23 June, 2017

Buddhism & Good Governance: The Case For A Sangha Rebellion – Part II

By H.L. Seneviratne

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne

Continued from yesterday….

The constitution of 1978 helped accelerate and broaden one of the most damaging developments in the political culture of contemporary Sri Lanka. This is the replacement of the first-past-the-post system with “proportional representation” in electing representatives to Parliament. It perverted the principle of representation on the one hand and promoted a culture of corruption on the other. In the first-past-the-post system, an elected representative represented an electorate or a “seat”, which was of manageable extent. In contrast, in the system of “proportional representation” introduced by the 1978 constitution, the electorate was replaced by a “district” of much larger extent that needed to be represented by a plurality of parliamentarians. These were elected in a system of “preferential votes” with the voters marking their candidates in order of preference. Since the district was a much larger territory than the electorate, the electoral campaigns of the candidates needed to be cast much wider, involving massive amounts in campaign money. This encouraged the growth of a class of illicit financiers willing to foot these campaign bills, and parliamentarians willing to use the power of their office to amass the wealth to pay back these “entrepreneurs”, while taking care not to forget themselves. And these “entrepreneurs” often had ties to the mafia as did some of the MPs themselves. After four decades of this system, corruption in elected officers has become the hallmark of politics, and the practice has been swiftly generalized to the lower echelons of both the political and administrative hierarchies. The abolition of the first-past-the-post system also had the adverse effect of the electorate and its MP loosing the close relation they had with each other, diminishing the democratic process of constant communication between the MP and his/her grassroots.

The constitutional changes of 1978 also involved a change from the Westminster model of government to a presidential model, with unprecedented concentration of power in the President. The Westminster model has been the island’s preferred (and inherited) parliamentary framework since well before independence, and had served the country well by making a signal contribution to the fostering of parliamentary democracy. While President J.R. Jayewardene (1906-1996) who led this constitutional change does not seem to have embraced the Sinhala Buddhist worldview, he does seem to have believed in a pre-eminent position for the majority as did many of his parliamentary colleagues. This is an inference we might make from his turning a blind eye to the 1983 violence on Tamil civilians by Sinhala mobs for days before action was taken, a telling instance of both the breakdown of law and order and compromising of the society’s value system.

Just as he reformed the constitution, President Jayewardene also reformed the existing largely state-controlled economy by introducing an “open economy”. This brought about mixed results. On the one hand it liberalized the economy, attracting significant foreign capital, but in its unabashed promotion of limitless consumerism it has been blamed for seriously compromising the country’s value system (see E.R. Sarachchandra, Dharmista Samajaya, 1982). Under President Jayewardene’s successor Ranasinghe Premadasa (1924-1993), the open economy continued and thrived. So did the negatives  — black money, the mafia, corruption and the suppression of dissent –portraying vividly the crisis in law and order and the value foundations of the society. It is widely believed that it was the government that abducted and killed the actor and playwright Richard de Zoysa (1958-1990) and dumped his body in the sea. The president himself was killed violently by a suicide bomber as he was participating in the May Day parade of 1993.

The society’s inner degeneration reflected in these dark deeds multiplied manifold under the administration of President Mahinda Rājapakṣa during the years 2005 and 2015.  All previous heads of state, despite their many shortcomings have had some degree of exposure to the liberal humanistic worldview of the modern west, and some degree of understanding of the ethical system and urbane civility of Buddhism. Neither seems to have touched Rājapakṣa. He carried mal governance to well beyond the highly unacceptable level it had reached already. He carried to new heights of perfection activities like the abduction and murder of journalists, as we can see in the standardization of abduction by the use of the “white van” in broad daylight.

