Sri Lanka: The Unbreakable Bond

This article was first published in the Colombo Telegraph (www.colombotelegraph.com) on November 10th, 2013. It is the first in a series of three.

When I wrote my novel The Devil Dancers, I could not have predicted that the cycle of events in 1950s Ceylon which provided the historical background for my book would re-surface in contemporary Sri Lanka.

An important influence on Sri Lankan politics since Independence – which has neither been fully appreciated nor understood by the West – is that of the Buddhist clergy or sangha. This is partly due to Western misconceptions regarding Buddhism.

Shaped by notions of Zen Buddhism, a liberal dose of romantic Orientalism and the traditional separation of power between Church and State, the European perception of Buddhism is that of a purely spiritual practice, completely disengaged from the interests of the temporal world.

We are therefore surprised when confronted by the blend of political activism and nationalism which can occur within the Theravada branch of Buddhism common to both Sri Lanka and Burma.

From the western perspective, Buddhism is viewed as a uniformly pacifist, politically neutral faith. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that in some parts of the world – namely Sri Lanka and Burma – there is a particular brand of Buddhism in which monks are not only politically active but have also become embroiled in activities that are aggressive, violent and sometimes criminal.

Recent TV news items from both countries have shown Buddhist monks taking an active part in attacks against minority religious groups. While Moslems have been the main target, they have not been the only one. Attacks on Christians have also been reported in Sri Lanka.

What is the reason for this? Perhaps history can help to explain.

Theravada Buddhism – the branch practised in both of these countries – has been linked either with the movement for Independence from the British (Burma) or with the post-colonial establishment of power by the majority ethnic group (Sri Lanka).

More recently, a number of extremist Buddhist groups have appeared in both countries: the 969 movement in Burma and the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Power and Sinhala Ravaya groups in Sri Lanka.

With the summit of the Commonwealth Heads of Government being hosted by Sri Lanka, attention is focusing once more on the disturbing reports of exactly what happened in the closing stages of the civil war in 2009. A year ago, the United Nations’ Panel of Experts stated that “[a] number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”.

However, attempts to secure an international investigation into these events have so far failed. In August, Buddhist monks besieged the UN building in Colombo to protest against the UN’s proposed investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government. Renewed calls for transparency from foreign powers could well result in further demonstrations.

While it may surprise outsiders, the politicisation of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks has been taking place – and gathering pace – for over a century. The first seeds were sown when, at the end of the 19th century, Buddhist monks successfully engaged in public debate with western missionaries.

Successive colonial governments had supported Christian missionaries of varying denominations to the detriment of Buddhist religious life. Government funding was provided to Christian schools, but not to Buddhist establishments. Even celebrated religious institutions, such as Kelaniya with its ties to Sinhalese royalty, were allowed to fall into abeyance.

However, the trend for re-assertion of Buddhist rights and ideals rapidly gathered momentum, particularly following Independence from the British in 1948. A high-water mark was achieved in the mid-‘50s when the country’s Buddhist establishment produced a report entitled The Betrayal of Buddhism, an assessment of how the island’s majority religion had suffered at the hands of foreign influence.

It was at this time, if not before, that Buddhism – traditionally the religion of the Sinhalese majority – became inextricably linked with Sinhalese nationalism.

In Part 2:  The story of a shocking political assassination and the monk who not only masterminded a Prime Minister’s election but also his murder. Dating back to the mid-1950s, it is a scandal that history has overlooked. Yet it provides a fascinating insight into the interdependence of religion and politics in modern Sri Lanka and shows what can happen when that relationship turns sour. 

Additional information:

My first novel The Devil Dancers is set in 1950s Ceylon and has received reviews from the Commonwealth, Russia and the USA. These, together with extracts from the most recent review by Professor Walter Perera of Perideniya University, can be found on the book’s website at: www.thedevildancers.com.

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