The government of Sri Lanka is in disarray. The country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has fled on a military aircraft and submitted his letter of resignation to parliament via email. Protesters, in a leaderless and largely non-violent movement, briefly took over the presidential mansion and are demanding further resignations, including that of acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The island nation’s problems have developed over several years. In late 2019, then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered tax cuts widely perceived as benefiting the rich. Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, cutting off tourism, a major source of income. Then, in 2021, Rajapaksa issued a decree mandating organic farming and banning chemical fertilizers, triggering farmer protests and declines in crops. All of this occurred as the country has taken on new debt as it borrowed liberally from China in an effort to build up its infrastructure. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated an already-sensitive situation, driving up commodity prices and leading to rationing of food, fuel, and other supplies.
Last week, as the country descended into uncertainty, the former speaker of parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, called on leaders from several faiths—Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims—to speak out and offer guidance. Several Buddhist leaders had already made it clear that the Rajapaksa brothers, who had appointed several other family members to key government roles in recent years, must go.
On 9 July, Venerable Dr. Omalpe Sobhita Thero, an influential Buddhist monk, observed: “The country needs freedom and liberation. We can no longer live divided.” (Christian Science Monitor)
Ven. Sobhita’s concern reflects the history of the Rajapaksas’ leadership of Sri Lanka, which has strongly favored the predominantly Buddhist Sinhala majority. Before becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a military strategist behind the often-brutal campaign to end the country’s 26-year civil war.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, stated: “This government was only concerned about securing power . . . by dividing people with their ethnicities and religion.” (Christian Science Monitor)
In a country of 22 million people, some 70.2 per cent of the population is Buddhist, primarily Theravada. Hindus make up 12.6 per cent of the population, with Muslims accounting for 9.7 per cent, and Christians—primarily Roman Catholics—making up 7.4 per cent. The dominance of Theravada Buddhists has made it possible for Buddhism to play an outsized role in the country.
While Sri Lanka’s constitution protects the freedom of all religions, it places Buddhism in a special category based on the country’s long history as a haven for the religion. As we reported in 2020, just after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president, he gave a vigorous defence of his treatment of Buddhists on a “first-among-equals” basis in relation to other Sri Lankan faith traditions in a speech to Sri Lanka’s parliament.*
Rajapaksa stated then: “Ours is a country with an ancient history and a society nurtured by Buddhist teachings and the teachings of other world faiths. We must always safeguard our culture and our values.” Furthermore, Rajapaksa promised that he would “always defend the unitary status of our country, and protect and nurture the Buddhasasana.” (Tamil Guardian)
While many Buddhists appreciated this status, others recognized the divisive nature of Rajapaksa’s rhetoric. Buddhist leaders this month put together a list of five civil activists to stand as candidates for the country’s presidency. They are urging the government to allow for a secret ballot on 20 July.
“The future president should be chosen with a common agreement from all political parties and based on the national needs,” he said, adding that all party leaders needed to leave their power struggles behind for the good of the country. (UCA News)
This opportunity, to rise from the ashes of division to create a new, unified government, is rare in recent political history. Too often, the favored group seeks to hold its status at whatever cost, leading to violent clashes. Some Buddhists in Sri Lanka have gone down this path. The Buddha Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force arose in the late years of the Sri Lankan civil war to assert the importance of Buddhism in a then fragile and divided country. In doing so, they demeaned and threatened people of other religions.
It wasn’t long before fellow Buddhists were caught in their violent rhetoric. In 2014, Watareka Vijitha Thero, a monk described as “gentle-voiced,” dared to speak out against the anti-Muslim fearmongering of the BBS. In retaliation, his car was attacked and he was later physically beaten.
“What does it mean for Buddhism if those that speak for communal harmony have to hide in fear?” Ven. Vijitha asked. “What does it mean for my country that the government lets these lawless thugs have a free run?” (The New York Times)
Buddhists in Sri Lanka today have an opportunity to build a new nation of co-equal religious liberty. Even if they do not change the wording of the constitution in the days and months ahead, Buddhist leaders can live up to the truth that with great power comes great responsibility. The road head is not an easy one. However, by taking up their responsibility and working together with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others, Sri Lanka’s Buddhists can set an example so deeply needed in the world today—an example of humility and cooperation in the midst of crisis.
Keeping the faith in Sri Lanka (Christian Science Monitor)
Buddhist clergy prep pick list for next Sri Lanka president (UCA News)
Sovereignty, security and Buddhism – Sri Lanka’s president addresses parliament (Tamil Guardian)
Sri Lanka’s Violent Buddhists (The New York Times)
Related features from BDG
Buddhistdoor View: A Buddhist Country in Crisis
Buddhistdoor View: What Is Lost when Warmongers Win?
Global Systemic Crisis and Buddhism: Toward a Change of Paradigm
The Price of Freedom
Is This Buddhism? The Oneness of Spiritual Liberation and Social Justice
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