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Post-Aragalaya Shifts in the Politics of the Buddhist Sangha

Economic concerns are adding new layers to the political role of the Buddhist sangha in the post-Aragalaya period. At the height of the economic crisis, some groups of protestors saw Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as waning. However, developments in 2023, such as the contestations surrounding Kurundi archaeological site and reports of illegal Sinhalese cultivator encroachments in Mylathamadu, have shown that such a fundamental shift has not occurred. Instead, after a short period of relative silence, the Buddhist nationalist discourse is re-emerging in a more diversified manner.

Meanwhile, another group of Sangha, who had been working towards peace and reconciliation, came together under the banner ‘Sangha for Better Sri Lanka’ with the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), to sign the ‘Joint Himalayan Declaration’, which was presented to President Wickremesinghe. As part of this, there are ongoing efforts by political and civil society representatives to get the four chief prelates of the three nikayas to publicly endorse the initiative. Developments on this front are important because it can form a countervailing force to the other two trends of sangha politics that were mentioned above.

The economic layer or turn is seen in the regrouping of some sangha to push back on the austerity measures and (perceived and real) loss of state patronage to religious establishments since 2022. These monks are forming a political front and claim to speak on behalf of a people who have been robbed by a corrupt political elite, and the sangha having to therefore step into its guardian role to protect the people of Sri Lanka.

The year 2024 is expected to be politically significant, given anticipated elections, ongoing IMF-related reforms, and their immediate impact on the social fabric. This article looks at how sections of the sangha are pushing back at the ongoing reforms agenda and the loss of state patronage, alongside the more commonplace nationalist agenda on the one hand and reconciliation efforts on the other.

Sangha and land contestations in the North and East

The recent episodes of cattle slaughter in the Mylathamadu grazing lands in Batticaloa District provide an insight on the link between sangha politics and access to land in non-Sinhala majority areas. These grazing lands have been encroached by cultivators, predominantly from Sinhalese areas, over the past decade and more. The confrontation between cattle farmers (mainly Tamil, but also some Sinhala and Muslim farmers) has renewed this year, and grazing rights cannot be practised by the cattle farmers despite a court order in their favour. On issues like this, Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana has been reinforcing the claims of the Sinhala settlers by trying to erect Buddha statues in these areas. Encroachment of grazing land for cultivation is not merely a phenomenon in Mylathamadu, but it takes on an added racial aspect in the North and East.

Ven. Sumanarathana’s threats to cut Tamil people into pieces qualify as hate speech, but have not been met with his arrest under the ICCPR Act. This is despite the spate of recent arrests under this act, such as of Sepal Amarasinghe, Nathasha Edirisooriya, and Pastor Jerome Fernando, citing speech allegedly inciting racial and religious tensions. The passive inaction on the part of the state is not surprising, given the political immunity that Buddhist monks generally enjoy. Episodes such as Mylathamadu and Kurundi show how Buddhist nationalist elements are trying to reaffirm their political legitimacy and leadership in the post-Aragalaya context, especially following the fall of the Rajapaksa regime in 2022.

State patronage and electricity tariff hikes

The current economic conditions and reforms also increase the sense of dispossession among the Sangha. Some sections of the sangha are subsequently advancing a more pronounced argument against corruption and misuse of public finance, while trying to safeguard state patronage of Buddhism. Such rhetoric emerges in response to the religious establishment losing some of the growing state patronage it has received. For instance, the electricity subsidies that had been given to all religious establishments since 2008 have now been removed. This is due to the ability of the state to provide such patronage being significantly dented by the economic crisis.

Alongside other reforms, such as higher tax rates, there is growing social unrest against the government from various sections of society, which this new layer of sangha politics is trying to mobilise. In September 2022, a group of monks called on temples across the island to turn off their temple lights on the next poya (full moon) day, as an act of protest at the increase in electricity bills at places of worship by 555%. A letter was also sent to President Wickremesinghe by the Mahanayakes of the three main monastic sects, recalling the foremost place that Buddhism was given in the country’s Constitution and asking for state concessions for Buddhist establishments on the new electricity tariffs. Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, former chair of the political party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, spoke on the issue in the following manner:

“The Government has done this clearly as an act of revenge against religious places. It is apparent that the Government takes these decisions from the view that there is no need to have religious places. We see this as an anti-religious programme. Not only religious places but the general public also cannot afford these electricity tariff hikes, especially in the present situation.”

The rhetoric by these sangha is therefore twofold – objecting the state withdrawing its patronage of religious places, and objecting electricity tariff hikes citing its impact on the general public. The second layer of sangha politics described above is observed most easily in the politics of the Mihintale Temple (Mihintale Raja Maha Viharaya).

