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A brief history of two monk activists

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By ROHANA R. WASALA

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 activity issues. He was one of the nine members of the party returned to parliament under the UPFA at the 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 to the whole nation by them. 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, encroaching on and even vandalizing 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 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, 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 seems 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 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 Batticaloa 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 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. 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 on our nation under the Yahapalanaya. It is not that he is not aware of what he is doing. We may be sure that he will make amends in some way.

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Opinion

The care of good dentists

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I experienced an agonizing toothache for the first time in my right-hand upper jaw. On bringing it under control with native medicines, a couple of colleagues at my work place stressed me to see a dentist who could prevent any recurrence, and recommended a highly proficient doctor by the name Rini Mathew attached to a popular medical centre in Riyadh. After nearly five-days-wait I was successful in getting an appointment to consult her.

This highly pleasant lady doctor from Kerala, India, after seeing the set of teeth in my right-hand upper jaw recommended for a root canaling and requested to return in two-weeks-time. Having not undergone any sort of surgery in my whole life, I was a little confused as to what to expect. As I arrived prepared for the repair work on my teeth, the good lady told me to my pleasant surprise that I don’t need any further treatment for the moment and if I get the toothache back again to come and see her. I thanked God and praised her for her being frank and honest.

The history of dentistry records Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, who lived around 2600 BC is recognized as the first dental practitioner. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, specifically about treating decaying teeth, but it wasn’t until 1530 that the first book entirely devoted to dentistry – The Little Medicinal Book for all kinds of diseases and infirmities of the Teeth – was published.

You don’t want to feel like just another item on your dentist’s to-do list. The best dentists, like whom I consulted, have a way of letting their patients know they care about them personally. They are interested in their patient’s lives and are eager to become a part of their general care team. The best dentist always gives you the care that you deserve.

 

S. H. MOULANA

 

 

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Opinion

The Age of Animal Ministries

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The call by the government’s backbench MP Mr. Dilan Perera to be made the Rilav/Vanduru Amathi, or the Minister for Monkeys, in the Pohottuva Realm, certainly leads to plenty of interest.

This must do with the various divisions and breakup tasks that have been given to both Cabinet and State Ministers, in the current play of governance, by the Gotabaya strategies. 

The call for a Rilav Ministry may have come after the Minister for Coconuts, Arundika Fernando, tried to climb a coconut palm, in his estate, at Dankotuwa, and hold a press conference to tell the people about the shortage of coconuts and the cause of the high price of this essential food item. One was surprised that he did not blame the coconut price hike on the 19A to the Constitution, and give any assurance that the coming 20A will bring the nut prices to within the people’s reach. Such nutty thinking is possible from politicos today.

What was also interesting is how he did this climb, halfway to coconut heights, with some modern climbing gear, having nothing to do with the traditional coconut tree climbers, who used their feet and hands to move much higher, and also walk on ropes from tree to tree for coconut plucking and toddy tapping. He must be following the new thinking of the Rajavasala on Digital Development to raise this country to new heights of Rajapaksa Success.

Let’s get back to the hopeful Rilav Amathi – the Monkey Minister Dilan Perera. The dictionary meaning of ‘Rilava”, that comes from the Vaanarayas, is those who take the forest products. This certainly has much relevance to the huge forest destruction taking place today, with the clear political blessings of the Rajapaksa realm. It is the crooked, or rilav, thinking of the Pohottu politicians that is causing this huge destruction of nature, bringing disaster to the environment. Is it the hope of Mr. Dilan Perera that he would be put in charge of this chronicle of destruction, becoming the political gatherer of profitable forests products, and giving free forest land to the political catchers of 20A fondness?

Or, is he thinking of the romantic legends of the monkey Hanuman, that had so much to do with Rama and Sita, and brought so much of forest land from India and dumped in several parts of this country, giving much of the ayurvedic medicine to this day. Is the Pohottuva Dilan thinking of becoming the Phohottu Hanuman, to bring in new legends of politically powerful romances that will soon be part of the Hanuman Keli or Monkey Games of the Power Players? His recent defence of the 20A, against the 19A that he voted for, gives a good indication of the Rilav and Vanduru thinking that is the stuff of Pohottu politics.

 There is also a good opportunity for the call for a Nari/Hival Amathi, or Fox Minister, in this government. Why not have one of these foxy politicians, with their delight in political long-jumping, who have plenty of nari-thinking in their systems, as the new Nari-Hival Amathi. He or she will make some quick decisions on how the ‘Nari Tharjanaya’, the Fox Threat in the Kalutara, and now Horana areas, can be tackled; giving the Cabinet Minister of Health time to keep thinking of matters other than public health, and more on the political health of those who are in the bandwagon of power politics. 

A Nari-Hival Amathi will be one whose hoots will be heard loud and clear in support of 20A, and one who would have gladly hooted in support of both the 18A and 19A, and is ready to raise both hands, and even one’s legs, for the 20A.

