BUDDHISM AND POLITICS IN SRI LANKA
The Buddhist clergy is very powerful in Sri Lanka. In the old days royalty and the Buddhist clergy depended on each other for their positions and authority. The clergy looked over the Tooth relic in Kandy, which was the source of legitimacy for Sinhalese kings. The kings in turn gave generous land grants to the clergy which enabled them to become quite wealthy.
Today the clergy is very involved in politics, especially the Buddhist nationalist politics of Sri Lanka Freedom Party ( one of Sri Lanka’s major political parties) and the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, 'People's Liberation Front',), traditionally a Communist Marxist–Leninist party . Monks have a tradition of political activity and influential in Sinhalese nationalist organizations. See Political Parties
Buddhism plays an eminent political role in Sri Lanka and serves as a unifying force for the Sinhalese majority. Although the monks must renounce worldliness, they of necessity maintain close relationships with the lay community, whose members must supply them with food, shelter, and clothing. During the past century, as Sinhalese nationalism fueled lay devotion to Buddhism, there was a proliferation of lay support organizations, such as the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, the All-Ceylon Buddhist Women's Association, and the Young Men's Buddhist Association. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
Religion and Politics in Sri Lanka
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Religion has become a distinctive marker of ethnic identity in Sri Lanka. Before the colonial incursions Sri Lanka was predominantly a political culture dominated by Buddhist kingship, values, and ideals. The introduction of democracy following independence in 1948 served to heighten awareness of the island's various ethnic identities as politicians searched for ways to generate affinities with the electorate. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“In 1956 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate for prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who had only recently converted from Anglican Protestant Christianity to Buddhism, swept to power on a platform of "Sinhala only" and "Buddhism as religion of the state." Since that moment religion has been a powerful factor in the dynamics of national politics, creating a modest measure of cohesion among Sinhala Buddhists but also fostering fragmentation in the nation as a whole.
“While Buddhism was never made the official state religion, it has enjoyed a special status in the country's successive constitutions. Official preference for the Sinhala language and Buddhism by the majoritarian, Sinhala-dominated postindependence governments has led to various strains of alienation between the Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities, devolving finally into a mounting civil war along ethnic lines since 1983.”
Buddhist Revivalists in Sri Lanka
In recent decades there has been a Buddhist revivalist movement in Sri Lanka that is not unlike the Hindu revivalist movement in India or even Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Wahhabi .movement Sinhalese upset with performance of the traditional political parties are beginning to look to Sinhalese chauvinism and Buddhist values as a solution to Sri Lanka’s problems.
Buddhist nationalist movements have their it roots in 19th century movement in which Sri Lankans were encouraged to return to their Buddhist roots (See History) and Sri Lanka itself was viewed the home of Buddhism in its purest form and thus was it was the responsibility of Sri Lankans to preserve this purity. As the philosophy developed it took on an increasingly intolerant tone against European Christianity and Tamil Hinduism, which were regarded as corrupting influences.
As time has gone on Buddhism has become increasingly politicized in Sri Lanka. Some of the most ardent ones, who have taken the toughest and most intolerant stance against the Tamils, have been Buddhist monks. In some cases, the Buddhist clergy has pressured politicians into supporting their positions by threatening to accuse them of being anti-Buddhist.
Buddhist revivalists have not made their voices heard not through the creation of new political parties but by more by incorporating their views and agendas into existing political parties. The UPFA and JVP have both adopted Buddhist Revivalist positions. There are some Buddhist revivalist parties. In the election in 2004, the Sinhala Buddhist party fielded an all-monk group of candidates
Buddhist revivalist to some degree equate globalization and free market economics with greed, one of the evils traditionally despised by Buddhists.
