By 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 firstname.lastname@example.org