Monks’ role in Sri Lanka protests raises familiar questions

The street protests that ousted Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last month brought together people from across the country, diverse ethno-religious groups and at times at war: Sinhalese Tamils, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, including but not limited to doubts, the Buddhist monks dressed in saffron. they are fixtures of the Sri Lankan political scene.

But with Rajapaksa in exile in Singapore and life returning to normal, decades-old questions about Buddhism’s role in Sri Lanka’s government are being raised.

The monks’ political involvement, easily spotted in protests against Rajapaksa’s inaction in the face of Sri Lanka’s economic problems, also includes taking seats in Parliament and joining political parties. Last year, a controversial monk named Galagoda Atte Gnanasara was appointed to a presidential task force for legal reforms despite his vociferous anti-Muslim views.

“The role of monks is to help people improve their spirituality. Over the last 10 years, their political involvement has become too much, I think. People no longer see them as religious leaders,” said Venerable Mahayaye Vineetha, of Sri Lanka. monk who lives in Kandy, a city in the central highlands of Sri Lanka.

The connection between monks and political figures has reportedly diminished the respectability of some monks. In addition, hardline political monks with ties to the Rajapaksas joined the protests against their former allies along with younger, more progressive monks.

A video taken from Batarramulla in April shows a monk, a former Rajapaksa ally and leader of the nationalist Janasetha Peramuna party, being scolded and expelled from the protests. A man in the video can be heard saying, “It’s because of people like you, today we suffer like this.”

“This is one of several cases where people called the monks tools of the state and said they have contributed to the current situation, to the maintenance of the political elite and to support and complicity in violence and ethnic strife,” Nalika Gajaweera said. , a research anthropologist at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

Theravada Buddhist monks have been spiritual and practical advisers to Sri Lanka’s political leaders for centuries, beginning with the country’s kings. In the seven decades since Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain, the relationship has become more entangled as Sinhala Buddhism, marked by its nationalist values, has proliferated in the nation’s monasteries.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism can be traced back to Anagarika Dharmapala, an influential anti-imperialist and nationalist monk in the early 19th century. His speeches, full of anti-Muslim and anti-Tamil rhetoric and aimed at creating a nation dominated by Buddhism, are infamous in Sri Lanka.

Dharmapala’s goals were realized by the Sinhalese Only Act of 1956 and further enshrined in the Sri Lankan constitution of 1972, which privileged Buddhism over other religions, essentially consolidating an ethno-religious majority state.

In recent years, the blatant racism and violent language of Sri Lanka’s first wave of independence have resurfaced. Hardline monks with links to politicians like the Rajapaksas have led to racist uproar among their followers; some monks have even committed violence themselves.

“People should be able to see religion being weaponized for political purposes, to further a certain political agenda,” Gajaweera said.

In 2015, the Venerable Akmeemana Dayarathana Thero, a close ally of the Rajapaksas, was arrested for threatening Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka and encouraging people to throw stones at them.

As the economic situation in Sri Lanka has evolved, monks have come to play an increasingly important role in everyday life. In rural areas, temples may be the only resource for villagers who might not otherwise have access to news about political events. In urban areas, where the educational system has largely collapsed, some temples have dharma schools for boys.

Chamila Somirathna, a professor at the Colombo Institute of Research and Psychology and a mother of two young children, said her 5-year-old son has only been able to attend kindergarten in person for 30 days in the past two years after the government forced closed schools.

“It’s really important that temples mediate in these kinds of cases. Children should have the opportunity to associate with other children their age, get an education and have that school experience.”

As Sri Lanka’s economy has also suffered, the monks provide much-needed help by redistributing dana, or alms. Despite a severe lack of resources and a growing hunger crisis as the year progresses, dedicated lay Buddhists still show up to provide food for the monks every morning.

“People don’t have enough food for themselves, but they bring the best for the monks. I have a lot of kindness for these people. They have a lot of faith and they may have some problems with the monks, but they have never stopped giving alms,” Vineetha said. .

Food given to monks is usually eaten or thrown away, but in today’s tough times, many temples are reallocating extra food to families in need. Addressing this suffering “always comes first. Then we (the monks) can think of other things,” according to Vineetha.

Despite scenes of monks being booed at the protests, many of the young, predominantly Buddhist protesters welcome monks’ involvement in the popular uprising and in politics in general, as long as it is done on a limited basis.

“Some senior monks simply spoke out in support of the protest movement. They weren’t out on the streets rallying, they just said, ‘Yes, we support this.’ For some protesters, that declaration probably gives public legitimacy to the struggle, particularly among the general Sinhala Buddhist public,” Gajaweera said.

But his presence at the protests has made even other monks wary. Some activists who ousted the former president have accused these monks of being “opportunists” – trying to save face by protesting despite previously supporting the Rajapaksa regime.

Many Sri Lankans are less than pleased that their new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is a close ally of the former president. They hope that hard-line nationalist monks formerly aligned with the Rajapaksa will back Wickremesinghe and the status quo.

“The constitution is still structured like the Sinhalese and the ‘others,'” Gajaweera said. “Although everyone is ‘equal,’ there is a special case for Buddhists. These nation-state contradictions will continue to shape the future.”

The best route for monks, Vineetha said, is to use their position not to gain power for themselves, but to “help the laity understand the political system. When there is an election and leaders come to villages promising this and that people, we can help them understand the corrupt system.

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