Rājapakṣa’s popularity soared when he accelerated the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He however failed to be magnanimous in victory in 2009. Sympathy and caring towards the minority at that moment would have gone a long way towards reconciliation that has since become increasingly more elusive. Instead, Rājapakṣa resorted to the opposite course, an orgy of triumphalism that alienated the minorities further than ever, failing in the process to let Tamil civilians used as human shields by the LTTE return to their homes, calling his de facto incarceration of them a “humanitarian operation”. He used the heady atmosphere of the time and the sense of relief from the constant fear of terrorist bombs that pervaded the country to facilitate his march towards a typical third world dictatorship replete with nepotism, cronyism and corruption on the one hand and, on the other, the repression of dissent most noticeably by the abduction and murder of journalists. He used his considerable parliamentary majority to abolish the 17th Amendment to the constitution that guaranteed the autonomy of the public service, the judiciary, the police and the media, thereby making these institutions amenable to his wishes at all times. He encouraged the growth of a personality cult making subtle and not so subtle evocations of kingship. In passing into law the 18th Amendment to the constitution he abolished term limits to the presidency and further strengthened the already inordinately powerful presidency, showing in addition clear signs of perpetuating a dynasty.

In a defiant and memorable assertion of the island’s long tradition of democracy, a “rainbow coalition” defeated Rājapakṣa at the presidential election of January 8, 2015. The platform of this coalition centered on the theme of good governance and the rule of law, which included the eradication of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, abductions and murder, and the restoration of the autonomy of the public service, the judiciary, the police and the media by eliminating political interference in their internal workings. There was unprecedented enthusiasm among the people in general, and especially among the intelligentsia and the activists who helped forge the coalition. It appeared as if that finally, after missing numerous opportunities going back to independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had set itself on the path towards a happy and prosperous nation with equal rights for all its citizens, and an ethos of tolerance, inclusivity, urbanity, civility and modernity in keeping with values derived both from Buddhism and western modernity. It is a measure of how deep the crisis in the country’s value system, and how pervasive the malaise afflicting it is, that within a few months of its election, the new government compromised its values of good governance, and started increasingly looking like what it replaced. From an anthropological perspective, this means that the overarching culture, the fundamental feature of which is the Sinhala Buddhist worldview as elucidated above, is still as powerful as it was at the height of the Rājapakṣa regime’s mal governance. This is not to exonerate the new, avowedly “good governance” (yahapālana) regime, but to state a cultural fact. It must bear responsibility for failing, after the lapse of two years by January 2017, to take the steps necessary to carry out its promised programme of ushering in a modern nation of happy, prosperous and equal citizens. It does however show signs of awareness of its obligation to live up to its promises. It has passed the 19th Amendment to the constitution reaffirming the independence of the public service and other institutions, and curtailing the powers of the President. These measures give us a glimmer of hope that it might proceed further on this path, however feeble it is.

A Way Out: A Saṅgha Rebellion

I have argued that the crisis in governance in Sri Lanka is the symptom of a malaise that has infected the underlying system of values that a healthy society needs as its moral anchor. Among the suggestions made in the public discussion for addressing this is the idea that Buddhism can and must be harnessed. This is a laudable idea, but the problem with it is that many of its champions equate harnessing Buddhism with facilitating more “book knowledge” of Buddhism and/or engaging in more religious/ritual activity. This is the reasoning behind, for example, the suggestion to establish more Sunday schools. These schools no doubt impart some knowledge of Buddhism, but there is no evidence that such knowledge automatically leads to a moral transformation. In other words knowing about a set of moral principles is not the same as practising them. A commendable attempt on the part of the country’s Prime Minister himself illustrates this. He is the author of a booklet on Buddhism and ethical politics, hailing the Buddha as the greatest revolutionary the world has ever seen. However, some of his government’s actions as well as non-actions do not appear to conform to any ethical considerations.

If Buddhism were to help improve Sri Lanka’s moral state, and bring its citizens under good governance and the rule of law, its leaders must find mechanisms of building Buddhist values into the process of socialization of the young. That process needs to be so designed as to make the civility and urbanity of Buddhism an integral part of the innermost thought processes of the individual. This involves ways to elevate ethics over ritual, and to make practice consonant with precept. This needs nothing less than a Buddhist reformation in which courageous and cosmopolitan monks take a leading role, as did the scholar monk Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) when he made a brilliant critique of ritual over half a century ago. The task involved is not easy, but not beyond accomplishment. It requires vision, dedication and hard work. It also requires the cooperation of diverse groups of people, in particular the different elites of the society. There is no scope in this paper to discuss the possible contribution of all these elites. Instead I focus on one, the saṅgha, on how it might best contribute.

