahanakama’ (monkness) and the ‘Buddhist way of life’. Sixty years later, those fears have been fully realised. A new definition of ‘monkness’ and of ‘Buddhist way of life’ is now entrenched. The horrendous tales emerging from the Buddhist and Pali University are not anomalies but symbolic of these transformed notions of monkness and Buddhist way of life. Monks (with a few honourable exceptions) have become key engines of violence, intolerance, and ignorance in society. 

In Buddhism Betrayed, SJ Tambaiah tried to understand and explain how a teaching based on compassion and loving kindness towards all beings became a religion of violent hatred. The monks of today are the rightful adherents not of what the Buddha taught but of this ‘betrayed Buddhism’, a creed devoid of all moral-ethical underpinnings and reduced to a body of mostly meaningless rituals.

During the initial idealistic phase of the Aragalaya, a young protestor in Kandy was pictured holding a hand-drawn poster depicting a rogues’ gallery of top pro-Rajapaksa monks, with a telling caption: Become Ordained at least now. In the same week, when a political monk tried to join a protest in Battaramulla, he was respectfully told to leave. In those early days, the Aragalaya was not only non-party; it was also secular. That promise would soon turn out to be a mirage. Saffron robes and cassocks became a common sight, with some even acting as the public face of the movement. 

Political Bhikkus are a key component of the Lankan malaise. Yet, like politicians, they see themselves as The Solution. Walavahangunawave Dhammarathana thero, the chief incumbent of the Mihintale temple, is the latest monk to succumb to this delusion publicly. In June 2020, he was praising Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his ‘wise leadership’ and thanking him for ‘saving the country from Covid-19 and promoting indigenous production’. In August 2022, he was calling Ranil Wickremesinghe a leader with ‘foresight’. Now he is on the warpath against all politicians. He has given the authorities a month to relieve the poor of their economic miseries. If the government fails to do so by next poya day, he wants people to get out onto the streets and throw out, well basically everyone. 

Whether this is another flash in the pan or the prelude to a serious upheaval remains to be seen. Equally unknown is the story behind this sudden emergence, as sudden as that of Galagoda-atte Gnanasara. Is this new saffron-robed rebel chief his own man or an unwitting pawn? Either way, this latest attempt to fuse religion and politics even more tightly, to uphold the myth of Saviour-monk, again, doesn’t augur well for 2023. 

Last week, Iran publicly executed a second unarmed protestor, Majidreza Rahnavard. It is instructive to remember that the mullahs were once liberators, courageous resisters to the Shah’s authoritarianism. Religion and politics is a deadly combination. Bad for politics, worse for religion, worst for the people who fail to maintain an unbridgeable wall between salvation in this world and next. 

A Worrying Vacuum 

The latest results of the Institute of Health Policy’s opinion tracker survey paint a picture that is fascinating and disturbing in near equal measure. If the question is Who is the most popular of them all, the answer seems to be none (at least according to the data made public). If the question is Who is the least unpopular of them all, then the answer is Ranil Wickremesinghe. His net unpopularity rating is the lowest at 45%. Sajith Premadasa is the most unpopular political leader with a net unpopularity rating of 57%. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a net unpopularity rating of 51% and Anura Kumara Dissanayake a net unpopularity rating of 55%. 

If that is the fascinating part, the worrying part is the remarkable decline of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unpopularity. He is now less unpopular than either Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara Dissanayake and within touching distance of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Recently a group of Lankan boat people were rescued by a Japanese vessel in Vietnamese waters and handed over to Vietnamese authorities. The Lankans were headed to Canada, but didn’t mind being sent anywhere so long as it wasn’t Sri Lanka. That wasn’t the country the Rajapaksas inherited in 2019; that was country they were compelled to relinquish in 2022. Not that they consider themselves blameworthy in anyway. “If people were patient a little more, the economic crisis would have been resolved,” Basil Rajapaksa said in a recent TV interview. 

“The Aragalaya is over, what is the difference?” Basil Rajapaksa asks in the same interview, opting not to see, for example, that there are no fuel or gas queues, because Aragalaya got rid of President Rajapaksa, PM Rajapaksa, and Finance Minister Rajapaksa. His answer to the SLPP being a family party is to tell us to look at North Korea, Kim Il-sung succeeded by his son and grandson. When questioned about the preponderance of Rajapaksas in the SLPP, he answers, “If that is what the people of this country hopes for…” When asked if he’s willing to give up US citizenship or angling for another constitutional change, he turns coy saying he is willing to act “according to need”. 

