Monks and the fundamentalist menace
Posted on August 31st, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

The noisy confrontation between a group of demonstrators holding banners with the slogan ‘Different but Equal,’ with Azad Salley, a Muslim politician, apparently leading them and another group of activists challenging them, led by a young Buddhist monk – Ariyapola  Rathanasara  Thera – from a nationalist organization called the ‘Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa’ (SJB) (Lit. Collective of National Forces of Sinhale) in Colombo on Monday August 15, 2016 drew predictably  antithetical responses in the media.  Many justified the action of the demonstrators, and condemned that of the disruptors; some did the opposite; a few tried to focus on what usually lies behind such incidents. On the whole, the episode earned the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka more bad press around the world reinforcing their recently acquired violent image. However, in my opinion, the third point of view, which requires attention to be directed at the causative background to confrontations of this nature, is the most constructive.

‘Different but Equal’ is the title of a classic documentary written and presented  by British historian Basil Davidson (1914-2010)on African history up to , during and after the criminal trade in slaves conducted by the inhuman European and other colonial powers in the past. Even as late as fifty years ago, Africa was usually known as the Dark Continent; the black skin of the people was the colour of night; it was taken for granted that the Africans had no culture, and no history.  They were considered subhuman. Davidson argues that this was a grave misconception, a cruel myth created by slave traders, who chose to ignore material evidence of ancient cities and kingdoms in the far interior of Africa.  In the Middle Ages, black Africans were treated as equals by Europeans. The slave traders tried to show that the Africans were less than human to justify their abominable treatment of them as little more than animals. The borrowing of the title of Davidson’s documentary in this instance is an insult to the honoured memory of that great human being. As the demonstrators were targeting nationalists of such organizations as Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya, and Sinha-le, the slogan ‘different but equal’ is completely inappropriate, and misleading. The majority community has never discriminated against the minorities. Instead, the common masses of all communities in Sri Lanka were subjected to cruel exploitation by European colonialists, who continued slavery till past the mid-19th century.

Most of the participants of the ‘Different but Equal’ demonstration were probably unaware of this historical truth as much as they were innocent of any knowledge of the hidden propaganda aspect of the event. Meanwhile, the gate-crashing SJB activists  foolishly played into the hands of a group of agents provocateurs , betraying the worthy cause they are so passionately fighting for . This foolhardy approach to the task of meeting emerging threats from religious fundamentalism of different brands to our country surviving as a safe haven for people of different races and religions as it has done over many centuries up till now, is totally counterproductive. The contention of the SJB members is that though these NGO activists’ ostensible objective is egalitarianism, it is only a cover for a really sinister agenda against the peaceful majority of the country, and hence against the whole country. SJB’s is a valid argument, but their method of countering fundamentalist threats is wrong.

There are several videos of the incident gone viral on the internet. Of the ones I have watched, three are short, being  only 2-3 minutes long. These helped me to have some idea of the SJB’s line of thinking that prompted them to try and spoil the show for the sloganeers of the NGO ‘Different but Equal’.  In these videos, Rathanasara Thera tries to justify his organization’s intervention on this occasion.  He questions the participation, in this avowedly nonreligious nonpartisan demonstration,  of individuals like Azad Salley of a questionable background, of non-Sri Lankan foreigners on visit visas who didn’t understand what was going on. Rathanasara Thera also said that though he had himself made several complaints at the Bribery Commission close by – i.e., near the venue of the demonstration –  against Rishaad Badiuddin, a cabinet minister of the present government , for illegally clearing state land at the Wilpattu reserve under the pretext of settling displaced Muslims, there was no sign of action being taken against him. The firebrand monk said he saw some foreigners on visit visas taking part in the demonstration. At what I thought was the end of the fracas, the demonstrators were seen withdrawing from the scene, and the monk urging his supporters to disperse peacefully as their point had been made.

As far as one can judge from what one learns from the media, Azad Salley is a nondescript politician in search of crises he might get involved in so he could boost his image amidst rivals. He had been an ardent UNP’er  before he transferred his allegiance to the then president Rajapaksa. I was a little amused to hear him praising Rajapaksa at that time. Azad is a rival of the older, more powerful Hakeem, another cabinet minister of the current regime. In 2013, Salley was detained for eight days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for an allegedly seditious statement against Sri Lanka he had made to a periodical in South India. It was Azad Salley who, curiously enough, stood bail for the well known preacher monk Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka who had been held under detention for allegedly illegally keeping an elephant calf at his temple, and who  expressed his surprise, according to news reports,  at being given bail. The same Salley made headlines more recently when he, during an interview on TV, angrily threatened to kill the controversial Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) leader Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara Thera and take his own life if the latter insulted his prophet! It is little wonder if monks feel suspicious and even angry when characters like Salley demonstrate, denouncing Buddhist groups such the BBS and Sinha-le.