We have a long history of saṅgha involvement in reform, but largely if not exclusively, these were acts of self-reform. In contrast, the saṅgha historically played no role in reforming the lay society around it except preaching moral rules, which were ritual acts without effective mechanisms for conversion into social action. But with the rise of the Buddhist revivalist movement in the last decades of the 19th century and early 20th, the saṅgha entered into a new era of activist involvement in lay society. This however was aimed not at restoring the values of urbanity and civility derived from Buddhism, but to fostering the bourgeoning ethno-nationalist movement.

Thus, contemporary saṅgha activism in lay society was born in ethno-nationalist sentiment and has remained there like a birth defect, eventually going into the construction of the root of our problem, the Sinhala Buddhist worldview. Since this initial instance of saṅgha activism in lay society, we have seen three more: first, a movement of the monks of the Vidyālaṅkāra Pirivena in the 1940s and 1950s centering around their definition of their role as “social service” by which they meant politics; second, the end of 20th century religio-cultural movement of Bhikkhu Gaṅgoḍavila Sōma (1948-2003) whose advocacy of a moral society took the urban middle classes by storm; and third, the movement of some monks of the Vidyōdaya Pirivena in the 1930s and 1940s that combined economic development with moral development.

When we take a closer look at these three instances we find in the first two a pattern where the manner of the leaders of these movements was exactly what was needed because it effectively got their message across. But the message itself was narrow and failed to meet the crucial criterion of inclusivity. They addressed a narrowly Sinhala Buddhist audience, and ultimately their message, instead of help crafting an identity common to all Sri Lankans, contributed to the revalidation and modernization of the very same Sinhala Buddhist worldview that got Sri Lanka into trouble in the first place. The Vidyōdaya monks however, our third example, were able to transcend that narrow confinement, and build a movement that addressed and was open to citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. In this they were similar to the western-acculturated nationalists whose movement was multi ethnic and multi religious.

As crucial as inclusivity is, it is equally crucial that any saṅgha movement for a regeneration of values and the reestablishment of good governance is imaginatively conceived so that preaching and action, precept and practice are welded together rather than kept separate as has been the case with, for example, so much preaching that goes on daily, or the Sunday schools syndrome mentioned above. Such a movement would do well to study in detail and use as a model the movement led by the Vidyōdaya monks in the 1930 and 1940s that they termed “rural development” (grāma saṅvardhana) that combined the religious and the economic, the moral and the material. It is of the greatest interest in this context to refer to the profound sociological insight of one of the leaders of the Vidyōdaya movement, Henḍiyagala Sīlaratana, when he said that “economic development is inner development”. In such a movement, courageous, educated and, largely though not exclusively young monks, have an extraordinary opportunity to transform their oft-declared role as “guardian deities of the nation” from narrow ethno-religious slogan shouting to imbuing a nation with the urbanity, civility and ethical splendour of Buddhism.

The growth of a ritual and the transformation of monks into ritual specialists is a socio-psychologically understandable development. The Sinhala Buddhist worldview is also an understandable development, but not a defensible one in a multi ethnic and multi religious modern society, although as mentioned above, it could have survived, even contributed to a system of public symbols, as an overarching myth or an ornate piece of background décor without being foregrounded into active politics. When so foregrounded, it became a worldview intolerant of minorities, their sentiments and their interests. It is hegemonic and exclusivist, and compromises secularism, another feature of political modernity. The saṅgha rebellion envisaged here needs a core of monks capable of understanding this and willing to take their message throughout the length and breadth of the country as did the Vidyōdaya monks of the 1930s and 1940s. It is the duty of all patriotic citizens to initiate and rally around a public call to the saṅgha, asking its more cosmopolitan and enlightened members to grasp the true meaning of the message issued by Bhikkhu Walpola Rahula in his The Heritage of the Bhikkhu over half a century ago. As I have shown elsewhere (The Work of Kings, 1999) the response of the activist monks of the time to Bhikkhu Rahula’s call was swallowed up by the same Sinhala Buddhist worldview that we have been discussing, but the book’s message of liberation from a cloistered life of ritualism is still fresh. This emerges clearly when one reads this book along with the same author’s Satyōdaya (The Dawn of Truth) a brilliant denunciation of ritual and a corresponding elevation of the ethical values of Buddhism.

