Protests that led to Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resignation have raised questions about the role of Buddhism in the country’s politics. Religion News Service interviewed CRCC’s Nalika Gajaweera about the Buddhist monks who have supported the former president as well as those supporting the movement to take him out of power.
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.
Despite the scenes of monks being booed at the protests, many of the young, predominantly Buddhist protesters welcome monks’ involvement in the popular uprising and politics at large, as long as it is done in limited measure.
“Some senior monks have merely spoken in support of the protest movement. They weren’t on the streets joining in, but just said, ‘Yes, we support this.’ For some protesters, that statement likely gives public legitimacy to the struggle, particularly among the wider Sinhala Buddhist public,” said Gajaweera.
But their presence at the protests has made even some other monks wary. Some activists who forced the former president out have accused these monks of being “opportunistic” — trying to save face by protesting despite previously supporting the Rajapaksa regime.
Many Sri Lankans are less than pleased that their new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is a close ally of the former president. They expect the hard-line nationalist monks formerly aligned with Rajapaksa will back Wickremesinghe and the status quo.
“The constitution is still structured as the Sinhalese and the ‘other,‘” said Gajaweera. “Although everyone is ‘equal,’ there’s a special case for the Buddhists. These contradictions of the nation-state will continue to shape the future.”