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Sri Lanka: Is there a ‘Sangha State’ behind the state?

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Image: Sri Lankan young monks fighting the police (Tamilweek)

By Laksiri Fernando.

When taken all three positions together, it is very clear that the Mahanayake Theras are entering the political sphere, undermining the democratically elected Parliament and the government with the intention of acting as a ‘shadow state’ behind the existing one.

There is no need to exaggerate or be too alarmed, but there appears to be a state behind the State. Whether it is a shadow state or a parallel one is subject to argument. It has reappeared after a long slumber, and given ‘Notice’ to the government not to inaugurate a New Constitution. I am referring to the new statement by the Thri Nikaya Mahanayake Theras (chief monks of the three Buddhist sects) issued on the 5th July. The leading section of this shadow state, the Asgiriya Nikaya, previously issued another statement more controversial than the present.

The President appears to have tried to mollify the concerns/pressures, when he met with the Mahanayake Theras on the 6th July, but it is yet to be seen whether the government would succumb to this shadow state, when it comes to inaugurating a New Constitution.

This was not an anticipated hurdle for the new constitution making process earlier. Obstructions were expected from the Joint Opposition (JO) or even foot-dragging from some dubious sections of the governing coalition itself. But now the Nikayas appear to be an unexpected obstacle perhaps aggrieved by not consulting them on the constitutional matter earlier.

Importance of Sangha

There is no question of accepting Maha Sangha as an important segment of public life or public opinion. This is apart from their religious role. Even during the Buddha’s time, he was involved in social matters, but not politics, except offering occasional saner advice to the rulers. He in fact left power politics in search of a spiritual life. In today’s Sri Lanka, given that the Constitution accords the “foremost place for Buddhism” and announces that it is the “duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana” there is an implicit role for the three Nikayas and their prelates, if not explicit. But this is in relation to Sasana but not in respect of politics. Although there cannot be Sasana without Sangha, the two are also not the same.

There are over 30,000 Buddhist monks in the country. They are ordained into various levels by these three Nikayas. However, it is not clear how far the Mahanayake Theras represent the opinions and wishes of the general Sangha. On many occasions, divergent views are expressed and that is healthy for democracy and it is also in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings (Kalama Sutta). There are also visible class differences among the Sangha, apart from caste. There are ‘rich sangha’ and ‘poor sangha.’ There are apprehensions expressed by poor sangha particularly in remote temples who have to struggle for their day to day survival, while rich temples are patronized by the State, politicians and the elite.

Then there are over 14 million Buddhists in the country, young and old, and it is not clear how far they would adhere to the advice of the Mahayake Theras in respect of politics and constitutional matters. From a historical point of view, it is understandable that the Sasana and Sagha had to depend on the State or Kings for their survival and propagation. This patronage was important particularly when there were threats from other religions and other rulers. This is almost common to all other religions. However, there were times that this patronage turned into almost its opposite, in influencing and controlling the state. This may be acceptable as a historical fact, but would create enormous problems under modern democratic principles and circumstances of people’s sovereignty.

Mahanayake Theras’ Intervention

Sri Lanka at present is facing multiple crises, economic, social, political and cultural, and one cannot say they are unique to our country. From a religious or a moral point of view most alarming are the increasing crime, social violence, drug/alcohol addiction, and corruption, not only of material wealth, but also of values and behaviour. Many politicians are at the centre of these degenerations. At least they are responsible. If the Mahanayake Theras had intervened to reprimand the politicians on those lines, both in the government and in the opposition, and advice the public to refrain from those ‘evils,’ then it would have made much sense.

There is much hyped talk about adverse international influence or pressure in the country to its sovereignty and politics. Mostly criticised however are the human rights and democratic influences. If specific influences or pressures are unacceptable to the country, of course they could be rejected or negotiated. These possibilities are part of the international rules and norms. Our statesmen and diplomats should have the backbone to do so.

There are so much of other influences coming into the country in corrupting the young generations through websites, literature, movies and the media (particularly social), that our ‘patriots’ (smart or otherwise) are mum about. I have seen more adult content freely broadcasted in Sri Lanka than in Australia. There are many TV programs not classified as adult and possibly both parents and children must be watching them, perhaps uneasily. Sex and entertainment are primary needs of humans, but distorted forms can lead to social dislocation and serious sex crimes. Those crimes are already visible. It is possible that MahanayakeTheras are not aware of them, but those who are behind or advise them, could have brought these matters to their notice without dragging them into politics, unnecessarily.

The Mahanayake Theras have expressed opposition to a New Constitution or any fundamental amendments to the existing constitution except bringing changes to the electoral system without giving any reasons for their positions. Are they experts on constitutions? One would wonder. Anunayake of the Malwathu Chapter, Ven. Dimbulkumbure Wimaladhamma Thera, has already admitted that this opposition is like ‘making a horoscope to an unborn baby.’

