23 June, 2024


Liberty Is The First Casualty Of The Unchecked Fundamentalism In The Country

By W A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

The story so far

In the previous part in this series, we cautioned Sri Lanka’s voters that during the present election season, there has been an ominous upsurge in religious and cultural fundamentalist ideas in the country. Fundamentalists close their minds to opposite views, on one side, and seek to establish their own views on religion and culture as the most supreme, on the other. This is driven partly by fear and partly by desire to dominate others. This need not be the case in a country where the majority of the people are Buddhists since the Buddha himself had advised the Bhikkus how conflicting views could be resolved in intelligent and civilised ways.

In the Brahmajaala Sutta in the Diga Nikaya, the Buddha advised the Bhikkus that they should not be offended by those who speak of the ills of the Buddha and nor should they be elated by those who praise his virtues. Instead, by taking an approach befitting the wise, they should explain to them politely that in this way they are correct and in this way they are wrong. That is how conflicts are resolved by civilised people who are simply, as the evolution had taught us, Men, the Wise. However, contrary to this, in the land which takes pride in protecting the true Dhamma preached by the Master, a new trend in which contrary views are not tolerated has emerged. The first casualty of such fundamentalist views is human liberty.

The Buddha and Emperor Ashoka had been advocates of tolerance 

Liberty has been the basic aspiration of all human beings. It denotes freedom from servitude of all bonds with which mankind can be tied. It encompasses the freedom of thought, expression, property, and livelihood, as long as it does not infringe on the same aspirations of others. The best advocate of freedom in this sense has been the Buddha who posited in stanzas 129 to 133 in the Dhammapada that “one should not do anything to another person which one does not want to be done to himself”.

In the Mula Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya , he preached that a person who, thinking that he has powers, “beats, imprisons, confiscates, blames or banishes another person” commits an unskilful act and it should be avoided. To avoid it, the Buddha further says that one should not return harm with harm and destroy the thought to do harm to another person by cultivating self-discipline.

Nearly 300 years after the Buddha, Emperor Ashoka in his Rock Inscription No. 7 enforced the edict that ‘religions should reside everywhere because people have various desires and passions and they may practice all of their beliefs or parts of them’. He further said that those who lack self-discipline, purity of heart, gratitude or firm devotions are mean individuals.

He has made the best advice to us in Rock Inscription No. 12: Says Ashoka ‘People should promote their religions without praising one’s own and condemning those of others. If there is a need for criticism of another religion, it should be done in a mild way. Those who glorify their religion at the expense of other religions do the worst damage to their own religion’. These are inviolable prescriptions for all those who practice different faiths in Sri Lanka.

Liberty comes from self-discipline 

This approach to liberty is self-perpetuating since it does not require an outside body or an authority to deliver liberty to human beings. It also overrules the possibility of the presence of externality which economists today have been highlighting when it comes to fair treatment of people in society. The Buddha’s message is that one should not knowingly exert an external cost on another person since he himself is aversive to such external costs being inflicted on him.

In this elaboration of liberty, external benefits can still be passed onto other members of society since it as a whole adds to the happiness of the mankind, on the one hand, and helps the delivery of the benefits to attain his personal ambitions, on the other. This is delivering liberty to people through ‘self-governance’ which is an effective way of ensuring liberty.

The Buddha’s version of liberty was restated by the 17th century English philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” and also preserve as much as possible the rest of mankind. It discourages exerting external costs, while encouraging the delivery of external benefits.

Authoritarianism is the root cause of suppression of liberty

Traditionally, the threat to human liberty came from authoritarian or despotic rulers. After Homo sapiens gave up hunting and gathering for agriculture some 10,000 years ago, new settlements were started, food plants were tamed and both draught and food animals were domesticated. Then, there was the necessity to protect land, food stocks, livestock, men, women and children from invading tribes.

Initially, it was tribal leaders who took the responsibility for defending the tribe from invaders. For this purpose, it was necessary to acquire fighting power by recruiting and training soldiers and equipping them with weapons. These tribal leaders who acquired their power through divinity, were those who could decide on the life and death of the other tribal members. This was how the human liberty was compromised in the initial stage for protection.

