Monks may become third force in Sinhala politics
If the Buddhist monks's party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), gets three to nine seats in the April 2 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections as predicted by pollsters, it has a chance of becoming the "third force" in the politics of the majority Sinhala community.
The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was emerging as the third force, had compromised its identity when it struck an alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and formed the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ahead of the elections.
The JVP is now part of the frontline UPFA, competing for power and government formation with the other frontline party, the United National Front (UNF).
The JHU may fill the third slot in Sinhala politics if it is able to determine or influence government formation after the April 2 elections, and if it continues to grow as a political force outside parliament also.
The JHU is not a Marxist or right wing party. Its main aim is the restoration of decency, rectitude, honesty and the values of pristine Sinhala Buddhism which had been the bedrock of Sri Lanka for over 2,500 years. Its USP is that it is entirely home-grown ideologically and in political practice, and therefore best suited to the genius of Sri Lankans.
Opinion polls give the JHU anything from three and to nine seats in Sri Lanka's 225 member parliament.
It is said to be cutting into the votes of both the mainstream formations led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, though the extent varies from opinion poll to opinion poll. What is important is that the monks are being used by the disenchanted to protest against the gross deficiencies of the present political culture and system.
JHU's rallies have attracted the youth, which is noteworthy.However, the impact seems to more in the urban areas than in the rural. This should worry the JHU because, traditionally, rural Sri Lanka has been the monks' area of influence.
The expectation is that the JHU may cut into UNF's votes rather than UPFA's, because it is the UNF which is the more urban of the two mainstream parties.
Three to nine seats may be a small number in a house of 225, but if the election throws up a hung parliament (as expected), the JHU may determine which party will form the government, the UPFA or the UNF.
For a party to form a government in a house of 225, it needs the assured support of 113 MPs.
None of the independent pre-poll surveys has given any of the main parties 113 seats. In a situation where the JHU has three to nine seats, it may play a critical role, especially if the mainstream parties are reluctant to seek the support of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which may get most of the Tamil seats in the North Eastern province.
The basis of JHU's appeal
Political observers expect the JHU to do well in the elections and expand because a growing number of people see it as an alternative to the existing political parties, which have become infamous for corruption, incompetence and violence.
If the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) are seen as corrupt and incompetent, both parties having been given enough time to prove themselves, the JVP is seen as being violent and too radical, though still untainted by failure to govern. This is the first time the JVP is bidding for power as part of the UPFA.
More and more people think that neither the SLFP nor the UNP has safeguarded the political, economic and cultural interest of Sri Lanka, which is in the grip of neo-colonialism and is subject to unbridled Westernisation.
A recent survey found that almost 70% of the people felt that foreign governments and West-funded evangelical churches were a threat to the indigenous culture and religion of Sri Lanka. The Buddhist monks have been bringing this danger to light.
The JHU wants the country to go back to the principles of social and political life enshrined in the sayings of the Buddha. It wants to restore to the country's political, social and economic life, decency and probity.
It wants to preserve the Sinhala-Buddhist culture of the country while protecting the culture of the religious and ethnic minorities. But it believes that blind and unthinking "minorityism" and openness have led to the neglect of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.
Though surveys have shows that 60 to 70% of the people do not think that Buddhist monks should contest elections and get corrupted by politics, there is a growing number of people who think that it is not a bad idea to have monks in politics.
As Ranasinghe S Perera, a resident of a Narahenpita slum put it " Being preachers, the monks are expected to look at issues from the ethical point of view, from the point of the good of society as a whole. Being celibate and prevented from possessing any wealth, they will not line their pockets as politicians from other parties do."
The other section which is trickling into JHU are the social and political conservatives, who do not want any radical changes, but are fed up with the existing political parties and politicians who think that state power is a license to loot.
Of course, a greater number of the disgruntled gravitate to the JVP which offers a radical Marxist/nationalistic alternative to the current political culture. But there are also people who dislike the JVP's radical prescriptions which because they will affect their lifestyle and completely overturn the familiar social order.
Many do not trust the JVP when it says that it has given up violence and armed struggle. These people are now turning to the JHU. The JVP had led two armed uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s.
The JHU, on the other hand, is neither socialist nor capitalistic. It is not revolutionary either in a Marxist or a Fascist sense. Its prescription is acceptable because it is familiar, indigenous and time-tested.
Not a new phenomenon
The JHU did not come into being in day. Buddhist monks have played a leading role in post-independence Sri Lankan politics since the mid 1950s. In their earliest "avatar" they were mainly involved in democratising Sri Lanka, making its institutions more indigenous and less Westernised and elitist.
In the second stage, they got involved in party politics. Each political party started having its own set of monks to give it a religious (Sinhala Buddhist) sanction.
This kind of partisanship was not liked by many and the Presidential Commission in its report submitted in 2002 even recommended that the monks, by law, should be banned from participating in politics and contesting elections.
But the growing corruption in the political system, its anti-people character, only spurred the monks' interest in jumping into "Deshapalana" or politics or governance. And the people were ready to welcome it, though still gingerly and tentatively.
Soma Thero sparked revolt
It was the late Ven Gangodawila Soma Thero who started a movement to cleanse the political system in the late 1990s. He enjoyed wide appeal, especially among the youth, as the public grieving over his untimely death clearly revealed. It was but natural and that after Soma Thero's death, something like the JHU came up.
The JHU is unique because never before have monks contested elections in such a big way.
There are over 200 in the field in this election. Earlier, there was one monk in parliament, Ven Beddegama Samitha Thero, put up by the Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP), a leftist party. But he functioned as a party member and not a Buddhist monk.
The JHU has made it clear that it will not give any political party or government blind support. Support or opposition will depend on the issue on hand.
The monks are directly backed by an established political party, Sinhala Urumaya (SU), and indirectly by the UNF (to prevent Sinhala Buddhist radicals from voting for UPFA). But the monk candidates have said that they will not be bound by the interests of the SU or UNF.
"Using the SU is like using a boat to cross a river. Once you have crossed the river, you abandon the boat," said Ven Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero in the "Kinihira" programme on Swarnavahini TV on February 24.
If indeed three to nine monks become MPs, it will be interesting to see how they conduct themselves and what their policies and preferences are in terms of the main issues facing Sri Lanka, such as those relating to war and peace, the LTTE, Tamil nationalism, minority rights, economic management, economic priorities, society, culture, language rights and education.
Listening to the "Kinihira" programme on February 24, one got the impression that the JHU would want a tough line against the LTTE, militancy, terrorism and separatism.
There was also a hint that monk MPs may resist any governmental attempt to "appease" or be indulgent towards religious and ethnic minorities. The monks believe that a truly Buddhist political system will accommodate the legitimate aspirations of all sections of the people including the minorities.