Photo courtesy of Asia News

The Mahanayakes of Sri Lanka’s three Buddhist monastic orders – Siam, Amarapura, and Ramanya – have written a letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. They have requested concessions on the recent electricity tariff hikes, which they claim are impacting temples severely. Citing the “enormous service” they render to society, the monks have pointed out that these temples are not in a position to absorb the current rates. They imply that since people visit them after work and in the evening, their contribution to the cultural and social life of the country cannot and should not be neglected.

The missive, seen as an attempt at reaching a truce with the government, followed from a number of demonstrations organised by Buddhist monks and other religious leaders. The protests centred on the point that religious institutions are being crushed by a 500 percent rise in electricity bills, whereas the impact on factories and business establishments has been less. Taking the lead in these protests, Venerable Omalpe Sobitha has threatened the government that Buddhist temples will not pay these bills.

Power and Energy Minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, took to social media immediately when the protests started. Pointing out that there had been no discrimination when finalising the list of categories for electricity users, Mr. Wijesekera bluntly stated that if temples did not pay up, power would be disconnected. He noted that ordinary people had not been spared these hikes and that they were suffering too. These remarks aggravated an already tense situation, compelling the Mahanayakes to write to the President. For his part, the latter offered an olive branch to the chief prelates, flagging their concerns and assuring them that the state would look into installing solar panels at temples.

These developments mark an interesting turnaround in the country’s politics. Buddhist monks have traditionally been seen as political creatures, actively involved or playing the more passive role of patrons and financiers. Their justification for this has been historical; Buddhist monks played an important part in the lives and politics of the kings so it is only natural that they continue playing it although the country has transformed from a hereditary monarchy to a constitutional republic. They have typically latched themselves on to parties and personalities that claim to uphold the trinity of populist politics in Sri Lanka – country, race and religion. This has enabled some parties to take a lead over others, although all major parties have a history of flirting with the clergy.

Such attitudes belie deep rooted feelings of insecurity and unease. Narratives, mainly Western, liberal, and Colombo-centric, depict Buddhist monks as authoritarian, proto-fascist and no different to fundamentalist Muslim and Hindu clerics. But such commentaries fail to note the historical basis for the sentiments that monks air from time to time. To be sure, these sentiments are intolerant, illiberal, and ill-founded, particularly those that evoke fascist inclinations: Venerable Vendaruwe Upali’s call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “become a Hitler”, if people assumed him to be one, is a case in point. Yet they underscore two points, which the monks and their more zealous followers frequently highlight: Sinhala Buddhism has no institutional support outside Sri Lanka (“We have nowhere else to go”), and Sinhala Buddhism is the centre of Sri Lankan society (“This country belongs to us”).

The biggest reason for the Buddhist clergy’s insecurity is a simple historical one: British colonial policies deprived temples of the wherewithal and the means to sustain themselves. As the historian Kitsiri Malalgoda has observed in Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, the effect of colonial legislation, which vested temple lands in the hands of the chief prelates, was to turn chief prelates into landowners and commercial minded clerics. This had a debilitating effect on these institutions, compelling monks to seek sustenance through whatever means. Colonial policies also turned the church, especially the Anglican and the Catholic, into one of the country’s biggest landowners, a point that gets missed (or tossed) out by narratives that frame Buddhist monks as rapacious landowners and political machines.

None of this justifies the excesses of Buddhist monks. The original conception of political Bhikkhus, as the United National Party derisively called them then, was along the lines of an activist and radical clergy: the prototypes of political Buddhism, after all, were two Marxist priests, Walpola Rahula and Udakendawala Sri Saranankara, the latter of whom received no less than the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957. Yet as often happens with such transformations, this gentle, humanist, and radical conception of the Buddhist clergy has been disfigured and has now turned into an echo chamber for intolerance. As Regi Siriwardena has observed more than once, Buddhist monks neglected to use their precepts and mores as a rallying cry for radical social and political change on the lines of a Thomas Müntzer. Instead they deployed these values to entrench the status quo and themselves.

All these are interconnected. The economic base of Buddhist temples is no longer what it used to be even though the lower peasantry still considers ordinations as a way out of economic misery for their children. The latter point has also been missed out by Western, liberal and Colombo-centric commentators. Not unlike the military, the Buddhist temple has become a rural subsidy, enabling a poor peasant youth to escape the drudgery of poverty. This has been so because, since the 1950s, the Buddhist clergy has become a beneficiary of state subsidies – the main reason for the recent protests.

The government has played its cards carefully and strategically, framing monks clamouring for state subsidies as moochers who cannot be given favoured treatment. The opposition has also played its cards shrewdly, meeting the clergy and speaking of organising an uprising against recent tariff hikes. The SJB has MPs who are in favour of tariff revisions and neoliberal reforms. Its attitude to these issues thus reveals its contradictory character, a point that Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has implied in his recent critiques of the party. What this means for the trajectory of relations between the state and the clergy is that a government that courted the support and approval of monks has now become the bête noire of the latter, while an opposition that has MPs once seen as enemies of Buddhist interests is fast becoming the darling of those monks.

The response of the public has been even more interesting. Going by social media posts and memes, it’s probably not an exaggeration that the hikes revealed an underlying, seething and barely concealed anti-clerical sentiment in society. Of course, social media is not society writ large; when it comes to Twitter in particular, it is a self-contained and self-defined space. Yet social media memes are a significantly accurate gauge of wider and widespread, sentiments. In that sense, as far as memes about the recent protests are concerned, Sri Lankans dwell on two points – that monks did next to nothing when the state imposed hardships on ordinary people and that they are asking for favourable treatment at a time when even more hardships are being imposed on those people.

It goes without saying that both these points reflect larger, more widespread feelings of hostility towards these institutions. This is a remarkable turnaround from two or three years ago when monks could say whatever they wanted to in favour of their preferred politicians and deploy people to do their bidding for those politicians. Now that the latter have fallen out of favour, those seen as supporters of such individuals have lost their prestige. These include Buddhist temples and monks. One cynical friend noted that since monks preached humility and tolerance for politicians when people rose up in arms, people should respond in kind to monks who ask the public to rise up in arms against the state.

The opposition and the government would do well to note these reconfigurations. For a brief while at least, people are bothering themselves less over cultural trivialities than over the immediate imperative of finding food, gas, and fuel. Economics, in other words, has triumphed over ideology, though ideology is very much present in the people’s discontent. Certainly, the government may find itself at a loss, come the next election cycle, if monks remember how it responded to their protests. The opposition, by contrast, will find itself at an advantage there. The people, however, are fed up with both politicians and monks, the parliament and the temple. The SJB would do well to flag this instead of capitalising on the fears and grievances of the clergy for petty, short term electoral gains.