Later, these isolated tribes got developed into kingdoms and kingdoms into empires. Whatever the size of the political organisation, it was the human liberty that was sacrificed in the name of protection, prosperity and dignity. The establishment of nation states was the mechanism employed to resolve conflicts, maintain law and order and contain violence emanating from within and from outside society. Law became so essential that it was held that whenever there was no law, there was no freedom too.

Gilgamesh problem coming from ancient Sumaria

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their 2019 book, The Narrow Corridor, have documented a problem, called the Gilgamesh Problem, that threatens the sustenance of human liberty. Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk some 4,200 years ago. He was a merciful dictator and supplied the people of Uruk with all the modern infrastructure facilities, including an advanced city. But the city was his possession and he could do whatever he wanted with the lives of the people. He took the sons away from parents for his destructive wars with neighbours and daughters for his sexual pleasures.

Since the parents could not fight with the brutal force of Gilgamesh, they turned to their main deity, Anu, for help. Anu, following a procedure similar to checks and balances being practised today, created a double of Gilgamesh called Enkidu and released him to Uruk. Enkidu’s job was to contain the behaviour of Gilgamesh whenever he tried to abuse his powers. He did a good job initially, but later realised that by teaming with Gilgamesh, he could enhance his own benefit package.

The duo got together and unleashed their brutality on the people of Uruk. Thus, a system introduced to contain the authoritarian ruler became the source brutality and people did not have a mechanism to remove it. Hence, the prospect of liberty vanished along with the checks and balances that were introduced.

Checks and balances do not work if parties collude with each other for personal gains

Consequently, the threat to human liberty today is the collusive activity of despotic rulers and those who have been engaged to protect the people from them. When religion and culture are established as fundamentalist institutions, there is a tendency for fundamentalist religious and cultural leaders to side with despotic rulers to oppress the people. That marriage is for the benefit of both parties.

Despotic leaders can claim legitimacy to their rule by clinging onto the support base of fundamentalists. In return, fundamentalists can enrich their position by using the power base of despotic rulers. In such a state, the government is captured by militant religious leaders who want to establish a fundamental religious state. To support them, culture which is in a constant flux is twisted and presented as a fixed social institution. Anyone who opposes the militant religious sects is brutally oppressed by using state powers. Accordingly, liberty is taken away from ordinary citizens who now have been converted to a defenceless, voiceless and powerless group.

The de facto theocracy in Sri Lanka

Thus, though Sri Lanka is not a de jure theocracy – a system of government run by religious leaders – it is a de facto theocracy. These informal theocrats have assumed the power to decide what the ordinary citizens should wear, which shops they should patronise, what they should create as work of art and with whom they should have their social relationships. The worst outcome of these unhealthy developments is the guardians of human liberties – the political leaders – seeking to sustain their power by clinging to these self-interested power groups.

Normally, military rulers in any country are considered as powerful leaders. But they can sustain their power only by clinging onto these sub-militant groups, as has been shown in Myanmar. In that country, no military ruler can sustain his power unless he aligns himself with the ‘Poppy Barons’ who run an alternative bandit rule in the infamous Golden Triangle or certain militant Buddhist monks who roam streets by taking power onto their hands. Sri Lanka’s political leaders of all hues are not an exception.

Political leaders succumbing to theocratic demands 

Thus, the present political leaders in Sri Lanka seem to have chosen to be lame ducks in the face of the threateningly growing de facto theocratic rule in the country. But that had not been the case in the past as many past Sri Lankan leaders had demonstrated. Two cases can be quoted to prove this point. One is the bold stand taken by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike against militant Buddhist fundamentalists in what was known as the Bavatharanaya issue. The other is the application of the rule of law by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake when a misdemeanour by one of his strong party supporters was brought to his notice.

