A brief history of two monk activists
Posted on August 26th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

In my opinion, Ven. Athuraliye Ratana and Ven. Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara were following two different lines  of activism in the arena of inclusive nationalism until their recent  joint pratfall in the mire of dirty politics. The first appears to be a shrewd politician who is trying to get involved in issues that should not be politicized; the second is a sincere idealist passionately committed to a worthy cause, but constantly defeated by his own uncontrolled temper and unguarded tongue. 

Though both are university products, their areas of study were not the same. The first studied philosophy at Peradeniya, while the second focused on Buddhist studies at the Kelaniya and Sri Jayawardanepura universities. Ven. Ratana was among the founder members of the Jathika Hela Urumaya party formed in 2004. The formation of the party was broadly a response to Buddhist-targeted unethical conversions and Christian fundamentalist activities issues. He was one of the nine members of the party returned to parliament under the UPFA at the parliamentary election held that year. Ven. Gnanasara founded the Bodu Bala Sena in 2012 mainly to counter the steady growth of multifarious Islamic extremist groups that eclipsed the still active Christian fundamentalist activities in the public consciousness. 

Defensive reaction by the victimised majority to the tyranny of racist minority politics of Tamil separatists has long been misinterpreted  in the biased global media and in the international (Western) diplomatic space relating to Sri Lanka as unwarranted Sinhalese discrimination against Tamils in general. In the same prejudiced way, they have successfully demonized Buddhist monk activists who are actively opposing both covert and open religious fundamentalist aggression and this has affected the honest but naive Gnanasara Thera more than it has the worldly-wise  Ratana Thera. It looks as if the former is now caught in the vice-grip of a stratagem set up by the latter.     

Ven. Galaboda-aththe Gnanasara Thera’s Bodu Bala Sena organization was formed in 2012 for the purpose of exposing the subversive activities of Christian and Islamic fundamentalist  sects and alerting the authorities and the Ven. Mahanayakes to the danger posed by them to the whole nation. He endeavoured to do this in the  calm and composed way characteristic of a Buddhist monk, without expecting any reward in return (= ‘nissaranadyashayen’  as he used to put it). He has had no political or other materialistic ambitions. For many years he tried to explain his case to politicians in power and those in the opposition to address the problem without politicizing it. In a few instances, peaceful marches organized by the BBS led to  clashes between Buddhists and Muslims for which only the former were blamed. In the biased media, Muslims were portrayed as the victims and the Buddhists as the aggressors. The true situation was otherwise. Buddhists never initiated any violent incidents. Some unruly elements from the Muslim side started the trouble. For example, in 2014, some young Muslim men threw stones from the roof of a mosque at a peaceful Buddhist procession at Aluthgama and  this led to violence, which quickly spread to a number of other towns (including Panadura, Beruwala, Welipenna, etc) in south-western Sri Lanka. There were social media videos showing this provocative act – stone throwing by some young Muslims – at the time. On that occasion, thousands of innocent Muslims and and similarly innocent Buddhists were affected and their shops, houses, and places of worship were attacked. Though the then Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government did its best to stop the violence and restore normalcy, the incidents were not adequately investigated, and not enough was done to clear the name of the BBS which was solely blamed for all that happened. The involvement, on that occasion, of a crafty politician in the garb of a patriotic ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but with a personal agenda of his own that was inimical to the latter’s policies, added a political tone to the naive monks’ (Ven. Gnanasara’s) peaceful protests, and biased reportage turned him  into a bogeyman. 

The leaders of successive governments didn’t take Ven. Gnanasara seriously enough because they thought that if they took any decisive action, on his word, against the handful of powerful communalists among minority politicians who, intentionally or unintentionally, either facilitated, or provided a cover for, questionable acts such as anti-Buddhist subversion, illegal felling of trees in the state forest reserve in Wilpattuwa, alleged settling of  illicit Muslim immigrants from certain Islamic countries in the same reserve, encroachment and even vandalizing of historic Buddhist places of worship in the North and East, and so on, they would lose the support of the mainstream Christian and Muslim communities, which being minorities, naturally tend to form themselves into ‘block vote’ bases at the instance of opportunistic politicians.  The majority of ordinary Muslims do not want to support communalist politicians, but they are often in the thrall of those politicians, because of the latter’s ability to ‘deliver’, whichever major party or alliance happens to be in power.

