By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“The next surprise comes split seconds after, when Somarama draws forth his right arm from be- neath the robes to disclose a revolver from which he fires, explicitly from the hip..”
It is strange that the story of the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike has been allowed to slide into the historical dustbin. That tragic and shocking episode is so laden with potent lessons for our future generations. The narrative, related pictures and souvenirs should be displayed in the Museum for generations of Sri Lankans to observe and think about. Here is a blind spot in our social consciousness. We ignore the need for preserving lessons of history and, therefore, we are in peril for having repeats. The JVP insurrection many years after, although not of the evil genre of the political assassination, also does fall under this category of collective memories that shouldn’t be left to die. Such incidents spring from a wider social reality and an understanding that should be part of our political literacy.
Let’s focus on the assassination that rocked Sri Lanka and the wider world. We must put it back into our social consciousness. My approach is to take the cue from an account given by a former and famous Lake House journalist: ECT Candappa.
ECT Candappa or ‘Manny,’ as he was called by his friends, lives here in Melbourne in Dandenong – the same suburb I reside. I never knew that until my good friend, former Lake House feature writer, Rane Ranatunge, coming down from Sydney requested me to escort him to visit the iconic man of Lake House. Manny seemed in every way like a king of the once proud tribe of scribes. At 86, he is in a wheelchair. He beckoned us to sit along with him. “Don’t worry about my wheelchair,” he remarked.” if Roosevelt could run US from a wheelchair?” Manny exuded a most genial smile mixed with self-assurance and composure. What a marvellous memory he has, Rane observed, upon noticing how Manny related details of his life and times as a journalist.
One episode about which he unfolded his memory was that of the assassination of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike. Immediately after the assassination, Manny went to the Prime Minister’s residence, to hospital, and to other relevant spots tor investigation “When I went to meet Dr PR Anthonis (the surgeon who operated on SWRD), he initially got angry about my intrusiveness.
I was quick in mind to realise the importance of Manny’s findings – which were contemporary and not secondhand – and I kept questioning him. He presented a big book he had written, entitled, ”The Palm of His Hand.” This book of 429 pages looks impressive. I brought it with me and just completed finishing it. Unfortunately, only a few pages dwelt with the assassination. However, those pages constitute a kind of authentic information on a major historical event in Sri Lanka’s modern political evolution.
The lesson from the assassination constitutes a warning of what can come from Sangha politics. It is the same pattern with regard to all religions. Religions have produced a lot of evil that has troubled the world and it continues to do so today with the emergence of fundamentalism in Islam. Christianity had its cruel days during the middle Ages. Commenting on Hindu-Muslim violence in his time, India’s first Prime minister, Jawarahalal Nehru said, “I am horrified by the spectacle of religion.” It now turns out that even Buddhism, reputed as the ‘world’s most peaceful religion,’ is also susceptible to evil use. The brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists is not an isolated event. Social media often carries images of wild and hateful behaviour by monks on the rampage in Sri Lanka. Recently, a monk pounced on a Tamil Grama Sevaka in Batticaloa with threatening racist language. The Bodu Bala Senawa went on rampage against Muslims. All done in the name of religion by ordained monks. Watch the gestures of some of the so-called ‘Nalaka Hamuduruwo.’ Some prominent monks go about lying for politicians.
It is only society that can curb and prevent such occurrences. A politically illiterate society is fertile ground for this kind of extremism. Thus, the social consciousness of our people should be alerted about this reality so that a culture of rejection develops.