The bold stand of Sirimavo Bandaranaike on Bavatharanaya

A first-hand account of the Bavatharanaya issue has been made by the former civil servant Eric J. de Silva in an article published in 2010 in The Island recently. Bavatharanaya (Crossing the Stream of Birth and Rebirth) was a fiction written by Sri Lanka’s renowned writer Martin Wickramasinghe on the life story of the Buddha.

Immediately after the book was published in 1973, a group of militant Buddhist monks had begun an agitation campaign for the banning of the book claiming that it had insulted the Buddha. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, having read a report by Eric that it was a work of art and had nothing to do with the Buddha had dismissed the forceful submissions made by militant Buddhist monks for the banning of the book.

Dudley Senanayake upholding the rule of law 

In the second incident narrated by Ex-Senior DIG Thilak Inddamalgoda in his autobiography, What a Policeman! (in Sinhala), Deputy Minister C.P.J. Seneviratna, a strong UNP stalwart, had stormed a temporary police station in Mahiyanganaya and released some suspects who had been arrested by the Police for unruly behaviour. When this was brought to the notice of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, he had just ordered that the Police should do its duty according to the law.

The saga of the woman with a Buddha tattoo

Such principled politicians and strong-willed public servants help protect the liberty of citizens. However, an incident involving the arrest and deportation of a British woman who had a tattoo of Buddha’s head in 2014 was an example where the Police had succumbed to pressure of religio-cultural fundamentalists and accordingly functioned as a cultural-police force. I have discussed this issue in a previous article in this series.

On seeking justice through Sri Lanka’s legal system, after three and a half years in 2017, as the BBC had reported, the Supreme Court had delivered justice to her by declaring that her detention and deportation were illegal and awarding her compensation amounting to £ 4000. Yet, after the Easter bombings in churches and tourist hotels in April, 2019, similar arrests were made by the Police on religious grounds implying that they were serving their duty as a cultural police force.

When a government tolerates such acts of violating fundamental human rights, it is the replay of the Gilgamesh Problem outlined by Acemoglu and Robinson in The Narrow Corridor. In this instance, liberty is denied to people by the government and the Police which are created for delivering the same.

This is a trend that has to be avoided. That is because liberty is a prime requirement for ensuring social progress of a nation. We will discuss this in the next part.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 8

    As you can see from the picture these are not Buddhist monks but politicians in yellow robes posing as Buddhist monks. The one pointing his finger is surely not preaching religion but seem to be threatening someone with harm or murder This is not only an insult to Buddha’s teachings but also a dangerous precedent where people still prostrate to these monks without knowing whether they are genuine monks or wolves in yellow robes. In western countries catholic priests end up in jail for pedophilia etc. while in Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka it is very common to see many young boys mingling around with senior monks merely being used for sex by the senior monks with the blessings of their parents who seem to think it is part and parcel of attaining priesthood. The Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka are fast losing their identity and respect and sooner than later may have to choose between priesthood and politics if they are going to enjoy free meals from the villagers who can’t afford to feed themselves these days.

    • 4

      The picture clearly depicts this idiot of a Saffronian as a real THUG. If these people come into exercising their own opinions there will be a major blood shed worse than 1983. These idiots should be rounded up and sent to some part of the world that is rife with Coronavirus,that could even be Sri Lanka. They are budding terrorists worse than ISIS

    • 0

      You are correct , whilst I was reading this article during my lunch break on my I pad , an Australian work colleague ,who looked at the photo, commented , “why is that Buddhist Monk pointing his finger to someone in a very aggressive and threatening way? Aren’t Buddhist monks supposed to be passive , kind and tolerant”. I answered no in Sri Lanka they aren’t . Very similar to Myanmar. Racist , intolerant, aggressive and do everything opposite to what Lord Budda preached. They and the racist opportunistic Sinhalese politicians , are the root cause of all the problems in the island

    • 0

      Recently I visited a Buddhist Temple in down South with a friend of mine and I was shocked to see there were five young seminars (Child Buddhists) accompanied by young Buddhist monks. I want to know why these children ages 10- 12 left by their parents at the mercy of these yellow robed monks at the temples.

