Historical Rights of Buddhist Monks Need to be Protected

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 22 2021
Columns Historical Rights of Buddhist Monks Need to be Protected

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe

After the war victory against terrorism, many political leaders took credit for it. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is on record that when her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa took over, 75 percent of the war had already been won. The UNP bigwigs too claimed that the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration only inherited the tail end of an operation that was engaged by former Governments. If that was indeed the case, then these political entities must explain the reason to enter a cease fire agreement with the LTTE in 2002 (2002 CFA). 

This agreement, signed by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe allegedly without the knowledge of then President Kumaratunga, effectively recognised nearly one third of the country to be under the control of a proscribed terrorist organisation. While the security forces were confined to barracks and prohibited from entering the so-called LTTE-control areas, the LTTE cadres were allowed to penetrate the so-called Government-controlled areas for “political activities”. 

The greatest irony of this situation was that the so-called LTTE-controlled areas were fully dependent on the Sri Lankan Government for its survival. Right until the end of the war, even the LTTE depended on food, medicines and other essentials that were sent by the Government. Though the LTTE claimed to have its own currency, legal courts and police, the entire administration was funded by the Government and staffed by Government servants.

If the war was nearly completed before President Mahinda Rajapaksa took over, then it is indeed curious as to the reason for allowing a proscribed terrorist organisation to bully a legitimate Government. As a direct result of signing the 2002 CFA, the LTTE managed to install sleeper cells throughout the country, especially in the Western province, and thereby increase the risk of terrorist attacks. The then Government was petrified that the LTTE would walk away from the CFA and so turned a deliberate blind eye to the flagrant violations of the agreement by the LTTE. This cowardliness enabled the LTTE to build on their arsenal while our own forces languished without proper training and arms. 

No militarily victory possible

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed Office, the West and the defeated presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe were of the firm view the war against the LTTE could never be won militarily. Ranil Wickremesinghe had even allegedly declared to the diplomatic community that this war would lead to a humanitarian crisis with about 40,000 civilian deaths. This has been communicated to the incumbent State Minister for Health Professor Channa Jayasumana when he was in Geneva fighting against the UNHRC Resolution 30/1. According to Professor Jayasumana’s sources, the unconstitutional panel of experts appointed by UNSG Ban Ki-Moon had simply picked up this statement made by the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2007 - nearly two and quarter years before the war ended. 

UNP declared they would not honor loans

Not only did Ranil Wickremesinghe hold little faith in a military victory, he led his party, the UNP, to work against the Government’s efforts. His party went to the extent of warning foreign financiers against lending to the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration. The UNP declared that once they return to power, they would not honor any such loans. The Government would not have been able to continue with its military operations had the financing stopped. Fortunately, the then Government was able to overcome the UNP’s undermining operations. 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strength was his brother and Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He not only believed that the war could be won, but also had a clear cut plan on how to win the war. One of his first steps was to change the perception we had of our Security Forces. 

Before this turning point, even most of the patriots who believed that the LTTE could be defeated did not respect the security personnel. The poor villager who volunteered into the Civil Defense Force was derisively called a gam batta and the soldier was casually referred to as the army karaya. It was the campaign spearheaded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa that forever changed this identity and underscored the reality that this is not a mere soldier in an uniform but a son and a father to us who has sacrificed his youth and willing to lose a limb or even life for country and its people. As the war progressed, this campaign emphasised the difference between a war hero and a terrorist with the simple caricature of a soldier defending civilians with his own body and terrorists using civilians as a human shield to protect themselves. 

Yahapalana campaigns fail

This change in perception from army karaya to war hero proved its effectiveness long after the war victory. The Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration was toppled nearly six years after the conclusion of the war. From January 2015 to November 2019 the country was under the grips of a political proxy to the West funded NGO society with geopolitical interests. Thus, for the first time in history the Government itself took every possible effort to denounce our war heroes as war criminals. However, the Yahapalana Government’s campaign failed because the staunch trust people had of their security forces could not be shaken. 

During the early days of the Yahapalana Government, the persecution of the military intelligence units were made into a public spectacle. However, this only contributed to the growing disenchantment of the Yahapalana Government and so the persecution had to take a quieter tone. 

The trust people have of the security forces is such that people request the military to be involved in managing national dilemmas. The UNHRC High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly voiced her concerns over the “military taking over civilian functions”, but these anxieties are not shared by Sri Lankans. In fact, there is a growing demand to include the military to resolve the growing human-elephant conflict as well. 

This unshakable trust that the military as the most capable body to handle any national calamity in the best interest of the people was built by the campaign initiated by the then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006. Today, he is the President of the country and as such he has an equally important task ahead. That is to protect the Buddhist monks from a systematic smear campaign that has been gaining momentum over the years. 

