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The role of political Buddhism has come to the focus with the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka continuing.

A young, frustrated and angry voxpopuli is increasingly demanding that the extremely unpopular President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family in government should quit. The protesters claim they will not stop their agitation until Gotabaya and his political family are banished, period!

Such a widespread public uprising is unprecedented in Sri Lanka and its outcome could be devastating if the ruling political regime fails to provide quick solutions to the serious economic and political crises that have hit the nation. Adding to the pressure is the collective voice of the country’s Mahanayakas; senior Buddhist prelates of monastic fraternities in Sri Lanka, known as Nikayas.

Throughout history, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks have played a vital role in influencing the political opinion of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, in favour of politicians of their ilk. Thus, Buddhist monks played a significant role in catapulting Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Sri Lanka Army with zero experience in politics and governance – to the top seat of the powerful Executive President of Sri Lanka.

The apolitical character of the current anti-government protests by all sections of society, especially the educated youth and professionals, has now become more challenging for the powers that be, with anti-government Buddhist monks joining the fray.

The Mahanayakas are requesting the proposals put forward by them should be implemented. Appointment of a new Government and Prime Minister, are among their demands. However, they have fallen short of requesting the national bête noire, President Rajapaksa to step down.

Since gaining independence from the British in 1948, Buddhist monks have been actively involved in Sri Lanka’s politics, especially on issues pertaining to the unitary state of the nation and the superiority of the Buddhist faith. The majority Sinhalese population follow Theravāda Buddhism.

The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics has over the years raised much concern particularly amongst the moderate Sinhalese Buddhists, as Buddhist orthodoxy seeks to promote the renunciation of all worldly concerns and attachments.

However, there remains philosophical and theological leeway for Buddhist monks to justify their engagement in political activity, which they claim is to lead society on a morally righteous path. But entrenching nationalism into Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been extremely destructive, as nationalistic ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ has now become a threatening weapon waved at the Other, especially the Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

Entrenching nationalism into Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been extremely destructive, as nationalistic ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ has now become a threatening weapon waved at the Other, especially the Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

Since the 19th Century, Sinhala-Buddhism has been linked with modern politics in Sri Lanka. Though Buddhist monks did not contest elections at the outset, they were actively involved in electoral politics and very much a part of election campaigns.

In the first national parliamentary election in 1947 held before independence was granted the following year, a large contingent of Buddhist Monks campaigned heavily for the ‘Lanka Sama Samaja Party’ (LSSP) – a major Trotskyist political party in Sri Lanka. Another group supported the United National Party (UNP); a major centre-right political party.

The prominent figures who led the independence struggle were members of the rightwing UNP, led by D.S. Senanayake. In opposition were the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma, the Communist Party of Ceylon, the Ceylon Indian Congress and an array of independents. Senanayake’s UNP fell short of a majority, but was able to form a government in coalition with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress which won most of the seats in the Tamil regions of the country.

The 1956 Parliamentary elections were a watershed in the country’s political history. These were the first elections fought to challenge the ruling UNP. And, it was none other than a former UNPer and Leader of the House, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who took up the challenge. Following several disagreements, Bandaranaike had resigned from the UNP government and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in 1951.

The SLFP went on to becoming the second most popular party in Sri Lanka’s political arena as its Sinhalese nationalist agenda, appealed to the working classes who felt sidelined by the upper class UNP.

Bandaranaike mobilised a powerful coalition of Marxist and Communist parties and called themselves the ‘Mahajana Eksath Peramuna’ (MEP). Though a baptised Christian, he launched a bid for the Prime Ministerial post in the 1956 General Elections, campaigning on the lines of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism and socialism.

With Buddhist monks amassing powerful forces, Bandaranaike won a landslide victory over the UNP at the General Elections in 1956,making him the fourth Prime Minister of independent Ceylon.

The SLFP has since then asserted itself as a champion of the Buddhist religion which is today known as Sinhala-Buddhism. The party relies heavily on socially and politically influential Buddhist Monks (the Sangha), to carry its message to Sinhalese Buddhists at the grassroots.

By the mid-20th Century, Buddhist monks had become firmly entrenched in mainstream politics of Sri Lanka.