The Rajapaksas still create their own facts, live in their parallel universe, believe themselves to be inerrant, and are committed to familial power and dynastic succession. And at least one of them has become way less unpopular, which turns a Rajapaksa comeback from a mere theoretical possibility into a very real one.

Commenting on Jair Bolsonaro, Yascha Mounk says, “Brazil is yet another indication that the threat from authoritarian populists is here to stay” (The Atlantic –4.11.2022). He calls this the new normal, something democracies must learn to manage. A truth applicable to Sri Lanka as well. The Brazilian case is instructive in another sense. Jair Bolsonaro was a deeply unpopular incumbent. Lula, the challenger, was probably Brazil’s most popular politician. Yet the presidential election went into a second round. Lula’s eventual margin of victory was disturbingly narrow. Populism’s obituary is ever premature. It’s more a vampire that rises from the dead when democracy undermines its own credibility and democrats are too busy with their childish squabbles to see the looming shadow. 

As Basil Rajapaksa makes clear in his interview, the Family, like President Wickremesinghe, is playing a waiting game. If Mr. Wickremesinghe fails to maintain living standards at least at the current low levels, if there are huge hikes in the prices of essential goods or services or long power cuts, if the necessary privatisation of state enterprises is not handled carefully (as Mangala Samaraweera did with Telecom), the SLPP will move into the oppositional space. Given current economic trends, that day may not be far ahead. 

Three examples suffice. Economic contraction worsened in third quarter. 193billion rupees worth of gold was pawned in the first 10 months of 2022, mostly by middle class people, mainly for educational and agricultural purposes, according to a study by Prof Wasantha Atukorale of the University of Peradeniya. 6.3million people are food insecure.

The breakup of the UNP in early 2020 was a key causative factor of the current disaster. Had the UNP faced the election as a single party, the Rajapaksas would not have gained a near two-thirds majority. Without that massive majority, and the validation conferred by it, the Rajapaksas may have steered clear of some of the more extreme measures, such as Organic Only and the 20th Amendment.

Correcting that seminal error might be a way to prevent a Rajapaksa comeback either as kingmakers or kings. The main differences between the UNP and the SJB are not political or ideological, but personal, a sense of pique, thwarted ambitions. If leaders on both sides can rise above their personal animosities and petty concerns (not an easy thing to do, as history demonstrates again and again), an understanding is possible. A reconstituted UNP can then build the same working relationship with the JVP that enabled the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 and the progressive reforms that stemmed from it, such as the 19th Amendment, the restoration of judicial independence, and the right to information act. 

Healing the UNP-SJB breach might be the only way Sri Lanka can emerge from the economic morass with not-too-high a cost. If the breach continues, it could hasten a descent into social violence, a return of the Rajapaksas, or possibly, and sequentially, both.

The Extremist Gene  

“People began to feel that the Ceylon University catered more to the elite society, absorbing western ideas and ignoring all that was indigenous,” wrote Ms. NGD Sirimanne (Ratnapala) in her MA thesis, The Evolution of Higher Education in Sri Lanka. “The emergence of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956 was the result of this grievous Cultural Consciousness. Thus began the need to establish a University ‘much like ourselves’.”

A key impulse behind the changes of 1956 was the desire to level down instead of raise up. Those who stood in the way of that drive towards the lowest common denominator were condemned as traitors, reactionaries or both. Tribalism, racial, religious, and social, was made coterminous with patriotism. Insularity was enthroned as a moral good, forgetting the positives we received from across the seas, starting with the teachings of the Buddha. 

Sixty years on, we have universities ‘much like ourselves’ where no difference is tolerated, ignorance is no bar to advancement, and violence is the first and preferred way of settling a dispute. The relationship between society and university is a two-way street, microcosm and macrocosm interacting with and on each other in an endless spiral. We are a less civilized and more barbaric country than we were before these changes were introduced.

During a ceremony to honour outgoing US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican congressman and former speaker John Boehner said they often disagreed with each other but were never disagreeable to each other. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he emphasised. If democracy is to survive, political and civil society must practice the art of disagreeing forcefully without resorting to force. 

