| by Gamini Weerakoon

( November 2, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Monks in politics is an issue which Buddhists down the years have lost their equanimity and shaken fists at each other. But monks have been in the thick of contemporary Sri Lankan politics since Independence never mind history of 2500 years et al and making their appearance in the political theatre when the occasion demanded. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi’s saying: ‘Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is,’ is relevant in this instance.

Enter the monks

In the past few months two well -known monks have moved to centre stage of Sri Lankan politics: Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha of Kotte and Ven. Athureliye Ratsnasara (leader of his own organisation Pivithuru Hetak and member of the JHU). He has been an MP since 2004.

A surprising phenomenon is that while they have been welcomed by a large section of Buddhists, even non Buddhists and more surprising some NGOs too. The political stands they have taken go against with the policies of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and therefore a substantial section of Buddhists backing the government as well as all Mahinda Rajapaksa supporters do not like their intervention.

Despite the fracas going on at the UNHCR at Geneva where the government stands in the dock, in domestic politics the Rajapaksa regime seemed to be cruising along undisturbed. The entry of the two monks into the political firmament is rocking the government boat, somewhat. Some months ago it appeared to be a one- man- presidential race for Rajapaksa with the squabbling UNP in utter disarray and no effective opposition challenging him. He seemed to be having an iron grip on the Sinhala- Buddhist bloc vote of an estimated 70 per cent which he garnered after the military victory over the LTTE.

The question now being asked is whether the monks have stormed into the impregnable Sinhala- Buddhist stockade of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The opposition appeared to be toothless before the entry of the two monks. But now the opposition appears to be sniping at the Rajapaksa regime.

Sangha power

Ven. Sobitha and Ven. Rathanasara are proving a point whether they achieve their objectives or not. Buddhist monks have been a very potent force when political parties were rendered impotent by strong governments. It has happened many times in post- Independence politics and seems to be repeating itself.
The intriguing feature is that they are not declaring their opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa. They are demanding immediate constitutional changes before the presidential elections. Ven. Sobitha wants the powers of the executive presidency abolished by President Rajapaksa using his presidential powers and the parliamentary power he has with his 2/3rd majority. If necessary he (Ven. Sobitha) is ready to be the common opposition presidential, candidate on the ticket of abolishing the executive presidency.

Ven . Athureliye is still a Member of the UPFA coalition of President Rajapaksa’s party. He states that his objective is not to topple the government and destabilise the country. His organisation the Pivithuru Hetak wants Rajapaksa to enact constitutional amendments abolishing the system of executive presidency and its objectionable features before the presidential elections. The short time factor is no excuse because President Rajapaksa has two more years to go as president although he had decided to hold the election in January next year.

Leading Buddhist prelates such as Mahanayakes, most opposition political parties, some coalition parties allies of the government and even party members of the SLFP are not happy with the executive presidential system but Mahinda Rajapaksa who was elected president twice on the pledge that the executive presidential system would be abolished is giving no indication of doing so. It may not be hubris that prevents President Rajapaksa in not budging from his stand but because he is an astute politician who may be considering that all these objections to the executive presidency is ballyhoo which the ordinary voter will not be concerned about. He may be still having tricks up his sleeve like the give-away budget he produced last week.

But it is undeniable that the monks are rocking the boat that was cruising smoothly in placid waters a few months ago.