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Sri Lanka’s new right wing politics – Jayadewa Uyangoda

(8 July, 2018/SO)

There are two new developments in Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics which is getting crystalized and clearer these days. They are: (a) the consolidation of a hard right-wing alternative to a weak and shaky democratic regime option, and (b) the projection of an ex-military officer as the embodiment of the new right-wing agenda. At the core of the first are groups of Buddhist monks, and retired military and navy officers who took part in the final phase of the war against the LTTE.

This essay comments on the first of the two right-wing political formations, the new movement of Buddhist monks, that has openly expressed its desire to see a ‘Hitler’ type military ruler winning Sri Lanka’s next presidential election due in late 2019.

The new right-wing Buddhist clerical movement has so far revealed the following key characteristics:

* It is a post-democratic political formation.

* It does not follow political parties. Rather, it wants political parties to follow its agenda

* It has selected its own lay political leader, who is an ex-military person, as an ideal dharmika or ‘righteous ruler (dehemipalakaya)

* It has conceptualized the concept of ‘dharmika ruler’ within a post-democratic paradigm of political thought

In the rest of this essay, I will discuss the following two features of this neo-right wing movement of the Buddhist Sangha: (a) the emerging paradigm of the ideal of dharmika ruler, and (b) its post-democratic character. I will also reflect, though briefly, on the political consequences of (a) and (b).

That discussion will also offer a brief account of the conceptual evolution of the notion of dharmika ruler.

Dharmika Ruler as ‘Strong’ Ruler

The idea of dharmika ruler has an extremely interesting conceptual history in South Asia’s religious, social and philosophical thought. It is rendered into Sinhalese as dehemipalakaya and the word dehemi has a complex set of meanings. Ven. Wendaruwe Upali, who wants Gotabaya Rajapaksa to emerge as a Hitler-type dharmika ruler, is conveying only one version of it. It suggests ‘a strong ruler who can rebuild the country in alliance with the military.’

It needs to be acknowledged that the present Sinhalese-Buddhist notion of ‘strong ruler’ derives its meaning in opposition to the yahapalanaya regime of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe which is a weak, vacillating, and disunited government with no political will even to pursue its own reform agenda. Sinhalese nationalist groups are also thoroughly displeased with the regime which they see as one which has been giving into the pressures of ethnic minorities as well as internationals – all ‘anti-national’ forces.

The emergence of the clamour for a strong ruler also indicates that there is now an emerging shift in public opinion in favour of regime change. It would be an uphill task for the incumbent Government to reverse this shift in the political consciousness of the voters.

Against this backdrop, the notion of a new regime under a dehemipalakaya embodies to some degree concretization of a slogan that can appeal to Sinhalese-Buddhist voters, but threaten even the fragile sense of security among the ethnic and religious minorities. MP Vijayakala’s nostalgia for the days of LTTE administration in the North in a way indicates how both, Sinhalese and Tamil parties can even compete with each other in proposing post-democratic alternatives to post-yahapalanaya Sri Lanka.

The idea of a dharmika ruler, which can be loosely translated into English as ‘duty-conscious,’ or ‘righteous’ ruler, has a long history in South Asia’s political and social thought. To understand its evolution as an idea and a concept in its changing historical contexts, let us see at least briefly its different versions as a conceptual category in Indian Hindu, Indian Buddhist and Sri Lankan Buddhist thoughts.

In the classical Hindu, social and political thought evolved in pre-Buddhist India. The concept of dharma did not have an overtly religious meaning. Rather, it had a secular-ethical meaning. It simply meant the ruler’s adherence to the raja dharma, or the duties and responsibilities of the King to his society as acknowledged in the Brahmin-dominated socio-cultural order. According to Manusmruthi that codified the dharma principle evolved during the Vedic period, the foremost duty of the Buddhist dharmika ruler was a secular one, that is, a ruler who ensures social unity and integration of the polity.

It is extremely noteworthy that the Buddha reinterpreted the Hindu concept of dharmika ruler, but still within the secular paradigm. The Buddha’s notion of dharma was social equality. His strong advocacy of social egalitarianism through the reinterpretation of the pre-existing concept of dharma was a total rejection of social inequality sanctioned by the Hindu social ideology. Contrary to contemporary Sri Lankan understandings of the idea of dharmika ruler, the Buddha never expected the kings or the ruling class to protect his teachings (dharma), or the movement (sasana) he launched. Although the Buddha was a keen observer of politics of North India at the time, he never condoned the mixing of his ethical-spiritual movement with politics.

Meanwhile, Emperor Asoka, who ruled north and central India three hundred years after the Buddha’s death, gave another interpretation to the idea of dharmika King that was indeed built on the Buddha’s ethical teachings.

What he did was the re-elaboration of the notion of dharma (duty) outside the Vedic framework of caste rules and rituals and placing of it within the frame of the Buddha’s ethical teachings of tolerance, forbearance, truthfulness, equanimity, compassion, non-violence, and welfare of all living beings.

