By Uditha Devapriya –
The recent tariff hikes, particularly of electricity and water, have brought into sharp focus an underlying, though still growing, conflict between the State and the Buddhist clergy. Buddhist monks have vowed not to pay the revised bills, while the country’s Energy Minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, has stated that if they do not, power will be disconnected. The most vocal of these priests, Omalpe Sobitha Thera, a firebrand of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and now a critic of the Rajapaksas, has gone as far as to organise protests against these move.
Preferring a more diplomatic approach to the matter, the Mahanayakes of the three monastic sects – Siam, Amarapura, and Ramanya – have penned a letter to Ranil Wickremesinghe. The letter underlies the enormous importance, and relevance, of Buddhist temples to the country’s social and cultural life, pointing out that most people visit them in the afterhours and evenings when electricity is most needed. It requests for concessions on the new tariffs, stating that Buddhist temples are not in a position to absorb them. For his part the President has assured monks that the government will look into installing solar panels at temples.
These developments mark an interesting turnaround in the country’s politics. Buddhist monks – and Buddhist monasteries, especially the more powerful ones – have historically been seen as patrons of politicians and bureaucrats. This followers from what Buddhist monks claim to be their historical role, stemming from the part they played in the lives and politics of the country’s kings. Despite Sri Lanka turning from a hereditary monarchy to a constitutional republic, so the argument goes, monks have the right to intervene in politics. It goes without saying that they have succeeded in this aim, transforming into patron figures.
Liberal critics of the clergy imply that Buddhist monks wield disproportionate power today. Tenable as this argument is, given the enormous role these monks play in politics as active participants or not so passive bystanders, I would argue that their role in politics has been shaped by a fundamental contradiction between the influence they wield on public, specifically Sinhala middle-class, opinion, and their lack of economic power. This contradiction has never been seriously examined, largely because the stereotype of monks as political creatures has been easier to stick with. Yet it serves to explain not just their recent agitation against the new electricity tariffs, but also their changing relationship with the State.
The basis for Buddhist clerical fears and grievances is largely, and simply, historical: British colonialism. More so than Portuguese and Dutch colonialism, British rule sapped Buddhist monks and temples, through legal and ostensibly legitimate means, of the power they enjoyed in medieval Sri Lanka. As Kitsiri Malalgoda points out in Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, British land policies cut the Buddhist temple from the State, vesting temples lands in the hands of Chief Prelates. Left without a means of sustenance, these Prelates sought whatever way they could to sustain themselves. This not only fundamentally changed the character of the Buddhist clergy, but it also brought them closer to Sinhala Buddhist mass opinion, thus paving the way for their later entry into mass politics, particularly after 1931.
All this gets lost in narratives which frame Buddhist monks as political, authoritarian, and proto-fascist. The rhetoric of the monks themselves, such as that which openly invoke Hitler, has not done them any favour in this regard. They have mobilised bigotry and chauvinism of the worst sort, making their critics associate them with their worst excesses. Yet liberal accounts simplify them, suggesting that they are all-powerful and are important transmitters of majoritarian sentiment in the country. Yet no serious account has been made of that rift I highlighted earlier, though it reveals their complex character. My thesis here is simple: monks have enlarged their role in mass politics because of their lack of economic clout.
Of course, the monks themselves would give two simple reasons, or justifications, for their actions: that Sinhala Buddhists have no other place to go (“Where else can we call home?”), and that this is their rightful place (“This is our home!”) Yet like their liberal critics, these self-descriptions gloss over the economic aspects to their participation in politics. Contrary to popular opinion, Buddhist temples do not make up the bulk of the country’s lands: British colonial policies, following up from Portuguese policies, struck at the base of these temples, turning the Church, especially the Catholic and the Anglican, into one of the country’s largest landowners. Mass politics today has enabled monks to do what was not possible in the colonial era, namely to shape popular opinion. This, in effect, is their raison d’être.
I would contend that these contradictions are what feed into Sinhala middle-class fears and grievances as well. Sociologists and historians paint the Sinhala middle-class as a protean and often irrational social group. This is true, to a considerable extent. Yet to simply stick with such stereotypes, without examining the economic dimension to their fears and grievances, or for that matter without acknowledging that though the numerical majority they wield less power economically relative to other ethnic and social groups, would be to ignore certain factors that are indispensable to any proper analysis of class, ethnicity, and religion in any society. They are, to put it simply, a local majority lacking numbers elsewhere.
The net effect of these transformations, over the years, has been to turn the Buddhist clergy into a major beneficiary of State subsidies. It is this which has entrenched them, and in turn entrenched the State and determined its ideology. The Buddhist clergy of Sri Lanka is, in that sense, interesting if not intriguing: it shows that a clerical class belonging to the majority ethnic group of a country can assert political power while “suffering” from a lack of economic clout. This has been so powerful a contradiction that, under extreme conditions, such as the present crisis, it has turned a not insignificant section of the clergy away from a State once identified with their interests. The recent protests against the tariff hikes portends something far more pertinent for our time, and for all time. But scholars are yet to probe into it.
*The writer is an international relations analyst, columnist, and researcher who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org