The longest video clip of the squabble (about 17 minutes) records its hottest moments. It shows the two parties to the advantage of the demonstrators, especially for non-Sinhala speaking viewers, leading them to confirm their earlier prejudices against the monks. The SJB members demanded that certain offending placards with the names  ‘Sinha-le’ and ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ on them be withdrawn, and the demonstrators complied with that. But most of what both sides were saying was lost in a cacophony of raised voices.  The sarcasm of the common Buddhist chant in Sinhala meaning ‘May all beings be happy’ being shouted out by a tall young man from among the demonstrators made little sense in that context, because the Buddhist virtue  of kindness to all beings did not come to the picture at all. The monks and their lay supporters were responding to what they perceived as an emerging treacherous fundamentalist menace to the Sinhalese Buddhist culture ennobled by that very moral quality.

On their self-assigned mission of preempting fundamentalist encroachment, Buddhist  monks must address not only the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but all other communities as well. Even the ‘Different but Equal’ sloganeers are members of the ordinary public. It is disconcerting to see that these are alienating them by their visibly angry, clearly authoritarian, and unabashedly aggressive manner where they ought to mobilize public opinion in favour of their cause through wise insightful guidance. But these monks are not capable of providing such leadership, because they themselves lack a central authority that can unite the currently fragmented Sangha, the ‘Community’ (of Buddhist monks) that they  represent. So long as they fail to speak with one voice, they will remain an irrelevant  force, that will inevitably prove a stumbling block to the people who have to address the issue by engaging  all Sri Lankans alike because what they are trying to deal with is a national crisis. The  monks’ scandalously unrestrained behavior will spell doom to the Buddhasasana and the country.

Just as the state fought against separatists terrorists, and not against ordinary Tamils, the monks are agitating against religious fundamentalists, but not against the peaceful ordinary Muslims and Christians of the country. The monk who is most prominent among monk activists in this regard, Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara Thera was seen taking part in relief activities among flood affected Muslims a couple of weeks ago.

There are some 30,000 bhikkhus in the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks  are traditionally respected as the very epitome of compassion, non-violence, and humanity which are among the basic moral virtues upheld in Buddhism.  But, of late, media stories have begun to emerge of them being accused of racism, aggressiveness and violence.  In recent years, some young monks have felt compelled to get involved in situations in which they involuntarily display these unwholesome attributes in their speech and, rarely, even in their actions. Those who offer comments on these ‘escapades’ that such monks get embroiled in hardly ever look at them from a sympathetic frame of mind, because their angry violent behavior is so contradictory to the accepted image of Buddhist monks to which the critics are accustomed. They appear to take it for granted that these monks behave thus because they are incorrigible religious extremists and racist exclusivists. Commentators often do not listen to their arguments, or try to see if there is any legitimacy to their grievances. These maverick monks themselves are remiss in their modus operandi; but it may be that they feel justified in resorting to such methods for lack of a better alternative, which itself is due to the strange inaction of the country’s Buddhist leadership (both the clergy and the laity), and to the cynical indifference of politicians in power from time to time. The young monks and their lay companions act in apparent ignorance of the fact that they foolishly undermine their noble cause through their undisciplined militant conduct.  The unfortunate final outcome of their riotous behaviour is that they get projected to the outside world as dispensers of ‘saffron terror’.

The truth is that there is no ‘saffron terror’ in Sri Lanka or in other countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Thailand where Buddhist monks are only reacting to what they perceive as aggressive Islamic expansionism. Buddhist monks are not trying to terrorize people in order to convert them, or to occupy territory, or to capture political power.  The matter that the monks are raising is vitally important for the continued peaceful coexistence of different communities in our multiracial, multi-religious, and multicultural country.  It is also of global importance.

3 Responses to “Monks and the fundamentalist menace”

  1. Christie Says:

    Dear Rohana:

    Most of us are not aware of the fact that the British Imperialists replaced black slaves with Indian colonial parasites. That is the British-Indian Empire.

    It is the problem we all are facing today.

  2. S.Gonsal Says:

    “Rathanasara Thera also said that though he had himself made several complaints at the Bribery Commission close by – i.e., near the venue of the demonstration – against Rishaad Badiuddin, a cabinet minister of the present government , for illegally clearing state land at the Wilpattu reserve under the pretext of settling displaced Muslims, there was no sign of action being taken against him.”

    – This is the UGLY FACE OF SRI LANAK POLITICS. This man, a Jihadists who prefers tree-less desert to our green environment has bribed ALL politicians. He personally has stolen a large amount of land from people according to reports, yet escape prosecution.

    The problem with monks is they too are corrupted with greed for low comfort. They should not let ANY politician to make political speeches within the temple premises.

    What is the message are we getting from the incident
    (em>”It was Azad Salley who, curiously enough, stood bail for the well known preacher monk Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka who had been held under detention for allegedly illegally keeping an elephant calf at his temple, and who expressed his surprise, according to news reports, at being given bail. “ ?

    You can clearly see how these extremists operate. They operate taking advantage of EXCESSIVE UNCONTROLLED GREED of Sinhala people.

  3. anura seneviratna Says:

    Almost every country has a multicultural sprinkling due to migration but official recognition is not granted except in the Sinhela national island country nicknamed SL. This criminal violation of the Sinhela country is the cause of insidious invasive attempts by the settler communities. Unless taken the bold and justifiable upholding of our sovereignty; no other cosmetic remedy will solve the ongoing curse on the Sinhela country.

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