Mihintale as an emerging epicentre of dissent of the sangha

The chief prelate of Mihintale, Ven. Walawahangunawawe Dhammarathana, was among the first to publicly declare that the temple could not pay its electricity bill. The monk gave the government an ultimatum until January 2024, to either provide relief to the suffering people within a month by lowering electricity tariffs, or that he would lead the people in a new Aragalaya to throw out the government and all 225 parliamentarians.

More recently, Ven. Dhammarathana claimed that his life was in danger, citing that the government had placed two surveillance persons at the temple. This issue was raised in Parliament by Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa. In response, State Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon told Parliament that all 252 security personnel posted at the Mihintale Raja Maha Viharaya would be withdrawn if its Chief Incumbent thought that they posed a threat to his life. A subsequent video showed Ven. Dhammarathana, with careful use of rhetoric, emphasising the role of the security forces and the sangha in defeating terrorism during the war, and how he had not lost confidence in the army. Instead, it was the political class, who were living on the taxes squeezed out of ordinary people, to fund a corrupt and opulent lifestyle, that he spoke against. Interestingly, the monk also said that during the Aragalaya, when faced with the threat of protestors attacking his house, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon was protected by his Muslim friends.

Acting on the threat it issued, the government withdrew all security personnel deployed to the temple for its renovation and restoration work. In late December, Chief Incumbents of Malwathu and Asgiri chapters wrote to the president requesting redeployment of the security personnel for the temple works at Mihintale, highlighting the importance of the place to Buddhists in Sri Lanka and around the world. A further escalation of this came, when Ven. Dhammarathana held a press conference in early January, stating that the next phase of the Aragalaya would be launched from the sacred site of Mihintale on the theme “Ranil Go Home!”, unless the president paid heed to the letters of the Mahanayakas.

This discourse is important – on the one hand, for drawing on sentiments sympathetic to the Aragalaya, and on the other hand for giving the narrative a racialised tone.

A new sangha-led political movement

These developments show how the loss of patronage is mobilised against the existing political elite. There are two layers to this: first, the loss of patronage of the sangha is real and perceived, and it is going to alienate monks and there can be a backlash which needs to be handled carefully. Second, Ven. Dhammarathana has recently launched a political movement, under the banner ‘Thrainikayika Bhikkhu Ekamuthuwa’ (Bhikkhu collective of the three nikayas) and the front’s slogan is ‘රට හදන මග – නව නිදහස් සටන‘ (The path to fix the country – new independence struggle).

Despite being a small political force, it is still a significant development. The political movement is led by a powerful monk of the established Siyam nikaya, with the support of a group of politically-savvy campaigner monks. The movement has the potential to empower a more vocal and new kind of militant/agitating monks, likely increasing polarisation among the sangha. Furthermore, nationalist groups such as Ravana Balakaya may get reinvigorated and new ones may emerge. The Buddhist establishment’s ability to contain them might be further weakened, because the dissatisfaction is led from within the establishment and not by fringe elements.

Political mobilisation of rapidly escalating poverty

Proponents of Buddhist nationalism are thus observed to capitalise on popular anxieties and increasing hardships of the people. In the guise of speaking on behalf of the people’s needs, these monks attempt to safeguard the prevailing patronage structures and privileges. While electricity price hikes seem to have been the immediate epicentre of the resistance of the monks, a closer view would show the shift in their narrative.

Among the usual vocal and extremist monk-led organisations, some of them such as the Sinhala Ravaya, led by Ven. Akmeemana Dayarathana, former Parliamentarian, are already changing their narrative to fit the new context of losing state patronage. Claiming that politicians have looted the wealth of the country for a long time, Ven. Dhammarathana, for example, blamed the electricity tariff hikes on the incompetence and negligence of politicians and authorities. The losses of this incompetence were then offloaded to religious places and the general public, he claimed.

This illustrates a shift in the political platform and popular narrative wielded by nationalist monks. It marks a conservative push back against political corruption and a rejection of the 225 parliamentarians (the prevailing political system). The language used is worth noting, as it is reminiscent of Anagarika Dharmapala (commonly cited the ‘father of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’), who urged the Sinhalese people to “awaken” and fight for their rightful place. In a call to action, Ven. Dhammarathana said, “Therefore all the people of the land, unite. We will give leadership. (We) won’t contest. We must direct good people… Arhat Mahinda launched a system change from here. The time has come for a system change. We will not take weapons or do Hartal. People, line up. Venerable monks line up.” His discourse also invokes the legacy of Ven. Gangodawila Soma, who provided leadership for the post-independence wave of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist revivalism in the 1990s:

“It is the saffron robe that has the ability to change the roguish political culture that has brought about the demise and enslaved this country under the anarchy caused by the economic crisis, social crisis, environmental crisis, spiritual crisis, and political crisis. Having come to this holy land [Mihintale] today, we have a duty to fulfil at this time […] Reverend Gangodawila Soma raised a loud voice that this [political] system should be changed. But he could not reach his target. He was made to leave us […] At first, we asked not to vote for monks. And it suffices to give them alms. However, after seeing the destruction they (the politicians) have caused, a situation has arisen where it is impossible to stay like that.”