Going by the political involvement of Buddhist monks in post-colonial Sri Lanka, it was inevitable that they would eventually seek Parliament membership. Today, they are very much a part of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary politics.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord signed in July 1987 saw Buddhist monks protesting vociferously against the Accord. This was the dawn of the active involvement of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary politics.

Thereafter in 2004, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – a nationalist political party supported by middle class conservatives and Buddhist youth – was launched. Its founding members included Buddhist monks such as Kolonnawe Sumangala, Uduwe Dhammaloka, Ellawala Medhananda, Omalpe Sobhitha and Athuraliye Rathana Theros.

Representatives of moderate Sri Lanka Buddhism, including the All Island Clergy Organization, denounced the monks’ decision to enter parliamentary politics. However, the JHU ignored their concerns and fielded Buddhist monks as candidates in the 2004 Parliamentary Elections. The JHU won nine out of 225 seats.

Since then the JHU has been involved in a number of controversial issues. One of them was a bill prohibiting unethical, manipulative and highly aggressive religious conversions. This was viewed as a reaction against proselytism by evangelical Christian groups, some of whom were foreigners affiliated to NGOs operating in the country.The JHU supported the incumbent Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Presidential election in 2005 to victory. In 2007, the JHU officially became part of Rajapaksa’s government.  One of the JHU Buddhist monks resigned to make way for the lay member, Champika Ranawaka to be made a Member of Parliament and a Cabinet Minister. Ranawaka is today a member of the Parliamentary Opposition.

The death knell for the involvement of Buddhist monks in politics has come in the form of the thuggish monk, Gnanasaara of Bodu Bala Sena. His irreligious conduct has been an acute source of embarrassment to moderate lay Buddhists and the Sangha fraternity.

The political camp led by Mahinda Rajapaksa benefitted immensely from the involvement of Buddhist monks in politics. Thus, Buddhist temples in the country became a space for Rajapaksa politics and continue to be used for such to date, with many monks turned into Rajapaksa lackeys.

In 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – a breakaway group of the right-wing JHU – was formed. The BBS holds an extreme Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist agenda. BBS is headed by the controversial monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara who molded himself in the same cast as the extremist Burmese Buddhist monk, Wirathu.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meeting Buddhist monks in 2021 (Photo credit: Gotabaya Rajapaksa Twitter page)

Under Gnanasaara’s leadership, the BBS opposes pluralist and democratic ideologies. He vehemently criticises and harasses moderate and apolitical Buddhist monks who refuse to tow his line.

The BBS, made up of self-styled and self-proclaimed guardians of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, are hell-bent on shoving their idea of “true” Sinhala identity, down the throats of the Other. Gnanasaara’s blatant bullying has been the cause of much grief and suffering amongst the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

In 2013, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with the BBS. Thereafter the President’s office issued a statement urging the BBS and other monks towing the extremist line to avoid conflicts with other religious communities. But, this statement was issued only in English, and not in Sinhala which is the language of BBS supporters.

This created the impression that Mahinda Rajapaksa was paying lip service to the English-speaking audience and the international media, while surreptitiously giving succor to Gnanasaara’s blatant bullying of minority Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

Historians are optimistic that Sri Lanka’s vibrant democratic political system would not tolerate political extremist fringe groups such as the BBS. Former JHU member, Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thera in 2004, claimed that the time was right for Buddhist monks to enter Parliament and institute positive societal change. However, he now states that Buddhist monks have failed in their service to the nation and must refrain from politics. He has called for the imposition of restrictions on Buddhist monks intervening in all matters of politics.

He goes on to state that Buddhist monks should limit themselves to advising and guiding the political leadership, as a duty to the nation and its people. In the past, unlike today, there was no necessity to impose any such prohibition on monks engaged in politics, as they acted responsibly.

The death knell for the involvement of Buddhist monks in politics has come in the form of the thuggish monk, Gnanasaara. His irreligious conduct has been an acute source of embarrassment to moderate lay Buddhists and the Sangha fraternity.

There is a sharp decline in the involvement of monks in parliamentary politics with only one monk, Athuraliye Rathana Thera, as a National List Member of Parliament.

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