Monks and Politics in Sri Lanka
The state has similarly retained close ties with the sangha. Since the time of Ashoka, the first great Indian emperor (third century B.C.), the head of state has been seen by Buddhist thinkers as the official protector of Buddhism, the "turner of the wheel of the law". One of the recurring problems in the history of Sri Lanka has been a definition of the state as the official supporter of Buddhism, which in turn has been the religion of the ethnic Sinhalese. To be successful among the Sinhalese, a government must provide visible signs of its allegiance to the sangha by building or maintaining dagoba, judging disputes among the orders of monks, and fostering education in the Pali Buddhist tradition.*
Individual monks and entire sects have involved themselves in party politics, but seldom do all families and orders unite behind a coherent policy. When they do unite, they are a potent political force. In 1956, for example, a rare union of monastic opinion gave crucial support to the election of the Sinhalese political leader Solomon West Ridgeway Diaz (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike. As of 1988, the sangha controlled extensive estates in the interior of Sri Lanka and retained an independent power base that, combined with high status in the eyes of the Sinhalese population, gave the Buddhist orders influence as molders of public opinion. Monks remained prominent at rallies and demonstrations promoting ethnic Sinhalese issues.*
Bhikkus (monks) are involved in violent political activity and are influential in right-wing chauvinist organizations. In June 2018, according to Reuters, a Sri Lankan court jailed a Buddhist monk accused of inciting violence against Muslims after finding him guilty of intimidating the wife of a missing journalist, in a case seen as a test of the independence of the judiciary. However, the court granted him bail within a week under pressure from fellow monks. [Source: Reuters, July 11, 2018]
Buddhist Militarism and Violence in Sri Lanka
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The politicization of Buddhism and the rise of various militant Buddhist sections of Sri Lankan society is probably the most controversial issue current in Sinhala society. Various dimensions of the issue have raged in public debates, but the political involvement of monks advocating political positions from the extreme left to the extreme right has raised the old question about the appropriate vocation of Buddhist monasticism. Those favoring political involvement have interpreted the Buddha's teaching to "wander for the welfare of many" as a mandate to be politically and economically involved. Others have championed the view that the vocation of the monk is best served by the vocation of meditation and ritual performance. Reintroducing the ordaining of women to become full-fledged bhikkhunis (nuns) has also been controversial. After the establishment of many aramayas (retreats) for renouncing laywomen ascetics throughout the twentieth century, a few Sinhalese women have now taken the higher ordination in Sri Lanka, thereby ending a period of more than a thousand years in which the bhikkhunisangha (community of nuns) was absent. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Rohini Mohan wrote in the New York Times: To be truly considered Sri Lankan these days, one must accept the primacy and glory of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist past. Unless it is challenged, this mindset will pose a far greater danger to Sri Lanka than the blows of hard-line thugs....When I met Watareka Vijitha Thero in early 2014 in a suburb of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, he had been in hiding for nearly five months. The gentle-voiced monk had spoken out against anti-Muslim fearmongering by a hard-line group called the Buddhist Power Force, known by its Sinhalese initials B.B.S. Mr. Vijitha’s car was attacked in retaliation, and he narrowly escaped. “What does it mean for Buddhism if those that speak for communal harmony have to hide in fear?” he asked me. “What does it mean for my country that the government lets these lawless thugs have a free run?” Six months later, Mr. Vijitha was found on a road near Colombo stripped naked and bloody, his hands and legs bound. The B.B.S. denied involvement. When the monk filed a complaint, the police threw him in jail for 12 days on charges of self-inflicted violence — a warning to others who dared to criticize hard-line Buddhists. [Source: Rohini Mohan, New York Times, January 2, 2015, Rohini Mohan is the author of “The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War”]
In 2012, the B.B.S and other hard-line groups were fringe elements. Today, they are a powerful force, and their aggressive assertion of Sinhalese Buddhist dominance, in a country that is 70 percent Buddhist, is increasingly mirrored in government-approved revisionist histories of Sri Lanka.” Hard-line Buddhist groups have mobilized to support country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. “A wave of populist chauvinism has engulfed the country and sidelined the Tamil and Muslim minorities that make up over a quarter of the population. If it continues unchecked, Sri Lanka will face more instability, ethnic polarization and suppression of dissent.
“Extremist Buddhist monks are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The B.B.S. and its counterparts have incited mobs to demolish mosques. A June speech by the B.B.S. chief Galagodaththe Gnanasara triggered anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s southern villages; thugs burned homes, four people were killed and at least 80 were injured. But instead of arresting Mr. Gnanasara, the president simply urged “all parties concerned to act in restraint.” By instruction or apathy, the police and army look away when hard-line monks incite riots, and fail to thoroughly investigate complaints. While the B.B.S. is not the sole voice of Sri Lankan Buddhists, its recourse to violence has increasingly forced secular liberals and pacifist Buddhists into silence.
