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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

Geneva Debacle: Forging a Way Forward

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By DHARSHAN WEERASEKERA

Attorney-at-Law

Alisdair Pal of Reuters says of the recent UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, “the resolution allows the U.N. to “collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability….[it] is a “huge blow” to the Sri Lankan Government including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” (“What does the U.N. resolution mean for Sri Lanka, 24th March 2021, www.reuters.com)

To my knowledge, much of the commentary on the resolution follows a similar pattern, i.e. the focus is on what the resolution entails for Sri Lanka, but not the Council. It is vital to focus on this latter aspect in order to facilitate a future defence of Sri Lanka at the Council, and related international forums. In my opinion, the “Core Group” and the other nations that joined them in voting for the resolution, have destroyed the credibility of the UNHRC and thus the institution.

In this article, I focus on the “Core Group’ consisting of the U.K., Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro that brought the resolution. I argue that the existence of such a group within the UNHRC makes a mockery of the principles and purposes behind the Council’s founding statutes, U.N. General Assembly resolution 60/251 and UNHRC resolution 5/1 (“Institution-building in the Human Rights Council”).

The UNHRC and the “Core Group”

The U.N. General Assembly created the Human Rights Council in March 2006 as a replacement for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that had been functioning since 1993. Many people accused the Commission of having become too politicised and biased. Therefore, the “Charter” of the Council was formulated to ensure that the new institution would not follow its predecessor. Paragraph 4 of UNGA res. 60/251 states inter alia:

“The work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation.”

Meanwhile, para 5 (e) states:

“[The Council shall] undertake a universal periodic review, based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States; the review shall be a cooperative mechanism.”

To my knowledge, there is no other mention of a specific mechanism through which the Council should carry out its work. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the framers envisioned that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was the best means through which the institution could carry out its work while conforming to the principles enunciated in para 4.

To turn to the Council’s other founding statute—UNHRC resolution 5/1 of June 2007—Annex 1 of the resolution sets out detailed instructions in regard to the Universal Periodic Review. Para 1 of the annex states that the basis of the review shall be: a) the U.N. Charter, b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, c) Human Rights instruments to which a State is a party and d) voluntary pledges and commitments by States.

Meanwhile, Para 2 states: “In addition to the above and given the complementary and mutually interrelated nature of human rights law and international humanitarian law, the review shall take into account applicable international humanitarian law.”

The fact that the instructions for the UPR include a mandate to look into humanitarian law issues, means that the framers envisioned that if a particular country is accused of violating humanitarian law, such matters could also be reviewed through the UPR mechanism. Therefore, the following question arises: If, as alleged by Sri Lanka’s critics there are rampant human rights abuses going on in this country or humanitarian law issues that remain unaddressed, then why could not these issues be taken up through the UPR process rather than through country-specific resolutions?

Neither UNGA res. 60/251 nor UNHRC res. 1/5 prohibit the Council from resorting to country-specific resolutions. However, reason and common sense suggest that where recourse to a country-specific resolution is made, it should be for an occasion or crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot normally be dealt with under the UPR. Otherwise, it makes no sense to have the UPR.

It necessarily follows that, if the Council determines that a crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot be addressed through the UPR exists in a particular country, such determination must also be made through an open, objective and impartial process of assessing and evaluating the relevant evidence, including by giving the accused country adequate time and opportunity to speak in its defence.

Now, let us turn to the “Core Group.” In this regard, one must consider three points. First, the “Core Group” is a self-appointed group and does not have a mandate either from the Government of Sri Lanka or any U.N. organ, including the UNHRC, to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

Second, some members of the group, notably the U.K. and Canada, have domestic political reasons to involve themselves in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. In regard to this, the following matters are relevant. First, there is a 2009 Wikileaks cable by an American diplomat to his bosses in Washington, detailing his conversations with the head of the Sri Lanka Desk at the British Foreign Office. He says inter alia:

“Waite said that much of HMG and ministerial attention to Sri Lanka is due to the “very vocal” Tamil Diaspora in the U.K., numbering over 300,000 … .He said that with elections in the horizon the Government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka with [David] Miliband recently remarking to Waite that he was spending 60 percent of his time on at the moment on Sri Lanka.” (“Wikileaks: David Miliband championed aid to Sri Lanka to win votes of Tamils in U.K.” The Telegraph, 22nd January 2012)

Some people might object that the above happened when the Labour Party was in power, and now that the Conservatives have taken over things are different. However, the Conservatives are under just as much pressure to win Tamil votes, and this is proved among other things by the conduct of former PM David Cameron on his visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. No sooner had he landed, he gave a speech scolding then President Mahinda Rajapaksa for his treatment of the Tamils and was whisked off to Jaffna to commiserate with the folks there. This behaviour shocked even some English people. The well-known columnist Rod Liddel wrote derisively:

“Normally, when one is a guest in someone else’s country, it is incumbent to be polite, even deferential. But the prime minister is aware that this does not apply to Sri Lanka …. So, it is to David Cameron’s immense credit that he struck the right tone when addressing his Ceylonese jonny. It is the tone of a member of the Eton upper sixth addressing some errant fag who has failed to buff his shoes to the correct level of shine, through either incompetence or negligence.” Rod Liddel, “That is the President of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags,” Times of London, 17-11-2013, www.thetimes.co.uk)

Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Conservative Party in its manifesto for the 2019 Parliamentary elections, had a clause calling for a “two-State solution” in Sri Lanka, and that clause was corrected only after stringent protest from the Sri Lankan Government. To repeat, the Conservative Party has just as much reason as Labour to court the Tamil vote, and it is reasonable to suppose that with the present action at the UNHRC, PM Boris Johnson and his cohorts have achieved a veritable “coup” in that regard.

