Monks’ role in Sri Lanka protests raises familiar questions

The street protests that drove Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office last month brought together people from across the country’s diverse and sometimes warring ethno-religious groups: Tamils, Muslims, Christians and Sinhala Buddhists — including, unmistakably, the saffron-robed Buddhist monks who are fixtures of Sri Lanka’s political scene.

But with Rajapaksa in exile in Singapore and life returning closer to normal, decades-old questions are being raised about Buddhism’s role in Sri Lanka’s government. Political involvement by the monks — easy to spot in the protests against Rajapaksa’s inaction on Sri Lanka’s economic woes — also includes taking seats in Parliament and joining political parties. Last year, a controversial monk named Galagoda Atte Gnanasara was appointed to a presidential task force for legal reforms despite his vociferous anti-Muslim views.

“The role of monks is to help people improve their spirituality. During the last 10 years, their political involvement has become too much, I think. People don’t view them as religious leaders anymore,” said Venerable Mahayaye Vineetha, a Sri Lankan monk living in Kandy, a city in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. The connection between monks and political figures has reportedly diminished some monks’ respectability. Hard-line political monks with ties to the Rajapaksas have turned out to join protests against their former allies alongside younger, more progressive monks. One video taken from Batarramulla in April shows a monk, a former ally of Rajapaksa’s and leader of the nationalist Janasetha Peramuna party, being scolded and pushed out of the protests. A man in the video can be heard saying “It is because of the people like you, we suffer today like this.”

“This is one of several instances where people called out monks as being tools of the state and said they have contributed to the current situation, the maintaining of the political elite, and the supporting and abetting of violence and ethnic strife,” said Nalika Gajaweera, a research anthropologist at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

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