By Mohamed Harees –
A well respected intellectual monk Prof. Agalakada Sirisumana Thero in a recent interview with Satahan Radio decried the construction of yet another memorial for War victory named ‘Sandha-Hiru Sae-ya’, stating that it creates more mutual hatred among communities at a challenging time in our history, where more commitment is needed to bring them together. Rev, Thero also pointed out the negative influence of the Maha Sangha in Sri Lankan politics, where ‘Ruler-Sangha’ coalition has been seen to embrace the chauvinist path of destruction, in Post-Independence Sri Lanka. ‘The Sangha has such potential for positive change, but the servient attitudes of some influential sections among them, has sadly led to the current situation of unspeakable suffering;
Democratic short-sightedness for example in promoting divisions for petty political gains, has been identified as an overlooked threat when exploring policy-making in democracies like Sri Lanka. Missed historic opportunities to promote inclusivity is emblematic of a larger problem that plagues a democracy like Sri Lanka. We Sri Lankans in retrospect would have been horrified to observe our contemporary cycle of irresponsibility, in which we have become accustomed to the political pursuit of short-term windfalls over long-term solutions. Both SWRD Bandaranaike, and the Rajapaksas tactfully used them in embracing the disastrous path of racism and injustice for petty political ends, instead of building national identity and national reconciliation. The problem became even worse than we thought during Post-war period, particularly under the Rajapaksas.
The influence of monks within the Sri Lankan societal and political apparatus is not to be underestimated. Politicized Buddhism in its modern form emerged in the opening years of the twentieth century. In 1956, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, a product of the Oxford Union no less, ran on a nationalist platform and included the monks in his election campaign as one of his so called Pancha Maha Balavegaya, in no small part due to the inordinate influence they had on the Sinhalese electorate. Monks were thus the strongest pillar that delivered the ’1956 elections to him. He ran his government on a Sinhala Buddhist extremist agenda. As Writer Donald L. Horowitz said, ‘Buddhist monks became frequent visitors in the corridors of power’. Tearing the infamous BC Pact literally into pieces was done at the instigation of the Buddhist clergy and other so-called Buddhist leaders. , However alas! he eventually paid the ultimate price for his slavish obedience to the Buddhist Clergy. He was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk named Talduwe Somarama and the chief conspirator, was also a monk, Mapitigama Buddharakkitha and ironically, both had the ‘Venerable’ at the beginning of their names.
Language rights have played a central role in the struggle for power and resources between the Sinhalese-Buddhist and the Tamil-Hindu and Tamil-Muslim communities in postcolonial Sri Lanka. The detrimental Sinhala Only Act that disregarded Tamil and consecrated Sinhala as the only national and official language of the country in 1956, exacerbated ethnic differences around language and has been identified as one of the root causes of the civil war that lasted almost three decades.
The Sinhala Only Act as an exclusionary state policy which ran counter to the principle of equity and to the state’s multi-ethnic character. It was in every respect a discriminatory policy aimed at undermining the status of the ‘Other’. Politicians capitalised on the then prevailing frustration and began proposing resolutions in Parliament to declare Sinhala the official language. It was the election of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, however, that was the turning point. In 1951, he led the Sinhala Maha Sabha faction, which he had organised to promote Sinhalese culture and interests, out of the United National Party (UNP) to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Although his party originally promoted the use of both Sinhala and Tamil, Bandaranaike cunningly gravitated towards Sinhala later to mobilise Sinhalese discontentment for political mileage. Bandaranaike found that ‘Sinhala only within twenty-four hours’ would be the sure-fire-vote catcher. He began lobbying for Sinhala to be given status as the sole official language. The strategy worked – in part. He was elected Prime Minister in a landslide victory.
As Prof. Rohan Gunaratna said, by introducing the Sinhala Only Act, Sri Lanka had achieved nothing and the legislation had only destroyed the country’s security and stability and precipitated a civil war. The Sinhala Only Act, which was enacted during S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s government, had been absolutely unnecessary when all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka were living peacefully. “Unfortunately, Sri Lankan leaders played ethnic and religious politics, seeded hatred and division and the country was dragged back 30 years. He said, ‘Sri Lanka and other countries must learn that their governments should not allow politicians to play politics with security. If you play with security then your country will get destroyed. JR Jayewardene too played a key role in passing the Sinhala Only Act’. The 1956 Sinhala Only Act was passed in the parliament in spite of the fact that the Soulbury Constitution did not allow any legislation that favoured only one racial or religious community (Article 29).
Although, the so-called Act wanted to rightfully ensure the “rightful position” of the Sinhala people in the national life, it was however done at the expense of the language rights of other minority communities. It was, among other things, a major blow for the economic survival of the Tamils because it required public sector employees to qualify in Sinhala language within a stipulated period. This disastrous policy also affected the Tamil speaking Muslims particularly in the North and East too. Kumar Rupesinghe, in his article on ‘Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia: The Case of Sri Lanka and the Indian Peace Keeping Force’(1988) said, [w]ith the electoral victory of the SLFP in 1956, the pursuit of Sinhalese hegemony was provided with political power. The Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 thus led to ethnic riots in that year and in 1958, marking the beginning of acute Sinahalese-Tamil animosity. The manner in which the Sinhala-Only Act and Sinhalese linguistic nationalism facilitated violent conflict, however, has not been fully appreciated. Tamil parties, too, comprehensively manipulated racial slogans against Sinhala people and the state, particularly in Tamil majority areas. Thus, the resolution for a separate state of Tamil Eelam came into force as an election promise. This sort of short-sighted “vision” of political parties in this country helped only to increase the vacuum between the conflicting communities.