There are other animals who can have Cabinet or State portfolios in this politics of backward evolution. Why not have a Buffalo, or Meeharak Amathi? This could be a Pohottuva activist who will promise to give a good price to the curd made from buffalo milk, and also tell the public how much they can benefit by lying for hours in the mud found near their homes, without looking for government jobs or contracts for services that can only be given to the Pohottu catchers.

The Tamil Tigers were defeated more than a decade ago. But the politics of today is still seething with tiger threats to national unity. With what is happening to the leopards in this country, there is certainly a cause for a pohottu backbencher to ask for a Kotiya or Diviya portfolio. This can be a pohottu player who have the stripes of corruption on one’s body, with plenty of experience of grabbing the land of others, whether paddy fields or plantations, with the twisted politics of power, whether from the UNP, SLFP, UPFA or the Yahapalana travesty. A Koti Amathi will be roaring away, and leaping with great success on grabbing the property of other people, for the rising cause of Pohottu Balaya, the future power Dual Citizens, especially of the Washington-Medamulana alliance.

It is not likely that there will be any calls for a Bull or Cow – Harak Amathi – especially after the reigning silence over the plan to stop the slaughter of cattle. There are plenty of bulls in the huge pack on the government side, at Diyawanna Oya, we hear and also see their ‘gon talk’ and ‘harak keliya’ in the parliament so often today. They will be happy that cattle slaughter will remain a reality here, with no moves for the rise of a vegan society, which is certainly not the substance of the real Rajavasala thinking, with complete absence of kindness to animals.

There are many more animal or species ministries that can be offered to build up this Rajavasala Sathva Kattiya, once the 20A is passed, and the ministries can flow from the Rajapaksa pen. There is much space for more than one serpent or Sarpa Amathi – who will spread themselves all over the country, and crawl around and strike down with venom those who dare talk of the disasters that lie ahead post 20A. There can be many cockroach and mosquito ministers, too, who will help spread the Covid 20 — that can be far more dangerous than today’s Covid-19.

Let’s give a bow to the Age of Animal Ministries or Sathva Amathya Yugaya. 

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Opinion

Where is Sajith’s leadership?

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By Dr UPUL WIJAYAWARDHANA

The Leader of the opposition is a vital link in democracy and, as the name implies, is expected to give leadership. Unfortunately, the behaviour of Sajith Premadasa is casting doubts as to whether he is giving that leadership.

Even when he challenged Ranil for the leadership of the UNP, he was happy to put up a fight for some time and then give up. His disappearance into the wilderness after losing the presidential election and issuing a statement that he would devote the rest of his life to looking after leopards, perplexed many. Egged on by a coterie of Ranil-haters, he split the UNP but still wanted to grab the HQ of the party, an aspiration he quickly gave up after the last general election, probably because the UNP did unexpectedly bad.

There is no doubt that the biggest challenge he faces is opposing the introduction of the 20th amendment. If the ugly scenes in the parliament, when 20A was tabled, on 22nd September is anything to go by, many would be in for disappointment. “The ongoing campaign against 20A is characterised by a severe trust deficit, which the Opposition has failed to overcome.”: This forewarning in the editorial “Diyawanna Post Office” (The Island, 22 September) seems to ring true. I greatly doubt the opposition enhanced its image with this behaviour and the contempt of the voters towards Members of Parliament surely would increase.

What was displayed was not leadership but gang-leadership. Instead of obeying the rulings of the Speaker and forging a strong opposition in a democratic manner, what we saw was rowdy behaviour. To add insult to injury, they were demanding the cameras be aimed at them, so that the whole country could witness their rowdiness!

I too am against some aspects of 20A, like removing the limitation of Cabinet size and letting dual citizenship holders enter parliament, but have done so by just means; having voiced them through this newspaper.

In addition, Sajith failed miserably as a leader when he did not take any action against the national list MP Harin Fernando, who made a totally unsubstantiated allegation against Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. He told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday attacks that the Cardinal shifted the Sunday Mass to Saturday as he was aware of the terrorist attack. As a catholic himself, Harin should have verified facts before he made such a serious accusation. In spite of having had to admit his folly to the commission, on his way out, Harin made sarcastic remarks to journalists. It is impossible even to speculate what earthly purpose these insults are meant to serve. If it is to regain the support of the Buddhist voters, it certainly is an exercise in futility as most Sri Lankans hold Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith in high esteem for his exemplary leadership following the Easter Sunday attacks.

Sajith should have taken immediate action, as this is a repeat offence; having taken Harin to the Cardinal for an apology on the previous occasion. Instead, he said in high-brow Sinhala “abhyantara kathikawathaka yedenewa”, meaning an internal conversation is taking place. Sajith seems to be under the impression that using serious sounding words would satisfy the masses and solves problems.

Unfortunately, Sajith’s lack of leadership qualities are becoming more obvious by the day. Perhaps, there is a chance for Ruwan Wijewardena, if he plays his cards right!

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