Parliament stands dissolved and the next general election has been scheduled for 25 April. The process of accepting nominations will commence soon. Political heavyweights and lesser ones are girding up their loins for the contest, which is do or die for them. The SLPP is upbeat. It has set for itself an ambitious target—obtaining a two-thirds majority, which, however, is well-nigh impossible to achieve under the Proportional Representation (PR) system.
Since 1989, when parliamentary polls were held under the PR system for the first time, only two governments have been able to obtain absolute majorities. In 1989, the UNP formed a strong government with 125 seats in the 225-member House. JVP violence and counter terror operations, which shook the country, had stood it in good stead; there were allegations of large scale rigging and other such election malpractices.
Since 1989, the highest number of seats in Parliament has been won by the SLFP-led UPFA in 2010. That feat was possible because that coalition’s popularity was at its zenith, following the defeat of the LTTE, and the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spectacular win at the presidential election a few months before; Rajapaksa polled about 58% of the votes. The UPFA obtained 144 seats and engineered defections from the UNP to muster a two-thirds majority. Incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to secure only 52% of the votes at the presidential election held last November and the SLPP is trying to punch above its weight.
There are various issues being flogged, on the political front on account of the forthcoming parliamentary polls, and prominent among them is the Buddhist monks seeking political office. In fact, it has resurfaced again, as it does at every election. This issue has caused much concern to the Mahanayake Theras as never before, if the public statements the prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters have made are any indication. They are blamed for doing little to arrest the deterioration of discipline among some radical monks actively engaged in politics.
Buddhist monks have played an active role in national politics for millennia. King Datusena started life as a Buddhist monk, but he gave up the saffron robe and proved himself as a warrior before his ascension to the throne. The monks of Mahavihara and Abayagiriya wielded tremendous influence on ancient kings and furthered their interests at the expense of their rival sects. Some monks even incurred the wrath of King Valagambahu when they tried to prevent him from becoming the king. Valagambahu’s rule lasted only a few months, in 103 BC, and then he ruled from 89-76 BC again. During the colonial era, members of the Maha Sangha remained active politically to the point of antagonising the invaders and facing reprisal.
There have been prominent Buddhist monks actively involved in party politics. Ven. Udakendewala Sri Sarankara Thera was a pillar of the Sri Lanka Community Party. In 1940, the Vidyalanka Pirivena monks seriously considered taking their active participation to a new level as part of the country’s Independence Day struggle. But never did they seek political office. Mapitigama Buddharakkhitha Thera campaigned for S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who won the 1956 general election, but he only sought to be the power behind the throne and hatched a plot to kill the latter when he could not manipulate the government he helped form. The rest is history.
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) monks have also been politically active, and its leader Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera has hinted at the possibility of some of his members contesting elections, but the BBS has not shown a keen interest in power politics. It is still a pressure group promoting Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and may not want to contest an election and expose its real strength, in the process. It may not dare take that gamble and antagonise the Mahanayake Theras, who look askance at its activities.
It was in 2001 that a Buddhist monk entered Parliament for the first time. Ven. Baddegama Samitha, as a member of the Southern Provincial Council, in late 1990s, successfully contested the 2001 general election, representing the People’s Alliance led by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. He failed to retain his seat in 2004, but inspired other monks to enter Parliament.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which came into being as a party of Buddhist monks, following the untimely and controversial demise of popular preacher, Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera, won nine seats.
The Buddhist monks who contested the 2004 general election had the public believe that they were entering Parliament to cleanse that institution, which had got rotten to the core. They undertook to improve the quality of parliamentary debate and ensure that the issues affecting the ordinary people would be addressed effectively and the interests of the Buddhists safeguarded. But they failed to achieve those objectives. Parliamentary standards continued to plummet and the MPs brawled at the drop of a hat. The MP monks may have expected others to treat them with respect, but nothing of the sort happened.
In April, 2004, the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government, which lacked a working majority in Parliament, was upset when the UNP’s nominee for the post of Speaker was elected thanks to some JHU MP monks, who voted for him, in retaliation for a crossover the government engineered from within its ranks. It was a loss of face for President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government. The UPFA including the JVP, as one of its allies, carried out a vilification campaign against the JHU monks; two of the temples headed by the JHU MP monks were attacked in Embilipitiya and Hanguranketha.
Two months later, during a free-for-all in Parliament, a group of UPFA MPs set upon JHU MPs. Akmeemana Dayaratne and his fellow monk MP Kolonnawe Sri Sumangala Theras had to be rushed to the Jayewardenepura hospital, where they were treated for a couple days. The media reported that a minister had hit an MP monk in the genitals with his mobile phones. The then controversial minister, Mervyn Silva, vehemently denied having done so.
The presence of Buddhist monks has not helped improve parliamentary standards, which continue to deteriorate as was seen in the violent scenes in the House during the failed power grab in October 2018. The UPFA MPs, representing the Joint Opposition and the SLPP, went on the rampage and even threatened Speaker Karu Jayasuirya, who had to enter the Chamber, surrounded by a posse of unarmed policemen, who were attacked with projectiles and chairs by a mob of angry MPs.
