SRI LANKA: The learned monks attempt to revive civil society 

At a press conference held on behalf of the Sanga Convention monks of the three leading Buddhist chapters explained the reasons for postponing the National Convention of Buddhist Monks which was to be held at Kandy yesterday, the 18th February. The three monks who spoke at this press conference were the Ven. Prof. Atthangane Rathanapala, the Ven. Atthangane Sasanarathna and the Ven. Meetiyagoda Gunaratne.

The monks stated that they are holding the press conference with the consent of the Mahanayake Thero of Malawatte Nitakaya. The purpose of the conference was to explain the circumstances under which the National Convention of Buddhist monks called by the Mahanayake Theros of the three great Buddhist orders which was to be held of the 18th was postponed.

Prof. Atthangane Rathanapala explained that there was enormous pressure brought about by the government through many persons throughout the day on the Mahanayake order to cancel the meeting. The Malawatte Mahanayake had explained that the meeting would not have been in favour of anyone but was held to discuss the problems that the monks thought were important to the nation in the light of the realisation that there was a serious crisis of democracy and good governance in the country. Apart from the persons who intervened directly for the government, there was also a group of Buddhist monks, led by a senior monk close to the government who also intervened on behalf of the government to stop the meeting. Monks explained that this meeting took about three hours creating a sense of tension to the Mahanayake Thero when the group insisted that the meeting had to be cancelled.

It was under those circumstances of enormous pressure brought about by the government that this convention was postponed. He went on to emphasise that this it was a postponement and not a cancellation of the meeting. The other monks explained that there had been a lot of misinformation spread by the government through the media. He specifically mentioned that a signature of one of the Mahanayakes by fraudulent mean. He explained that this was a false story and the Mahanayake himself was disconcerted at hearing this false information. The Mahanayake signed the invitation for the convention with the complete understanding of the significance of the meeting and it was unbecoming of anyone to spread such false information that such a person as a Mahanayake was doing this without full knowledge or responsibility.

The monks also explained that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a very serious situation in the country with particular emphasis on the conditions of the poor. They said that there is a very serious problem faced by the ordinary people and there is widespread poverty. Under these circumstances it was time to discuss these problems and it was the responsibility of the monks to be involved in the welfare of the people and that this had been the traditional role of the Buddhist clergy. They made it clear that the leaders of the Sanga Convention were extremely unhappy about the way in which they were forced to postpone the meeting scheduled for the 18th. They were also keen to explain to the public that the actual purpose of the convention.

Quite clearly there is a shift among the monks, particularly among the more learned monks to shift the attention of the nation from war time concerns to the peace time reality of dealing with the enormous problems that are besetting the country. In the past Sinhala Buddhism acquired a negative image throughout the world as being concerned only with the Sinhalese and in particular the hegemony of one sector of society and not caring about the general social concerns. Now that the conflict with the LTTE is over, quite clearly there is concern among the learned elements of the Buddhist clergy that they should play their traditions role of being concerned with the conditions of the ordinary folk of the country particularly in terms of dealing with the problems of the poor.

The theme chosen by the monks for their convention was democracy and good governance. These are the concerns of all sectors of Sri Lankan society including the minorities. The complaints about the loss of democracy are common, both among the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils, Muslims and all other minorities. The overpowering position of the executive president which started with the 1978 Constitution has created a situation of a complete power imbalance and the displacement of the separation of power principle altogether. As a result the parliament and the judiciary have been seriously disempowered and the public institutions throughout the country has collapsed. Attempts to resurrect the public institution through the 17th Amendment to the Constitution have also been abandoned. One of the major consequences is the degeneration of the law and order situation and the collapse of the policing system which has been brought under the political influence of the ruling regime.

Vast sections of the country have recognised this problem for a long time. However, the country¡¦s political parties have been unable to provide leadership in order to resolve these problems.

Perhaps the voices from the Sanga, particularly from the more learned monks, appear to be making an attempt to resurrect the voice of reason and bring a new vigor to civil society in order to create a discourse on the more basic issues facing the population. In the past the monks played a significant role in civil society. They are a very important component that is capable of bringing about a strong influence in regenerating the strength of the people under the present circumstances where the overpowering system of the executive presidency has virtually created extreme forms of repression thus dividing the role of civil society.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-021-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,