Bhikkhus on the brink of desperation
Posted on July 4th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This article was written on December 25, 2016, but remained unpublished. I am offering it to the Lankaweb community in view of its topicality in the current context.)

What’s wrong with Ven Gnanasara being among the religious leaders who met with the president?

Latheef Farook’s opinion piece under the title Pampering racist hooliganism: Recipe for disaster’ (The Island/December 14, 2016) begins with the utterly false claim that  there is deep disbelief and disappointment” among members of all communities about president Sirisena having invited Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Ven. Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thera for the religious leaders’ meeting that he (President Sirisena) summoned on  December 6, 2016. The writer’s angry denunciation of Buddhist monks as ‘racist hooligans’ (That’s what the title implies) is utterly unwarranted. But by now such abusive language directed at Buddhist monks has become the norm in the media. In fact, this is only a local example of a global phenomenon. Theravada Buddhism has been identified as the greatest danger to all forms of religious fundamentalism everywhere. In order to discredit Buddhism, innocent Buddhist monks are being misrepresented as murderously violent over their justifiable protests against many incidents of fundamentalist aggression. This happens in predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka where there is a rash of fundamentalist activity on an ever increasing scale.

The truth about Ven. Gnanasara Thera is that, despite his outwardly harsh manner of presenting his legitimate case, people have now begun to understand that the Thera is making an obviously valid point (as incidentally confirmed by the recent statements made by Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana Wijedasa Rajapaksa in parliament based on government intelligence reports about strongly suspected Islamic radicalization of Muslim youth in Sri Lanka with the involvement of foreign elements). Ven. Gnanasara’s activism has relevance to the continued peaceful coexistence between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and other ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka. This may sound strange for most readers to hear because of many years of deliberate misinformation fed to them by rabid anti-Buddhist racist politicians and deluded extremists in the media. The BBS and numerous more recent, smaller groups of organized youth are getting involved in campaigns to meet the fundamentalist menace that comes in numerous manifestations. They are peacefully reacting to subtle as well as not so subtle incursions into the predominantly Buddhist cultural space of the country. (But patriotic Sinhala Buddhists must be careful of agents provocateurs who have infiltrated this youth movement.) Conventional local media largely ignore or try to downplay the significance of the activities of these young protesters. This virtual suppression of free speech seems to happen at the instance of time-serving politicians who are narrowly focused on gaining power and retaining their hold on it for as long as possible, often unconcerned about the obligation of using that power for the good of the people. President Sirisena may be expected to have realized this, perhaps better than many of the religious leaders that he met with on December 6. It must be appreciated that, in the first place, it was none other than Ven. Gnanasara Thera who was principally instrumental in persuading the Mahanayake Theras of the Three Nikayas to get the president to call that meeting. It is ironical that his participation is being resented by some.

It happened thus: on November 19, 2016 some 5000-6000 young activists (as I watched live online from abroad) including Buddhist monks from a number of national organizations such as Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya, and Mahasohon Balakaya, having communicated at short notice through Face Book contact, gathered at Getambe grounds near Peradeniya and marched peacefully to the Dalada Maligawa, where they held an Adishtanapuja (Solemn Affirmation of Righteous Determination). They were united into a single impromptu organization called the Sasanarakshaka Sabhawa.  (Another Adhishtanapujawa was conducted with the same objective  in the same place by a group of monks under a different banner about two weeks later.) The monks organized as the Sasanarakshaka Sabhawa pledged to dedicate themselves to the task of saving the country, the nation, and the Buddhasasana from harm, with the sincere expectation that Sri Lanka remain a peaceful undivided society where all the communities can live in freedom and harmony, asserting their different ethnic, religious and cultural identities. Then they went to see the Ven. Mahanayake Theras of Malwatta and Asgiriya to persuade them to provide them the necessary leadership and guidance in realizing their prime objective. They begged the Ven. Mahanayake Theras to solemnly demand of the government authorities to address the problem of fundamentalist encroachments on our historical Buddhist heritage sites in the north and east provinces which are being vandalized and built over or put under the plough by non-Buddhist encroachers. The Ven. Mahanayake Theras assured the monk delegates (headed by Ven. Gnanasara Thera), who were given an audience on the occasion, that they would respond within two weeks. So, the meeting with the president must be, at least partly, a result of this undertaking by the Ven. Mahanayakes. (But individuals and groups representing Christian and Muslim faiths must have also been involved in having  the presidential meeting that we are talking about initiated.)

