Mar 12, 2018

Young “Saffron Buddhists” and their “anti Muslim patriotism”

Most now talk about anti Muslim violence being transported from Ampara to Digana. It wasn’t really from Ampara to Digana, but from Aluthgama-Beruwala to Mahiyangane, to Gintota and then to Ampara and for now to Digana. Five very open anti Muslim conflicts within less than 05 years that begins with MR rule, extending into this unique ‘Yahapalana’ (good governance) rule. Next can be anywhere a new “excuse” could be found and used for another round of violence. And in all instances, there is a Temple and a few Buddhist monks involved and taking the lead.

A young “Tweep” who wanted to understand this phenomenon, engaged me through direct messaging. She referred to a video clip that went viral during the Kandy mayhem stressing on the claim made by a young Buddhist monk the “Muslim men came, married our (Sinhala) women and grabbed our land”. This same young monk had another video clip going viral that claimed the Muslim traders encroached on the livelihood of Sinhala villagers and created problems for Sinhala people, who are otherwise capable of leading a prosperous life. This young “saffron patriot” goes to say, the Arab traders who landed in ‘Hamban’ thota (meaning Hamban port) were called “Hambaya” because they landed in Hambanthota and was allowed to engage in trading. Many similar stories are rattled off without any effort to prove them.

These “anti Muslim” sentiments are baseless as his claim that Buddhist monks led warriors from the frontline when Dutu Gemunu waged war. Perhaps the monks followed the warring Sinhala soldiers to attend to religious rituals at death. Soldiers who died in the battle front in those ancient times, had to be buried in that same area. They had to be given their last rites according to Buddhist rituals. That needed Buddhist monks to follow foot soldiers going to war. In those ancient days, there was no airlifting of dead bodies to villages of birth as done during the now concluded militarised ethnic conflict. This young monk is also wrong in how the port came to be known as “Hamban thota”. “Hamban” is an ancient seafaring rafter. That was why the landing site they used came to be called “Hamban thota” and those who came in these rafters came to be identified accordingly.

It is true, the Muslim people cannot claim ancestral rights to our ancient history as Tamils do. In fact they don’t. But their arrival in this island was also a historical process that colonised most countries along the “sea trade route” from Muscat to Merauke in Irian Jaya. These long and time consuming sea journeys were daring and risky in those ancient rafters and primitive boats. They were undertaken by only men. There is no record of any women seafarers even during the period of Columbus. There were those men who never went back. They settled in those lands their boats and rafters anchored for long. Obviously that meant raising their own families with women in those lands they settled. Perhaps they grew as closed communities and developed an identity of their own with male Muslim dominance in an ancient world where patriarchy was the hallmark of all human activity; craftmanship, trade, travelling, seafaring or war.

This was quite natural and human in those feudal ancient society and has not changed very much even to date. The Southern fishermen who go out for long durations in ‘multi day’ boats move to the Eastern coast, during Southern monsoon. Until the militarised ethnic conflict that severely restricted fishing in those Eastern waters, fishermen from especially Matara and Hambanthota districts settled in Eastern coast raising their own families with Tamil women. Thus to say, “they (Arab Muslims) came, took our women and grabbed our land” is wholly inhuman and out of context.

When these ‘saffron patriots’ talk of land grab by Muslim men, giving it a spin to mean they forcefully grabbed land from innocent Sinhala villagers, it sounds like the military that grabbed land of innocent Tamil people in North and East. To grab land as it is spun today against Muslim people, it needs power and force; either feudal power or religious power, the Muslim people were not having.

Ownership of land has a historical relationship from ancient time. One, they are caste based in rural society. The landed proprietors are always and mostly the ‘Govigama’ (equivalent to Vellala in Tamil society) nobility of rural society. As one goes down the caste hierarchy, the extent of land ownership gradually recedes. Two, most land in those rural areas were handed over to temples and for religious purposes by Kings who owned the land. These lands are called “Viharagam” and “Devalagam”. From Kandy, right down to Mahiyangana, vast tracts of cultivable land still belong to Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters or to temples that come under their authority like the Badulla Muthiyangana temple. It is same in Anuradhapura where the 08 temples and shrines (Atamasthana) within the “Sacred City” hold rights to cultivable land bestowed upon them by ancient kings. Most Buddhist temples known as “Purana Raja Maha Vihara” (ancient royal temples) have cultivable land as “Viharagam” and “Devalagam”. Thus dominance over rural land even today is held by Buddhist temples, the ‘Govigama’ nobility in up-country and majority ‘Govigama’ peasants and mostly small time Sinhala trader community now into their second and third generations.

It is also a fact, after the Waste Lands Ordinance of 1899 under British colonial rule when for the first time, land owned by the King and used by people, was turned into a ‘commodity’, bought over by the new landed proprietary created through the Colonial trade and commerce economy. Plumbago mining industry and liquor “Renting” turned noble Sinhala collaborators in Western Province and adjoining areas also into a rich land owning gentry. Muslim and Tamil traders also bought land where they had trading interests. Yet none could encroach or buy over “Viharagam” and “Devalagam” land, except in very rare instances.