Manny Candappa’s account relives the assassination and something of its prelude. Apparently SWRD didn’t care about any special security. He had only two cops to guard him at residence. Manny describes the very morning of the assassination. The Prime Minister was in the verandah customarily greeting various people in who had come to meet him. In the course of his many greetings SWRD “turns to the other monk who is seated at the other end of the verandah,…… Somarama is oddly dressed as a Buddhist monk belonging to his particular sect in that his saffron robe covers both his shoulders, instead of one as is customary. In fact, it had aroused the curiosity of several others waiting to meet the Prime Minister…….The Prime Minister turns to Somarama, greets him in the customary manner with folded hands. To his and everyone’s surprise the monk rises from his seat, an exertion that Buddhist monks do not make for anyone, everyone else including royalty being below that of the Buddhist monk in rank….The next surprise comes split seconds after, when Somarama draws forth his right arm from beneath the robes to disclose a revolver from which he fires, explicitly from the hip, and hits the Prime Minister’s wrist at point-blank range….. while he is yet bending low, startled and aghast by the outrage of a Buddhist monk carrying a gun and assailing his person while he is yet in the act of paying homage, the gun barks again, and again he glimpses the red line of fire…This time the metallic intruder has has entered his torso, just under his armpit, and he feels it slide under the second rib with almost surgical cunning….the bullet slices through his spleen, crushing his right kidney and shattering the ninth rib before it escapes unimpeded to lodge in the opposite wall….The Prime Minister (the monk’s ) growls of anger as he spits out obsceneties…Another shot rings out for the fourth time.. and a bursts of exploding obsceneties…., the monk, now frothing at the mouth,, turns his revolver callously and injures a hapless school principal who has come to meet the Prime Ministerter.”
(Sirimavo) sees, before her terrified eyes, her husband bleeding all over, staggering into the house from the verandah…seeking support….Behind him is the monk, still with the smoking revolver in his hand, stooping forward, still pointing the revolver at her husband.”
Candappa’s report points out how several time SWRD implored from all around him not to hurt the assailant monk for, he said, “he was stupid and ignorant.” An ironic behavioural contrast between the laity and the monk!
In the early pages of his book Manny Candappa points out how Somarama was part of an iceberg of conspiracy. The central figure had been Mapitigama Buddharakkita, the Chief monk of one of the richest temples in Sri Lanka. Buddharakkita had been fond of money and power. He had an amorous relationship with the country’s first woman Minister, Vimala Wijewardena. Vimala was the monk’s former patron, later turned protege. Buddharakkita had been responsible for making her a Minister. Manley, South Asian Bureau Chief of the New York Times, hearing of the monk as a powerbroker visited the island at the time to meet the monk. He was escorted by one Wijesinghe, referred to as the local correspondent of what appears to be Lake House referred to in the book as “Clarion.” Buddharakkita’s first appearance before Manley is described thus: “He was clean shaven and totally bald. He was opulent and rotund, and his head, too, was globular. His dark eyes were sunken in fat and he flashed a toothy smile. He was clad in a sparklingly white teralene shirt, black teralene trousers.”
“You like a scotch and soda, bourbon or rum…or beer?” the monk, asked Manley. Photographs of important VIPs were on the wall and a huge symbol of the hand representing the SLFP.
Buddharakkita, in the course of the conversation, claimed that without him Bandaranaike would not have won the election. “ I spent lakhs for the election,” he said. The monk had expressed his disappointment over Bandaranaike not helping him after winning. He admitted he owns a shipping company. “I spent a half a million to start with…. We want contracts for five years but Ban- daranaike gave it to the Government Shipping Corporation. Very unfair.” At one stage, it is described how the monk reached out and “poured himself a good three fingers of scotch. He splashed soda from a siphon expertly into it.”
Manley asked, “So what are you going to do now that you are disillusioned with Bandaranaike?
“Ah! we remove him”
“And if that doesn’t succeed? ”
“We try something else.”
Manley questioned Buddharakkitta : “You handle money. You drink alcohol. Yet, these are forbidden to Buddhist monks.”
The monk seemed delighted he was asked that question. “I am a monk in the temple. When I wear the robe. See trousers and shirt. I am outside the temple. I do all my temple work well. If anyone tells I am not Chief Priest I call the police. You see police outside. I look after the temple and temple money well.”
Carolis Appuhamy, a founder member of the SLFP, also plays a role – though a reluctant one. He was a Native Physician, close to the Chief monk. Buddharakkitta visits Carolis often. At each occasion he demands that Carolis lends his car to various mysterious persons for some unstated journey.
