"By acting in direct violation of the forbearance, moderation and patience expected of a bhikku and destroying the image of the Sasana, they evoke nothing but feelings of disgust at both the local and international levels. They are tainting the image of all those who wear the saffron robe."
An interview with Baddegama Samitha Thera
The Ven. Baddegama Samitha was the first Buddhist monk in this country to hold elected public office. While it was not unusual for Bhikkus to engage in politics as supporters of one political party or another, it was certainly unusual for a Bhikku to stand for elected office. After the Ven. Samitha opened the floodgates, many monks have been elected to various tiers of the government in subsequent years. In this interview Ven. Samitha speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about the manner in which a Bhikku is expected to conduct himself even in the field of partisan politics.
Q. You were the first Buddhist monk to be elected to parliament in 2002. You pioneered what many people regard as a trend that has impacted negatively on the Sasana. When you see the way political Bhikkus behave today, isn’t that charge justified?
A. I entered electoral politics to represent the cause of the downtrodden masses regardless of ethnic, caste or religious differences. But as of this moment we see a number of Bhikkus with narrow objectives holding elected office. I cannot accept responsibility for that. But I am saddened that those who should hold broad views have adopted narrow ethnic and religious positions to mislead the public.
Q. The unruly behaviour and shocking manner of speech of monks in politics has come under much scrutiny in recent times. Do you believe it is necessary for a Bhikku to behave and speak in this manner to engage in politics? Even a lay politician would hesitate to behave in that manner as public disapproval could negatively impact his political career.
A. Whether one engages in politics or not, there is a traditional mode of behaviour that the public expects of a monk and every monk should hold himself and other Bhikkus to this standard. We cannot flout those traditions. For example, it is totally unacceptable for a Bhikku to use foul language and behave in an unruly or violent manner. A Bhikku is bound to behave in a peaceful manner and to eschew unruly and emotional behaviour. A Bhikku has to be always balanced and moderate and cannot be an extremist. If this rule is flouted, then even though one appears in the garb of a Bhikku, he cannot be accepted as one.
Q. We have heard the claim made by these unruly monks that they behave in this manner in order to get the attention of the public. This strategy appears to have worked. They have got the attention of the public. Aggressive monks are all over the news channels and on the front pages of newspapers. When you see a Bhikku behaving in this manner, using foul language that naturally attracts attention because it is so unusual.
A. It is true that a Bhikku can attract attention by behaving in an unruly manner and using foul language, but they should bear in mind that what the public feels at seeing such a spectacle is only disgust. By acting in direct violation of the forbearance, moderation and patience expected of a Bhikku and destroying the image of the Sasana, they evoke nothing but feelings of disgust at both the local and international levels. They are tainting the image of all those who wear the saffron robe.
Q. When a Bhikku enters politics, what should he place first, his political objective or his Bhikkuhood?
A. What is fundamental is the Bhikkuhood. Everything else should be secondary to that.
Q. We have seen the rise of several unruly and extremist Bhikku organisations after 2012. One Bhikku even committed suicide in protest against cattle slaughter. Today that Bhikkus name is not known to the public even though that was the first self-immolation by a Bhikku ever to take place in this country.
A. It is said that there was a piggery close to the Jetavanaramaya monastery and the sound of pigs being slaughtered could be heard to the monastery. The Buddha did not protest against this and when he was offered alms by the owner of this piggery, the Buddha had accepted the offering. So you cannot look at this from an extremist standpoint. The consumption of meat is not something that can be banned through legislation and punishments – people will have to give it up of their own free will.
Q. You have been in politics for a long time. Were you surprised to see not just one but two or three Bhikku organisations suddenly popping up out of nowhere with a lot of resources and the ability to muster crowds? The Bhikkus in these organisations were completely unknown before 2012.
A. Certainly, this sudden emergence of these organisations is a cause for suspicion. With the war, we got close to countries like Israel. One part of the Israeli strategy has been to destabilise Muslim communities all over the world. We see suspicious international involvement. For example, the visit made by the Bodu Bala Sena monks to Norway is surprising because Norway is a very liberal country. It is still unclear why they were invited to Norway. We know how difficult it is to hire a bus and to take some people to a May Day rally in Colombo. But these people seem to have the capacity to hire vehicles and take hundreds of people anywhere in the country at short notice. They seem to have ample funds. How these organisations came up to that level in a short period of time naturally gives rise to various suspicions. My name became known to the public as a result of involvement in politics over a period of about four decades. These people have been able to make their names known to the public in as many days by peddling the snake venom of religious extremism and with the largesse of shadowy international backers.
Q. Is this infamy due to the snake venom that you mentioned or due to the behaviour and manner of speech of these monks?
A. All those factors have combined. The lenient reaction of the present government is also another reason. In no other country in the world would anybody have got off Scott free after behaviour like this. Anywhere else, they would have been in jail. It is a cause of regret that this government has adopted a tolerant attitude towards all this mayhem.
Q. One of these Bhikku organisations, namely the Bodu Bala Sena always harps on this theme of Islamic extremism. When you look at their manner of speech and the things they say, you may feel that Sri Lanka is in imminent danger of falling to Islamic extremists. They are trying to whip up a kind of hysteria. Does Islamic extremism really pose such an immediate and desperate threat to Sri Lanka? The Muslims are only 8% of the population and do not inhabit any part of the country in significant numbers. Furthermore, this military has crushed both Sinhala and Tamil extremism. Do you think we are not in a position to combat Muslim extremism if the need arises?
A. You used the correct word ‘hysteria’. They are trying to create fear in the minds of the public. In 1971, the JVP was trying to whip of fears of Indian expansionism in this country. We see the same hysteria today with these people behaving as if Islamic extremists are already landing on the beaches to invade the country. They create a sense of urgency by saying that the Muslims are multiplying fast and that such and such town has been taken over by Muslims. We have our intelligence services and it is they who carry out investigations as to whether Islamic extremism is at work in this country. Every Dick Tom and Harry can’t be making pronouncements on a subject like this.
Q. When you see all this, how do you feel about having opened the path for Bhikkus to hold elected political office? The unruliest Bhikku of all is even threatening to contest the presidential election!
A. I feel that this situation would have come about anyway even if I did not come forward to contest elections. I was only a child when Bhikkus opposed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact. The mindset which says that no concessions at all should be given to the minorities has always existed in this country. This has today assumed very ugly proportions.
picture of – Ven. Baddegama Samitha thera