Activism of Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana Thera of Mangalaramaya, Batticaloa

There are numerous instances of ancient Buddhist sites in the north and east being harmed by non-Buddhists, of Sinhalese being ill-treated and effectively evicted from those  provinces, of them being denied their citizen rights by non-Sinhalese government officials there, and other similar forms of harassment. Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana Thera of Mangalaramaya at Batticaloa has been carrying on a lonely struggle for more than twenty-four years to physically survive there, having rebuilt his monastery once burnt down by the Tigers (the only Buddhist place of worship existing in that town at present). He is trying to save the ancient Buddhist heritage sites of the place. The injustices, and human rights violations that the Sinhalese minority of the east are being subjected to because of their ethnicity are not unknown to the authorities. But the responsible government functionaries are in a state of denial observing a treacherous policy of political correctness. The recent incidents at Batticaloa made it very clear that ordinary Muslims and Tamils, particularly the young, in these provinces desire to live with the Sinhalese in usual harmony as they do in other parts of the island. Only the few communalist Tamil and Muslim politicians create problems for the local Sinhalese Buddhist population, most of whom have now left the areas due to racist harassment.

Are these monks racists?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, racism means (1) the belief that each race or ethnic group possesses specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another such group; and (2) discrimination against or antagonism towards other races or ethnic groups based on such a belief. In terms of these definitions of racism, these communalist politicians are racists, but the BBS monks are not guilty of that evil trait. Creating public awareness about acts of aggression against the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community by sectarian fundamentalist religious groups should not be condemned as racism. Traditional Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities, who account for 12.61, 7.45, and 9.71 per cent respectively, of the total population of the country of 20.483 million (2012 General Census), as against 70.19 per cent Buddhists, have never been discriminated against on religious or ethnic grounds by the majority Sinhalese. The Sinhalese form 74.90 per cent of the population. I know that this statement will be received with much skepticism, particularly by the misinformed sections of the general reading public. Yet, that is the truth.

Latheef accuses that Gnanasara Thera incites Sinhalese against Muslims by raising false allegations, thereby posing a threat to communal harmony. Actually, he is doing no such thing. He is only against the activities of extremist fundamentalist Muslims, who are a small minority. He has no problem with mainstream Muslims, some of whom are in fact among his supporters. Latheef misguidedly believes that the monk wants to create ‘a July 83 type ethnic conflict’, a baseless allegation against the monk that Izath Hussein (Muslim women’s lib and liberal Islam/The Island/Dec. 17 and 24, 2016) who has been writing about a non-existent ‘anti-Muslim hate campaign’ by Sinhalese Buddhists for many years now, agrees with: Izath Hussein writes: Now veteran Muslim journalist Latheef Farook has brought out a chilling fact in the Island of December 14: the President invited the BBS General Secretary, Gnanasara Thera, to a meeting of religious leaders on December 6. Apparently the President does not share the widespread Buddhist view that Gnanasara Thera is a deviant Buddhist who is dangerous to this country. Anyway we must bear in mind one fact: it is that since 1948 most of our Governments have been world-famous for a mind-boggling stupendous stupidity in managing ethnic relations. Obviously our Muslims should, in their own interest, now give priority to changing their personal laws”. Any fair-minded knowledgeable reader will know that this is rank nonsense about majority minority relations in Sri Lanka. But what else could we expect from Izath Hussain who once betrayed his visceral genocidal hatred towards the Sinhalese thus: We SL Muslims, however, have never committed genocide during the entirety of our existence in this island of over 1,400 years, for which I can give a convincing explanation: we lacked the means to do it” (‘Clarifications on genocide’/ The Island/April 22, 2014)? Now that is what is really chilling, isn’t it?)