The monk went on to refer to the duty of the political monk, which was to select the “rightful” leader, like the sangha had done during the times of the ancient Sinhala kingdoms. This discourse has populist undertones, as it calls out the limitations of the current representational democracy and its inability to select a suitable leader. Instead, according to him, it is the civilisational heritage that the Buddhist sangha has borne over the centuries that equips the monks with the knowledge and the authority to identify the best leader for the country.

Competitions and collusions

Developments discussed in this article indicate how Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has lost its political leadership in the post-Aragalaya context and with the fall of the Rajapaksa regime, and is now trying to reassert itself in different ways. The use of the ICCPR Act for the state to selectively arrest individuals on grounds of hate speech against Buddhism, the controversies of land and heritage in cases such as Kurundi, and the recent mobilisation by Buddhist monks over electricity tariff hikes, are markers of nationalist forces trying to re-establish leadership.

A characteristic element of Rajapaksa-ism (politics associated with the former Mahinda Rajapaksa regimes) was a certain form of nationalism, which was ethno-centric, anti-power sharing, and selectively xenophobic. However, emerging trends indicate that while former nationalist coalitions are getting dispersed in the post-Aragalaya context, they might form alliances with other forces. In this way, they can become vehicles of the brand of nationalism popularly associated with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It is easy to associate recent developments in Buddhist nationalism and sangha politics with political forces that have a reputation for manipulating nationalism for their political gain. The existing political elites, from Rajapaksa to Wickremesinghe, to more recent political entrants such as the NPP, Dhammika Perera and Dilith Jayaweera, may patronise such developments to ensure their political future, and bargain and compromise in the process. However, it may be useful to discern that politicians do not always manufacture these shifts in Buddhist nationalism and sangha politics or are unlikely to be in total control of them.

The political and social implications of this are several.

First, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism appears to have receded to a milder form from the previous Rajapaksa led exclusionary nationalism to a version closer to Bumiputra nationalism, where  ethno-religious groups are under the custodianship of the majority Sinhala Buddhists.

Second, it also indicates that there are few other politically viable alternatives to this kind of Bumiputra-ism, as all political forces and parties seem to converge on it. This nationalist convergence of the main political forces, new and emerging, may frustrate the available options, especially for Tamil nationalist politics to be treated as equals in Sri Lanka. This may potentially lead to some Tamil parties fielding their own presidential candidate, compromising the long tradition of minorities using presidential elections as a key bargaining moment.

Third, initiatives such as the Joint Himalayan Declaration are in line with the President’s reconciliation agenda, and may give him some legitimacy at a time when a segment of the sangha is undermining his legitimacy as the ‘national leader’. The main Buddhist establishment may engage in discourse surrounding the Himalayan Declaration, as seen in the past with regard to official and government-endorsed efforts for reconciliation. However, such official engagement can be less forthcoming when more hardline sections within the main nikayas express alternative opinions. In one such recent development, a statement by a member of the Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha, the supreme decision-making body of the nikaya, claimed the Declaration did not reflect the collective and official stance of the nikaya. However, it may embolden the elements that are gravitating towards the groups of monks led by Ven. Dhammarathana and other more fringe nationalist elements among the sangha.

Fourth, electricity, and the issue of equitable access to it, has been a central rallying point for protestors, including during the Aragalaya. Therefore, it is not only the monks, but also aspiring political figures or groups who will seek to give leadership to growing popular dissatisfaction with electricity rate hikes and other economic reforms. For example, the main Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) settled the electricity bill of the Mihintale temple, with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa saying that the government should not “harass places of worship” and that it was their duty to support temples such as Minitale which has played such a great role in shaping Sri Lanka’s civilisation.

Finally, as seen in the recent discourse in the Jathika Bhikshu Ekamuthuwa, the Buddhist nationalist discourse sets the political class apart and claims it is corrupt in total. This is very similar to the narrative also advanced by the JVP-led NPP. This is an early indication of how corruption will be foregrounded as the key electoral theme in the year 2024. More importantly, given the similarity of their anti-corruption rhetoric, competition or collusion of these political forces may be likely and is a development that needs to be followed closely.

Harindra B Dassanayake and Rajni Gamage

This article was originally published in the Daily FT on 10 January 2024.

Image Copyright (c) 2024 Nazly Ahmed and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

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