3rd September 2000

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Bhikku power in politics

By Kumbakarna

The political role of the bhikku is fast becom ing a critical factor in this election. The bhikkus who led a wave of protests against the proposed constitution now appear to be playing an increasing role in politics.

The PA, the UNP and even the JVP are seeking ways of obtaining the support of the clergy. This is indeed ironic because all three parties have not too long ago castigated the Sangha as a racist and feudal institution. There are also parties such as the Sihala Urumaya which seem to draw their strength principally from the Bhikkus.

The temple is being transformed from a place of meditation and contemplation on the Dhamma into a virtual place of debate and political discourse.

This has raised fears among some people that this could lead to a Sri Lankan version of "Khomeinism". However, one could say the role of the bhikku in this election is going to be as important as it was in 1956.

Some analysts say the pressure brought upon the state by bhikkus is indicative of a certain backwardness. They believe that monks and religious institutions must eventually disappear from the modern state. Therefore, they argue that the involvement of the clergy in politics constitutes a step into the past — a move which, most of the so-called globalised "intellectuals" are eager to describe as backward, underdeveloped and savage.

Many of these pundits base their assertions on the form of the western nation state. The nation state in the west took more of an economic and political character than a cultural one. This was the impact of the modernisation process. Simultaneously, the Christian order splintered into separate churches and each nation promoted its own preferred school. Gradually the nexus between the church and state disappeared, and priests were replaced by technocrats and politicians.

In West Asia, like in Europe, the common belief was that both the state and the ruler are creatures of a creator. In other words, Caesar was an agent of a supreme being.

But the concept of a Buddhist State is different. Buddhists differentiate between objective truth and consensual truth. As such the state constitutes a consensus. According to the Aggangga Sutra, discipline and order broke down and break down due to greed. Humans need a state and a ruler in order to organise discipline into society. The people were responsible for the upkeep of the ruler and the ruler's task in return was to use the law and bring order into society.

Throughout history, there has been much debate about the pertinence of Buddhists, whose doctrine is one of ahimsa, attempting to discipline a society by instituting mechanisms that are held together by the threat of punishment. The inability to resolve the issue of truth and power is cited as a possible reason for the decline of Buddhism in Asia.

However, this Sinhala bhikku, as long ago as the Dutugemunu period, understood this power logic. That is they realised that just as truth generates power, power can also construct truth. If monks such as the Ven. Theraputtabhaya had not temporarily disrobed and gone to war, if the maha sangha had not supported the efforts of Dutugemunu in words and in action, then it is likely that truth would have succumbed to "power". If that had happened, Sri Lanka might well have ended up as another Afghanistan, North India or a Philippines. But that example of the bhikku served as an operative principle for the involvement of the bhikku in politics. The bhikku, it was emphasised, is not only someone who pursues and preaches the truth, but is also a person who employs power.

The king, the bhikku and the people together took on the task of building the state. The Sinhala bhikku expanded his activities to include irrigation, architecture, medicine, literature and the arts. The Anuradhapura period was also a time when the role of the bhikku was subject to much debate. Questions such as whether the bhikku should strive for his emancipation only, or work for the emancipation of the entire community were reflected upon. These debates ended with the idea that the bhikku should serve the community. Even later, the role of the bhikku has been a controversial topic.

This issue came to the forefront of debate once again in the 1940s when monks from Vidyalankara started becoming politically active. They not only opposed the British, but spoke out against the local elitist leaders who were as "British" in their thinking.

At this point the elite too brought up the argument that politics was out of bounds for the bhikku. Ven. Walpola Rahula clearly countered this by demonstrating that the bhikku has as much a stake in society as he has in the study of the Dhamma for his personal emancipation.

His view became the dominant reading on the role of the bhikku in society. The bhikku went to the extent of working to create a government that was deemed to be most appropriate to society in 1956.

Thereafter, we have had many examples of monks who have helped boost various political parties to advance their own personal agendas. The bhikkus who helped the SLFP into power in 1956 joined forces with J. R. Jayewardene in 1957 to defeat the secret pact that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike made with S. J. V. Chelvana-yakam. In 1966, they helped the United Front against the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact. in 1977, a considerable number of monks helped the UNP, and after 1985 they helped the JVP-SLFP coalition.

On all these occasions, the bhikku has helped various non-Buddhist political groups whenever it was felt that such assistance was necessary.

Things changed around 1995. A group of monks who were capable of seeing the "long-term" and were able to engage in self-criticism, emerged. They realised that if they do not have an organisational machine of their own, they will continue to help the agendas of narrow-minded and self-serving politicians and political parties.

Thus there developed an organised group of monks who would not be controlled by any political party.

What is to happen next? The PA, the UNP and the JVP are trying to somehow trap the bhikku in his campaign slogans. The task of the bhikku should be to engage in the political process without compromising his identity.

Good cop runs out of favourPolice Problems

In the early seventies we saw the emergence of the 'Politics of Terrorism' as practiced by some Tamil militant groups. Since then, terrorism, which started as a means to an end, has become an end in itself for the LTTE who knows no other means of governance. Under LTTE law, none other than the LTTE is allowed to espouse the cause of the Tamil people.

So much for 'liberation' of the Tamil people!

The Prevention of Terrorism Act No. 48 of 1974 (PTA) that was enacted to prevent terrorism practiced by militant-groups protects the president, members of parliament, the judiciary and state from violence in the pursuance of governmental change. We have come a long way since this enactment and we have witnessed a long drawn out war, trying to prevent 'Terrorism' as defined in the PTA. That dirty politics is the main hindrance to a successful prosecution of that war is too well known.

We are now seeing the emergence of a new kind of terrorism that is spreading like a deadly cancer. I am referring to 'terrorism of politics' that is being practiced by politicians and state officials in pursuance of retaining and gaining power. This form of terrorism has joined forces with an equally deadly monster – 'bribery'

This was witnessed during the Parliamentary Debate on the Draft Constitution. Terrorism of politics with the added dimension of bribery, certainly spells doom for the sovereign people

Today the people of this country are so terrorized by politicians that they fear to express their opinions, to go about their business, or to attend to their duties

Take the case of Sub Inspector Palitha Ranga Bandara, who was the officer-in-charge of the Wellawa Police Station till recentlySub Inspector Palitha Ranga Bandara

He was forced to flee his home along with his wife and children following death threats after he refused to give in to a local politician in what he saw was wrong

While a majority of police officers, especially those holding top positions, meekly give in to the dictates of politicians, the stand taken by sub-inspector Ranga Bandara is to be admired

He is facing terrorism of politics simply because he acted without fear or favour according to the law of the land. Findings of the Supreme Court, where he went for redress in several Fundamental Rights Applications, are proof of the justification of this officer's actions. "Seeing is believing."——In this context, the instructions of President Kumaratunga and the I.G.P. to police officers not to take orders from politicians, can be seen as mere lip service.

If this is the lot of a police officer who has acted flawlessly in the discharge of his duties, one can imagine what is in store for the police service. More importantly, what is the lot of the people who the police are duty bound to protect and serve impartially?

Ranga Bandara has been praised by his subordinates, colleagues and superiors, and by the public alike. He has been described in the media as a rare policeman of our times. Who knows what next? —Now that he has resigned from the police service, he may well answer a call from the people and make a rare politician, - a statesman dearly wanted in our times.

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