Saving Sri Lanka from the monkish terror


Last week, we saw not one but many sights that none of us ever thought we would live to see. The first was the undignified sight of a Buddhist monk by the name of Watareka Wijitha running for his life with a mob of monks and laymen in pursuit and the police trying to save the fugitive monk. This monk Wijitha is not exactly a popular person within the sangha and even saner and more staid Buddhist monks intensely dislike him. This writer has listened to one of his speeches and has to admit that perhaps he goes too far in trying to foster what he would call inter-ethnic harmony. However, that does not mean that this monk should be pursued by a lynch mob in that manner in public. This is the first time in our lives that we saw a monk in robes actually running for his life from an enraged mob of monks. The question that arises is whether that public display was really necessary if the objective was to rein in the activities of this monk. A press conference where learned monks would explain in detail the faults of this monk to the public would have been much more effective.

So we see that the real purpose of this exercise was obviously not really to stop Wijitha saying or doing whatever he is has been doing or saying, but to put on a public display to show the entire Buddhist dispensation that if a monk steps out of line, this is what he should expect. Unbeknownst to all of us who were preoccupied with the threat to the country coming from outside, a campaign of terror and intimidation has been at work within the Maha Sangha where even the most senior monks have been threatened and intimidated into silence. Senior monks are not people who are used to receiving threatening phone calls, besides, when the intimidators are ‘insiders’ who may know the habits and lifestyles and personal weaknesses of these senior monks, there would also be the fear of personal smear campaigns in websites, the social media and through anonymous posters and the like. So the senior monks have been terrorized into silence and however disconcerted they may be by the sight they see of marauding monks, all that we have heard from the senior monks is silence.

 The other sight we saw was if anything even more disconcerting – a group of monks invading the Ministry of Industries and Commerce and searching for this monk Watareka Wijitha. This is another signal to the Maha Sangha that if any monk dares step out of line, he will be isolated and hunted down no matter where he is – yet another step forward in the campaign of terror within the Maha Sangha. We have seen this monk Wijitha being pursued and hounded by monkish thugs and we have also heard it being said that he is a bad character. Even minister Dilan Perera went on record saying that this Wijitha is not a good person and that he will betray anything for money. But none of these monks really took the trouble to speak to the cameras and tell the public about the specific wrongdoings that Watareka Wijitha has committed. But we have not heard any such thing. While it is true that this writer has listened to one of his speeches, there was nothing in that speech which warranted this kind of persecution.

 Making an example of Watareka Wijitha

 And in any case, if this Watareka Wijitha is being hounded in this manner by monks, people like UNP parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella should be chased around the country on a daily basis by government parliamentarians for the things he regularly says. No member of the UNP says things that are calculated to provoke and infuriate with such regularity as Kiriella. But we don’t see government parliamentarians chasing after Kiriella calling for his blood - nor should that ever happen. We all unreservedly condemn the disruption, egg attack and the intimidation of the five UNP parliamentarians when they went to tour Hambantota. The bottom line is that we do not want to live in a country where opposing factions openly engage in acts of violence and intimidation against one another. This is why terrorism in all its forms should be crushed mercilessly and political parties – especially those wielding political power - should never engage in acts of intimidation against their opposing political parties. A wise governing party will never increase the political tension in the country by needlessly persecuting the opposition the way Chandrika Kumaratunga did.

 In this regard the Hambantota episode was definitely an aberration. This government has never persecuted or hounded the UNP in a systematic manner. In nearly nine years of power the Hambantota incident is one of just three instances that this writer can think of. The first was the confrontation a couple of years back in Punchi Borella between UNP and SLFP groups that had gathered in close proximity to one another. The UNP got the worst of it in this confrontation. The second was the demonstration by pro-government activists outside UNP headquarters when the Chanel 4 team came there during the Commonwealth Conference and the third was this incident in Hambantota. So there has never been any systematic persecution of the UNP. Talking of the UNP, we were all rattled when that kurundu polu episode took place in the heart of Matara town with one faction of the UNP attacking another in full view of the public. This writer was so shaken by that sight that my knee jerk reaction was to phone Shiral Laktilleke and tell him that this is why President Rajapaksa should be president for life – just so that we can have some peace and quiet without all this political tension.

 But now after seeing this monkish terror in action, I have begun looking differently even at that kurundu-polu episode. The dominant faction in the UNP does not engage in systematic terror tactics against detractors and the Matara confrontation took place only in the heat of the moment. Most importantly, there are no monks in the UNP or the SLFP and as laymen, they may tend to exchange a few blows now and then, but so long as it is not sustained and systematic, we must not get too worried about a few political clashes between laymen – that’s how I now look at the Matara confrontation. Even the Hambanota episode was relatively mild. None of those UNP parliamentarians were injured even though it would have been a frightening experience to be surrounded by a hostile mob. Laymen engaging in occasional clashes is one thing, but monks rampaging through the streets and a monk-led lynch mob looking for another monk, and aggressive monks invading ministries is another matter altogether. To see Buddhist monks behaving in this manner is an infinitely more loathsome sight than seeing laymen fighting one another.