There has been a campaign against Buddhist monks contesting elections to local government institutions, the Provincial Councils and the Parliament, but it was only recently that senior monks have begun to call for an end to that practice openly.
On 03 March, 2020, Ven. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera, the Mahanayake of the Asgiri Chapter minced no words when he told the Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, that the election laws had to be amended to debar Buddhist monks from contesting elections. He said other Maha Nayake Theras were on the same page as he on that issue. He said it would be in the interest of the Buddha Sasana to prevent the members of the Maha Sangha from seeking political office. A large number of Buddhist monks were engaged in power politics and their conduct had brought the Sangha community into disrepute, he maintained.
The Election Commission Chairman informed the Asgiriya prelate that the Elections Act (1981) prohibited all places of worship being used for campaigning purposes, during elections and the MPs elected to the next Parliament would be unseated, if found to have violated the law by using religious places for campaigning. This is the first time a Polls Chief has threatened to put his foot down. Whether he will do as promised or whether his bark will be worse than his bite remains to be seen. Deshapriya, also said he would meet the dignitaries of other religions as well and request them to ensure that their places of worship would not be used for election purposes.
Deshapriya, however, said Buddhist monks had their political rights to engage in politics. In other words, they are free to contest elections, campaign for political parties outside their temples, speak on political platforms and even conduct street protest for or against political parties.
If the Mahananayake Theras issue an order that all Buddhist monks refrain from contesting elections to political institutions, the political monks will be under some pressure to fall in line.
In an interview with The Sunday Island, on 20 August 2014, former Minister of Justice Dr. Wijayadasa Rajapakse, PC, had this to say about Buddhist monks seeking political office: “The Buddha has clearly prohibited monks from getting involved in politics and his advice was that they should not have a close association with kings and princes. Monks, however, were allowed to give advice to kings at the request of the latter ….”
The Mahanayake Theras are vested with power to remove a Buddhist monk on disciplinary grounds and the aggrieved Bhikku cannot challenge that decision in a courts of law. Dr. Rajapakse has pointed out that a decision made by the Sangha Sabha to expel a monk, cannot be challenged in court. He has said a judgment delivered by Justice Shelton Ranaraja, upholding the authority of the Sangha Sabha in Kehelwathugoda Chandananda Thera Vs Sirimalwatte Ananda Thera has set a precedent in this regard.
Thus, if the Mahanayake Theras debar Buddhist monks from contesting elections to political institutions and punish those who refuse to fall in line, there will be no legal remedy available to the aggrieved parties.
But it is doubtful whether the Buddhist prelates will put their feet down in trying to prevent monks from contesting elections. They usually express their opposition in public in respect of various issues but stop short of translating it into action. Will they act differently this time around?
The Mahanayake Theras have to adopt a two-pronged approach to the issue if they want to achieve their objective. They themselves have to instruct Buddhist monks, in no uncertain terms, to desist from seeking political office and call upon political party leaders to refrain from nominating Buddhist monks to contest elections or offering them National List slots.
Political leaders, every so often, huff and puff up the hills all the way to Kandy, where they kneel before the Mahanayake Theras and receive their blessings and a lot of media attention, but they rarely do as the latter say. Here is a case in point. On 13 December 2011, four Mahanayake Theras tried to settle a dispute in the UNP by urging the then Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to hand over the party leadership to Karu Jayasuriya. They made this request in writing. (Please see the image of their letter to Wickremesinghe.) But their appeal went unheeded.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa paid a glowing tribute to the Maha Sangha, in his inauguration speech, within the precincts of Rawanweli Seya, in November 2019. He profusely thanked them for having made his victory possible. His brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was dependent on Buddhist monks to make a comeback following his defeat in 2015 and secure the current post. He made Abhayaramaya, Narahenpitya, his political headquarters, to all intents and purposes, to turn tables on the yahapalana government, so much so that the UNP dubbed that temple ‘Mahindaramaya’.
So, both the President and the Prime Minister are under obligation to the Buddhist clergy and won’t be able to ignore the Mahanayake Theras’ opposition to Buddhit monks contesting elections. Will the prelates make a formal request to the Rajapaksa brothers that nominations be denied to Buddhist monks?
Leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya Sajith Premadasa, who has been entrusted with the task of handling the UNP-led alliance’s nominations, too, won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the Mahanayake Theras’ aversion to the presence of the saffron robe in Parliament and other political institutions. The UNP has not fielded Buddhist monks at elections or appointed them to Parliament, but Premadasa, too, will have to give an undertaking that he will deny nominations to Buddhist monks if the Mahayanayke Theras make a request to that effect.
Meanwhile, speculation is rife in political circles that the Buddhist prelate may urge Buddhist monks to refrain from contesting the upcoming general election.