Following Bandaranaike’s example, the SLFP continued to play on nationalist sentiments in order to win votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa was no exception. During his regime, BBS, a rabid communal Buddhist outfit bent on degrading Lord Buddha’s preaching of peace and non-violence, with tacit support from the Rajapaksas, aptly echoed the destructive path his government wanted to promote. Rest was history. More than five decades later, history was repeated. To the Rajapaksa dynasty, power through any source was the ultimate dream. Their past brand of nepotism and sycophantism, authoritarianism and racism denied the country of the much needed peace (not absence of war) and harmony, justice, economic independence and rule of law in Post war Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the main sponsor of BBS, during Mahinda’s regime proceeded to marginalize the Muslims, who were living in harmony in the southern parts of Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese. He cultivated the whole gamut of anti-Muslim hate through a set of sycophant monks like BBS Gnanasaras, Sihala Ravaya Dayaratnes and Ravana Balaya Saddhatissas , who indulged in acts of violence and rowdyism which even the hardened criminals will envy and think twice to commit. Rajapaksas thus made Sri Lanka, as a state of lawlessness and racism. Unfortunately, this anti-Muslim tirade continued during the Yahapalana times too, as the Sirisena and Ranil duo were both weak, impotent and imbecile.
In November 2019, the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists who historically embraced rationalistic values and lived peacefully with the minorities, fell a victim to the racist machinations of the Rajapaksa-led nationalistic forces. This trend subsumed their moderate voices and gave the proverbial ‘razor blade’ to the Rajapaksa ‘monkey’. Rest again is history. Gotabaya also started using SWRD/ Mahinda majoritarian /racist tactics and strategies to stay in power, although people have now begun to spot the evil game although belatedly. His election campaign planners created the hate environment revolving around the terrible Easter tragedy and fed the electorate with a anti-Muslim racist diet. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka also suffers from the ‘Saffron robe ailment’, which keeps those in power to subscribe to Sinhala Buddhist supremacism. This is not insulting to the majority/ significant number of Bikkhus who preach the peaceful religion of Buddhism. Unfortunately, today, a set of rogue monks are Gotabaya’s army to defend his highly inefficient record. A highly politicised monk Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero close to the Rajapaksas is appointed as the Chancellor of the prestigious Colombo University while the hate monk with a criminal record Gnanasara (Thero) was appointed as the Chair of a law review presidential commission – ‘One Country-One Law’. Monk led hate outfits have also been having a hey-day too.
The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, has already transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Since independence, Buddhist interest lobbies have been active in politics and politicians seek the support of organised Buddhist groups as well as the clergy at elections and their presence at ceremonies. Similarly, Buddhist institutions too depend on the state, thus making the relationship a deeply symbiotic one. Both author Stanley J. Tambiah as well as social analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda argue that the political activities of the Bhikkus did not advance democracy and universalism but promoted a narrow and exclusive ethno-religious, nationalist ideology. Allowing Buddhist monks to rule the country and allowing only Sinhala Buddhists to be seen or feel as sons of the soil will be suicidal.
Oftentimes we care more about who is elected and less about what is happening because we don’t ever actually get told the truth about what is happening. We buy the brand-name and we don’t look at the specs. We elect the politician — who is technically a realistically unpredictable basket of promises and hearty sentiments — and don’t look at the crumbling mechanics of what they should actually be dealing with. Politicians have a strong incentive to pursue short-term windfalls, even when they come at the expense of larger long-term harm that will occur only when they leave office and for which they are less likely to be held accountable. many who will have to live with (or perhaps, grimly, will not be born because of) the decisions reached lack any power over how they are made. This undermines the great advantage of democracy over other forms of government, which is that citizens are given the opportunity to hold politicians accountable for decisions that affect them. Future generations are left disenfranchised, and thus, short-changed.
Our political system appears to be fundamentally ill-equipped to craft precautionary policy to guard against many of the issues that should concern us most. Though opportunistic politicians and self-interested voters deserve some of the blame, the problem runs far deeper:it is a structural feature of our democracy as it is currently constructed. Remedying this defect of democracy may be one of the defining challenges of our time for the greater good of our future generation to live in a country where all are treated equal irrespective of differences in race or religion. But with foresight and courage, to paraphrase journalist Richard Fisher, ‘we stand a better chance of making the difficult but necessary commitment to help those whom we might never live to see’. Unfortunately, there are not many role models to turn to.
In retrospect, however, late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera showed how a Buddhist religious leader espousing core Buddhist values such as compassion and universalism can take Sinhala Buddhist concerns seriously and yet act as a unifying force for all communities. The opening created in January 2015 for civic nationalism to supersede the confines of ethnic nationalism should be pursued by the progressive movements/ civil society groups once again too, to broaden the middle ground to push forward the reconciliation and development agenda. The public should aim towards ensuring transparency of the policy-making become a paramount norm , in order to catch deviations from the sound policies that serve short-term objectives of politicians. All who love the motherland should shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding ethnic and religious harmony. Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that Sri Lanka would not be tagged as a racist and extremist nation.