Religion and politics have been a heady mix with the potential of creating vast empires, great civilisations, magnificent monuments and tinpot-dictators.
The history of empire building is too vast a subject for this columnist to take on and we will begin with the severance of this country from the British Empire with the dawn of Sri Lankan Independence.
British took over the Maritime Provinces from the Dutch in 1802, the entire island in 1815 and departed in 1948 leaving the three communities — the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils and Muslims — eyeing one another suspiciously. Whether it was through duplicity or good intentions, the British left after crafting a constitution — together with our leaders — stipulating that no religion or community could be accorded privileges not granted to other religions or communities.
This law, it was believed, could ensure communal and religious amity in the future.
But all such good intentions went up in flames with the ‘Revolution of 1956’, the reverberations of which are still with us. The 1956 ‘revolution’ was led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike but he had little control of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP), the religious nationalist organisation whose leaders assassinated him in less than two years after the ‘revolution’.
Since 1956, religion — Sinhala- Buddhism— appears to be the main force in changes of regimes, either for good or bad — in Sri Lanka and continues to be so.
Sirima Bandaranaike, who succeeded him, spurned EBP monks who had plotted her husband’s assassination. The main accused Buddharakkitha was sentenced to life imprisonment. She was widely regarded as a pious Sinhala- Buddhist although she did not seek patronage of political monks. In her second tenure of office as prime minister when the first Republican Constitution was enacted, she pushed through the provision of granting Buddhism ‘the Foremost Place’ and that it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism, although her Marxist ministerial colleagues were not as enthusiastic about it at that time.
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake stood out among UNP leaders who cultivated the Sangha and was supported by them in his political comebacks on resigning from office after ill health and defeat. His development was symbolised in the ‘Tank and the Dagoba’.
UNP leaders though from outstanding Buddhist lineage had not been known to bring in monks on to the political stage although they did seek their patronage in subtler forms. Some as Sir John Kotelawala were the antithesis in inviting monks to politics by their very lifestyles. Since most of them were from the English-speaking elitist class, it was easy for anti-UNPers to brand them as un-Buddhistic Christians. And the UNP was indeed the overwhelming choice as a party of most Christians till the late sixties.
J.R Jayewardene scored his historic triumph in 1977 through his political strategy, exploiting the gross blunders of Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front and using the economic calamities (OPEC oil hike) and natural calamities as well. Political monks were not needed while JRJ perorations on the Dasarajadharmaya and other metaphysics of the Dhamma did not seem to connect with political activists.
Critics of the UNP gradually built up the Christian, pro-NGO, anti-Buddhist image of the party which stood out particularly during the near decade-long Mahinda Rajapaksa regime with its president frequently visiting temples, going down on his knees worshipping monks, carrying trays of jasmines while his TV crews faithfully recorded the events for prime time TV. This effort was followed by standing media conferences where dolly questions were bowled and the president hit them out of the grounds. This ten-year exercise was extended for another five years in defeat and it paid dividends.
In contrast to the image of the ‘anti-Buddhist UNP’ built-up, with its leader more often nattily dressed sports coats and eye catching ties and some in his entourage (provincial types included) shifting on to their leader’s sartorial styles, there was the SLFP and later Pohottuwa leader in a simple white ‘National’ undaunted by his rotundity going down on his knees at the feet of monks revered and not.
The question being asked in some political circles is whether the massive majorities scored by the Rajapaksa party at the presidential and parliamentary elections bringing them close to the magical two-thirds majority in parliament is the fruition of the religio-political propaganda efforts cited above. It resulted in the netting of the great majority of the Sinhala Buddhist vote in the Sinhala-Buddhist heartland which had not been possible under the proportional system of voting.
With the Sinhala-Buddhists safely in his pocket, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa obviously would have been feeling pretty confident about turning his Visions of Prosperity and Splendour into reality. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution is said to encapsulate his political strategy which he hopes to enshrine in a new constitution but which would take some time. Hence 20 A to kickstart the process immediately.
We wonder how President Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, would have received reports of a joint statement of the Amarapura and Rammanna Nikayas issued last week which said that the proposed amendment would destroy the independence of the judiciary, public service, the system of elections while undermining the independence of parliament and its members.
It came as a shock to political observers who were under the impression that the Buddhist clergy that had expressed overall support to President Rajapaksa and that the Pohottuwa party was still solidly behind the government. The two chief prelates of the two nikayas, however, had issued statements saying that no official discussions had been held in their sects on the said amendment. Neither were they aware of any media statements being issued by their sects.
Whatever the official stance of the two sects may be, it is apparent that the concern being expressed by Buddhist monks about the fallout of the 20th Amendment goes even beyond the two sects. Some Buddhist monks who have been strongly promoting the Rajapaksa party have been expressing much concern about the 20th Amendment.
The two other well-known sects — the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters – which usually express their concern on important political issues, have not done so at the time of writing these comments.
It’s politically significant that the Sangha which were expected to rubber stamp the new political strategies of the Rajapaksa Government having supported them solidly at elections are now not unified in their opinion.
Buddhist monks of Lanka for over two millennia have been political advisors to ruling monarchs and consider it their heritage which is encapsulated in the term: Bhikshunge Urumaye. They have played the role of catalysts or been direct changers of rulers and ruling governments in recent times.
The role of monks in the present political scenario with a weak political Opposition is to be watched.
Mixing religion with politics has not always been to the benefit of humanity but monks of this country have always staked their claims to be its Guardians — Mura Detuwo.