By Vishvanath

The SJB and the JVP-led NPP are vying with each other aggressively to enlist the support of former high-ranking military officers and the members of the Maha Sangha, with about six or seven months to go for the presidential election, which might be preceded by a parliamentary polls.

A significant number of ex-security forces personnel, including commanders, have joined the SJB and the NPP during the past several weeks. Their engagement in active politics has caused some concern to those who are looking for a formidable alternative to the SLPP, which mobilized the former military officers and Buddhist monks, to win the 2019 presidential election. It is being asked in some quarters whether the leaders of the SJB and the NPP are adopting Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s way of harnessing nationalistic forces to achieve their political goals, or, in other words, whether their parties are sliding into what may be called the Gota groove.

The active involvement of Buddhist monks in politics or statecraft is not of recent origin in Sri Lanka. They played a pivotal role in mobilizing the masses and even raising armies against foreign invaders and enabling the ascension of leaders of their choice to the throne. They acted as the protectors of the monarch.

Since Independence in 1948, the Buddhist monastic community has been playing a different role in politics, with some of them being involved in insurrections as well. They were considered one of the Five Great Forces or Pancha Maha Balavegaya—Buddhist clergy, native doctors, teachers, farmers and workers—which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike mobilized to engineer the epoch-making regime change in 1956. Prime Minister Bandaranaike perished at the hands of a Buddhist monk three years later.  

Subsequently, Buddhist monks contested elections and even entered the parliament. The late Ven. Baddegama Samitha was the first ever Buddhist monk to become a member of parliament. He was elected as an MP of SLFP-led People’s Alliance government, in 2001. Buddhist monks were also elected to the Provincial Councils and Local Government institutions. The public has since been averse to Buddhist monks holding political office.

Sri Lanka has had numerous ex-military personnel in politics since Independence. One of them, Gen. Sir John Kotelawala, rose to the position of Prime Minister (1953-1956). He took to politics as a former officer of the Ceylon Light Infantry, which he joined in 1922, when he was 25 years old. Anuruddha Ratwatte, an ex-military officer, became a minister and prominent figure in the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which came to power in 1994. He was later promoted to the rank of General. Former war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka ran for President, albeit unsuccessfully, in 2010, immediately after joining civvy street. He is now an SJB MP. Former naval officer Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera is in the current government as an SLPP MP. He is a former Minister of Public Security.

However, it is Gotabaya Rajapaksa who engaged ex-military personnel in politics in large numbers in an organized manner. He went on to appoint a significant number of them to key government positions after becoming President in 2019. He stood accused of militarizing the public service. But he has said in his book, The Conspiracy, that some of the ex-military officers he put in charge of national security, etc., did not cooperate with him fully during the 2022 uprising, and that was one of the reasons why he had to resign.  

Gotabaya chose to contest the 2019 presidential election on a platform of unbridled nationalism. Support he received from the ethnic minorities was woefully low, and he made specific mention of this fact at his inauguration as President in 2019. His book also refers to the extremely low level of support he received in predominantly Tamil or Muslim areas.

Gotabaya did not care about the minority votes because there was a groundswell of support for him among the members of the majority community. He was confident that he could win the presidency even without the backing of the other ethnic communities in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage, which catapulted national security to the centre stage of politics again, in 2019.

As an ex-military officer and former war-time Defense Secretary, Gotabaya was seen as a person capable of safeguarding national security amidst the fear of rising Islamic fundamentalism, and rumors of the LTTE making an effort to regroup. Today, the situation is different. The Sinhala votes are divided among the SJB, the UNP, the NPP and the SLPP, and the minority votes are likely to be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the coming presidential election. Hence the SJB, the UNP and the NPP are in overdrive, wooing the Tamil and Muslim voters; they are therefore responsive to the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities.

Has the NPP, which condemns Gotabaya Rajapaksa for having taken refuge in nationalism, ended up mobilizing the same forces as he, in a bid to win the presidential election? How will the ethnic minorities take to the former military personnel and Buddhist monks joining the NPP in large numbers? Will the Buddhist clergy and former soldiers shape the NPP’s policies? These questions were put to JVP politburo member and former MP K. D. Lalkantha in an interview with ITN on Tuesday night (March 12).

Lalkantha sought to allay the gnawing fears and doubts in the minds of the Tamils and Muslims, and others who are opposed to the involvement of the Buddhist clergy and ex-military officers in active politics. He claimed that there was a striking difference between the monks and former security forces/police officers in the Rajapaksa camp and those in its ranks. He said the monks and veterans who are in the NPP abided by the party policies, which had no place for ethnocentric politics. Therefore, nobody should harbor fears about the NPP being swayed by the monks and former soldiers in the event of it capturing state power, he said, noting that he had asked the ex-military officers supporting the NPP in the Kandy District whether they intended to contest elections from the NPP, and they had told him in no uncertain terms it was up to the NPP to decide whether to field them. He said they had thrown their weight behind the NPP because they wanted to put the country right, having fought hard to finish the war. They were resentful that the end of the war had led to a situation where a single family and its cronies had all the luck, Lalkantha said, declaring that under no circumstances would any Buddhist monk be allowed to enter the parliament, representing the NPP.

The NPP has thus sought to assure the public, especially the ethnic minorities, that although it is enlisting the support of Buddhist monks and ex-military personnel, it will be different from the SLPP. Whether this assurance will help allay fears in the minds of the Tamils and Muslims remains to be seen. The SJB has not yet made a similar effort to reassure the minorities. Maybe it will make its position clear in time to come. It already has the SLMC, the biggest Muslim political party, on its side.