The polity consisting of the majority community (Sinhalese) cannot behave like this. In any country, it is normal for the majority community to be unconsciously undermined by a false sense of security vis-a-vis the minorities, whereas the latter feel a bit paranoid with or without justification. The Sinhalese voting public are always divided into rival parties, and at parliamentary elections, under the existing electoral system, it is extremely rare that a major party is able to  form a viable government without the assistance of one or more minority parties, a situation where the latter become kingmakers despite the insignificance of their numerical strength. The slightest movement towards redressing the balance in favour of the disadvantaged majority Sinhalese in any anomalous situation would invariably earn the individual Sinhalese activist or the group behind that initiative the label of racist or extremist or chauvinist. So, the Sinhalese (Buddhists, particularly) get criticised and condemned as racists, tribalists, etc. while in reality being victims of the racism, fanaticism, and extremism of groups within the minorities. This applies to Ven. Gnanasara as well who is engaged in the performance of the duty that has historically devolved on him as a Buddhist monk, a duty that is above politics, pragmatic or otherwise.

Ven. Gnanasara Thera approached the Most Ven. Mahanayakes in Kandy and pleaded with them beseechingly, not once, but several times, and explained to them this problem with video evidence of outrageous Buddhism-bashing speeches of Wahabist zealots, to no avail. Once, a few years ago, the monk led a large procession of well disciplined young activists (more than 2000) from Getambe to the Sri Dalada Maligawa (a distance of about four kilometers), and then they proceeded to the Malwatu Vihara, the monastery of the Ven. Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter. The Mahanayake Thera, at first, very unfairly, refused him an audience. Later, having found that they were not ready to leave without seeing him, he allowed Ven. Gnanasara and a few of his companions to come before him. Nothing resulted from that meeting.  

The BBS leader wanted the Maha Sangha to play their historic role as Buddhist monks without stooping to politics, and was determined to resolve the Islamic extremist problem through rational dialogue with the participation of the clergy of other religious groups (which is what he has always wanted to do because even groups of traditional Muslims, he claims with evidence, approached him and pleaded with him to rescue them from Wahabist and Salabist extremists). Unlike him Ven. Athuraliye Ratana Thera seemed to be adopting a political approach in his one man political crusade against Islamist extremists. Just before the recent 2020 general election Ven. Gnanasara gave up his non-political stance, probably under someone’s persuasion.  

The April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist bombings led to a heightening of public awareness about the Islamist problem that had been brought to light by monk activists years before; the issue began to receive attention from the clergy of other religions , as well. The then UNP national list MP Ven. Ratana took the opportunity to visit the construction site of an alleged Sharia university in Baticaloa in the east being built without proper authorization from the Sri Lankan government  and financed by suspicious foreign sources; he succeeded in forcing the Yahapalana government of which he was a prominent member at the time to suspend the construction work for the time being.  Under the same pretext, he staged a ‘fast unto death’ in the vicinity of the Dalada Maligawa, in Kandy. It was tantamount to claiming exclusive credit for creating a groundswell of popular opposition  against Islamist extremism. I, as a journalist, wrote at the time that his maverick intervention in the latter instance (the uncalled for gatecrashing of the protest movement with a fast) was bound to undermine the emerging unity among the Maha Sangha in the face of adventitious ISIS terror. 

 I expressed the opinion that the activism of Buddhist organizations including Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s BBS facilitated this awakening among the Buddhist clergy and that it could help form a united Sanga community that spoke with one voice on matters that came within their purview.  But it appeared that Hon MP Ven. Ratana, most probably, wanted to edge out the leaders of that movement and assume control of it, with a view to playing a powerful dual role in the corresponding political power structure that would evolve: the traditional role of a representative of the Maha Sangha as the guardian of the Buddhist moral-cultural establishment, the nation (the people), and the country (territory) of unitary Sri Lanka on the one hand and the acquired role of party politician on the other. 

Thus, Ven. Ratana seemed to be trying to play a two-in-one function combining both those roles. However, the role traditionally assigned to the Maha Sangha has been above that of the king or, in modern times, the government. The ruler assigned a higher seat to the monk and paid him obeisance. The monks didn’t dabble in policy making or in governing, but advised the ruler on how to rule in the righteous way according to the Dasa Raja Dharma or the Ten Duties of the King. The question of a problematic religion state relationship did not arise. Buddhism is not a political religion. The only politics it advocates is democracy. The Maha Sangha is a perfectly democratic social entity. In the modern world it is considered essential to keep religion and the state separate from each other in order to ensure democratic governance of the Western type (This is more relevant to societies dominated by political religions.) So every secular democracy can be regarded as broadly consistent with Buddhist principles and vice versa. 