These “temple owned” land and also wealth and income created upon them is jealously guarded by Chief monks of temples who make certain they are passed on to the next generation within the family. In a market economy, more within a ‘free market economy’ this has created much frustration among young Buddhist monks who had no clue why they were ordained as little kids and what they were expected to be when they grew up.

In such free market context, except in exceptionally rare occasions, none has robed himself on his own volition. It would be safe to say over 99 per cent of the monks were ordained as little children, decided by their parents. They are all handed to the Temple by poor parents for many reasons, poverty being the most common denominator. There are reasons openly told and openly accepted without any social dialogue, while there are some that are not even whispered. One is that the Chief monk of the temple ordains the ‘closest kin’, often a child of his brother or sister to be the next in line for the post of Chief monk. That ensures, the wealth and income of the temple remains within the family. The other is the exploitation of poverty in luring parents to hand over children for ordination for purely personal interests, though not discussed. This leaves out the fact that there is heavy abuse of child monks in many forms, in most temples.

These child monks thus grow into youth in deformed and often in very taut and stressful environments. They do enrol in “pirivenas” for education where they are taught subjects in our national education and are allowed to sit for G.C.E Ordinary and Advance Level exams. A small percentage enter State universities and graduate. Most graduate monks take to teaching.

But where they feel alienated and left out of temple life is, where they don't get access to temple wealth and income not being heir to the post of high priest of the temple. Most who enter universities, often complain they are not provided enough money to sustain themselves through university education, despite having the “Mahapola” scholarship. This being a fact of robing little children who wish to have a comfortable life despite the “saffron robe” when they grow up as youth in a free market society with an unlimited consumer choice.

Such young monks have tried out many exits to settle comfortably in life, while being in saffron robes. Some have moved out from their parental temple to establish their own temples. That was one reason temples mushroomed especially in urban areas where they managed trader and rich urban middle class patronage. In rural society they were supported by traders and the lower social segments that had to struggle for their life and thus wanted a “sacred life support”. There were those who moved into expensive and fashionable “Ashrams” that sprouted in WP catering to the middle aged middle class. The urban middle class that feels exhausted in this neo liberal economy. There are others who exploit the education market. Temples turned into tuition centres with some graduate teacher monks, where the head priest benefits from rent. Very appealing and attractive oratorical “bana preaching” for high end middle class urban market is yet another. There is also those traditional mystic rituals often looked for by the majority innocent and poor Sinhala Buddhist laymen and women.

With that is tied the role of the caste affiliated Sinhala Buddhist trader. During Colonial rule, Sinhala traders emerged from among the low country Sinhalese and very much from the 03 castes, Karawa, Durawa and Salagama that were not directly linked to the ancient feudal society. An exception was the Vahumpura caste that too grew into a formidable merchant clan. With no low country ‘Royalty’ to facilitate regaining full ordination as it happened before in ancient times, the Sinhala traders stepped in to fund and facilitate ‘full ordination’(Upasampadawa). It was Sinhala Buddhist traders who funded the establishment of the two Sangha nikyas “Amarapura” and “Ramanna”, in 1803 and 1834 respectively, when Shyamopali Siyam nikaya of Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters refused “full ordination” to “low country monks from low castes” as they termed. Since then, the Sinhala Buddhist trader community organised with their own caste interests became the major financier in Sangha society. To quote from a previous blog post of mine, “There was apparently no other independent existence for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Yet for Heenayana Buddhism that “preached” suppression of secular comfort including giving up lay bondages and wealth, to have a trader funded base, left it with a living contradiction. This contradiction was often eased out with “giving away” (Dhana) that always accrued with temples and monks. Thus the new society that evolved with this new Sangha divisions had an inherent dynamic to lead it to degeneration and decline.” (

In a free market economy where the urban cashflow is very much dependent on dress and costume, food and retail pharmaceutical trades, the competition for market dominance is being fuelled on ethnic lines. There is a visual presence of new Muslim businesses in these market areas coming out airy and colourful. It is thus challenged by the Sinhala Buddhist trader community by an elimination method and not by competing for better and efficient service and quality products. Politics for such elimination brings out the frustrated young monks as “saffron patriots” who till then had no social presence and an importance. They are made “saviours” of a “Sinhala Buddhist society that is being submerged in a fast growing Muslim population”. They are thus given a dual role. One to play “saviour” of Sinhala Buddhists and the “Land of Gauthama Buddha” and then to challenge the old hierarchical “temple ownership” by high priests. Hence the cry, “You owe it to the people who feed you to come out of the temple and stand with them”.

The main focus has not changed since the first Sinhala-Muslim riots in 1915. It is the “market and its cashflow”. It was the “market” that was important till the 1983 Black July ‘Tamil pogrom’ that completely changed the conflict into a “separatist” war. Since the end of the militarised ethnic war, it is once again the 1915 “market war”. Buddhist monks cannot stay out of it when it is the Sinhala Buddhist traders who decide options.

2018 March 11