  • 8

    Dear grumpy EE,

    All communites should be grateful to be Sri Lankans and should respect each other and live in peace.

    Minorities don’t have to hold pooja to Sinahala Buddhists.

    And Sinahala Buddhists have no mandate to treat the minorities like door mats.

    • 3

      Wimpy Kid,

      There is no NEED for the Para-Sinhala Para-Buddhists to prostrate to imbecile monks, unless they themselves are imbeciles, mean measured IQ 79.

      • 3

        Sinhala Buddhists are capable of deciding whether there is a NEED to prostrate to monks. Who the hell are you to say there is no NEED? Please mind your business without putting your nose into the affairs of Sinhalayo who live in Sinhale which is the Land of Native Sinhalayo and Vedda Eththo.

        Are you still searching for Lamborghini cars of Namal Baby, Golden Horses of Shriranthi and US$ 18 Billion of Mahinda Rajapakse?

        • 3

          Potta eagle,
          If so-called monks commit crimes, are we supposed to keep quiet because they wear a yellow cloth?
          Are only Buddhists allowed to complain when children are abused in temples?
          Who da fk are you to tell us to shut up? Have you ever read the Vinaya Pitakaya?

        • 7

          Egle BP aka Mahindapala,

          your permament cry is to protect BPs in Rajakashes family, but we cry for the rights of all srilankens.
          Just leave your personal vendetta, but try to see it right let alone today, with not much ahead of you, to share with the human beings. I think, you the kind of ultra racists should sink in hell for all the high crimes committed your pen.

          We perfectly know the size of crimes BP Rajakshes committed are beyond all ethics and morals. Shiranthi is a bitch… who never respected a laws… there had been rumouers if she was brought before courts, she would have committed suicide. The kind of uneducated women to be complacent in such crimes ? and seek support from the leadership ? If she is a real hearted mother, she should have come forward to prove her inncience… i mean that mother of Thadjudeen and her mournings would never cease….. may Mahinda Rajapakshe be rotten in hell for all the high crimes he commmitted against own people.

  • 2

    This invective compilation is obviously directed at the Buddhist Monks leading the campaign against the vile political establishment of our country. These vile political leaders have always been surrounded and protected by similar individuals claiming to be the members of so called “local intelligentsia”.
    The time has come for the Patriotic Buddhists not to fall into this trap and miss the chance again to get rid of the hoodlums occupying our democratic institutions. they will call us (Real Patriotic Buddhists), “Fundamentalists”, Militants” ” Extremists”. If anyone wants to label us with those terms for standing-up against the corrupt establishment, their supporters and cohorts,… So be it. Finally, just do not quote from Buddhist scriptures in order hide falsehood and dubious existence.

    • 3


      Please clarify, whom are you addressing and whom are you criticising, and whom are you appealing to?

      Will you please now distinguish the Buddhist monks from Sinhala/Buddhist saffron brigade which includes quite a number of thugs as well?

      • 2

        Naked Vedda, it is far too complicated for you.

      • 0

        1. Did Buddha is married? How many children he had? Did Buddha Divorced his wife?
        2. Did Buddha travelled to Sri Lanka? Which country is Buddha citizen? Did buddha followed the Hindu Religion? where is body was buried?

  • 5

    After the Independence the role of the Buddhist Monks and Maha Sanga has ruined the country. The murder of Late SWRD Bandarnayake, the interference of the Buddhist Monks is Sri Lanka politics and their racial and hate speech [which is against the Lord Buddha’s preaching ] caused rift and polarization among the communities and divide.
    If Sri Lanka followed Lee Quan’s policy [Singapore] Sri Lanka would have been better off then Singapore. The racial divide enables the foreign nations to control Sri Lanka and the poverty of Sri Lanka has no alternative to listen to the foreign powers like China and India there by losing their identity and sovereignty.
    It is not too late for the new president who has the guts and will to reverse the situation and unite the country before it gets worse and force more selling of the country in pieces for paying the debts and salaries for the government servants and huge military force.
    Hope the wise men will guide the country.

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