“More perniciously, a nostalgia for Buddhist supremacy is now widespread. Today, a revisionist version of history is celebrated in films, books, TV programs and state-run newspapers. In the Tamil-dominated north, and in the east, where most of the country’s Muslims live, national monuments have been erected to honor Buddhist kings. Government offices frequently announce “rediscoveries” of long-lost Buddhist temples and Buddha statues are placed in areas sacred to Muslims or Tamils. In the Kanniya hot springs in the east, a sign in Sinhalese and English explains that the site — considered among Tamils to be linked to a Hindu myth — had been part of an ancient Buddhist monastery. In Kuragala in the central hills, the culture ministry built a Buddhist stupa at a Sufi Muslim cave, declaring it an ancient monastery site. These claims aren’t based on new archeological findings; the Sri Lankan government is simply rewriting history with a more politically expedient narrative.
History of Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka
Rohini Mohan wrote in the New York Times: “In Sri Lanka, monks have long been involved in efforts to bolster Buddhist primacy. In the 19th century, amid fears that European colonizers and Christian missionaries were diluting Sri Lankan identity, monks led a Buddhist revival, followed by a cultural movement for the dominance of the Sinhalese language over English. These efforts produced a Buddhist nationalism that persisted after independence in 1948 (Buddhism itself is accorded primacy in the Sri Lankan Constitution). [Source: Rohini Mohan, New York Times, January 2, 2015, Rohini Mohan is the author of “The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War”]
“In the last decade, activism by Buddhist monks has grown more overtly political. In 2004, they founded the National Heritage Party, known by the initials J.H.U., and contested elections for the first time; nine monks won parliamentary seats. Though it never espoused violence, the J.H.U. supported the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mr. Rajapaksa. As the government intensified its battle against the separatist Tamil Tigers, the monks’ backing gave religious legitimacy to the state’s claim of protecting the island for the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
“The defeat of the Tamil rebels in 2009 ended the country’s nearly 30-year-long civil war. The B.B.S. emerged during this postwar high, deploying a selective reading of Sri Lanka’s origins — excluding the contributions of indigenous and non-Sinhalese communities — to fan fears of an existential threat to Buddhism and justify its acts of violence.
“At a rally in 2012, the B.B.S. leader Mr. Gnanasara likened the Sri Lankan military’s victory to the ancient conquest of a Tamil chief by a beloved Sinhalese king. The spectators knew the story and cheered at the comparison. “Tamils have been taught a lesson twice,” he said; so would other minorities if they tried to “challenge Sri Lankan culture.”
In the early 2010s “hard-line groups have consolidated their political power. The B.B.S. has even used the state-owned cellular network to raise funds. Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, has attended some of their events. The government, meanwhile, denies any links to them.
Buddhist Militarism During the Sri Lankan Colonial Period
Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith. Kandy may be the Buddhist world’s best example of this. From the late 16th to the early 19th centuries, the kingdom of Kandy sturdily held out against European invaders: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British in their turn. “Like many other armies in peasant and tribal societies,” writes Channa Wickremesekera in Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594 to 1818 (2004), “the Kandyan army fought in loosely organized and highly mobile units depending on a flimsy logistical base,” making optimum use of its rugged, jungly terrain. It was very much like a 21st-century guerrilla insurgency, in other words — inspired, in this case, by the need to defend faith and homeland against heathen Europeans. The dense forest through which I had passed on my train ride constituted the graveyard of European attempts to reach Kandy, with many a Portuguese, Hollander, and Briton dying or giving up, exhausted and demoralized, afflicted by disease amid the cruel jungle so well described by Leonard Woolf in his 1913 novel, The Village in the Jungle: [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, September 2009]
“For the rule of the jungle is first fear, and then hunger and thirst. There is fear everywhere: in the silence and in the shrill calls and the wild cries, in the stir of the leaves and the grating of branches, in the gloom, in the startled, slinking, peering beasts.
