By Mohamed Harees –
It was dubbed as the ultimate, shameful insults to public conscience when two shady ‘leadership’ characters were unworthily and bestowed with the highest merit awards in their countries, as the New Year dawned. The Social media went berserk, when former British PM Tony Blair was made a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, and Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was bestowed with the ‘Sri Lankadheeshwara Padma Vibhushana’ Award by the Sri Kalyani Samagridharma Maha Sangha Sabha of the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Maha Viharaya, to the utter fury of the people. Both of them received these awards when they have done irreparable damage to their country’s constitutions and to the very fabric of their society.
It was indeed a knighthood for a war criminal. Tony Blair was the least deserving person of any public honour, particularly anything awarded by Her Majesty the Queen. The Royal decision to make Blair a knight, was met with furious backlash with social media users branding him a war criminal and military mothers threatening to return Elizabeth Crosses, given to bereaved families, in disgust. More than 350,000 have signed demanding Tony Blair’s knighthood be removed as campaigners say it’s a ‘kick in the teeth’ to victims of Iraq war. One tweet read ‘The contempt in which Britain’s elite holds the public has never been more eloquently expressed than in the decision to award Tony Blair the highest order of knighthood. One million Iraqis dead, three million dispossessed, a trail of blood to 7/7. Rise Sir Tony!’ Another read, ‘’The man should be in the dock of The Hague. What a shameful day.’ Yet another read, He was personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts. For this alone he should be held accountable for war crimes.’
The 2016 Chilcot Report found that Blair presented the case for war with “a certainty which was not justified” based on “flawed” intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair betrayed the public trust when he ordered British forces to help overthrow Saddam Hussein despite contradictory intelligence reports, hostile opinion polls, critical media commentary and both the largest parliamentary rebellion and the largest street protests against any UK government, ever. It was a totally illegitimate war which was not sanctioned by the UN; on the contrary both Blair and Bush haughtily went against international conscience. This (dis) honour was thus a kick in the teeth for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a kick in the teeth for all the people who protested against the war in Iraq and who have been proved right.’ “Tony Blair should thus be prosecuted not knighted. Someone like this being honoured shows how corrupt and vile the system is.’ The decision suggested it was ‘okay’ to kill people in their ‘hundreds of thousands.’
Peter Geoghegan, editor of Open Democracy, said the reaction to the announcement has been fairly predictable. He told a local radio station LBC: “It’s not surprising that it’s got people going if you think about the context in which this has happened. There’s something kind of oddly fitting about Desmund Tutu’s funeral, you know, Desmund Tutu was someone who said both Tony Blair and George Bush should be tried at the |Hague for war crimes in connection with Iraq. The whole New Year Honours system is “problematic” as it “operates as a self-serving patronage system”.
Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a former British colony, which has been facing a certain bankruptcy and a deepening financial and humanitarian crisis, an inept, inefficient President leading a highly corrupt regime, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been bestowed with the honorary title of “Sri Lankadheeshwara Padma Vibhushana” by the Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha Sabha invoking the blessings of the Maha Sangha. This Award supposedly symbolized the need of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership for the motherland as well as considering the unblemished (my foot!)past and present deeds of the President. Ven. Hemaratna Thera, delivering the sermon, said: “President, your journey is on the right path which is in line with ‘Saubhagyaye Dekma’ (Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour) policy statement. If it succeeds, the next generation will be able to experience the results’.
Gotabaya thanks to a set of cronies among the Maha Sangha who gave him a lifeline, expectedly in gratitude started stirring the Sinhala Supremacist pot in the process. He reminded about the condition of the Buddhist sites like Kuragala, Muhudu Maha Vihara and Deeghawap and pledged to guard and nurture the Buddhist philosophy on this nation. “We must always protect the Sinhala culture and heritage that has a history of thousands of years. Therefore, the government will continue to provide patronage to protect our values, traditions and customs.” Mahinda’s Tirupathi visits and Gota – Gnanakka links shows where their loyalties lie and their hypocritical Buddhist leadership roles! The 69m lakhs Sinhala Buddhist electorate which voted him will bear witness to his ‘services’ to their lot.
Social media was agog with many posts which questioned the wisdom behind this absurd Award to a ruler whose regime, the electorate almost unequivocally calls as the ‘most inept, inefficient and corrupt’ in Post-Independence history. This widely criticised award comes at a time when his government is in disarray and being blamed for putting Sri Lanka in a deepening financial and humanitarian crisis with fears it could go bankrupt in 2022 as inflation rises to record levels, food prices rocket and its coffers run dry. One of the most pressing problems for Sri Lanka is its huge foreign debt burden. In the next 12 months, in the government and private sector, Sri Lanka will be required to repay an estimated $7.3bn in domestic and foreign loans. Food and gas shortages have led to queues and public desperation have led to hooting protests, directed not just against the pro government politicians but at the President himself. Like tightening the loin cloth to stop diarrhoea, Police has warned the public that those who insults the President will be prosecuted.