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    Dear Professor Seneviratne,
    Thank you. I am rereading the piece for the third time.

    A question: Did Arahat Mahinda bring the Philosophy of Siddhartha Gauthama or an Ashokan version of Cultural Buddhism?

    A tentative observation: 1956 Social transformation was inevitable. The Sinhala Chauvinism that accompanied it is the logical result of the disenfranchisement of a substantial segment of the working class by Sinhala Buddhist leaders and Tamil Hindu leaders who manipulated the first parliament.
    In Context: In 1953, in grade six, my Civics teacher taught me that dominion status in the British Commonwealth made us independent. If Kotagama Vachissara thero is to be believed the Siyam Nikaya Higher Ordination rituals included praise heaped on Queen Victoria until the early sixties.

    Our predicament: In Sri Lanka, Saffron is not the hue of renunciation. It is the tincture, the quintessence of power. The Gamarala is intimidated. The Mudalali is trapped.

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      Sarath,—- Your sixth grade teach taught wrong about the independence. There were several reasons why Briton had to give Independence to their colonies; British rulers committed countless barbaric acts which made them disgusted by their own selves, native communities across colonies stared rebelling against British rule at once, British “divide and rule” tactics were weaning off, after world war 2 Briton gradually realized how inhumane were they to its colonies, etc, etc,etc. In the end there was no choice but grant independence to their colonies. Funnily enough anti-British rule leader were British educated. But, still, they haven’t change their old ways for second, Westerners are still trying to maintain their authority and supremacy over others through UN, World bank, IMF, Human rights commission, etc.

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        Interesting to read Obeysekere’s Doomed King on how the Kandyan Sinhala aristocracy conspired with the British against the King. There is a long history of Sinhala/Tamil elite conspiracy with the colonial powers. Ceylon’s independence was an inevitability, after India.

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      Prof. H.L. Seneviratne, —————————————————————————
      RE: Buddhism & Good Governance: The Case For A Sangha Rebellion – Part II———-
      ——————————————————————————————————-

      “While President J.R. Jayewardene (1906-1996) who led this constitutional change does not seem to have embraced the Sinhala Buddhist worldview, he does seem to have believed in a pre-eminent position for the majority as did many of his parliamentary colleagues. This is an inference we might make from his turning a blind eye to the 1983 violence on Tamil civilians by Sinhala mobs for days before action was taken, a telling instance of both the breakdown of law and order and compromising of the society’s value system.”

      Thanks for the articles. By the way, the average IQ of the Land occupied by the Paras is 79.————————————————————————————————

      You forgot JR’s march from Kandy to Colombo, and his tole in the 1977 Tamil riots. So, there was a continuing pattern of Sinhala Racism shown by JR. Are those roots based on the Mahawamsa and Sinhala “Buddhism”?—————————————-
      ———————————————————————————————-“Religion is the Opium of the masses “- Karl Marx——————————————-” It takes religion to make good people do bad things” -Steven Weinburg, Physics Nobel Laureate. —————————————————————————- —So, Buddhism, especially Sinhala “Buddhism:, as represented by the Saffron Clad , the so-called 3rd Gem of the Triple Gem, the Sangha, the so-called “Venerable” Theros, are no exception, in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho occupied by the Para Indian Sinhala “Buddhists” who follow a version of Buddhism, Buddha never taught.——————————————————————————————————–