“Eventually, the improved muskets and light artillery developed in Europe proved too much for the Kandyans. The British, explains Wickremesekera, unlike the Portuguese and Dutch, had the added advantages of “mastery over the neighboring Indian subcontinent and an army of over 100,000 soldiers when they clashed with Kandy.” They toppled King Wickrama of Kandy in 1815. He may have dug the lake, but he had been a tyrant and torturer. At least that was how the British rationalized their actions.
“Thus the redoubtable kingdom of Kandy, for centuries such a rebuke to European attempts at conquest in Asia, became a trope in the warrior imagination of the Buddhist Sinhalese. To be sure, the quest to recover Kandy’s lost honor and glory played a role in the bloody and morally unclean victory that the Buddhist Sinhalese won over an ethnic Tamil insurgency in May, after 26 years of fighting. More broadly, the history of Kandy — a cultural and artistic repository of 2,300 years of Buddhist worship that the Europeans rarely left in peace — has imbued Sinhalese with the sense of being repeatedly under siege.
Buddhist Hostility Towards Other Religions in Sri Lanka
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka some have been accused of generating hostility towards other faiths and ethnic minorities.Charles Haviland of the BBC wrote: Upstairs in a small temple in the suburbs of Colombo “a burly monk in a bright orange robe holds forth - for this is one of the main offices of a hard-line Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS)...The monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, talks of his Buddhism in terms of race. Most Buddhists here are ethnically Sinhalese, and Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the island's population. "This country belongs to the Sinhalese, and it is the Sinhalese who built up its civilisation, culture and settlements. The white people created all the problems," says Gnanasara Thero angrily. [Source: Charles Haviland, BBC News, Colombo, 30 May 2015 ^]
“He says the country was destroyed by the British colonialists, and its current problems are also the work of what he calls "outsiders". By that he means Tamils and Muslims. In fact, while a minority of the Tamils did indeed come from India as tea plantation workers, most of them, and most of the Muslims, are as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, with centuries-old roots here. "We are trying to... go back to the country of the Sinhalese," says Gnanasara Thero. "Until we correct this, we are going to fight." ^
“This firebrand strain of Buddhism is not new to Sri Lanka. A key Buddhist revivalist figure of the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala, was less than complimentary about non-Sinhalese people. He held that the "Aryan Sinhalese" had made the island into Paradise which was then destroyed by Christianity and polytheism. He targeted Muslims saying they had "by Shylockian methods" thrived at the expense of the "sons of the soil". And later, in 1959 Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk - the circumstances were murky but one contentious issue was the government's failure to do enough to ensure the rights of the Sinhala people. ^
“The long war against the Tamil Tigers - a violent rebel group purporting to speak for the Tamil minority - brought the hard-line Buddhists into their own once more. Portraying the war as a mission to protect the Sinhalese and Buddhism, in 2004 nine monks were elected to parliament on a nationalist platform. And it was from the monks' main party that Gnanasara Thero later broke away, in time forming the BBS. It is now the most prominent of several organisations sharing a similar ideology.^
“But can the BBS be called violent? "Whenever there is something wrong done by a Buddhist monk everything [is blamed on] us because of our popularity," says BBS spokesman Dilantha Withanage. "BBS is not a terror organisation, BBS is not promoting violence against anyone... but we are against certain things." He cites threats by Islamic State to declare the whole of Asia a Muslim realm.”“ ^
In January 2015, “Sri Lanka unexpectedly elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena. He told me that "everybody knows" who gave rise to the BBS - implying that it was the administration of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The previous government was, at least, strongly supportive of the organisation. And the group thrived because the rule of law had broken down, according to the new minister for Buddhist affairs, Karu Jayasuriya. He has told me that the BBS will be reined in. On Tuesday, Gnanasara Thero was arrested for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration but later freed on bail. Thus far, the new government - which, like the old one, includes a strongly Buddhist nationalist party - seems timid about taking on the men in orange.”^
Targets of Buddhist Hostility in Sri Lanka
In 2004, Buddhist hardliners attacked more than 100 churches and the offices of the World Vision Christian aid group, accusing the group of using money and social control to win converts.
