In ‘Sri Lanka: Impunity, Criminal Justice and Human Rights’, Basil Fernando describes the current situation in Sri Lanka as one of “abysmal lawlessness”. ‘Lawlessness of this sort differs from simple illegality or disregard for law, which to differing degrees can happen anywhere. Lawlessness is abysmal when law ceases to be a reference at all. Sri Lanka’s justice and accountability institutions have been eroded to the point that they have become not simply dysfunctional but also sham institutions .
Legally, the Rule of Law has been defined as upholding the principle that ‘all are subject to law and no one is above the law’. In other words, the long arm of the law should reach everyone impartially, objectively and indiscriminately’. In this sense, no one enjoys privileges or special rights; by the same token, no one should be penalised on account of his or her caste, class, clan or religious or political beliefs. Such a system would create a just society thereby laying foundation for sustainable and true development of peoples of a country.
However, unfortunately, thugs in saffron robes and the politicians are an exception and in a class of their own, free to operate without fear or sanction to harass, intimidate and cause offence to others with impunity. It is a sense of shame that those who claim to protect our Sinhala Buddhist traditions in this country are themselves defiling its sanctity by their nefarious conduct and behaviour. Worst of the culprits who are polluting the doctrine of peace and non-violence of Buddhism are those from the Maha Sangha. Stories of monks caught in scandalous acts and unbecoming activities appear on a regular basis. Extremist groups appear to be headed by rogue monks are a law unto themselves and those monks are involved in various corruption scandals, which has prompted many Buddhists like me to wonder what is happening to our Buddha Dharma and the Maha Sangha?, and whether Buddhism is encountering a crisis of faith.
During Rajapaksa rule, Sri Lanka was transformed into a rancid ethnocracy: a country where Tamils, after the end of a ferocious civil war, were offered humiliation instead of consolation; Muslims were demonised and subjected to hate attacks , where the enforcers of the law have become volitional abettors of vicious ethnic chauvinists; and where saffron-robed Buddhist monks, having designated themselves the defenders of the Sinhala majority, sniffed the air each morning for the scent of fresh offence—and follow it to one minority community or another.
In April 2012, Buddhist bhikkhus stormed a mosque in Dambulla, and demanded its’ closure, claiming that it had been built on sacred Buddhist area. Police officers who showed up at the scene, rather than hauling the hate mobs and the rogue monks into prison cells, deferentially cleared the path for them to walk about freely. When news of this assault reached the government in Colombo, the then PM Jayaratne, apparently upon Rajapakse’s advice, reacted by ordering the Muslims to move their mosque. Such a swift decision by the government to side with Buddhist chauvinists who had so openly desecrated the place of worship of the Muslims rather took the blush off the claim that it’s the government for all people.
Emboldened by the example of this effortless early triumph, extreme Buddhist monks grouping themselves under Sinhala Buddhist names – BBS, Sihala Ravaya, Ravana Balakaya sprang up sporadically and started selecting targets for “civil policing.” Many lay people with extremist leanings too joined in. BBS was in the forefront, with the backing of Gota, their patron saint , staging rallies in various parts of the Island, against Muslims and their halal system. Thousands of men and women gathered in the capital to hear the nationalist rhetoric of Ven Gnanassara , their fiery rowdy leader who thundered “Our country is a Sinhalese one and we are its unofficial police”. Other groups visited many ministries, and staged street demonstrations even carrying insulting effigies of Muslim faith and even attacked and wreaked havoc on many Muslim owned businesses including beef stalls. It was not surprising that ‘Face of Buddhist terror’- Wirathu of Myanmar was Gnanasara’s patron saint and mentor. He visited Sri Lanka and addressed a BBS Conference which served to spread anti-Muslim hate further in 2014.
Buddhist monks also then attacked Muslim teachers at a law college, accusing them of favouring their own kind, and called for the abolition of the abaya, the niqab and the hijab. “We will fight until this attire is banned from this country, so that there is no chance to unofficially enforce the Islamic Sharia Law in Sri Lanka,” they shouted, as if ventriloquizing the principal obsession of overzealous European liberals. Particularly, for nearly three decades, Buddhist demagogues have increased their efforts to suffuse the minds of ordinary Sinhalese with sinister myths about a virtuous Sinhala majority defiled and victimised by alien minorities.
The latest one is the incident which happened in Trincomalee where a Buddhist monk took the law into his hands and Police officers present surrendered their authority to him in fear. A Tamil woman who was at a bus stop in Trincomalee last Thursday was surrounded by a mob led by a Buddhist monk. She was apparently wearing a black saree with images of a face printed on it.The print on the saree aggravated the monk, who claimed they were images of the Buddha. It was questionable as to whether it was actually the images of the face of the Buddha, as some believe the images represented that of a Hindu deity. This lady was taken to the Trincomalee police where she was warned and allowed to return home, after reportedly apologizing and changing into another saree before going home. The monk was seen to threaten the woman thus,’ I am letting it go because you are a woman. If you were a man, I would dash you on the floor’. To a bystander who intervened, he roared, “You keep in mind, people cannot do whatever they desire. This is a Sinhala Buddhist country. What you Tamil people are asking us to do is turn a blind eye when this woman goes around wearing this?”
