By Rajan Philips –
It is as though the fall of the tiger has directly led to the rise of Sinhala Roar, or Ravaya, literally speaking. Looked at it another way, just as there is talk about LTTE remnants floating around the globe, it is possible to talk about Sinhala Ravaya and other organizations of its ilk as being the remnants of the wave of triumphalism that the Rajapaksa government unleashed in the south after crushing the LTTE in the north. The Sinhala Ravaya seems to have earned special notoriety after trying to storm the Prime Minister’s office on Flower Road. Not long after came the attacks on Christian churches in Hikkaduwa, this time by an outfit called the Hela Bodu Pawra, adding to the negative reactions in the media. But for quite a while these remnants of triumphalism have been on a free roll with open blessings from higher echelons of the regime. Their free ride may not be over yet, but their senseless and hateful antics are making them more a liability than an asset to the regime. Their liability is all the more magnified now, with the onset of Geneva anxieties in government circles.
A responsible and, in these senseless political times, a path-breaking response appears to be coming from former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She recently confirmed to the Venerable Mahanayake Theros that she has no intention of reentering politics and that her only intention is to stop “Buddhist extremist organizations attacking Christian and Muslim places of worship” and destroying Sri Lanka’s religious harmony. To that end, the former President has invited leaders of all faiths/religions for a meeting in Colombo, at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, on Tuesday, January 28. Hopefully, the meeting will go ahead without running into nutty protestors, and something worthwhile would come out of her initiative. This is also an opportunity to uplift her rather lopsided legacy; running for President would only drag it down.
Let us take our eye from the former to the current President. Could we ever hear such a commitment from President Rajapaksa – to castigate the extremist organizations in order to protect religious harmony? And he, in case anybody forgot, has no intention whatsoever to leave the presidency or politics any time soon. I cannot recall President Rajapaksa ever taking to task the “Buddhist extremist organizations” like the way his favourite predecessor is starting to be doing. But other voices are belatedly emanating within government ranks not so much as questioning the legitimacy, purpose and the method of these organizations, but expressing concern over the damage these organizations are causing to the Rajapaksa government internationally. All are symptoms of Geneva anxieties.
Rhyme and Reason
Bandula Gunawardena of Grade-Five fame, who is also President Rajapaksa’s Minister of Education, has alerted whomever to “moves underway to use some Buddhist monks’ activities as part of an anti-Sri Lankan propaganda drive in Geneva.” He bemoaned that the internet and the social media are being used to give “adverse publicity” to activities of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. Notably, the Grade-Five specialist did not venture to criticize the so called “activities of some Buddhist monks.” Appropriately or not, the Minister was speaking at a gathering of Pirivena teachers, where he went on to announce that “the Pirivena Act would be amended to impart a better education to Buddhist monks”. All we can hope for the Minister is – much better luck and much less bungling with amending the Pirivena Act than what he had in trying to stop Grade Five scholarships.
A much broader broadside came in last week’s Sunday Island Political Column under the headline: “The Mad Monk Phenomenon.” Curiously, the Minister of Education and the Sunday Island (SI) columnist are shy of naming names. The Minister laments about the “activities of some Buddhist monks”, and the SI columnist lambastes the “The Mad Monk Phenomenon”. Neither of them refers by name to any one group in the long list of “Buddhist extremist” organizations that includes besides Sinhala Ravaya and Hela Bodu Pawra, the Ravana Balaya, Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Weera Vidahana, Chinthana Parshadaya and Jayagrahanaya. There might be a rhyme to their names, but is there a rhyme or reason for their being?
According to JHU Monk and Leader Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero (in his interview in the same SI colimn), “there is nothing wrong in bhikkus protesting or demonstrating on the streets, but the bhikku image and identity has to be safeguarded. It is only then that the people and the government will take notice. Very often there are just reasons for these demonstrations. When the government does nothing to address these grievances, the other side tries to do whatever they can to be heard.” This was a circular answer to the rather pointed question by the columnist about the reason for “the phenomenon of bhikkus demonstrating on the streets and behaving in an unprecedentedly uncouth and violent manner in public.” There is nothing, grievance or anything else, for the government to notice when important sections in the government are known to have been promoting these protests, and the government as a whole has done nothing to put an end to what are really blatant exercises in lawlessness.
Although an attempt is being made to separate the nameless “mad monks” from the JHU, according to most observers the organizations to which the “mad monks” belong, are themselves off springs and affiliates of the JHU. The JHU is said to have emerged when there was “a life and death issue in the country – which was the war on terror … to safeguard the interests of the Sinhala Buddhists”. There is more embellishment than truth in this assertion. The emergence of the JHU was certainly one expression of the disquiet among the Sinhalese during the peace process of the Wickremasinghe administration. A more powerful expression had, by then, come and gone, in the person of the late Soma Thero. From a political standpoint, there is nothing unusual or illegitimate about this disquiet and its expressions. The mistake was the failure of the political leadership to respond to them honestly and forthrightly.
As the administrators of the peace process the Wickremasinghe government made no attempt to reach out among the Sinhalese. The then government simply assumed that the goodies from the ‘peace dividend’ would be sufficient to quieten the masses. While the goodies of peace and war went to private pockets and not to the masses, the expressions of disquiet were left to find alternative forums as they had no place in the formal preoccupations with war and peace. At the same time, and quite cynically, both the UNP and SLFP leaderships courted these organizations, especially the JHU (and the JVP), and cultivated them electorally. The proportional representation and the district-list system have become particularly conducive to the cultivation of marginal parties, even as they served the originally intended purpose of destroying the Old Left parties. Neither the JHU nor the JVP would ever have got into parliament in the numbers they did, without the support of the two major parties. The chickens are now coming home to roost.
Whatever reason there might have been for the emergence of the JHU during the war, there is no reason, whatever, for the JHU and its affiliates continuing after the war with anti-Muslim and anti-Christian agendas. If there was arm-length electoral cultivation of marginal parties during the ‘alliance politics’ of Wickremasinghe and Kumaratunga, there is wholesale absorption of them under Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact, as it is now becoming apparent, the extremist marginal parties have more clout in the UPFA than the SLFP. The so called SLFP old guard, including the Prime Minister, has become the new marginalized entity.
As for the “mad monk phenomenon”, it has not only benefited from state protection so far, it is also “technologically enabled” with its mastery of the social media of blogs, tweets and facebooks. The Minister of Education, who is now complaining about the internet and the social media being used to badmouth his government internationally, should realize how much damage has been done internally to religious harmony and social peace by the social media excretions of the extremist nationalists. Soma Thero mastered the television medium to bandy his message with dignity and decorum. Now the social media is being used by bigots to spread the message of hate and violence.
The funniest angle on the mad monk phenomenon is the suggestion that it is being funded and sponsored by western organizations to destroy Buddhism in Sri Lanka. If this is an explanation, it will not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the whole Rajapaksa regime is a western conspiracy! The reality is that it is the regime that is laboring under the delusion that the west is out to get it. Now that the season of Geneva anxieties is upon us, there are Liberal Party calls to rebuild an international consensus in favour of Sri Lanka. The more urgent task, in my view, is to un-build the scaffoldings of extremism that the government has been putting up in many parts of the country. Un-building the unnecessary could also be a therapy for Geneva anxiety.