To turn to Canada, Martin Collacott, a former Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, writing in The National Post in 2005, says, “LTTE-friendly community leaders are willing to ensure that liberal candidates win votes in Tamil-heavy urban constituencies provided the Federal Government turns a blind eye to fundraising” (Martin Collacott, “Canada’s role in Tamil terror,” The National Post, 26-1-2005). In sum, the U.K and Canada have ulterior motives to be interested in Sri Lanka, and this makes the motives of the Core Group as such suspect.

Finally, to my knowledge, the “Core Group” has not submitted to the Council any report explaining that the purported human rights problems they see in Sri Lanka cannot be pursued through the Universal Periodic Review, and must instead be addressed through country-specific resolutions.

Conclusion

To accept what the Core Group has done is to accept that rich and powerful nations joined by poorer nations that they can coerce, cajole or influence, can decide by themselves that a particular country has a human rights “problem”, and proceed to take action against such nation at the UNHRC, without ever establishing before the Council that the “problem” of which they complain actually exists, and all the while violating the purposes and principles of the Council as well as the right to a fair hearing of the targeted nation. Sri Lankans must do everything in their power to hold the Core Group accountable for their actions.

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Opinion

Regulate sports in popular schools ahead of big matches

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The Big Matches between popular schools in Colombo and main outstation cities are round the corner. In the past school sports was in the hands of former sportsmen and sportswomen who loved the game as well as their school. They devoted their time and money to coach the budding youth without any monetary gain for themselves.

But, see what has happened today. Sports coaches selected by the schools demand millions of rupees to coach the students. And this is readily agreed and paid by the school authorities. In the good old days the members of School teams were provided free meals during match days and also Sports equipment. But it is not so now. The school earn millions of rupees from big matches played for a duration of two, or three days in some cases, and this money could be utilised to buy the required cricket gear such as bats, pads gloves, boots, etc,. I understand a pair of cricket boots is in the region of Rs.18,000 to 25,000. Can a poor village lad who is enrolled to an affluent schools in Colombo, based on his performance in Education and Cricket afford this? These lads should be given all the support to continue in their respective sports rather than drop out due to financial constraints

Coaches in some schools are in the payroll of big-time businessmen whose children are, in the so called pools. Parents of children engaged in a particular sport should not be permitted to come in as sponsors as this would be rather unethical.

The Big Matches between popular boys schools are around the corner and I suggest that the Sports Ministry ensures performance based selections rather than on other criteria.

 

D.C.Atukorala

Colombo

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Opinion

‘Post turtle’ revisited

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I have written about this amusingly thought-provoking creature, the ‘post turtle’ to ‘The Island’ around three years ago (appeared in the opinion column of The Island newspaper on the 19th of June 2018, titled ‘The post turtle era’). The story, which I am sure most of you have heard/read already, is obviously not a creation of mine and I happened to come across it somewhere, sometime ago. 

And for the benefit of those, who haven’t heard the story, it goes like this:

“While surturing a cut on the hand of an old Texas rancher, the doctor struck up a conversation with the old man. Eventually, the topic got around to politics and then they discussed some new guy, who was far too big for his shoes, as a politician.

The old rancher said, ‘Well, ya know he is a post turtle’. Not being familiar with the term, the doctor asked him what a ‘post turtle was’.

The old rancher said, ‘When you are driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, well, that’s your ‘post turtle’.

The rancher saw a puzzled look on the doctor’s face, so he went on to explain. ‘You know, he didn’t get up there by himself, he doesn’t belong up there, he doesn’t know what to do while he is up there, and you just wonder what kind of a dumb ass put him up there in the first place’.”

Now I was having this nice, little siesta, the other day and suddenly there appeared ‘the turtle’ in front of me, sitting on a fence post, seemingly doing a precarious balancing act as the post itself was too high for it to give it a try to jump down to the ground. Not that it probably wanted to do it anyway for it looked quite contended and happy sitting there doing absolutely nothing. And no doubt some loyal and dumb all rolled into one, must have put him up there and been feeding it well too, for it looked quite contended and fat showing a thick head that kept turning to the left and then to the right, while its tongue kept on lolling out as if it was saying something, which must have been absolute gibberish and rubbish anyway.

What a fitting and symbolic representation, 

I mean this ‘post turtle’, of the lot, or the majority of it sitting across ‘the oya’, I mused on after I woke up from my snooze.

Many of them get there thanks to the gullible voter, who while ticking the boxes, thinks: he/she will surely deliver the goods this time as promised! 

And those two-legged post turtles inside the edifice, bordering the Diyawanna, like the one in the story, keep uttering sheer rubbish and spitting out incomprehensible mumbo jumbo, all in return with thanks to those, who tick the boxes in their favour.

Their statements such as ‘what is oxygen for, to eat?’, is just one among many such stupendously stupid utterances of theirs and I don’t want to tire you with the rest, for they are well known and far too many.

Now I have only one question for you before I end this:

When are we going stop being ‘those dumb asses’, once and for all?

Laksiri  Warnakula  

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