      Mahavamsa, -An Insult To The Buddha– By Sharmini Serasinghe –—————————————————————————————————————————
      Wonder if ours might have been a wiser, and a more ‘humane’ society, had our ‘ancient’ history, been based on Aesop’s Fables, instead of the Mahavamsa. For if not for the Mahavamsa, the Sinhalese may not have been endowed, with the reputation, of “Sinhalaya Modaya (The Sinhalese are Fools)”! ———————————————https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mahavamsa-an-insult-to-the-buddha/

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      Prof. H.L. Seneviratne—————————————————————————-(292 Words) —————————————————————————————-

      1.) “Thus, contemporary saṅgha activism in lay society was born in ethno-nationalist sentiment and has remained there like a birth defect, eventually going into the construction of the root of our problem, the Sinhala Buddhist worldview.” —-2.) -“This needs nothing less than a Buddhist reformation in which courageous and cosmopolitan monks take a leading role, as did the scholar monk Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) when he made a brilliant critique of ritual over half a century ago. The task involved is not easy, but not beyond accomplishment.” —————————–
      3.) “This however was aimed not at restoring the values of urbanity and civility derived from Buddhism, but to fostering the bourgeoning ethno-nationalist movement.”—————————————————————————————
      4.) -“Thus, contemporary saṅgha activism in lay society was born in ethno-nationalist sentiment and has remained there like a birth defect, eventually going into the construction of the root of our problem, the Sinhala Buddhist worldview. “———————————————————————————————————
      Thanks for the informative analysis.and zeroing in the Problem – “ethno-nationalist sentiment and Sinhala Buddhist worldview.”. The basis of this overview is largely based on the Mahawansa and Deepawansa and other Kath Katha, that is generally grilled into Sinhala Buddhists from early childhood in the Schools, in the Temple and at Home. Para-Indian Sinhala Language from Kalinga, Orissa,, Bengal and Bihar and the Para-Buddhism from India are married, in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho, and made sacred. In this Para-Sinhala “Buddhist” worldview, all the other Paras ( Tamils, Muslim, Etc) do not fit and do not belong in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho. The average brainwashed Sinhala Buddhist as well as the so-called Sinhala academics and the “Educated’ cannot escape the childhood brainwashings.——————————————————————————————————–
      –one still comes across ‘academically’ educated—-See below
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mahavamsa-an-insult-to-the-buddha/

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    The concluding part was predictable. The panacea was to have philosophical buddhism, a solution that has now become impossible, unless a political leader of immense stature emerges among the Sinhalese. Very doubtful as one cannot see one even in the distant horizon.

    What forces militate against a return to philosophical Buddhism? Firstly, the Mahavamsa myths have become ingrained in the Sinhala mind, through even text-books and symbols like the national flag. Secondly, the Sinhala monk in the villages are the ones who matter. They will not easily give up the role in which adulation of the villager comes to him so easily, despite his often corrupt life. Thirdly, the Sinhala politician will exploit this situation to the full, outdoing each other in the degree of chauvinism to demonstrate to the electorate. If you watch the myths that are uttered on Facebook by some of the current leaders, you could understand it. Fifthly, the Sinhala mudalalis, turned into massive capitalists by the Sinhala movement will not relinquish the status quo. He has moved upwards through marriage into leading Sinhala families. So, they cannot see the need for change. Good try Prof. Good writing.

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    Article title is given by the CT editors and it is a stupid title. As usual, it does not represent the content of the article………………………. It is correct. Sri lanka should include bauddhist values into the system. I read, most of the convicts in Sri lanka are not buddhists or did not have buddhist education. Sri lanka needs so many changes, during the war time, and since 1965, successive govts have changed the system to support the politicians and a corrupt system and not a just society. It looks they gave fancy anems, like “just society” and set up the system to build a corrupt system in which corrupt politicians could run the country.

