By Ameer Ali –
The rapid erosion of that historic image of Sri Lanka, as peaceful, beautiful, resourceful and tolerant multiethnic and multicultural island may said to have reached its nadir when thugs in saffron robes are allowed to roam around the country as Buddhist priests slapping priests from other faiths and beating and locking up government officers, while law enforcers, perhaps afraid of reprimand from the Sangha and or the President, were they to arrest such thugs, remain just onlookers. The most shocking incident of this lawlessness and thuggery by a thuggish priest comes from Batticaloa, where the foul mouthed Ampitiye Sumanarathana Thera of the town’s Mangalarama Vihara was caught in camera this year in January slapping a Christian priest in public. The same thuggish priest, a few days ago, was reported to have beaten and locked up in a shed three officers, two Tamils and a Sinhalese, from the Government Archaeological Department for allegedly bulldozing and levelling a ground earmarked for archaeological excavation. Even before him there was that notorious Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara who, during the Yahapalana government, ignored a court order and went on to desecrate a Hindu temple in Mullaitivu by cremating in its precinct the body of a dead monk. Are these monks tolerated by Sangha hierocracy?
The first incident involving Sumanarathana took place just over a month after Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) became President. GR’s victory was indeed the product of a vitriolic political campaign filled with ethno-religious emotions led by an army of Buddhist hardliners among whom were demagogues like Sumanarathana and his ilk. They saw in GR the reincarnation of Mahavamsa-famed young King Dutugemunu, who defeated the elderly Tamil King Elara, in a one-to-one combat. They also saw in GR an emerging architect of a future Theravada Buddhist state in Sri Lanka. The slapping incident was, in a sense, an expression of confidence after GR’s victory that under his rule those in saffron robes would be above law. The second incident comes in the wake of GR’s appointment of a fifteen-member (all Buddhists including five monks) Archaeological Task Force (ATF) to excavate, manage and protect ancient Buddhist ruins (not all ruins) particularly in the Eastern Province. Coincidently, this incident also took place on the eve of GR becoming a supreme leader with unrestricted powers bestowed upon him by an amended constitution. With the support of some opportunistic Tamil and Muslim MPs GR’s elevation to omnipotence is fait accompli.
If one looks closely at (a) the political manoeuvres in the parliament to get the proposed amendments passed, (b) the ethnic simmering in the East rekindled by provocative actions by the ATF, (c) thuggish behaviour of backyard monks, and (d) President’s appeal to UN to “place due emphasis on non-interference in domestic affairs of other states”, one could see the overall picture of how GR and his dynasty are consolidating their power and the direction in which the country is moving. An authoritarian presidential rule without legislative and judicial checks and balances, which will eventually remove in substance though not in words the country’s liberal democratic heritage, norms and values, and the deterioration of the respectful image of a historic Buddhist institution, the Sangha, because of the unruly behaviour of some men clad in saffron robes, and GR’s audacity to ask UN to leave him alone to act as he likes fit, is a recipe for national disaster.
From another angle, it appears that GR desires the assistance of hardline monks to keep communal tensions alive so that he could continue enjoying the support of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. This explains why when one clergy member of the ATF decided to take law into his own hands and threatened to arrest Tamil farmers of Thiriyai in Trincomelee District, who wanted to enter their land to start cultivation, but which the monk had earmarked for excavation, GR and his government took no action at all, as they did in a number of previous cases affecting Muslims. Similarly, one can expect that no action would be taken against the monk in Batticaloa, even though the court has issued an arrest warrant against him, because in GR’s calculation, harder the Tamils are hit greater would be the support from majority Sinhalese. Of course, any open rebellion or violent protest by Tamils and Muslims would be put down by the tri-forces mercilessly and with no accountability.
Given the current disarray within the main opposition parties, UNP, SLFP, SJB and JVP, GR and his Rajapaksa dynasty hope to sail smoothly with the President’s promise to deliver “prosperity and splendour” in a “secure, disciplined, virtuous and lawful” society. However, there is one enemy, the economy, that could prove menacingly sticky, refusing to move forward and sabotaging the president’s dream.
No country in the world and no economist of some international repute would dare to predict that the pandemic generated recession would disappear and growth would resume at least to reach its pre-Covid-19 level before the next two to three years, barring a third wave of Covid-19. There is no way that Sri Lanka could prove an exception to this global pessimism. The budget to be presented next month to a post office parliament could be the harbinger of economic difficulties to come.
No doubt, the budget will have all sorts of promises wrapped in great optimism and they would be structured on methodically calculated estimations based on purposely selected statistical data. The greatest challenge facing the treasurer is to raise government revenue through taxes. A greater share of that revenue has to come from direct and not indirect taxes. Will the government dare raise personal and company tax rates without affecting local investors and sending wrong signal to foreign investors?
There is no doubt, that with the overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives, that budget will be passed, and one wonders whether any member from the opposition would have the calibre of legendary N. M. Perera to present a critical evaluation of that important document. However, the reality of the budget will be reflected not in the parliament but in the market and households where consumers would be forced to tighten their belt in order to survive. With worsening levels of poverty caused by chronic unemployment, falling personal income and steep rise in cost of living, economic disparity will widen further. In short, the economy will be the catalyst to convince the majority that Buddhism, and for that matter religion and religious demagoguery is no solution to the nation’s malaise. Will the opposition unite and get ready to rally the masses behind them and fight the regime on economic front? Does it have an alternative path for redemption?
It is to confront such nasty turn of events that GR and his dynasty need the services of roguish monks to keep the communal candle burning. The ethnic issue will not be resolved, and the ATF is therefore an intentionally designed instrument planted in the East to save the regime in times of desperation.