 The monkish violence that we have seen in recent times represents evil incarnate. These are the modern day Devadattas and Bhuddarakkithas who are out to destroy Buddhism. Most revolting of all is the capitulation of the Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter in the face of this unprecedented monkish thuggery. While it is true that he may have been intimidated by the thugs in robes, still the dignity of the position he holds and the leadership he gives to the Buddhist community should have motivated him to rein in the wave of monkish violence which threatens to destroy the very foundations of the Buddhist dispensation in this country. But what did we see last week when a delegation of thug-monks from the Bodu Bala Sena and the Ravana Balakaya visited the Mahanayaka of the Malwatte Chapter? The Mahanayake simply threw in the towel and surrendered to the thugs! What he told the delegation of saffron robed horrors who came to see him went as follows.

 Abdication of a Mahanayake

 "Thamunnaansela me bhikshu garuthwaya nethikaragena me katayuthu karanne rata jaathiya aagama venuwen. Eva me rajayen sidu nowena nisa, methi emathiveru bohoma innawa namuth ewa kriyaathmaka ne. Ithin obawahanse paththare kiyala thiyanawa mama dekka aandu hadannath puluwan peralannath puluwan kiyala. Mokakhari karanna." ("You are doing all this, even at the cost of losing the respect due to a Buddhist monk, on behalf of the country, and religion because certain things that have to be done are not being done by the government despite the presence of many ministers. I saw in the newspapers that you have said that you can defeat governments and create them as well. Do what you can.")  These are not the words that we expect of a religious leader. If one analyses the words of the Malwatte Mahanayake, firstly, he admits the obvious, that these monks are behaving in a manner detrimental to the respect of the Buddhist monk. Then he placates the saffron robed barbarians by saying that they are doing all this for the country and religion because the government is not doing anything about these issues. Finally, he puts the ball into Galagodaatte Gnanasara’s court by saying that he had heard that Gnanasara had said that they can topple as well as create governments and he tells them to do whatever they can. The Mahanayake thera does not assert that the BBS can in fact topple or create governments he just puts the ball in their court. Then he washes his hands off them by telling them to do whatever they can while he, the Mahanayake thera, remains uninvolved.

 So now the monkish thugs are back on the streets this time with the limp acquiescence of one of the Mahanayakes as well. Does the Malwatte Mahanayake think that this kind of abdication of authority conduces to upholding the respect of the Mahanayakes? Over a long period of time, the Mahanayakes have been gradually becoming irrelevant. This latest abdication of authority over his own monks despite the harm that they were doing to the Buddhist dispensation is just about the last straw as far as the Buddhist laity is concerned. The Malwatte Mahanayake has turned himself into a cipher. The Mahanayaka Theras were not influential among the Buddhist laity even at the best of times. If the Mahanayakes told the Buddhist laity not to drink, eat meat or gamble, the laity would have ignored it. Individual monks like the late Gangodawila Soma thera in contrast, wielded enormous clout with the Buddhist laity far exceeding that of the all the Mahanayakes put together. Now Gangodawila Soma thera was one monk who could turn things this way or that at least among significant numbers of the lay Buddhists. But by publicly abdicating responsibility for regulating the behaviour of his monks, the Malwatte Mahanayake has lost whatever say he had with the public. Now when he tries to regulate the behaviour of laymen by opposing casinos and the like, who is going to take any notice?

 We have to consider the serious side effects of this monkish violence of the past couple of years. On the one hand, the faith of Buddhist laity has been shaken as never before. There was nothing that any enemy of the Sinhalese Buddhists could do to shake the faith of the Buddhists as much as these monkish thugs have. The complete disregard they show for the sensibilities of the ordinary Buddhist layman indicates that these are in all probability the leftovers of the JVP’s bhikku death squad called the ‘Kudahapola balakaya’ which was operational during the JVP’s second insurrection in the late 1980s. These were Buddhist monks who were also terrorists. At night they would don civilian clothing and go out and commit murders in the vicinity and as monks they themselves would perform the last rites for the people they had killed and even receive dana given to invoke blessings on the deceased. The UNP government of the time did not go after the Kudahapola balakaya with the same ruthlessness that they went after the JVP proper. By now the remnants of this Kudahapola balakaya would have become chief monks of their temples. If one notices all these monkish horrors who have emerged in recent times are middle aged – monks who would have been young in the late 1980s.

 The monkish anarchy

 Another side effect is the impression of a complete breakdown of law and order in the country, with the news channels full of stories highlighting violence unleashed by monks. The minorities, particularly the Muslims, are living in fear and the majority Sinhala Buddhists are scandalized by these goings on. To whose benefit is all this? The Muslims may also be at fault to some extent, but is monkish thuggery necessary to settle those issues? There are laymen who have been elected to represent the Sinhala Buddhists and this is a matter for them to take up and agitate for. There is no need for the monks to engage in thuggery over such matters. The Sinhala Buddhist laity in this country have proved time under both UNP as well as SLFP governments that they can settle challenges emerging from enemies both internal and external, so there is no need for bhikku’s to abandon their traditional role and to seek to usurp political power from the laity. And above all, there is no need for Buddhist monks to target minorities. We certainly did not finish the war and restore law and order to the country in order to see the peace that was achieved with such difficulty dissolve into anarchy so quickly.

