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Monday, April 15, 2024

Monk-military nexus in Sri Lanka – a growing problem

Tisaranee Gunasekara.

The military and the sangha: two Sri Lankan institutions which are Sri Lankan in name only. Sri Lankan military is predominantly Sinhalese and mostly Buddhist in composition. Sri Lankan Sangha is almost exclusively Sinhalese. Both are Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist in worldview and ethos.

The two institutions are symbiotic twins in terms of socio-economic origin. Most military recruits, like most novice monks, come from economically marginalised families. Children are ordained mostly due to poverty; young men join military mostly because they lack better employment opportunities. These are not choices, let alone vocations, but life necessities.

The sangha and the military are regarded – and often regard themselves – as the ultimate protectors of Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. The sangha was uncritically supportive of the military during the war years, rejecting out of hand any and all accusations of crimes and excesses. Most members of the sangha were also opposed to a political solution to the ethnic problem in general and the 13th Amendment in particular. They remain so to this day.

Post-war Rajapaksa effort to change the ethno-religious composition of the North and the East was spearheaded by the monks and the military. Temples sprouted next to military camps, in places with no civilian Buddhists. The temples were constructed, protected and helped by men in uniforms. The camp-temple nexus became the new face of state aided colonisation of the North and the East. The Sangha is opposed to the geographic de-militarisation of the North and the East, precisely because they want to propagate Buddhism there with the power of the gun rather than with Buddha’s word.

During the Rajapaksa years, Rana Wiruwa (war-hero) became established as a wholly virtuous entity that is uniformly good, efficient and law abiding. This fantasy was used to sustain the myth of a “Humanitarian Operation with zero civilian casualties” and to justify post-war militarisation of civilian spaces. This veneration of the military uniform is similar to the veneration of the yellow robe (kaha sivura/cheevarya), the un-Buddhistic myth that the robe must be worshipped irrespective of the character and actions of the wearer. The uniform too has assumed quasi-religious status, conferring on its wearer a sense of not being subject to ordinary laws and norms. It is this patina of impunity which made two generals think that they have the right to threaten a parliamentarian within the parliament.

Once the Rajapaksas fell from the pinnacles of power and popularity, political ownership of the Sangha and the military fell vacant. Today both the JVP and the SJB are competing for the allegiance of these key institutions.

The JVP has taken the Rajapaksa project of bringing military into politics to the next level by organising retired military personnel countrywide. Aditana (determination), a collective of retired military personnel, is a first in Sri Lankan politics and a worrying one. Sri Lankan political parties have many ancillary organisations from women and youth to farmers, workers, and even lawyers and monks. But this is the first time retired military personnel are being formally organised not as individuals but as a separate entity with a distinct identity. (The SJB is trying to play catch, not very successfully.)

The SJB has appointed a Sangha Advisory Council. The JVP is giving greater prominence to its monk affiliate, Jathika Bhikshu Peramuna. In a development unprecedented in Sri Lankan politics, both electoral front runners are going out of their way to woo the most Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist institutions in the country. Whoever the winner is, that party will be saddled with a sense of obligation to the military and the sangha and to be mindful of their demands, concerns and interests.

The future payback is likely to be both politico-ideological and economic. The JVP and the SJB are unlikely to descend into naked racism. Still neither party would be willing to break decisively break with blood and faith politics for fear of antagonising the key support bases of military and the sangha. The economic paybacks would include not downsizing the military, not reducing defence costs and restoring to the Sangha such freebies as electricity and water. A recent speech by the head of the JVP affiliated monks’ organisation was one long litany of economic grievances from having to pay utility bills to devotees not being well off enough to organise massive and elaborate religious ceremonies. “Instead of putting up huts, bringing the relics, and inviting the whole village for a dane as before, now our people are so poor they can only bring the dane to the temple…” the monk lamented.

Change is the current mantra. Perhaps, the next government will usher in meaningful and rational socio-economic and political changes. Hopefully, there will be less corruption, waste and nepotism. But there will be no change where change is needed most. Trying to impose a mono-racial/religious identity on a pluralist land was how our path to perdition began and continued. Whatever change 2024 may bring, a real departure from that path seems unlikely, given the assiduity with which the JVP and the SJB are wooing the main standard bearers of Sinhala-Buddhist maximalism. Irrespective of who comes on top electorally, the “harmonisation of racialism and nationalism” will continue to darken our future as it bloodied our past.

Excerpts from a longer article appeared Groundviews 

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