Colombo Telegraph

The Radical Buddhist Monks And Their Goal

By R.M.B Senanayake –

R.M.B. Senanayake

I refer to Mr. Kalana Senaratne’s analysis and explanation of the radicalization of Buddhist monks and the emergence of extremist organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena.

I have a different explanation of this social phenomenon. This is a sociological explanation and not a passing of judgment.

The Buddhist monks had traditionally occupied a place of honor and prestige in society. With such prestige also went power – soft power but nevertheless power. But with the colonial occupations they lost such position. They saw that Independence in 1948 only gave power to westernized secular liberal political elite who did not provide for the restoration of their former special position.

They had Anagarika Dharmapala to inspire them to look for a revival of Buddhist supremacy and hegemony in the State –really it is hegemony for the Buddhist monks.  I am quoting from Wikipedia about the Anagarika.

Dharmapala and his associates very much encouraged and contributed to something aptly called the “ethnocratic state.”

What he wanted was the restoration of the primacy of Buddhism as the religion of the State. SWRD realized the potential of this Buddhist revivalist movement and harnessed it for his own political ride to power. But he over-estimated his ability to direct and control the movement. He believed in the western liberal values unlike those who have not imbibed these values and who would come to power with time in a society where the medium of education was in the Sinhala language. A language is more than a means of communication. It is a vehicle of culture as well. Of course SWRD adopted Buddhism as his religion to get political legitimacy in the newly emerging society.

Meanwhile the agitation for the restoration of Buddhism to the position it occupied during the Sinhala kings continued. The cry was raised that Christian denominational schools should be taken over by the State. Sirimavo could not resist the demand and the schools were taken over. In 1972 the provision was included to give a special place to Buddhism. For all practical purposes Buddhism became the state religion. But there was the Article in the Constitution not to infringe the freedom of practice of other religions. The Prohibition of Forcible Conversions law sought to restrict the right of Buddhists to adopt any other religion. Sinhala Buddhist hegemony ideology does not allow for the conversion of Buddhists to any other religion. This is still an issue. But the evangelical Christian missionaries have not stopped their missionary activity. So what the law could not do, has to be  done by unleashing violence against the Christians provided the State ensured that the culprits would not be held accountable under the law and could act with impunity. It is this tactic that the BBS is now engaged in.

Buddhism was and is more a cultural feature of the Sinhala people rather than a religion  practiced for its teachings. So Buddhist religious practice is more a matter of rituals and the large majority of Buddhists merely pay lip service to its tenets- the Dhamma. This explains the rampant evils and violence among the Sinhala Buddhists. Culture is an expression of a people’s identity. It creates its own history. But culture is power and the present regime was elected by the Sinhala Buddhists who look for the hegemony of their culture.

The Sinhala Buddhist hegemony ideology wants the minorities not to ask for equal status but to accept an inferior status where they live on sufferance of the Buddhists. They cannot have rights. The first conflict arose with the Tamils. They wanted parity for Tamil as an official language. When this was refused they pressed the demand for federalism. But the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony cannot accept federalism. Small states generally are averse to devolution of power preferring a strong central state instead. When non-violent agitations of the Tamils were ignored and ridiculed, the Tamil youth resorted to arms and we had the 30 years war. The opposition to any concessions to the Tamils was always the Buddhist monks but all scholars have ignored this the most important factor in the ethnic problem.

The war was a triumph for Sinhala Buddhism. It was fought for the hegemony of the Sinhala Buddhists. It marked the end of Tamil nationalism.

The liberal democratic State is no part of the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Under the Sinhala kings society was hierarchical where each man had his place based on caste and rank. Buddhist monks know nothing about western liberal democratic values such as the Rule of Law which are alien to Sinhala Buddhist culture. Nor do they care for them.

