In recent times members of the Buddhist clergy have increasingly tended to make the front pages of newspapers and the TV headlines. This might suggest that they are assuming an increasingly prominent role in public life. Whether it is for better or worse is a matter on which opinion is divided. It is of interest [...]


Politics, media and the monks


In recent times members of the Buddhist clergy have increasingly tended to make the front pages of newspapers and the TV headlines. This might suggest that they are assuming an increasingly prominent role in public life. Whether it is for better or worse is a matter on which opinion is divided. It is of interest to observe the manner in which politicians relate to the members of the Sangha, particularly those who have a significant public profile.

Almost on a daily basis, television news bulletins show politicians from government or opposition ranks, making visitations to members of the clergy including the venerable Mahanayake Theras, ‘to obtain blessings.’ These visits are seldom made without a full media crew including TV cameras in attendance. It would be difficult to argue that the ‘blessings’ would be any less potent if they were given in private (sans media crew). So it is tempting to conclude that politicians see some benefit in being associated, in the public eye, with the clergy (mainly the Buddhist Sangha) and associated religious observances. It may also be the case that, believing that the Sangha wield a certain influence in the community, politicians like to be seen as having their favour and patronage.

It would appear that politicians like to project a public image of themselves as being respectful of the Sangha and heedful of their guidance in matters of national importance. Apart from cultural imperatives that may demand such demeanor, this may have something to do with the special place given to Buddhism in the Constitution, which says in Article 9:

“The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14 (1) (e).”

Image and reality
This elevated place accorded to Buddhism in the Constitution is again a subject of controversy. Many are up in arms when arguments are made in favour of the model of a secular state (such as India, which has many more ethnic and religious communities than Sri Lanka). Yet in spite of the lip service paid to ‘giving Buddhism the foremost place’ and ‘showing respect for the Sangha’ and its wise counsel, to what extent do politicians live up to this publicly projected image, in times of stress? At least two episodes from recent history come to mind that point to a dislocation between the image and the reality. One relates to the SLFP leadership, and the other to the UNP leadership.

It may be recalled that when former army commander Sarath Fonseka was arrested after his defeat in the presidential election of 2010, the Mahanayake Theras expressed concerns and called on the president to release him along with other army personnel taken into custody. The Congress of Religions representing religious leaders of different faiths also condemned the arrest, calling it a ‘cruel act.’ As we know, these appeals were not heeded.

The Mahanayake Theras announced a special Sangha Convention to be held at the Sri Dalada Maligawa to pass a resolution on developments in the country. But they cancelled it citing security concerns. Several senior monks told the media that the Mahanayakes had been pressurised by government representatives to call off the event. It’s clear that the power of the political class prevailed over that of the clergy during this highly fraught episode.

A second example was in December 2011 when divisions within the UNP were at their height. The Mahanayake Theras wrote to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe asking him, in the interests of harmony and party unity, to hand over the party leadership to Karu Jayasuriya whilst retaining the position of Leader of the Opposition. This request was ignored. Wickremesinghe reportedly denied he had received such a letter, but some websites published it.

A mere charade?
It would seem that when push comes to shove, the leadership of neither the SLFP nor the UNP — the two main political parties — is ready to bow to the dictates of the Maha Sangha. The media are given short shrift in such situations. Are the regular visitations to ‘obtain blessings’ and other shows of respect by politicians then, a mere charade? Are the clergy not as influential as they are made out to be in the media and by politicians?

The government’s resistance to appeals from the Mahanayake Theras to amend the recently approved regulations on casinos would seem to be yet another example of the political establishment’s imperviousness towards the views of the clergy, when it comes to any project seen to be vital to its interests. In spite of the deferential conduct in front of TV cameras for public consumption, it seems that politicians use the Sangha and the good things it stands for, for their own purposes in the end.

Of all the monks and their various formations, it is the Bodu Bala Sena that has hogged the media limelight the most, of late. This aberrant group seems to have confounded the analysts so far. Is the conduct of the BBS of a piece with the pattern outlined above where the political class calls the shots and determines how the influence of the clergy is to be deployed? Is the BBS the cat’s paw of those individuals (or the individual?) in the establishment whose project is the advancement, in the worst possible way, of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonism? The BBS’s utter contempt for the rule of law is the clearest evidence of the protection it enjoys in high places. With its neo-fascist orientation the BBS’s conduct represents the very antithesis of the teachings of the Buddha.

If it is true that the political class derives its mandate from the people who vote it into power, it would follow that it is up to the ‘good Buddhists’ in the country – till now the silent majority – to speak up and say “enough is enough” to the BBS, before its nemesis is brought about, bloodily, by factors beyond anyone’s control.

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