They can have a valid concern, if the position of Buddhism is changed. If they have had any bright ideas about other matters like independence of the judiciary or the system of devolution they could have expressed them before. The public consultation process on the constitution has been going on since January 2016. The opposition to a New Constitution at this moment even without waiting for a draft, does appear as extremely a political act and not a religious mission. Therefore, all citizens have every right to criticise them on this matter.

The Mahanayake Theras have aired their positions on two other matters: on the SAITM crisis and the Bill to implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPAPED). The first one is a valid engagement if the intention is to mediate a solution to the SAITM crisis or to request the government to resolve it as soon as possible. However, it is not clear what the objections are on the ICPAPED as the government has already a signatory to it since December 2015. It appears that the last one is perhaps mooted on behalf of another party to the controversy, or just because the Convention is an international one.

When taken all three positions together, it is very clear that the Mahanayake Theras are entering the political sphere, undermining the democratically elected Parliament and the government with the intention of acting as a ‘shadow state’ behind the existing one. The influence or the perceived influence of the Mahanayake Theras are so powerful, the elected government has already withdrawn or postponed the second reading of the ICPAPED Bill,earlier scheduled for the 5th July.

Previous Asgiriya Statement

The emergence of Mahanayake Theras in politics on the wrong side of the fence was first marked in recent time by the so-called Asgiriya statement issued on the 20th of June. It was more ‘reactionary’ and more political. It was titled as ‘A Kind Notice to the Government.’ It contained two preambular paragraphs and eight hard-hitting operational paragraphs. It was like a political party manifesto.

It started declaring, “We all know that the Buddhist monks acted devoting life when there was any threat to the security of our motherland, Sinhala nation and Buddhist Sasana.” The threat to the ‘security of our motherland’ that it talked about was largely imaginary prompted by political ends. It mentioned ‘our motherland,’ ‘Sinhala nation’ and ‘Buddhist Sasana,’ but nothing about Buddha Dhamma.

Most controversial was its endorsement of Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thero’s ideology, while disapproving his emotional behaviour. What it said exactly on the matter was: “Although we don’t approve the emotional behaviour or the style of expressing views by Galaboda Aththe Gnasara Thero, we don’t dispel his ideology (mathavadaya bahara nokarannemu).” There are those who have translated the term ‘mathavadaya’ as viewpoint. That is, in my opinion, to paint a more moderate picture to the statement. However, as far as I have used in teaching political science and still understand, ‘mathvadaya’ means nothing but ideology.

Whichever way you argue about it, the Asgiriya statement has declared some affinity with the ideas of Gnanasara Thero and I would at least say the ‘system of ideas.’ They are not only of his own, but the ideas of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force Army – BBS) and other similar organizations. This is what some have even identified as ‘ethno-religious fascism’ (Dayan Jayetilleka), right or wrong.

The statement has also attacked the Leftists, the liberal politicians, social activists and civil society organizations. It is extremely political. A big issue has been raised against the criticism of (political) Buddhist monks, as it says,‘without respect and addressing them by name.’ I of course would not approve anyone doing so, ‘however emotional or even filthy’ the expression of views by those monks. But what the Asgiriya Mahanayake Theras also should kindly realise is that, if the monks get involved in controversial and rather muddy politics, then they also should be able to face counter criticisms.

What Might be Necessary?

What might be necessary, in my opinion, is the Buddhist monks and other Priests, Bishops and Imams keeping away from controversial politics. They can express social, religious and moral concerns. Of course, there are some valid concerns expressed in the Asgiriya statement in respect of historical Buddhist sacred sites, even identified by the Buddhist Commission Report of 2002 which are in peril and danger. This is the responsibility of the Minister for Buddha Sasana and the government, as I have highlighted in my last article. At the same time, if there are unethical conversions by the Evangelical groups that should be stopped. However, physical attacks on them should be condoned but punished. It is best if some of these matters are resolved through ‘Interreligious Dialogue’ as I have been advocating for some time.

My main concern about the Asgiriya statement has been its endorsement of the BBS ideology, or let me say, ‘Gnanasara ideology.’ When I raised this issue previously, a critic publicly asked me whether I want the Asgiriya Mahanayake Theras to be arrested! Arresting anyone is not my main concern. My concern has been about the evolving reactionary ethno-religious ideology that they support. It is perhaps along this ideology, that the Asgiriya Mahanayake Theras are dragging the other prelates into politics. More worrying is the emergence of Mahanayake Theras as a state behind the state, dictating terms undemocratically.

I have been appreciating and writing about Buddhism for a long time. I am almost a Buddhist in my thinking, but not a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ for cheap political gains, political projects or popularity. I am open to both Theravada and Mahayana and also to other Buddhist traditions. In other religions, I don’t see much of a philosophy (or agreeable philosophy), except good ethics which I equally appreciate. Buddhism as a philosophy has a lot to offer to this complicated world, not only in Sri Lanka, but in the world at large.

A major damage to this cause would be inflicted, if the Mahanayake Theras get involved in politics or try to act as a ‘state behind the state,’ in partiality to other communities and religions.

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