By Ranga Jayasuriya
Recently Buddhist High Priests have been showing a rather unholy penchant to torment the government, perhaps making use of the opportunity that no one is now calling from the President’s House to threaten with ‘Sanga Bedaya’ (division among Sanga) unless Maha Nayakas toe the line.
However, it is still a lopsided approach on the part of monks who have resolutely kept mum when they ought to have spoken up in the past. Any self-respecting religious leader should have condemned the attack on Rohingya refugees in Mount Lavinia by a mob led by monks. Most Buddhist leaders did not exhibit that minimum level of human compassion, nor did they care to speak out against a series of past attacks on Muslims.
Similarly, when ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa rolled back basic fundamental freedom of people, and introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, with no public consultation at all, only a few monks, with known credentials of social activism spoke out. Maha Nayakas did not.
In the not-so-distant past, white vans roamed freely and the inmates of the Welikada prison were summarily executed. Media institutions were attacked; journalists were killed in broad day light. Self-professed love of Maha Nayakas did not make a ripple of practical expression.
Therefore, this sudden upsurge of interest suggests something else: There seems to be a grand puppet show with maestro puppeteer Mahinda Rajapaksa pulling strings from behind. The recent uproar in high temples ought to be viewed and treated as such.
Last week, the Karaka Maha Sangha Sabha of the Malwatu & Asgiriya Chapters announced their opposition to the new Constitution or any amendments to the present Constitution and urged the government to stop the Constitution drafting process.
Then during the weekend, monks in Kalyani Karaka Sabha of the Kotte, Sri Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha Sabha demanded the ‘temporary’ withdrawal of the proposed new constitution.
Democracies are not run by clerics and we are not living in a theocracy. Where clerics rule the roost, they have effectively recreated a medieval hellhole in the 21st century. Look no further than Iran and Saudi Arabia. And modernizing clerics have grasped the vast changes in their modern societies and made amends with it. For instance, a couple of years ago, ex-Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said Britain is now a ‘post-Christian society’. Interestingly, he was rebuffing the then Prime Minister David Cameron who wanted Britain to be “more confident about our status as a Christian country” and “more evangelical” about faith.
The political strategy of using religion as a tool of regime legitimization is not new, and often it has led nations along a less democratic and religiously and ethnically exclusivist path. In a dispassionate note, for the most part of the independence in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist high priests have played an obstructionist role in the country’s nation building exercise. Their pernicious influence, made worse by spineless political leaders (S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was aptly called ‘Sevala Banda,’) led neither to peace nor prosperity.
From 1956 onwards, Buddhist Right had obstructed every conceivable effort to address minority interests, which partly due to repeated snubs by the Sinhala elites, later took a violent turn, culminating in a three decade long terrorist war. To believe that the continued indifference to the same grievances would not repeat the history, would be naïve. It would take time, but, when the Tamils forget the prohibitive cost they incurred thanks to Prabakaran’s misadventure, another megalomaniac would try that again.
Sri Lanka as a country, and all its communities, suffered as a result of history obstructionism by the monks. We paid both from lives and our unfulfilled dreams of prosperity.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka does not have a leader with a backbone to tell this self -evident truth, and also to define the role of monks in the affairs of the government.
All religions are invasive in their own right, and penetrate societies with a sizable portion of pre-modern populace. That is exactly why Communists shut the churches and temples; more discerning secularists like Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, strictly disassociated the State from the religion.
Neither President Maithripala Sirisena nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to have political courage to challenge the obstructionism of the Maha Nayakas. Instead, Mr. Wickremesinghe blames the media for ‘misreporting’: He alleged that the media had misled the public and Malwatta Mahanayaka was not even in the country. He was soon clarified by another head priest who claimed the announcement by the Maha Sangha has been issued with the endorsement by the Maha Nayakas.
Mr. Wickremesinghe has to speak on behalf of the government and not for the Malwatta Maha Nayaka. But that political courage is missing. What Sri Lanka needs is political unambiguity of the caliber of Sir John Kotalawala, who never hesitated to call a spade a spade, or Ranjan Wijeratne, who had to throw away all political niceties to save the country from tyranny, when security imperatives warranted to do so.
Why this government is vacillating in each of its policy decisions is mainly due to the absence of political will. A government’s primary task is to govern, and to that end use all available legal, administrative and coercive powers at its disposal. Sri Lanka cannot act like a fully- fledged democracy before it becomes one. Doing that would let determined peripheral forces to undermine the state. Even democracies have their limits of political nicety, as Spanish experience in Catalonia reveals.
Ignoring these interest groups or blaming media for reporting about them would be of little help. The government ought to say it loud and clear that the new Constitution is an affair of the state, and its people, and not something that is exclusive to Maha Sanga.
A few visits to high temples and gifts of few elephants could also buy temporary silence. However, if there is a calibrated attempt to undermine the government, some individuals may need to be interviewed by intelligence agencies. To that end, the government needs to bring all its agencies of coercive power under a personality with popular legitimacy and calculated ruthlessness.
All I can think about is Sarath Fonseka.