Ven. Ratana cannot provide the political leadership that the country needs, nor can he provide any spiritual leadership either, because of his attempted dabbling in statecraft and priestcraft simultaneously. A Buddhist monk is not likely to make a good president or prime minister. The impression among political analysts is that  Ven. Ratana is a typical politician and a pragmatic political strategist (Pragmatism is amoral, or rather not moral, but it is part and parcel of realpolitik that a politician can rarely avoid). That he is clever at dissembling was evident to the less gullible onlookers during his ‘fast unto death’ before the Sri Dalada Maligawa (He took care not to die, by drinking water, as the Catholic priest who joined him on the fast revealed, probably inadvertently). It was obvious that he was not alone in staging the show. The Ven. Mahanayake Theras severely criticised him after the event. He had approached them beforehand and told them about his intention of staging a fast, but cunningly he did not reveal the venue to them. Had they been told that he was going to have his fast in the hallowed precincts of the Maligawa, they would not have permitted him to do so; that would have been a serious setback for him.

Because of Ven. Gnanasara’s exertions, unprecedented prospects of different religious communities standing up to the common enemy of murderous religious extremism were brightening. We were witnessing the first stirrings of a spring in the Sangha Sasana, that is potentially freed from abominable Nikaya divisions, which are based on caste in stark contradiction of the compassionate Buddha’s teaching. Ven. Gnanasara made arguably the largest contribution to this most positive development. However, his entanglement with Ratana Thera has cost him his reputation.

The monks do not relish the idea of establishing a Buddhist theocracy, which is, in any case,  inconceivable, considering the spirit of absolute democracy that characterizes the Maha Sangha. Buddha praised the system of government followed by the Licchavis of Vesali of his time, who were his relations of his own warrior caste (not that the Buddha was a casteist; he was a perfect renunciant). It was a form of a republican system of government by common consent, an ancient version of what we call democracy today. However, the monks’ staying above mundane politics doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to do with secular politics (or how the country is run). Buddhist monks in the majority Buddhist Sri Lanka have been the custodians of the country’s Buddhist cultural heritage for over two thousand two hundred and fifty years according to written records. By the way, which other country in the world can boast of such a long unbroken singular spiritual cultural tradition? Shouldn’t the United Nations Organization make special recognition of this fact in the name of human civilization, which is currently being threatened with annihilation by murderous religious extremism? 

By the influence of its humane spiritual values, Buddhism ensures, not only the peaceful coexistence of the various communities who live in the country, but also the unhindered enjoyment and protection of their freedom of belief and worship. However, Buddhists will not accept the alleged divine right of adherents of any particular religion to kill or persecute those who don’t share their beliefs and practices or to discriminate against them. What Ven. Gnansara proposed to the Maha Sangha is that they unite and provide the necessary moral guidance for the rulers to rule the country righteously, whatever political ideologies they subscribe to. This does not involve any violation of secular democracy in governance. He says that the Sri Lankan society today is sick in every way. To heal the society, the Maha Sangha must unite and provide guidance to the rulers. He quotes the Buddha’s teaching: ‘sukho sanghassa samaggi’ ‘Happy is harmony among the Sangha’.

 Ven. Gnanasara Thera predicts that when the Maha Sangha are united, the politicians and the people will fall in line, and a suitable lay political leadership will emerge. Ven. Ratana’s intervention in his capacity as an MP monk probably produced some limited positive results in the immediate context, but in the long run, it will be counterproductive. He is only doing more of what he did in the past. And we all know what he did has led to. His involvement will be an obstacle to the functioning of the lay political leaders that the whole country approves of as being capable of fixing not only the problem of Wahabist incursion, but also the infinitely greater issue of external interference in the country’s domestic affairs that, in the first place, as the media reveal, inflicted it (jihadist terrorism) on our  nation under the Yahapalanaya. It is not that he (Ven. Ratana) is not aware of what he is doing; he is not such a dumb character. We may be sure that, sooner or later, he will make amends in some way.

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