Asoka’s example gave rise to the subsequent South Asian and Southeast Asian Buddhist concept of dharmaraja (‘King guided by Dharma’) as a paradigm of ethical kingship. As John Holt remarks in his study of Sri Lanka’s Kandyan King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha, dhammaraja meant a ruler who fostered order in the world by appealing to the norms of ethical righteousness embodied in panchasila (five-fold morality), rather than by means of expedient military power (danda).

King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha during the 18th century, also gave rise to a second meaning of the paradigm of dhammaraja. This second meaning was, as John Holt suggests, constructed around the specific account of Asoka’s dhammaraja rule given in the Mahawansa, the foremost chronicle in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist tradition.

Dehemi Palakaya: Contemporary Meanings

In this new account, dharmika king was the ruler whose actions were to be guided by the ethical principles of Buddha dhamma, dedicated himself to the protection of Theravada Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism alone, and subjected himself to the authority of the Sangha elite. It is these second and third components that constituted the core of the Sri Lankan appropriation and re-conceptualization of the dhammaraja or dehemiraju, in Sinhala.

Thus, the Sri Lankan post-colonial concept of dharmikapalakaya, as developed by the intellectual Buddhist monks, has its roots in the second meaning of dhammaraja developed by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha.

In the modern Sinhalese Buddhist political thought, the concept of dehemiraju, or dharmikapalakaya, has acquired a host of nuances in Sri Lanka’s specific post-colonial contexts. Foremost among them is the notion that the elected Prime Minister or the President should be a protector of the interests of the majority Sinhalese community.

This also meant that a non-Sinhalese, or a non-Buddhist, would lack legitimacy to be the country’s democratically elected PM or President. The ruler’s commitment to the constitutional guarantee for Buddhism’s foremost place in relation to minority religions has to be unwavering. In the style of the old ‘tradition’, the rulers should obtain ‘advise and counsel’ of the Sangha leadership on matters of governance, public policy, and statecraft (rajyapalanaya).

This notion of dehemi/dharmikapalakaya in turn offers a reciprocal set of political functions to Buddhist monks. This is a point which has not received much attention of the scholars of contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Not only the leaders of the priestly hierarchy and the elite, but also ordinary demagogic monks who are active in various populist political projects think that listening to them and following their agendas is the unconditional duty of political leaders if they were to abide by the dehemi/dharmikapalakaya ideal. They also consider it their constitutional duty to protect the unitary character of the state which politicians of all hues have thought warranted some change.

This has created a situation, as we have noticed since 1987, where politically mobilized Buddhist monks emerged as the most ardent opponents of devolution.

They genuinely believe that the protection of the unitary state that the British colonial rulers introduced to Sri Lanka, is their sacred religio-moral duty amidst threats to it emanating from some Sinhalese rulers themselves. J.R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe are prominent in the list of these ‘untrustworthy’ Sinhalese leaders.

Meanwhile, the relationship that the Sangha hierarchy maintains with Sinhalese political leaders is mixed with ritualistic and political significations.Frequent visits to the temples belonging to the top order of Sangha hierarchy by political leaders and high state officials, including the heads of the armed forces and the police, with offerings (atapirikara) on important occasions are a ritual with rich and fascinating symbolic meanings. It suggests, among other things, the acceptance of the supremacy of the religious order over the secular political order.

The white clothes these politicians wear, their deceptive and often amusing body language, and their false mannerisms in these ritual moments show how a tradition that King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe inaugurated in order to secure legitimacy in a feudal society that was culturally alien to him, survives even in a post-colonial democratic setting in a manner that is totally at odds with modern, democratic, and egalitarian ethos.

This ritualistic submission of the lay political and bureaucratic elites to the religious authority is now showing signs of moving out of its world of symbolism and entering the actual world of politics and state power.

A shift in the political order?

One way of interpreting the confluence of post-democratic political forces around a neo-right-wing agenda and a personality constructed in the mould of adharmika ruler is that Sri Lanka’s contemporary political order is set to experience a major qualitative shift. In that emerging political order, there might develop two parallel authority structures, one secular, and the other, religious.

As mentioned above, the new Sangha mobilization in Sri Lanka, with its right-wing political agenda, is a post-democratic phenomenon. The elaboration of this point warrants a separate essay.

For the moment, we may note two of its defining characteristics. The first is the inability of the Sangha political movement to positively engage with modern democracy and pluralism and adopt its political and social visions to the post-feudal world. The second is its absolute disregard for a modern doctrine of social equality and therefore its lack of an egalitarian social ideology.

What one can see now is the assertion of the religious authority structure over the secular authority structure in order to secure its place in the political order. The enormous setbacks that Sri Lanka’s resurgent democracy has suffered as a result of the failings of the weak democratic regime of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are setting the context for this shift.

The politics after 2020 will tell us how this emerging equilibrium will impact on the nature of Sri Lanka’s state, governance, political institutions and ethnic relations. Thus, the presidential election of 2019 has the potential to mark a crucial turning point in Sri Lanka’s future political history.

Courtesy of Sunday Observer.


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