Colour Of Despotism: Saffron?

By Sarath de Alwis (Colombo Telegraph)

Several broadsheets, Sinhala and English announced in banner headlines that the two Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte had torpedoed the Constitutional reform process. For those of us, concerned with the impact, the many scandals will have on the meandering constitutional reform process, it was worrying news.

The new Mahanayake of Asgiriya who succeeded to the position after the demise of his endearingly erudite and sensible predecessor has not disguised his partisan leanings. He has already declared his outright opposition to the constitutional drafting process.

In the case of the far more self-possessed and rational prelate of the Malwatte chapter, the joint opposition suffered a decisive set back. The Mahanayake thero of Malwatte recently advised Dinesh Gunwardena who sought to enlist his support in opposing the process, that it was best to await the draft proposals. In the light of assurances given by the President and Prime minister on the unitary state, primacy of Buddhism etc. there was no need to rush in to warped opinions.

The immediate purpose of the pretended parley held in some exclusive inner chamber of the Dalada Maligawa was to isolate the Malwatte prelate who was not playing ball with the joint opposition. It has now come to light, that puppeteer behind the clerical puppetry is none other than the lay custodian of the holy of holies and a loyal Rajapaksa trooper.

The constitutional reform process is a contemporary national imperative. Power devolution, national reconciliation, institutional resilience of state agencies tasked to monitor accountability and transparency are prerequisite for a nation at peace with itself – a precondition for meaningful economic progress. An equitable electoral system in place of the present Neronian version that fiddles with our franchise slowly roasting the land on the slow fire of political deception is a moral necessity that even the Rajapaksa family cannot oppose openly, although a revision may hinder their Mafiosi.

The reform process is not easy. The Ranil Wickremesinghe led administration has now traversed the full length of the blind alley, it entered with the Bond scam in February 2015. Their cheeky chins are now up against the wall, with the writing clear to all except the Leader and the executive committee of the UNP.

It is a shame. Credibility is an essential part of the armour of those who seek foundational reforms.

The mobilization of the ‘Anu Nayakes’ the second tier of the two monastic orders is a brilliant move by the Mahinda Rajapaksa led opposition. It is politics by other means.

Sinhala Buddhist Sangha epitomizes organized religion. It has Sects or ‘Nikayas’ operating their respective franchises, appointing independent retail outlets using their exclusive operating manuals, logos and models. On and off, there are mavericks who compose their own operating manuals as in the case of Pitiduwe Siridhamma thera whose claim to have attained the Arahaht state titillated the piety of affluent middleclass matrons of Colombo who were dazzled by his soprano preaching and mesmeric masculinity.

It was recently reported that a threat of expulsion has convinced him to surrender his Arahant title. The patent laws seem to be working in our monastic outfits!

The unique selling proposition of the Sinhala Sangha fraternity is their demonstrated ability to manipulate masses. At a given command they can adopt adversarial positions against other groups and other points of view. They execute their assignments with a laser like centricity on their interpretation of the faith.

Since 1753 when King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe handed a ‘watapatha’ to a monk indicating a royal mandate after the introduction of the higher ordination from Siam, the feudal monastic orders of the hill kingdom has been in the firm grip of a few interrelated clans ceaselessly driven by ambition, greed and power.

This writer, modestly informed of what the Buddha taught, is convinced that the single objective of institutionalized Sangha is to insulate the faithful from learning, understanding and experiencing what the Buddha taught.

Near extortionist interpretation of the concept of giving ‘dana’ has provided them financial self-sufficiency and societal legitimacy. The latest SUV models used by the movers and shakers of the fraternity do not generate envy of the faithful. Instead, such opulence is regarded as the just rewards of a noble vocation.

The Saffron robe, that was once a symbol of renunciation is, now an emblem of authority that intimidates the devout and promotes the parochial. Since independence the state has negotiated accommodation, offered patronage and sought reciprocity with the Sinhala Buddhist clerical institutions. Of all leaders, only JRJ and Sirimavo were strong enough to draw their lines on the sand in dealing with them. Premadasa used tribal instincts to carve his own niche of clerical support. Mahinda Rajapaksa adroitly built a network of saffron operatives beholden to the boss rivaling any Sicilian mafia.

The arrogant finality of the impugned statement, earned front page exposure. It received greater amplifications the next morning TV shows where garrulous anchors serving political interests of media Moghuls and creatures of Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a field day in constructing a false mass opinion against constitutional reforms driven by a patriotic sangha.

“We have decided the unsuitability of the proposed Constitution. We say that a new Constitution is not needed. The present Constitution is good for us. We decided that the Maha Sangha should oppose the proposed Constitution,”

The statement, an arbitrary rejection of the sovereignty of the people has one comical connotation. The assertion ‘this constitution is good for us’, elevates J.R.J to the exalted ranks of an Arahath!

The clever maneuvering by the Rajapaksa led opposition has exposed their reliance on the Sangha in an alliance to redefine the political process in their favour. It is natural and logical. A majority of the Sinhala Sangha community were willing collaborators of the corrupt political system under Mahinda presidency. Despite the ‘Upasaka’ appeal and biting the dust obeisance of his successor, they prefer the ousted despot who promises continuity. There is lesson for us.

Elevating the Sangha above the democratic debate under the guise of according primacy to Buddhism will have a devastating impact on our ability to keep pace with 21st century human progress.

Dismantling the saffron cartel before its octopus arms could strangle the slender democratic gains is our immediate challenge.

Buddhism is a search for truth. The Buddha advised us that we should believe only “that which is true in the light of our own experience, that which conforms to reason and conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings.”

It is time for rational Buddhists to realize that Buddha showed us the path. He did not offer to walk it for us. The Sangha in their Pajero SUVs and Mercedes limousines cannot drive us on that path either.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa genius was that, he shaped and controlled the Sangha by incentives and coercive tactics as and when necessary. Despite objections, Lamborghinis raced past the ‘Dalada Maligawa.’

The promise of the central expressway to the sanctified citadel has not earned Laksman Kiriella any points or praise – a singular signal of the tenuous bonds the UNP has with hill country clerics.