In the Muslim women’s lib…..” article aforementioned, Izath Hussain makes the following absurd claim, ridiculously exaggerating Muslim power in Sri Lanka, based, as usual with him, on patently false assumptions: The question of women’s lib in Sri Lanka has acquired a sudden urgency. A Commission appointed seven years ago to recommend revision of Muslim personal laws has failed to come up with anything at all. Now the EU wants as a condition for the renewal of GSP + a revision of Muslim personal laws to make them consistent with UN instruments on human rights which have been acceded to by Sri Lanka. That requires changes in Muslim personal laws affecting vexed questions such as child marriage and so on. Presumably a failure to make the requisite changes would lead to a failure to secure renewal of GSP+. That can certainly be expected to add fuel to the ongoing anti-Muslim hate campaign the proponents of which clearly hope to engineer another 1983 holocaust, this time against the Muslims….”  The so-called Muslim women’s lib” issue will only affect the roughly 10% of the Lankan population that are Muslim. To claim that this question has a direct impact on the renewal of GSP+ concession only shows Izath Hussain’s own ridiculously bloated personal impression about the importance of his religion for Sri Lanka. The true situation is that Sri Lanka as a whole does not have so serious a women’s liberation problem as to be recognized as a strong enough reason to be considered an obstacle to the re-grant of GSP+ by the EU.

Though Izath Hussain doesn’t appear to recognize it, he is unwittingly supporting the Buddhist monks’ agitation against the introduction of repressive legal conventions associated with Islam to the Lankan society; they argue that the existing legal system should apply to all Sri Lankan irrespective of ethnicity and religion. This is a campaign in which Ven. Gnanasara plays a leading role. (Incidentally, in the second installment of the Muslim women’s lib….” article of December 24, 2016, Izath Hussain gets tied up in knots while trying to rationalize his irrational beliefs, which of course is the tragic-comic plight of persons of his ilk.)

Latheef says that instead of honoring and pampering” whom he calls racists (implicitly, such as Gnanasara Thera and others of their ilk), the government should honor its election pledge to restore law and order, virtually collapsed during Rajapaksa regime, and bring to book racists threatening to turn the country into a killing field”. We Sri Lankans know that the truth is the reverse of this: It was the much maligned ‘Rajapaksa regime’ which actually restored law and order, especially in the Tamil majority north and the Muslim majority east after three decades of terrorist violence, at the cost of 25,000 young soldiers dead and another 14,000 of them wounded, some of them being permanently disabled. Ungrateful hate mongers, who are a small minority, are a disgrace to the mainstream Muslim community they pretend to represent.

Buddhist monks’ agitation against religious fundamentalism is not new. A presidential commission appointed early in the new millennium (2001 during Chandrika presidency)  revealed that their allegations were well founded. Yet, those same questionable activities are still going on: no government has been able to address the monks’ grievances in any meaningful manner. Minister of Buddhasasana and Justice, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, told parliament recently, based on government  intelligence reports, that there is clear evidence that agents of certain extremist Islamic sects are making attempts to radicalize local Muslim youth. There is no reason why the Hon. Minister should tell lies on this point (though later he was unconvincingly challenged by some Muslim organizations).

Latheef writes: During the Portuguese, Dutch and British imperial powers, Muslims were hand in glove with Sinhalese kings defending the country. They were finance, trade, health and defence advisors.” Though a bit too extravagant, such claims have an element of truth. The educated monks are aware of these things more accurately, and they have no grouse against traditional Muslims.

I request Latheef Farook to look for concrete evidence, if any, of monks using ‘the worst form of derogatory language to humiliate Muslims’; the easiest way to do this is to scour the internet. He will be surprised to find that actually it is the monks who are being subjected to such humiliation and defamation by others. No more time should be wasted debunking all the fallacious comments made by the writer (Latheef). The exact opposite of what he says about our monks is the truth.