 If Muslims are engaging in unethical business practices, you can retaliate by getting monks to preach from every temple to boycott certain named Muslim business establishments. Over a period of time such a thing is bound to have an effect on the named businesses. If there is one Muslim fanatic preaching against Buddhism, the Buddhists can retaliate by propagating similar views about Islam. There is no need for monks to behave in a manner that literally proves the assertions that this fanatical Muslim preacher has been making. So this sudden anti-Muslim fervour that has affected these thuggish monks is just an excuse to create trouble in this country. They are definitely a part of the international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. These monks have spread consternation among the Sinhala Buddhist majority and created a fear psychosis among the minorities especially the Muslims. Earlier, when the enemies of Sri Lanka said that the minorities were being persecuted in Sri Lanka, the govt. could argue that this was just separatist propaganda and that Tamils and Muslims were living with the Sinhalese in Colombo and many other parts of the country without any problem. But can the government really say that now?

 The biggest damage to the country is the appearance of governmental paralysis in the face of monkish thuggery with monks even daring to disrupt a government ministry. This was once an unassailable government but now they appear helpless. Nothing is more damaging to a government than the appearance of having lost control of things. This is of course a difficult time for this government because the SLFP has had close historic links with the Maha Sangha. Mahinda himself is a Sinhala Buddhist leader who championed the cause of the Sinhalese. These law-breakers are Sinhalese monks, therefore the government is hesitant. If there was a UNP government in power, all these monks would by now be sporting weals on their backs one inch high. When the Bodu Bala Sena invaded the UNP headquarters Sirikotha during CHOGM, they were mildly roughed up by the UNPers. Then some people tried to carry out the propaganda that the UNP had assaulted the Maha Sangha. And what happened? At the very next election, the UNP increased their number of votes in almost all districts! If they now campaign on the slogan that they will crush the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balakaya and Sihala Ravaya and restore the respect of the Buddhist dispensation, their votes will increase even more!

 Most serious danger to govt.

 But this is an SLFP government that is in power - a political party that has represented the Buddhist Sinhalese in particular which explains why they are so hesitant in dealing with these monks who are working to undo everything that this government has achieved. There are two questions that the government should ask itself. The first question is whether there will be any damage done to the political prospects of the government if they take resolute action against these marauding monks? The next question the government should ask itself is whether there will be any political damage done to them if they DON’T take action against these madmen. The next question the government should ask itself is whether they have not faced challenges of a similar nature before. In 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa first came into power, he inherited a minority government. Even in such circumstances, they were compelled to sack three of the most powerful ministers in the government – Anura Bandaranaike, Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathy Sooriyarachchi. The government survived and prospered. After the war, Sarath Fonseka joined the opposition and split the patriotic and nationalist camp down the middle.

 All those who cheered when Fonseka pledged to put the Rajapaksas behind bars, were Sinhalese - not Tamils or Muslims. But the government survived that challenge too and prospered. So how is it possible to argue that the government will not be able to survive taking resolute action against a few rampaging monks? On the contrary one has reason to believe that the vast majority of the Sinhala Buddhists will approve of putting down these monks who are bringing disrepute to the whole Buddhist dispensation. Then one has to consider what would happen if the government does not take action against these monks. This govt. will be weakened and will fall if they do not crack down on these conspiratorial madmen. Nothing is more damaging to a government than appearing to be not in control and that is precisely what these monkish madmen are trying to do to this government. So the government should be aware of all this and take appropriate action.

 When I spoke to a highly erudite monk the other day about this matter, what he said was that if you have to cure an illness you have to swallow bitter medicine. There is no other way to get well. So this government will have to swallow bitter medicine however ‘against the grain’ of the SLFP the given task may be. Unless the government cracks down on them now with a chisel, they will have to use a sledgehammer later so the better option is to take action now. Cracking down on the monkish fanatics, will also provide the govt. with the opportunity to deal with religious extremists of other religions as well in order to demonstrate that they are being even-handed in cracking down on religious extremism. 

 As of now, the Bodu Bala Sena is killing the govt. with small incremental doses of arsenic. We saw them carrying out three operations in quick succession last week. Now they will stop for a while so that the government will hope that the spate of incidents has died down. The government will refrain from prosecuting the BBS for the earlier incidents in the belief that prosecution will cause unnecessary ‘provocation’ and they will adopt a policy of letting sleeping dogs sleep. After getting off scot free for offences committed earlier, the BBS will then start again. Thus the impression in the country that the government has lost control of things will be reinforced. The danger is that the BBS could be aiming for something really big, like provoking a fight between Buddhist monks and Muslims so that the whole country goes up in smoke in a Sinhala-Muslim riot. This is why the govt. must not hesitate to crack down on these madmen now. Time is of the essence.

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