Perhaps the first visible precipitation of this campaign took place when politician Champika Ranawaka transformed Sihala Urumaya as Jathika Hela Urumaya and ‘donated’ the political party to the Buddhist clergy. It is important to understand the need for this ‘donation’. The proceeding events that ousted the much respected SL Gunasekara embarrassed and bitterly shook the trust of the party’s supporters. Hence, this transformation was necessary for its political comeback. The unfortunate victims were the most venerable monks who came forth to represent the country’s interests in Parliament. 

The unfortunate victims

The events that took place thereafter firmly instilled in many the notion that Buddhist monks have no place in politics. This was further cemented by the manipulative behavior of monks such as Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. The unsavory actions by monks as Ampitiya Sumanarathana Thera and the controversy generated by Samanthabhadra Thera also support this notion. However, all Buddhist monks cannot be lumped together, especially as each of these aforementioned monks had acted on separate agendas and discounts the valiant service rendered by other monks. 

For instance, Ampitiya Sumanarathana Thera’s behaviour as disreputable as it might be has served to safeguard our heritage from willful destruction. Without addressing these root causes, it is wrong to judge the passion of monks such as SumanarathanaThera. Conversely, Rathana Thera and Gnanasara Thera appear to be motivated by a hidden agenda. Their conduct after the last General Elections have clouded their reputations furthermore. 

Still, it does not justify the call to forbid Buddhist monks from partaking in politics. To do so would be an unprecedented violation of a historical role played by Buddhist monks in  Sri Lankan society. It is interesting that whilst the call is to confine monks to temples (as the military was once confined to barracks) and for any political activities to be a punishable crime, the same stipulation is not called for other religious representatives. 

When the most-respected Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith expresses his displeasure over the Government’s inaction or disagrees over a Government action, no one faults him or accuses him of ‘doing politics’. Cardinal Ranjith had on occasion even threatened to topple this Government, if it fails to reverse or rectify certain decisions. Yet, no one has voiced that the Cardinal should be confined to church or thrown in jail. 

Pastor in politics

In the same manner, there is an absence of debate over Parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne - A born-again pastor - being engaged in politics. He had abused his Parliamentary privileges to call for the release of Hijaz Hisbulla (currently in remand custody over alleged involvement in the Easter Attack) and former CID Director Shani Abeysekera (also in remand custody with credible allegations of political victimisation). Born Again is a fairly new religion in Sri Lanka and is looked upon with suspicion by the other faiths in the Island. It is being said that economically and/or emotionally vulnerable are being preyed upon and forced/convinced to convert. As such, having a Born Again pastor in Parliament should be a matter of concern, but it is not. 

It is an open secret that the Mauwlaani in mosques play a decisive role in the political choices of its congress. If the Government attempted to introduce laws to control these politically infused religious  sermons, the international backlash would be severe. 

Since Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka, the monks have played an important role in governing the country. When young King Walagamba came under attack by a foreign force, it was the monks who kept him hidden for over 14 years. During this time, it was the monks who helped the King to gather and train a force to oust the invaders. 

Of course history also tells us of many instances where the egos or bad judgement of monks have veered our course. The fall of the Mahaviharaya, the sibling clash between King Dutugemunu and Saddhatissa (before King Dutugemunu assumed the throne and after his demise, denying his son the throne) and the betrayal King Rajasinghe I felt over the links certain monks formed with the Portuguese (whilst the King was waging war with the forced occupiers) are some of these dark patches. 

Though King Rajasinghe I in anger converted to Hinduism and chased the Buddhist monks away, his successors did much to restore the Buddhist discipline in the country. King Dutugemunu too did not hold a grudge over the monks for favouring his brother. Instead, he too did much to promote Buddhism in the Island. 

In recent history, venerable Sobitha Thera paved the path to Yahapalana Government. It was an action he lived to regret. However it was also the monks that stood in the path of the Yahapalana Government and even took an initiative to collect the compensation ordered by the courts from a military officer to pay the survivors of a terrorist killed while attempting to flee. Today, despite the advisory committee comprised of venerable Buddhist monks that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa regularly meets, respected monks such as venerable Elle Gunawansa Thera and Muruththettuwe AnandaThera are critical of the President and the Government. 

As unflattering or even unfair as these remarks may be, as citizens it is still their right to expression. Monks may not be always correct in their assertions, but the historic role they played should never be denied or undermined. Just as our soldiers, during national calamities it has been our venerable monks who stepped out and went beyond their call of duty to restore peace and justice in the country. Therefore, instead of trying to gag our monks as advised by some, it is our collective responsibility to understand the deliberate smear campaign that was in operation for decades to discredit our monks. 

We are still emerging from the trauma of European forced occupation and are grappling with an identity crisis. At such a time, distancing ourselves from our monks is certainly not the way forward. 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 22 2021

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