This is perhaps the tolerance we lost, when we turned universities into spaces of exclusion, racial, religious, and social. If this tolerance survived in our universities, ragging would not have become torture and last week’s mob attack on the house and person of a former vice chancellor of Peradeniya would not have happened (even if the former VC’s son was inebriated and verbally abusive, as student leaders claim, as in mitigation).

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s repression of unarmed demonstrates and the JVP’s inability to unequivocally condemn Peradeniya mob violence are but two sides of the same intolerant coin. Janaka Thissakuttiarachahi of the SLPP and Nalin Bandara of the SJB were being equally uncivilised when they hurled sexist remarks at female parliamentarians. Hirunika Premachandra’s recent remarks on Ranil Wickremesinghe demonstrate yet again how far we have moved away from common decency. Politeness is not a class virtue, it’s a human virtue. 

“We are a disaster.” This is a phrase Latin Americans use to refer to their contemporary condition, according to Ariel Dorfman in Other Septembers. If Sri Lanka’s economic disaster is not to turn it into a societal one, if this country is not to become an ungovernable, unliveable wasteland in 2023, restraint on the part of everyone would be necessary. Political, economic, social, and religious leaders should take the lead, but waiting for them to do so is no longer an affordable luxury. There is very little to choose between statal and anti-statal violence, if you are an ordinary citizen caught between those contending forces. We have lost much, but we could lose way more. 2023 may be the year we made the turn around, economically or socially, or the year we plummeted a depth too horrendous to contemplate, yet all too easy to imagine. 


In my November column I said that the parliament would stand dissolved if the budget is defeated. I was wrong. It is the cabinet of ministers that would stand dissolved as per Article 48(2) of the Constitution. I apologise to the readers for this error. My thanks to Gamini Viyangoda for kindly bringing it to my notice. 

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Latest comments

  • 8

    “the Commission called the 1958 bill an ‘ill-considered and irresponsible’ piece of legislation pushed through by ‘political Bhikkus’ “
    What was this 1958 bill about?

  • 10

    “Last week, Iran publicly executed a second unarmed protestor, Majidreza Rahnavard.”
    Majidreza Rahnavard (Persian: مجیدرضا رهنورد; died 12 December 2022) was an Iranian man notable for being the second person executed by Iran directly for allegedly fatally stabbing two Basij militia volunteers during the Mahsa Amini protests, (Wikipedia)
    I am not passing judgment on anything, but wonder how a person allegedly fatally stabbing two people be an unarmed protester?
    I have an open mind about the version of the Iranian government, but I also have an equally open mind about the (at times contradictory) versions of its critics.
    May I know if there no stabbing at all?
    Has the writer ever commented on acts of injustice against Black activists in the US?
    Whistleblowers like Snowdon and Assange for example?

    • 12

      No wonder Basil compared North Korea to Lanka’s family kleptocracy. Silly Lankans seem think they understand the world better than their own failed bankrupt nation.

      • 8

        N Korea stood up to US bullying since 1950.
        That is a difference Basil will never understand.

        • 8

          “N Korea stood up to US bullying since 1950.
          That is a difference Basil will never understand.”

          From time to time eating from US FOOD AID and standing up to US bullying, just like their counter parts in Sri Lanka. The Saffron, Maoist, ….. patriotic Sinhala/Buddhists LTTE and its supporters stood up to Hindian bullying.

          The US offer to North Korea: What kind of food aid was that?
          The US offered 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea as part of the “Leap Day understanding”, announced on 29 February 2012. This would, apparently, see the supply of 20,000 tons of food each month from the US for a year, with USAID working out the details. But before any agreement was finalised, the offer was suspended on 13 April 2012 after North Korea attempted to launch a satellite – an act considered to breach the understanding. So what kind of food aid operation was being envisaged?

          Medicine won’t cure one’s selective memory.

          • 3

            Talking of medicine, NV, have you found the doctor you were looking for?
            Please avoid quacks.
            Take care and have a good rest.
            Remember to take a good deep breath and always count to 99 or whatever you can manage before you touch the keyboard.
            Wish you good health and joy even after the festive season passes.

      • 6

        TG, Mihintale Raja Maha Vihara Chief prelate admits , clergy attending Uni are like Taliban. Is
        he acknowledging SB terrorism??

