Sri Lanka’s president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, offered his first speech to parliament last week as the South Asian nation enters a period of relative calm after months of economic and political turmoil. That turmoil saw first the removal of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from his post in May. Then, in July, as protesters stormed the presidential palace, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned and fled the country.
Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president on 13 July and formally took office on 21 July. He was seen by many, including leading Buddhist monks, as a force for stability who could unite factions of the country’s political powers.
On 3 August, Wickremesinghe delivered his first speech in parliament as president of Sri Lanka. He vowed to uphold Buddhism’s place as foremost among religions and to bring about law and order in the country, which still suffers from shortages of essential goods including fuel.
Wickremesinghe specifically reaffirmed his support for the Buddhist nationalist structure of the Sri Lankan state, noting that he was “constitutionally bound to give Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly protect and foster the Buddhasasana.” (Tamil Guardian)
At the same time, he sought to reassure non-Buddhists that their rights would be protected. Concern has been expressed of deepening Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the country andof increasing intolerance on the part of Buddhist leaders.
In February, Michelle Bachelet. the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that in Sri Lanka: “There has been a further drift toward militarization and an emphasis of Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism in State institutions has become more visible, increasing the marginalization and uncertainty of minority communities, and undermining reconciliation.” (Tamil Guardian)
Meanwhile, numerous human rights organizations have urged Sri Lanka to adopt a secular constitution that does not privilege Buddhism or any other religion above others.
Wickremesinghe has consistently upheld the primacy of Buddhism in his speeches and actions as a politician over the past three decades. In his speech, he emphasized his desire for a political solution to divisions between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils. Speaking of the Tamils, he said:
They are suffering with many social and economic issues due to the hardships of war. There are many land issues that need to be resolved. We have to think anew about the development tasks in the North. We expect to get the support of the Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad by closely working with them, on the program of rebuilding Sri Lanka. We look forward to their visits and investments in their motherland.(Tamil Guardian)
However, for Wickremesinghe the most pressing concern is ending the months of protests and occasional violence that have punctuated Sri Lanka’s crisis. He criticized demonstrators, stating that while they had initially started as a non-violent movement, by “indulging in violence the protests turned toward terrorism.” He also vowed to protect peaceful demonstrators while taking legal action against “individuals who intentionally violate the law and engage in violent and terrorist acts.” (Tamil Guardian)
Wickremesinghe offered special thanks to neighboring India for providing assistance throughout the crisis, saying: “The government of India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has given us a breath of life.” (Tamil Guardian)
Speaking on his hopes for the future, Wickremesinghe noted his desire to create a strong and developed green economy, including supporting a return to tourism. According to a paper published this year, these two desires might be at odds. Researchers reported: “Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka were a signiﬁcant factor in environmental deterioration. Moreover, a huge number of visitors ﬂocked to rural areas for Buddhist-related events such as ﬁrework shows, thereby exacerbating local environmental degradation.” (MDPI)
Nonetheless, Buddhist temples rely to some extent on internal and international tourism to fund their operating costs, so a return to pre-pandemic levels of travel will relieve stress among Sri Lanka’s Buddhists. The country is home to some 6,000 Buddhist monasteries and approximately 15,000 monks.
‘I am constitutionally bound to give Buddhism the foremost place’ – Sri Lanka’s President lays out roadmap for the future (Tamil Guardian)
Does Buddhist Tourism Successfully Result in Local Sustainable Development? (MDPI)
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