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      Jimsofty dimwit——————- “I read, most of the convicts in Sri lanka are not buddhists or did not have buddhist education. ” ———————————You are right they have been indoctrinated with Sinhala/Buddhist fascism including yourself.

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      Jimsoft————————————————————————————————

      //”It is correct. Sri lanka should include bauddhist values into the system. I read, most of the convicts in Sri lanka are not buddhists or did not have buddhist education.”//—
      ———————————————————————————————————-
      Correct. Yes, they are Para-Sinhala-Indian, “Buddhists”, and NOT Buddhists. They are many examples such as Mahanama, Somarama, Buddharakkita, Ganasara, and a host of others, but there are a few exceptions too, who follow Buddhism, and NOT Para-Sinhala “Buddhism”. ——– Mahanama’s Mahawamsa is an Insult to the Buddha, and Sinhala “Buddhism’ is an Insult to Buddhism..—————————————————————————https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mahavamsa-an-insult-to-the-buddha/

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    Prof HLS: “The constitution of 1978 helped accelerate and broaden one of the most damaging developments in the political culture of contemporary Sri Lanka. This is the replacement of the first-past-the-post system with “proportional representation” in electing representatives to Parliament………….”. Sorry Sir, I disagree. The ‘first-past-the post’ has had its day – disasters of which include Tamil Nadu having to choose very corrupt administrations, rise of Hindu bigotry in India, the slow but sure dictatorship in Turkey, Mugabe, too much state control as in Singapore and last but not the least Brexit and so on and so on. Proportional representation is an innovation which needs modification. For example in Lanka, one may try to outlaw fence jumping. This may reduce unhealthy accrual of huge majority which leads to corruption, nepotism and culture of impunity. .

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      Mr Pillai, As you say PR is a positive idea that needs innovation. Even if we go back to the earlier system I wish to see that each party is given two nominations. A very valuable choice to the voter. What messed up the system was the replacement of the electorate with the district. JR’s emphasis of party above the individual has absolutely no room for any conscienous opinion—-Soma

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    Most Lankans will agree with Prof HL S but unfortunately they are the silent majority. A new breed of “defenders of our religion” is sprouting all over. Elaboration on jihadists is not required! In India Hindu bigots form vigilante groups to protect “Mother Cow” – they are available to the biddings of business groups. In Thailand the immoral transgressions of the clergy are ignored. In Myanmar the Wirathu group is a wing of the Junta. Of course the BBS wants to defend Lankan Buddhism. “The Great Leap forward” was led by a reformist group. Indications are for Christian bigots will surface in due course. So the question to Prof HL S in “Buddhism & Good Governance: The Case For A Sangha Rebellion” is “Which Sangha?”

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    Mr K. Pillai, Thank you for your comment. I think my answer to your question is explicit in my first paragraph where I describe my plea as “a call to the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the saṅgha”. Later on in the paper, I go to to say that I am appealing to “courageous, educated and, largely though not exclusively young monks”. I further state that such monks “have an extraordinary opportunity to transform their oft-declared role as “guardian deities of the nation” from narrow ethno-religious slogan shouting to imbuing a nation with the urbanity, civility and ethical splendour of Buddhism”.

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      H.L. Seneviratne ——There have been a few honourable monks who were ready to put their neck out to campaign for what they believed to be right and just cause. I have known a few of them and really admired their determination to build and transform this island into a secular democratic compassionate country. Some of them are too old to continue their campaign among the people. However during Chandrika’s first term in office they were effective and had more than 67% people supporting them which was translated into votes for Chandrika. Subsequent war momentum could not sustain such peaceniks forever. Later MR’s sheer brutality had made these peaceniks monks withdraw completely from their activism. ——————–I was told Malwatte chapter had 11 members in its governing body out of which more than 6 members supported Chandrika’s peace initiatives. After the war victory their thinking would have changed. They cannot be seen as traitors to the chosen race. —————Those monks who survived Gota’s enforces should be persuaded continue their good work most importantly liberate Buddhism from political Sinhala/Buddhism. ….. By the way I am not a Buddhist fundamentalist.

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