By 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.