Sri Lanka Perspectives: Role of Buddhism in politics
by R Hariharan on 10 Nov 2017 0 Comment

Sri Lanka has the longest history of Buddhism among Buddhist countries in the world. Ever since Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century BCE, it had faced threat of survival due to overwhelming cultural and religious influence of Hinduism, internal jockeying for power between the Mahayana and Theravada schools and colonial sponsorship of Christianity and Islam. In such periods of turbulence, Sinhala kings sought the help of two other Buddhist countries – Myanmar and Thailand – to strengthen and revive Buddhism.


Over a period of time, the orthodox Theravada Buddhism has come to terms with some of the popular Mahayana practices among the people. So it is not surprising, despite Theravada orthodoxy, historically Sinhala kings had not only allowed Hindus and Muslims to practice their religions, but also protected them from Dutch and Portuguese colonialist-sponsored onslaughts against them.


However, it was Anagarika Dharmapala, father of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, who gave the momentum it needed in late 19th and early 20th century to respond to British colonial rule. Cumulatively, these historical experiences have left a deep impression on the psyche of many Buddhists. They believe Sri Lanka is the last bastion of Theravada Buddhism. This feeling also gave rise to ultra nationalist fringe groups like the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), self-styled guardians saving Buddhism and the distinct identity of Sinhalas. So they consider their vicious anti-Muslim campaigns as legitimate actions.


Sometimes, the vigilantes go berserk, as in 2014 and 2017, and attack and destroy Muslim-owned businesses and places of worship of Muslims. Such acts of Buddhist vigilantism have been seen, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in Myanmar and Thailand. In all three countries, the archpriests of anti-Muslim rhetoric are Buddhist monks – Golagodatthe Gnanasara in Sri Lanka, U Wirathu in Myanmar and Maha Aphichat in Thailand. The veneer of religious justification they provide to their hate campaigns attract some of the gullible population.


The spread of Wahhabism, which provides religious legitimacy for the Islamic jihad of the Al Qaeda kind, has whipped up feelings of insecurity among Buddhist nationalists. This suits Buddhist vigilante groups as it provides warped justification for their hate campaigns. Inevitably, Buddhist nationalist right wing political parties have provided political context to the hate groups.


Even mainstream political parties in power are long on rhetoric to condemn the activities of fringe groups, but ponderous in taking immediate action to bring the culprits involved in such attacks on Muslims. They are wary of offending conservative nationalist segments among the people, who might dub it as “unpatriotic” conduct. This has considerably damaged Sinhala-Muslim relations with adverse political fallout. Covert support given to Sinhala nationalist elements by some leaders of political parties has deepened the suspicion about their sincerity in addressing grievances of the Tamil minority, who are mostly Hindus, Christians, and Tamil-speaking Muslims.


Perhaps in deference to the sentiments of the 70 per cent Theravada Buddhist population of the country, Sri Lanka’s 1978 constitution gave Buddhism a special status, while not calling it the official religion. The constitution chapter II, Article 9 states “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring foremost to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14 (1)(e).” These two articles provide all citizens the freedom to adopt, practice and teach any religion of their choice.


Though constitutionally Buddhism might enjoy only the nebulous status of “foremost place”, in reality Buddhism dominates the political and socio-cultural discourse of the country, just as the 80-ft tall Buddha statute in Kandy, said to be the tallest in the world, dominates the skyline. Buddhist monks have always played an active role in the country because ethnic and religious issues are interwoven in the politics of the country. The Mahanayake Thera, chief prelates of monastic fraternities (Nikaya) who oversee and regulate Buddhist clergy, wield a lot of influence over their followers. This has enabled them to have a political role, like their counterparts in Myanmar. Often, they are loudly vocal even on issues of governance and politics.


Their blessings and patronage are avidly sought by all political leaders; it is not uncommon to see the newly sworn-in president and prime minister making a beeline to seek their blessings. The Mahanayake also have their favourites among national leaders and often come out in support of their favourites. So top political leaders have little option but to woo the Mahanayake for support.


Both Buddhist clergy and Sinhala-Buddhist-nationalism are conspicuously influencing the exercise now going on to draft a new constitution. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo embarked on the process to fulfill their electoral promises to make the executive presidency more accountable and to fulfill the aspirations of minorities.  In July 2017, a special Sangha Council attended by Mahanayakas of three Nikayas (including the prelate of Asgiriya, a known supporter of former president Rajapaksa) and 75 other Thera, met in Kandy to unanimously decide that there was no need to bring in a new constitution or amendment to the present Constitution, negating the peoples’ mandate given to the ruling UNP-SLFP coalition.


Not to be outdone, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe met the Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter, a known supporter of the UNP, and assured him that the new constitution would neither in any way lead to a separate or federal state, nor abolish the foremost place given to Buddhism. After their meeting, the Prelate came out in support of the effort to draft a new constitution.


Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has maintained the refrain that all political parties and religious leaders across faiths had “no issue in giving priority to protect Buddhism in the country” to assuage the feelings of many Sinhalas who are suspicious about the intentions of the government after the interim report on the constitutional draft submitted to parliament gave two options for adoption on the special status given to Buddhism.


Sinhalas who feel Theravada Buddhism is under siege want Buddhism to be declared as the state religion. However, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran has opposed giving primacy to one religion (Buddhism) in the face of equality of all religions; though he was not averse to “some kind of recognition to Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings.” This probably reflects the minority view.


So the constitution-making exercise continues in typical Sri Lankan and South Asian style, with endless discussions by everyone trying to outdo others, rather than hear each other to build a consensus. In all likelihood, Buddhism will retain its special status in the new constitution when the final draft goes for a referendum before the people next year. Whether the people would approve it, remains an open-ended question. However, I believe the majority of Sri Lankans are enlightened enough to approve it as their bitter memories of three decades wasted in fighting Tamil insurgents are still fresh.


Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, November 2017 

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