Charles Haviland of the BBC wrote: “ Muslims seem to be these nationalists' main target, along with evangelical Christians whom they accuse of deceitfully and cunningly converting people away from Buddhism. Time and again he and his colleague bracket the word "Muslim" together with the word "extremist". They are not the only Sinhalese who express discomfort at a visible rise in Muslim social conservatism in Sri Lanka. More women are covering up than before and in parts of the country Saudi-influenced Wahabi Muslims are jostling with more liberal ones. Yet there is no evidence of violent extremism among Sri Lankan Muslims. Rather, they have been at the receiving end of attacks from other parts of society. [Source: Charles Haviland, BBC News, Colombo, 30 May 2015 ^]
“Since 2012, the BBS has embraced direct action, following the example of other like-minded groups. It raided Muslim-owned slaughter-houses claiming, incorrectly, that they were breaking the law. Members demonstrated outside a law college alleging, again incorrectly, that exam results were being distorted in favour of Muslims....In the small town of Aluthgama” in June 2014, “three people died in clashes that started when the BBS and other Buddhist monks led an anti-Muslim rally in a Muslim area. At the time, I met Muslim families whose homes and shops had been burnt and utterly destroyed, and who were cowering in schools as temporary refugees. ^
“Moderate Buddhists have also been targeted by hard-line ones. Last year Rev Wathareka Vijitha Thero was abducted, rendered unconscious, tied up and forcibly circumcised - he says this was meant as a gesture of ridicule because he had worked for closer cooperation between Buddhists and Muslims. He believes Buddhist monks - he doesn't know who or whether they were aligned with any particular group - were responsible. In a separate case, a few weeks earlier, Vijitha Thero had held a news conference to highlight the grievances of the Muslim community - the gathering was broken up by the BBS. Gnanasara had hurled insults and threatened him: "If you are involved in this type of stupid treachery again, you will be taken and put in the Mahaweli River," he said.“The reference to the Mahaweli is significant - there was a left wing insurrection against the Sri Lankan government in 1989 - it's estimated 60,000 people disappeared and many dead bodies were dumped in the river.” ^
Buddhist Hardliner Attacks Against Muslims in Sri Lanka
Critics of hardline nationalist governments in Sri Lanka have accuse it of turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim attacks such as ones that occurred during deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2014 that killed four and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Al Jazeera reported in 2016: For those who live in Muslim-majority Dharga Town on the southwest coast, life will never be the same again.” In 2014, Buddhist mobs launched a violent rampage against Muslims and their property. “I can never be normal again. I live in perpetual fear," said Nasir Zarook, 28, a shop owner from a wealthy neighbourhood. His home and 10 vehicles he owned were destroyed when Buddhist attackers lobbed grenades. He escaped death but suffered head injuries after being attacked with clubs. "Life will never the same," said Nasir. “His home was among 90 houses destroyed in communal violence on June 15, 2014, when ethnic Sinhalese mobs led by the hardline Bodu Bala Sena - or "Buddhist Power Force", a nationalist group - went on a rampage in three Muslim-dominated towns in the coastal district of Kalutara. [Source: Al Jazeera, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, June 16, 2016]
“The two-day assault on Dharga Town, Aluthgama and Beruwala came after an anti-Muslim protest organised by Bodu Bala Sena's leader, Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasa Thera, who made an inflammatory speech urging Sinhalese to sever all ties with Muslims - and to "behave like the true majority". The demonstration was reportedly called in response to a Buddhist priest being verbally threatened by a Muslim. Bodu Bala Sena has said it was not responsible for the violence.
“The 2014 communal riots - curiously coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Buddhist-Muslim bloodshed - left three Muslims and one Tamil dead. More than 10,000 people were displaced, some 8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese, while another 80 were wounded. “I fear being targeted again. I will feel safe only when I leave Dharga Town," said Nasir. "Neighbours turned into attackers," he noted, even though many perpetrators were not from the area and still roam free. "Where is justice?"
“For AH Mohammed, 64, a retired director of education from the national Ministry of Education, the vandalism cost him more than $55,600. His 32-year-old son suffered severe emotional trauma following the attacks, fell ill, and died a year later. “It's as if suffering our lost home wasn't enough. We also had to lose him," said Mohammed.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022