Silence of the Mahanayakes and the political and civil leaders  

The Sangha have come to this pass mainly because of the strange silence and indifference of the Mahanayake Theras and the political and civil leadership of the country that should accept responsibility for the conservation of the ancient archaeological sites of the Sinhalese in the north and the east that form the common heritage of all Sri Lankans, the protection of the Buddhasasana and the maintenance of interreligious harmony. The recent incidents at Batticaloa demonstrated this very well. When the readers check out the link given below (towards the end of this essay) and other associated video clips concerning these incidents, if they haven’t done so already, that is, they will understand how easy and peaceful things will be if the relevant authorities exercise their writ without fear or favour, without being intimidated by the scaremongering of the few disruptive elements there are. But the authorities must adopt a completely nonpolitical approach.

A government response at long last

Fortunately, I am able to wind up on a happy note. I’ve just watched (December 21, 2016) a video of the Minister of Buddhasasana and Justice Wijedasa Rajapakse visiting the Mangalaramaya at Batticaloa. There he has held discussions with Ven. Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara and Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana of the same temple. No doubt, the minister’s visit was a direct result of the aftermath of the Adhishtanapuja that the Sasanarakshaka Sabhava led by Ven. Gnanasara Thera conducted in Kandy on December 19. The latter explained, at the meeting with the minister, that in districts where the Sinhalese were a minority, there was a tendency for them to be subjected to severe forms of ethnic discrimination, and denial of their basic human rights, which never happened to other communities in districts where the Sinhalese were in the majority.  The minister said he already knew about these problems. A woman from the Sinhala village of Keviliyagama briefly described the difficulties that the Sinhalese experienced. For example, they were not given IDs, were refused registration in the electoral register, their land permits were cancelled, were often taken to courts over concocted charges about something they were legally entitled to, etc. The minister was going to visit that village the same day. During his short speech, he said that the Chief Incumbent of Mangalaramaya Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana (mentioned before along with Ven. Gnanasara) did not talk only about the Sinhalese; the monk had told him that the Muslims and the Tamils also had problems which needed answers, and that he was standing up for all of them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW-kCJKskn0 ((Link for the meeting at Mangalaramaya/December 20, 2016). There are a number of other very informative videos as well. If the government (meaning all governments, past, present and future) acts in the manner that Dr Wijedasa has practically demonstrated here, our patriotic young Buddhist monks would be saved the many undeserved calumnies they suffer at the hands of religious zealots who are guilty of the immoralities that they so maliciously accuse these monks of.  As a patriotic Sri Lankan, I wholeheartedly thank and congratulate the minister on his apparently forthright stand on the issue, and I earnestly hope that he will remain undeterred by any unfair criticism of, or opposition to him on this issue that might come from different quarters.

One Response to “Bhikkhus on the brink of desperation”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Thank you Rohana. The last sentence is worth repeating and I fully agree.

    [Quote] If the government (meaning all governments, past, present and future) acts in the manner that Dr Wijedasa has practically demonstrated here, our patriotic young Buddhist monks would be saved the many undeserved calumnies they suffer at the hands of religious zealots who are guilty of the immoralities that they so maliciously accuse these monks of. As a patriotic Sri Lankan, I wholeheartedly thank and congratulate the minister on his apparently forthright stand on the issue, and I earnestly hope that he will remain undeterred by any unfair criticism of, or opposition to him on this issue that might come from different quarters. [Unquote]

    Dr Wijedasa Rajapakse may be the only parliamentarian with sanity. The few instances I find fault with him include when he became the BASL president while being a MP. His conduct since then has been exemplary. He escaped a possible death attempt by shooting in 2014. He must continue in this role as the best Minister of Justice we had for decades.

    On the matter of Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka, this indeed is a chilling statement considering what happens around the world.

    [Quote] “We SL Muslims, however, have never committed genocide during the entirety of our existence in this island of over 1,400 years, for which I can give a convincing explanation: we lacked the means to do it” (‘Clarifications on genocide’/ The Island/April 22, 2014)? [Unquote]

    If this is the belief of one of the most peaceful, internationally exposed and learned man from the community, I fear to think what others think, plot and plan. It is a good idea for Sri Lanka to strengthen its defences, team up with Israel, enhance intelligence and surveillance and co-ordinate with US, Indian and Chinese agencies to exterminate this threat effectively if it materialises. Otherwise, the fate of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. will befall this nation too.

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