There is early mention of the other monk, Somarama of Talduwa. He was also an Ayurvedic physician an eye specialist. He had worked for the candidature of Vimala and was, in return, appointed a specialist at the Ayurvedic hospital by Vimala who was the Health Minister. Somarama is described as a powerful mob orator and someone prone to violence as he once disrupted a meeting held to protest Vimala. Somarama had been seen,”wrenching wires of the public address system,” and he often had a gun in possession. He was “smoking cigarettes, consuming liquor..” Ossie Corea also figures in the book and is described as a gambler and a mafia-type with a passion for firearms. He had a huge ego. He assiduously cultivated the company of policemen and this included Inspector Newton Perera. Oscar had been aware of a plot to kill the Prime Minister. He is described as not wanting to get directly involved but wanting to be part of such big operation as he loved the ego boost he would get from a grandiose scheme. The idea of lending one of his firearms appealed to him. “He knew the game, that those who pull the trigger will be the last to confess from where they got the gun.” Inspector Newton Perera got a gun from Ossie.
The above narrative of the assassination suggests how A Buddhist monk can be driven by ego; by money; by the lust for power. Buddharakitta began as a very traditional monk with official ordination. By circumstances, he evolved in rapid speed to be greedy for money, sex and power – an outrageous violation of the teachings of the Buddha. Somarama had a track record of violence and he kept firearms to protect himself. These two monks were surreal representations of the metaphor of evil. However, they were able to get around and gain acceptance from Buddhists. They canvassed for SWRD Bandaranaike and the Sri Lanka freedom Party at the elections. Buddharakkitta had apparently siphoned off temple money for the campaign. Despite this weird misconduct, even the Prime Minister of the land had to receive them with respect.
There is a twofold problem in our social system that relates to this issue, namely the Buddhist cultural practice of worshipping the symbol of the saffron robe and secondly, the practice of disregarding the distinction between the wearer of the robe and the robe itself. I would call the second cultural practice – one of fusion of symbol and wearer; the wearer demanding respect and special privilege by virtue of the fact that he wears a robe.
In the case of Buddhists, the saffron robe is meant to be only a symbol like a badge to signify that its wearer is a mendicant who has abandoned worldly life and who is pursuing his spiritual deliverance. There is nothing in the Buddhist texts to suggest acceptance of symbol worship. The Dhamma itself is regarded as a raft only for use and disposal. By itself, therefore, the robe does not call for reverence as far as Buddhist texts are concerned. On the other hand, social practice is different. Institutions of religion have invariably introduced rituals and symbols that would help perpetu- ate the power of the church or temple or mosque.
In the Dhammapada (Yamakavaggo) a clear distinction is made between the person of the wearer of the robe and the robe itself. The possibility of the wearer being undeserving of the robe is stated – almost as a warning. Verse 9 states: “He who will wear the yellow robe without having cleansed himself from impurity, who is devoid of truth and self-control, is not deserving of the yellow robe.” In the Mahabharata, it is explained that for a defiled person the robe “serves merely the means of living to those shavelings who carry their virtue like a flag.” (M.B xii 568)
The textual tradition of Indian and Buddhist thought is thus clear. Hence, the cultural practice of respecting anybody who wears the robe merely because he wears the robe is untenable. It is this widely held cultural respect for the symbol that makes Buddhists bow down with folded hands before any wearer of the robe irrespective of whether the wearer is or not on the spiritual path. It is a case of the fusion of the robe and its wearer. This fusion endowed Buddharakkhita and Somarama with respect. It made the Prime Minister bend down in folded arms before Somarama who utilised the opportunity to perform his dastardly act. Both in the case of Buddharakkhita and Somarama it was an exhibition of evil lying behind the robe.
The twofold Buddhist cultural practice continues unabated. it is not difficult to observe today potential criminals among the Sangha trying to find their way into portals of power. One sees greed and rage and lust in their body language and well-fed flesh in their corpus. Vigilance about such devilry is not an option.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org