“When archaeology is weaponised by monks, politicians and those professionals subservient to vested interests, it can become a seeding ground for brutal conflicts and long wars.”


Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Already the snow falls…” Karl Kraus words in verses III

In his fifth labour, Heracles cleans the Augean Stables by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the filthy abode of King Augeas’ divine cattle. Many believed that the aragalaya would have a similarly cleansing effect on Sri Lankan society, washing away the filth of primordial extremisms with the waters of its idealism.

As the Kurundi storm demonstrates, ethno-religious racism didn’t die. The extremity of the crisis and the resultant antipathy towards the Rajapaksas drove it underground. To paraphrase Albert Camus, the plague bacillus lay dormant in the dark corners of religious places and political organisations, of imagined histories and collective memories until the time was right to rouse up its rats again.

That time might be now.

Less than one year after the aragalaya sent Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing, his saffron cohorts are back, ready to set the country on fire again for a slice of power and a chunk of land. They are all there, from Medagoda Abayatiss Thero (laughingly equating Tamils and Muslims of today with the Nigantayas of the Buddha’s lifetime who bribed a king and tried to take over a temple) to Akmeemana Dayarathana Thero of Sinhala Ravaya (hinting at separation and bloodshed).

The political monk began his comeback bid with the successful persecution of Nathasha Edirisooriya and Bruno Divakara. Had the Wickremesinghe government upheld the rule of law instead of succumbing to political expediency, the political monk might have retreated to await a more propitious time. But the administration played dead, allowing not only the distortion of the ICCPR into an anti-blasphemy law but also its selective – thereby discriminatory – application. So Nathasha Edirisooriya and Bruno Divakara are still in custody for defaming Buddhism while Dilith Jayaweera (who wondered whether “Siddhartha was a loser”), Balangoda Kassapa Thero (who tried to incite Sinhala-Buddhist anger towards Christians), and Akmeemana Dayarathana Thero (who threatened a religious conflict that would make it impossible for non-Buddhists to leave their houses) are free to ply their divisive politics.

The cowardice and the opportunism of the political class empowered the political monk. So began the march to Kurundi. If they win in Kurundi, they’ll become unstoppable, again. And this will be their country.

That is precisely the claim of Walawahangunawawe Dhammarathana Thero of Mihintale. This country is the property of the Sangha (sanghika) he says, since it was donated to the monkhood (Sasana) by ancient kings.

Other monks are trying to create a nexus between Northern/Eastern land issues and the restructuring/sale of state-owned enterprises. Their political agenda is thus in direct opposition to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s economic agenda. They have also linked the Kurundi issue with the full implementation of the 13th amendment, another Wickremesinghe promise.

Theirs is a project to turn Lanka into what it never was, a Sinhala-Buddhist theocratic land where monks have the final say on matters large and small, from devolution to which radio plays are permissible. (Playwright Malaka Devapriya was summoned to the Organised Crime Prevention Division in October 2019, subsequent to an ICCPR complaint by Ahungalle Jinananda Thero – the prime mover in the Shakthika Sathkumara case.)

In an attempt to justify the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act, President Wickremesinghe mentioned the burning of his books. That was an act of barbarism and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Unfortunately, President Wickremesinghe’s resultant animus towards all of aragalaya makes him blind to far more likely dangers emanating from the populist-racist right.

The secretary of Sinhala Ravaya, Madhubhashana Prabath, commenting on the leaked video of the President’s second encounter with Archaeology Director General, left nothing much to imagination or interpretation. “Ranil should pay attention to what happened to Rajiv Gandhi. Because patriots are near even you…The video was leaked by a group very close to the president. The president must understand that there are Sinhala-Buddhists around him…This happened in a high security zone. From such a place it cannot be leaked easily…Those patriotic Buddhists will do anything for the country. They will make every intervention necessary for the country.”
Weaponising archaeology

In June 2020, honouring a promise he made to his Buddhist Advisory Council, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a task force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. The taskforce was mono-ethnic. Chaired by the chief presidential acolyte retired general Kamal Gunaratne, its members included Derana owner Dilith Jayaweera and two monks (though not one of the many Tamil archaeologists working in Sri Lanka). Four more monks (including Wendaruwe Upali Thero of “be even a Hitler” fame) and a token Tamil and a Muslim were added subsequently.

Of the original two monk-members one was the doyen of Sinhala-Buddhist archaeology and founder-chairman of the JHU, Ellawala Medananda Thero. His particular reality includes Christian fundamentalist plots to eliminate Buddhism; “Part of their plan is to infect the monks with the HIV virus” (The Sunday Times 19.8.2007). He also claims that before Koneswaram was a kovil it was a Buddhist temple. With monks like this in control, we might have had our own Ayodya if not for the abrupt ending of the Gotabaya presidency.

The other monk member was Panamure Thilakawansa Thero. Soon after the 2019 presidential election, he made public his own vision for archaeological heritage management. “In this moment we, the Sinhala-Buddhists of this country have been fortunate, intelligent people. An era has begun…to end that unfortunate time period, to institute a new environment, a new administration in this country…As Maha Sangha we are happy that he (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), as a Sinhala-Buddhist leader, is endeavouring to establish a Sinhala-Buddhist country tomorrow, a safe country……In the decade of 1980, Mr. Cyril Mathew identified ancient Buddhist temple ruins, developed them, and set up Sinhala farming communities. If these Sinhala farming communities continued in the North-East, these provinces would have been secure and free of crises and not in the grip of extremists.”

In his 2022 memorial lecture for the legendary Senaka Bandaranayake, eminent archaeologist Jagath Weerasinghe mentioned his misgivings about archaeology succumbing to populism and becoming a handmaid to “existing hegemonies”. When he shared his fears with, Prof. Bandaranayake, the response was, “Think of Horton Plaine, its ecology has remained somewhat unchanged while the rest of the island while the rest of the island was experiencing major changes. Build a Horton Plaine for you and your colleagues” (reproduced in The Sunday Island 23.3.2022).