But now the Western Powers who wanted a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict insist on a resolution of the Tamil grievances through some form of autonomy to be given to them. To those who consider that the war was won by the Sinhala Buddhists by their prowess it is an unjust demand, an unnecessary interference by the so-called International Community. The Government has refused to accept the Resolution of the United Nations and has condemned it as a violation of the sovereignty of the Sinhala Buddhist State. Generally the triumph of nationalism produces a euphoria which leads the nationalist state to launch into imperialist adventures abroad. When Germany was unified the Germans felt their new power and launched into wars against the traditional enemy –the French. When nationalism triumphed with the unification of Italy, the Italian national state launched imperialist adventures into North Africa. So triumphalism and militancy is an outgrowth of a nationalist victory whether the enemy is internal or external. So the forces that won the war- the Sinhala Buddhist military and the Sinhala Buddhist leadership from the Ruhuna cannot afford to give up the ‘spoils’ of war.  These forces know that their gains are under threat from the UN Resolution and from India. These parties want the victorious nationalist State to hand over power to the Tamils for some sort of self governance. But those who won the war think the Tamils now have no claim for any concessions since they lost the war. So they do not and will not make any meaningful concessions except under duress from India. Why should they do so, for it would reduce the war victory to  a pyrrhic victory. After all the Tamil demands could have been conceded in the B-C Pact or in the Agreement between Dudley Senanayake and Chelveynayagam in 1966. Who stood against them? The Buddhist monks of course. I was told ( I have not been able to verify it) that in 1983 when the pogrom against the Tamils took place for several days and President Jayawardene wanted to declare emergency and curfew, a well-known Buddhist monk camped outside his house and warned him not to do so. Surely all the subsequent  bloodshed could have been avoided. So to justify the war and its results is there any scope for acceding to Tamil demands? Sinhala Buddhist hegemony is the rationale for waging the war and this task cannot be compromised in the eyes of the Buddhist monks the guardians of Sinhala Buddhist identity.

So the forces that won the war also think that the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony must be restored completely and now. The Tamil opposition to such hegemony has been defeated and will not be allowed to rear its head again since the military occupation of the north will continue forever. Who else will oppose the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony apart from the Tamils? There are two other minorities who don’t seem to accept Sinhala Buddhist ideology of hegemony. These are the Muslims and the Christians. The Muslims have become radicalized in the rest of the world and have a belief that Islam will triumph throughout the world once again as in the past. I quote from Wikipedia “

In 1912 Dharmapala wrote:”The Muhammedans, an alien people, by shylockian methods become prosperous like Jews. The Sinhala sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free of alien invaders … are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds. The Alien South Indian Muhammedan come to Ceylon, sees the neglected villager, without any experience in trade … and the result is that the Muhammedan thrives and the sons of the soil go to the wall. (Wikipedia)

The Muslims and the Christians have strong religious convictions which they will not give up easily. They will oppose any restrictions on their religious practices and religious freedom. The Muslims have been radicalized in the Middle East and they believe that Islam will conquer the world as it once did. The end of the Cold War left a vacuum and it has led to a rejuvenation of Islam.  The Muslims have become radicalized in the rest of the world and have a belief that Islam will triumph once again as the past. The radicalization of Muslims elsewhere in the world has had its effects in Sri Lanka. A new form of Islam called “Wahabism” with its source of inspiration in Saudi Arabia seems to have entered the local scene as well.

New lifestyles have been adopted by many Muslims and they have spread to Sri Lanka as well. New mosques with new architecture derived from the Middle East have been constructed. It would appear that “Wahabism”, a form of extreme Islam which originated in Saudi Arabia is spreading in Sri Lanka. New banking systems have been introduced to cater to Muslims. There is of course nothing wrong as there is no resort to violence. There is no such violence in Sri Lanka. But the Muslims will have to accept the hegemony of the Sinhala Buddhists and live on sufferance, as was once expressed by General Fonseka when he was still part of the military. The military reflects the same view. They would not want their hard won victory to be lost in the peace. They want to wipe out the Tamil demand by colonizing the North with Sinhalese. This type of policy was practiced in several pluralistic societies including the former Turkish Empire. But such efforts have all failed.

The Christians will be forced to accept Buddhist hegemony. They will at most be allowed to practice the religion but not to indulge in missionary efforts to convert Buddhists. They also believe in a messianic future where Jesus Christ would retain to earth to establish the Kingdom of God on earth where the wicked and evil will have no part having already perished.

But both religions are missionary in outlook and will not compromise on religious beliefs and practices. Or in their missionary goals. But they are so small in numbers relatively that they would have to accept Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. So the present agitation against them by radical Buddhist monks will continue and the Sinhala Buddhist State and the Sinhala Buddhist military dare not oppose their attempt to establish Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. So internally the establishment of Sinhala   Buddhist hegemony may not be a problem as long as the military holds sway and the Rule of Law is dispensed with. The Police too have become the police of the ruling party and will do its bidding.

But the thorn in the flesh of the hegemonists is India. The traditional foreign policy of the Sinhalese kings was to ally with the ‘’enemies’ enemy. So when the Portuguese became a threat to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony the Sinhala kings sought the support of the Dutch who were competing for the trade from the East. Even prior to the Western colonials the Sinhalese kings went to South India to get military support even in their internal dynastic disputes. The type of diplomacy included deception and even deceit. After all there was nothing wrong in deceiving the enemy. The appropriate foreign policy today is naturally to woo the Chinese who are considered a threat both to India as well as the West. So the Government may well look towards some sort of military pact with the Chinese.

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