      • 4

        Native’s alter ego …….. unafraid to speak the truth ……… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQTAGQ5SxPM

        • 3

          nimal fernando

          “Native’s alter ego …….. unafraid to speak the truth ………”

          I agree with him.
          We expect you to say similar things on youtube.
          You are scared.
          Perhaps you are obliged to those who deal in drugs, promote/spread the lies Muslims controlling Sinhala fertility, …. …

          Are you with us or …. ?

          Anyway take care.

          • 3

            First Ranil should retire from politics.
            Then uNP s JB will be UNP again.

            Ranil is an national and international prayiah.

      • 4

        The House select committee investigating Jan 6 attack on U.S Capitol unveiled criminal referrals against Trump recommending that Dept of Justice investigate the ex President for inciting an insurrection, violence , conspiracy to defraud the U.S and obstruction of an official proceeding. Whereas Mahinda . R is free to incite further violence, racial hatred and defraud the already bankrupt nation. That is a difference Basil understand.

  • 10

    ” Things Fall Apart; The Centre Cannot Hold
    Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon The World” – W. B. YEATS – “The Second Comming”

    This is waiting to happen.

    • 11

      There is not much point in railing about the pernicious influence of the so-called Buddhist clergy. The vast majority of Buddhists are wilfully blind to their activities. Recently, a prominent “monk” who seems to have been implicated in the rape of a 15 year old was presented with a Benz by one of his fawning dayakayas.
      It is the dayakayas who create these monsters in robes.

  • 7

    The writer says, “last week, Iran publicly executed a second unarmed protester”. Well, Iran is not the only country that did that. Other countries have done worse than that. For example, a European country that was described by Western media and French and Bulgarian politicians as a country that has “intelligent and educated people of great quality” has burnt anti-protesters alive!!!!
    I am talking about Ukraine which has a recent history of barbarism gifted by the US.
    According to an article published by “The Columnist”, after Maidan protests (orchestrated by the US) in Ukraine in 2014, during the massacre of Odessa, murders have been committed on live TV! Neo-Nazis had burnt 42-140 anti-Maidan protesters in Odessa. “Burnt protesters” have been added to “restaurant menus”. Ukrainians were shown on camera savouring cakes and kebabs advertised to be “made out of Russian children”. Recently, footage of Russian POWs being tortured and slaughtered on camera has been shared on social media.
    This is one of the reasons that there is no going back for Russia. (Not that they have any plans.) If Russia withdrew its troops, all the ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine will be massacred by Azov Nazis and Ukrainian forces as traitors.

    • 8


      “Well, Iran is not the only country that did that. Other countries have done worse than that.”

      Well, well, well, like SJ you too suffer from selective memory. You don’t have to go that far to find analogy.
      Let us also take into account what had happened in this island in 1971, between 1987 and 1991, and over 30 years.

      Would you like us to jog your memory, shaken or stirred?

      • 4

        “Would you like us to jog your memory, shaken or stirred?”
        Back to jogging days?
        Good. But concentrate on the road and avoid chanting.
        I wish you good health and sanity.

      • 5

        Native Vedda, the imposter.
        What is your point? Two violent insurrections in 1971 and 1989 were thwarted by the then Sri Lankan leaders by massacring the insurrectionists. Terrorism was defeated by eliminating terrorists in 2009.

        • 3


          Please re-read my comment.

          • 1

            “Please re-read my comment.”
            Is not reading you once bad enough?
            True that you are going through patch, but I trust that you will be all right soon.
            Give your glass ball a rest, sleep well, and do not forget to see the doctor you desperately sought.
            I wish you good health and sanity in the run up to the New Year and after.

            • 0

              True that you are going through a bad patch…

        • 4

          At least you should be able to understand it today, the relay race of the civil war was decided by the powerful nations and not by Rajapaksa. The brave forces made many sacrifices but Rajapakse painted the picture for their political survival. That’s why we stupid domineering nation has fallen into a precipice today.

          There is nothing in this country that Rajapakse has not stolen. He did by injecting so-called war victory and their fake patriotism.
          Gotabhaya proved that his abilities could not be matched even by a school cadet team leader. With that being said I hope Champa or similar eternally brainwashed women finally realize the truth.XX

        • 2


          SJ is lonely, desperate, … and pathetic.
          Why don’t you give him company?

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