Prof. Weerasinghe’s fears are coming true. When archaeology is weaponised by monks, politicians and those professionals subservient to vested interests, it can become a seeding ground for brutal conflicts and long wars. Whether a “Horton Plaine” can survive in the ensuing conflagrations is anyone’s guess.

With Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s taskforce in place, using archaeology to rewrite history and create facts on the ground began in earnest. But the “heritage protection” by Panamure Thero reached such levels, even the taskforce chairman, despite his impeccable majoritarian supremacist credentials, was moved to protest. At a February 2021 meeting with retired general Gunaratne, district secretaries reportedly complained about large scale denuding of forests carried out by the monk. The general protested. The monk issued a spirited denial and carried on.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, the taskforce ceased to function. But efforts by political monks at grabbing the East for themselves (by claiming it for Sinhala-Buddhism) continued. In November 2022, a Federation of Organisations for Protection of National Heritage was launched under the patronage of Medagoda Abayatissa Thero.

Several attempts were made to set up new temples near military camps with military involvement. In one memorable incident (April 2023, Pullmodai), a political monk’s MSD bodyguard was caught on video pointing a gun at a group of protesting Tamils and Muslims. (According to police spokesperson, 5,400 police personnel are being used to protect non-politicians including monks. The Buddha said that those who live with the Dhamma will be protected by the Dhamma; the body-guarded monks either do not take the Buddha’s words seriously or know that they are not covered by those words).

This is the background against which President Wickremesinghe had his first encounter with Archaeology Director General in May 2023. Prof Anura Manatunga, when questioned about the department’s unnatural focus on the North and East, offered two explanations. No archaeological work could be carried out in this area during the war and the work in these areas is being funded by outsiders, mostly monks. In other words, moneyed monks are using cash donations to dictate Archaeological Department’s agenda.

The President, correctly, reminded the director general that the department is not a private firm and can accept funds only from External Resources Department. “If anything (of archaeological value) is found nobody can construct a house or Buddhist temple there,” he added. “It is owned by the country.” Obviously, the director general thought otherwise, leading to the second and famous encounter.

The Heritage Playbook

Soon after winning the war, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to build a stupa in Anuradhapura to commemorate their victory. The edifice was consecrated in November 2021, even as gas queues were beginning and more than a quarter of the populace was hoping to get out of the country the Rajapaksas “saved”. (“The undying memories and invaluable sacrifices of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Civil Security Department war heroes were once again immortalised and made sacred,” trumpeted the Daily News, debasing a non-violent faith to celebrate a violent war.) Former Archaeology Director General, Dr. Senarath Dissanayake, claimed that Sanda Hiru Seya should never have been built in that archaeologically sensitive location. He was compelled to give permission to the project, he said. Most of the political monks who are pledging to save East’s archaeological heritage with blood and tears remained silent about this double desecration by the Rajapaksas.

Nor did they utter a word when, on the night of July 17, 2010, an armed gang set fire to the ancient Sinhala village of Ragamwela in Panam-pattuva. According to Mudiyanselage Bandara, a resident of Ragamwela, “They took us out and threatened to kill us. They had two T 56 rifles. I managed to flee but by the time I turned back they were setting fire to everywhere” (BBC 18.7.2010).

When some of the villagers ran to the nearby STF post for help, the STF personnel refused to intervene. The police prevented the inhabitants from returning to their burnt village and the Chief Sanganayake of Wellassa-Digamadulla was barred from observing ‘vas’ in the village temple. The Navy also reportedly destroyed an ancient archaeological site, the Samudragiri Temple in Ragamwela. The people of Ragamwela and other Panama village are still fighting to regain their lost lands, the same way their Tamil and Muslim neighbours are doing.

The Buddha said, “Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other.” (Attadiipaa sutta). The political monk is claiming this particular island as his property. Prince Siddhartha renounced worldly wealth in his quest for Enlightenment. The political monk is using Buddhism to gain power and accumulate worldly wealth, especially land. Politicians of every stripe play along for fear of antagonising this potent and vocal body. President Wickremesinghe is the rare exception; whether he will walk the talk remains to be seen.

During the now famous encounter, TNA parliamentarians claimed that Panamure Thero, having taken over land under guise of heritage protection, is now demanding a levy from people who are farming these lands. Medagoda Abeytissa Thero justified the reported leasing of land within the Asirimale sacred area by saying the monk has the right to do it.

Ellawala Medanada Thero went a step further and said that not only the land claimed for Kurundi temple but also land surrounding it should not be given to given to non-Sinhala-Buddhists.

So that is the Heritage Protection playbook. Identify an area to be of archaeological interest; claim it as a sacred land; appoint a monk as custodian; let him do what he wants with the land including leasing it. Confronted with the resultant desecration of archaeological sites and denuding of forests, officials are likely to be deaf, dumb, and blind, just as relevant authorities ignored the brutal treatment meted out to Thai-born tusker, Muthuraja, by his custodians, the monks of the famous Kande Vihara.

Muthuraja was fortunate not to have been born in Sri Lanka. When his plight became known in Thailand, arrangements were made to bring him back. After living in this Sinhala-Buddhist hell for three decades, Muthuraja is finally free.

Ordinary Tamils and Muslims of North and East, victimised by the depredations of land-hungry political monks, have no such escape routes. Born here, poor and unconnected, they have nowhere else to go. What else can they do but suffer, resent and hate? Desperation is a dangerous condition. With their geographical Sinhala-Only programme, political monks of today are seeding the next conflagration, just as their ancestors did with linguistic Sinhala Only in 1956.