This calls to mind an appeal made early last year by the well-known Indian writer Arundhati Roy to the Indian PM Modi to step aside. She beseeches thus: ‘We need a government. Desperately. And we don’t have one. We are running out of air. We are dying. We don’t have systems in place to know what to do with help even when it’s on hand. ..We cannot wait till 2024. Never would people like myself have imagined the day would come when we would find ourselves appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for anything. Personally, I would rather have gone to prison than do that. But today, as we die in our homes, on the streets, in hospital car parks, in big cities, in small towns, in villages and forests and fields – I, an ordinary private citizen, am swallowing my pride to join millions of my fellow citizens in saying please sir, please, step aside. At least for now. I beseech you, step down’. This is the time when Sri Lankans have started protesting about the corrupt inefficient regime of Gotabaya too, for his disjointed sense of direction and lack of strong leadership, abdicating his responsibility to the military personnel and corrupt set of civil servants , which bears all tell-tale signs of Sri Lanka becoming a failed nation.
Covid crisis apart, the nation is facing a multitude of crises – public debt, rule of law/impunity, with Gota and his unprofessional team of ministers losing their credibility image both locally and internationally. If Gotabaya believes his own words he should resign forthwith. Gotabaya in a message on the completion of on one year in office in November 2020 said, that the ‘Public opinion will measure my success or failure’. The much hyped up memes ‘ Sir Fail’, but hilarious ‘I only did it well’ which are agog in the social media, are giving an inkling of the general views of the electorate. One post read that ‘you cannot expect a king by just putting a crown on a clown’s head’. As Arundathi said, it should be said in a Sri Lankan connotation, Gotabaya! ‘This is a crisis of your making. You cannot solve it. You can only make it worse. This virus prospers in an atmosphere of fear and hatred and ignorance. It prospers when you clamp down on those who speak out’. In his election manifesto, Gotabaya promised to make Sri Lanka a “prosperous” country. But it is only the Rajapaksa family and some of its cronies who have prospered during the two years of Gotabaya’s presidency. The clan has always prospered with a Rajapaksa at the helm. During Mahinda’s presidency too, the family was well placed in top positions and posts.
Even his support among his core 69 lakh constituency, the Sinhalese-Buddhists, is taking a huge dip, and he appears to be rebuilding that support through his set of Sangha cronies. He is already stepping up communal polarization in Sri Lanka; so deep is Islamophobia in the country that any step to weaken Muslims and their identity usually sets off a wave of Buddhist triumphalism, designed to bring him the votes. Gotabaya is already taking steps in this direction. In October, the government set up a “Presidential Task Force for One Country, One Law.(OCOL)” headed by Gnanasara Thero, a virulently anti-Muslim and hate monk, who spearheaded anti-Muslim violence in Post war history. The Gotabaya government is also set to implement amendments to Muslim personal laws using his Muslim Justice Minister as well as the cow slaughter ban. Such steps can be expected to reassure Buddhist hardliners that their interests are safe in Gotabaya’s hands.
In the context of this Award, the controversial role of the Maha Sangha and some Chapters have bene called into question, with public openly criticizing the pro government crony monks getting top appointments and perks. These pro government cronies in Saffron clothing have brought down the Sangha reputation in the minds of the people. How, the graduates refused to receive their degree certificates from Muruthtuwe Thero who was appointed as the Chancellor of Colombo University by Gotabaya for supporting him was in recent memory. Then the Kelani Maha Viharaya chief monk who heard the Naga-Raajaya emerging from the Kelani river waters and predicted good times for the country after Gotabaya’s election, also got his reward too – being appointed as the Chancellor of the Kelani University. Then again Gnanasara Thero who openly supported his racist campaign to get elected as appointed as the Chair of a high profile OCOL Commission, making a mockery of the process of appointments to high posts.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist monks have a long and powerful history of influence over the state. For decades, unfortunately some rogue sections of the Maha Sangha led the most radical Sinhala nationalists in influencing successive governments to embrace religious nationalism. But, why are the greater sections of the Maha Sangha and the Buddhist practitioners who hold much influence over the Buddhist populace by implementing the Buddhism they avowed, silent? Why are they allowing the pro government cronies who are boot licking the rulers for petty personal favours to go scot-free without being dealt with for violating the Vinaya Code? Why are the people not voicing enough against these crony monks or Chapters who are bestowing awards to corrupt, inefficient rulers instead of warning, advising and guiding them? Aren’t these Buddhist monks who seek office in corrupt ways, bringing their religion into disrepute? Like Blair’s knighthood, this whole process of boot licking by way of bestowing Awards to unworthy rulers by some Buddhist chapters will reflect adversely on the whole edifice of Buddhist religious leadership as it “operates as a self-serving patronage system”.
Buddhist monks, like the clergy of other religions, have a responsibility to speak for a spiritually sound approach to both private and public morality. They should speak for the oppressed and suffering masses who contribute to their upkeep. Thus, it seems dangerous allowing these Awards and the pro government Sangha cronies apple polishing the corrupt rulers insensitive to public suffering to go unchallenged. There is a real danger that this practise could corrupt the Sangha Order. When corrupt and unpopular rulers find support from Buddhist Monks to politically survive , it will be the people who rely on their intervention , who will lose. Padma Vibhushana Award is a shame and should be aptly called Pampoori Vibhushana!