Civil social activist Gamini Viyangoda in an interview with a newspaper, questioned why the Police just looked on when the monks are threatening and intimidating innocent people. They just stood and watched as this man (monk) said things like ‘dashing on the floor”. He added,’ Sri Lanka’s law bends in the presence of a Buddhist monk, and that is a clear indication of a destructive future. He also said the acts of such monks’ echoes Talibanism. These persons in robes are given a sense of importance by Southern politicians who have given importance to religion and ethnicity. Now the monks have assumed a sense of great power and are behaving like thugs’. In July 2018, a Buddhist monk assaulted and strangled a police officer who sought to arrest him on a warrant for alleged sexual harassment.
This is not the first occasion where thugs in the name of Buddhism punished unsuspecting victims who were mostly women. in 2014, British tourist Naomi Michelle Coleman was deported for sporting a tattoo of the Buddha on her arm. However, Supreme Court redressed the harassment suffered by her in 2017. In the Post- Easter Sunday period, there were many cases where Buddhist monks intimidated mostly people from Muslim community on similar issues. In May , a Muslim woman named Mazahima was arrested and remanded by the Hasalaka Police for wearing a kaftan decorated with the logo of a ship’s helm, which was mistaken for a Dharmachackraya. She was unfairly charged under ICCPR Act and held for more than a month. In April, a Sinhala novelist Shakthika Sathkumara was also charged under the ICCPR Act when one of his short stories that hints on sexual abuse in Buddhist temples aggravated a few monks. This abuse issue was further highlighted by Ranjan Ramanayake with evidence ,who was also harassed by many monks.
This firebrand strain of Buddhism is not new to Sri Lanka. It started off with a key Buddhist revivalist figure of the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala, who was less than complimentary about non-Sinhalese people. The long war against the Tamil Tigers then brought the hard-line Buddhist groups led by some rogue sections of the Maha Sangha into direct public confrontationist roles, portraying the war as a mission to protect the Sinhalese and Buddhism. After the so-called Tamil adversary was defeated, Muslims became these nationalists’ main target, along with evangelical Christians whom they accused of deceitfully converting people away from Buddhism. Unfortunately, the growing Muslim extremism fuelled by Saudi money also gave impetus to these Buddhist extremist groups to target the Muslim community as a whole – demonise and alienate them, while those in the government used them to retain and gain power. Even the moderate Buddhists have also been targeted by hard-line ones.
Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks, the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism. So why have these monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs , causing so much destruction? Why are the Mahanayakes silent and allow Gnanasara to run riot, causing inter communal disharmony? Why is Vinaya Pitaka not applied to these offending monks? Why was Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara released when he was the main responsible for many communal riots who acted with impunity? These are questions to be answered.
According to leading Thai monk Phra Paisal Visalo,, in an interview to Washington Times (30/08/2018), said “The scandals about the troubled monks are a reflection of the deep-rooted problem of the whole sangha system, and the real cause lies with the flaws of the monastic education and also the sangha administration”, adding that “our monastic education is weak and outdated and hardly helps to bring about spiritual change to the novices and monks… He also attributed the long-standing problem about bad monks to the weakness of the sangha administration, which he described as inefficient, lax and passive, adding that the worst is that many senior monks on the top jobs are also engaged with indecent affairs — namely, bribery and cronyism. “This problem has nothing to do with the religion [itself] but the monks, the temples and the whole sangha community,” he added.
He also raised an important aspect of religiosity in relation to Thai nationalism, ‘Buddhism in Thailand is strictly treated as part of nationalism, and what ensues is an attempt to define ‘being Thai’ as ‘being Buddhist’. This means that only those who hold the Buddhist faith are considered Thai, and if you’re Christian or Muslim, you’re not regarded as a real Thai.. He said that all monks should be able to understand the conventional nature of all religions and nationalities. “People of any faith are our human fellows. Their beliefs are just different from ours and they have their own ways of training their souls. But, finally, they might be doing good deeds and refraining from bad deeds just like what our Lord Buddha taught us”. Phra Paisal also insisted that the real threat to Buddhism is not other religions but consumerism, which, he said, has driven many monks to stray from Buddha’s teachings, leaving behind the practice of meditation, turning their backs on simple living and beginning to accumulate material things… In order to protect Buddhism, the monk said that we must turn to look back at ourselves and see the truth that our religion is weakening because of us all. “We must dare criticise ourselves and also improve ourselves. We should bring Buddha’s words to remind us. He said that Buddhism will not survive unless his followers put his teachings into practice.”. Don’t these views reflect the dire situation in Sri Lanka too?
The extremists monks are only a small part of Maha Sangha n our country, but they have loud voices whose hate messages are heard with much respect by the grass root people, because of their robes. The radical monks espousing violence against others (recently against Muslims ), and taking law into their hands acting like ‘unofficial Police’ have become a huge problem in Sri Lanka, that Governments have done little to address. These governments must urgently act with strong measures against these extreme groups which espouse and instigate violence in the name of Buddhism, recognising that failure to act means the hatreds will spread and the situation will get worse. Thus, only time will tell whether Sri Lanka will respond effectively to the new surge of violent Buddhist nationalism/extremism or slide back into a state of conflict from which it was once so happy to escape.