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Weaponising Buddhism: Will the Third Wave Be the Last?

Photo courtesy of BBC

“One day, I was in Kelaniya with the thero of Misisawetiya. Then you (Mahinda Rajapaksa) came like a lion. Misiawetiya Thero said, ‘Look there’s a lion coming.’ I said, ‘Not a lion. Mahinda Rajapaka is a culture. Mahinda Rajapkasa is a civilisation…” Medagoda Abeytissa Thero (Lanka News Web – 24.8.2020)

Independent Sri Lanka experienced three waves of weaponsation of Buddhism. The first was when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike embraced the Buddhist Commission Report. D.S. Senanayake had refused, on Constitutional grounds, a request by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) to appoint a royal commission to study Buddhist grievances. The ACBC appointed its own commission in 1954. The Commission released its report in February 1956. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who needed to defeat the UNP while outflanking a left strengthened by the successful hartal, embraced the report. An overtly Sinhala-Buddhist election campaign ensued with the Eksath Bikkhu Peramuna (United Bikkhu Front) playing a vanguard role. The MEP won (although its national average was only 39.5), S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike realised his heart’s desire of becoming prime minister and was assassinated three years later by a monk.

The killing created a popular backlash against Sangha in general. In one of his political novels (Peraliya – Transformation), T.B. Illangaratne mentions that monks had to stop going in buses or on pindapatha for a while due to public opprobrium. The violent end to that first attempt at creating a nexus between religion and politics had somewhat of a sobering effect on the political class. Politicians would continue to use religion tactically but a major weaponisation of Buddhism would not happen for almost 45 years.

The second wave was unleashed early in the new millennium. Gangodawila Some Thero had begun his political preaching by targeting Sri Lankan Muslims. When he was trounced by M.H.M. Ashraff in their widely watched television debate, he shifted targets, focusing his fire on Christians. His unexpected death, caused by exposure to the Russian winter, gave rise to a wave of hysterical grief and anger. A group of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists (led by Champika Ranawaka, with Udaya Gammanpila as his sidekick) saw an opportunity and moved in with aggressive determination. They renamed their party Sihala Urumaya as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and donated it to the Sangha. A monk-only slate was nominated for the 2004 general election, with the promise of building a Dharma Rajya in six months. The new party scored only 5.97% and fell into acrimonious squabbling almost before the election was over. A kidnapping drama and a parliamentary brawl were followed by a bomb attack on a musical show featuring Indian artistes in which several JHU stalwarts were implicated. Once again, public outrage at the party’s shenanigans reflected on all monks. For a while, party symbol hakgediya (conch shell) became a popular slang word for a monk.

The third wave commenced post-Eelam War. The Rajapaksas needed a new enemy. After some attacks on churches, focus shifted to Muslims. The Bodu Bala Sena came into divisive life with the anti-halal campaign. The Buddhist flag was flown alongside the national flag at the Independence Square. An actor playing historian gave the Rajapaksas a family tree linking them not just to hero-king Dutugemunu but also to the Buddha.

The third wave crested during the 2019 presidential election as monks became politically mobilised on an unprecedented scale. During the parliamentary election, the political/civic act of voting was turned explicitly into a religious act, bringing into play the Buddhist concepts of merit and demerit. The project to impose first an ethnic and then an ethno-religious state on a nation state has reached its apotheosis.

No other refuge

In another infamous first, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a Buddhist monk to the Human Rights Commission.

This week Fitch Ratings downgraded Lanka to CC, one notch away from bankruptcy. The economy contracted by 1.5% in the third quarter. The forex crisis and the fertiliser crisis, created by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s hubristic ignorance, remain unresolved. Domestic gas continues to explode. Having forced the government to agree to pay $67 million for a ship of contaminated fertiliser, China is fishing in troubled waters, this time in the North. The Chinese Ambassador undertook a two day visit to Jaffna and Mannar, worshipping at Nallur kovil, bare bodied as tradition dictates, and distributing largesse to fishing communities at conflict with Tamilnadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

The Rajapaksas returned to power in 2019 at the head of a Saptha Maha Balavegaya, monks, physicians, teachers, peasants, workers, soldiers and youth. Within two years their support among five of those forces has plummeted, increasing their dependence on the military and the monks. For their own survival, the Rajapaksas must continue weaponising Buddhism. But the alliance between politicians and monks was never a marriage of equals. As Prof. H.L. Seneviratne pointed out in The Work of Kings, since the Lankan monks lack overarching and unifying social structures, “By its very nature the Sangha cannot be a power. It can only be a handmaid of power.”

Violently racist and obscenity sprouting monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara is not the problem. He is merely a symptom. The problem is the weaponisation of Buddhism by the Rajapaksas in their political and dynastic interests. The egregious monk remains in position even after he threatened two fellow monks with lethal violence because the Rajapaksas need him. If he didn’t exist, the Family would have had to create him, which is quite possibly what they did in 2011/2012.

Turkish scholar Mustafa Akoyal commenting on the Ulema-state alliance dominant in most Islamic-majority countries points out that “Many religious scholars are happy to justify autocratic rulers as long as the latter pose as defender of faith” (Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance). Similarly, the Rajapaksas are promoting and showcasing monks in the hope of maintaining their self-anointed status as the sole defenders of a Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. If anyone wants to see the danger of this path, they need to look no further than Pakistan.

Sharia Law was introduced in Pakistan by a pro-American general who came to power in a military coup and began his rule by hanging his elected civilian predecessor after a spurious trial. As Eqbal Ahmed pointed out, “Zia needed a constituency. He had none. He needed the support of a party. No party was willing to support him except Jamat-e-Islami which charged a fee: Islamisation of higher educational institutions. During the pro-Western government of Zia ul Haq physics professors could not be appointed if they could not name the wives of the Holy Prophet” (On Empire). The result of this bargain was a populace…

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