ACSLU Document No 27

ACSLU Publication No. 27

The Maha Sangha and Devolution

Some Comments on Resolutions adopted
by the Maha Sangha on 5 March 1996

An ACSLU Report

Australian Centre for Sri Lankan Unity
P.O.Box 536, Toowong QLD 4066, AUSTRALIA


1. Introduction
2. The Five Resolutions
3. The Intervention of the Maha Sangha

First Published: March 1996

The Maha Sangha and Devolution

1. Introduction

The Buddhist Maha Sangha of Sri Lanka has for a long time been the object of derision by Eelamists and their supporters. Indeed the terrorist wing of the Eelamist movement has gone much further and murdered scores of members of the Maha Sangha. By contrast the spiritual leaders of no other religion have been harmed (let alone murdered) in the Sri Lankan conflict, despite the openly separatist activities of many Tamil Christian priests.

The supporters of Eelam constantly portray the Maha Sangha as hard-line Sinhala chauvinists, inciting the Sinhala people to oppose the Tamils, and placing every obstacle in the way of the Sri Lankan government conceding separatist demands. Like much of the mythology connected with the Eelam cause this is a caricature of the true situation, but one which unfortunately continues to have wide currency in the West.

Buddhism has never been a highly centralised religion; it has no Pope or Church Authority empowered to take official positions on religious or secular matters. On the separatist question the Buddhist Sangha have shown a wide range of views, some going so far as to support the separatist demand. The vast majority of the Sangha have shown a tolerance and compassion that is typical of the Buddhist approach, but Sangha leaders have spoken out on political matters not so much in their capacity as members of the Buddhist "clergy", but as community leaders.

In an organisational sense the Sangha in Sri Lanka is divided into a number of Chapters (or Nikayas). On 5 March 1996 a large assembly of the Maha Sangha of Sri Lanka led by the chief Prelates of the various Nikayas met at the Bandaranaike Conference Hall in Colombo to discuss the crisis facing the country. They passed five resolutions relating to the national crisis. These resolutions may be considered as the response of the Maha Sangha to the devolution proposals of the SL Government. All groups concerned with the Sri Lankan crisis, including SL expatriates abroad, should examine these resolutions. This article provides some ACSLU comments on these resolutions.

2. The Five Resolutions

The preamble to the resolutions states that "the Maha Sangha has considered it their historic duty from ancient times to advise the government of the country and the people in times of grave danger" and points out that such a situation has now arisen. The Maha Sangha thus justifies their intervention in terms of historical precedent not in terms of Buddhist theory or practice. As a constituent element of the polity they are entitled to give their opinion; it is up to the Government to respond to these resolutions.

The first Resolution reads:

"1. The efforts of the government over the last ten years by peaceful means to put an end to the brutal murders and destruction of property committed by the separatist Tamil terrorists have been completely unsuccessful. The establishment of peace, law and order in the country is the responsibility solely of the government. This conference of the Maha Sangha brings to the notice of the government the necessity of completely eliminating terrorism in order to create an environment in which all communities, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, can live in peace and harmony in a unitary state of Sri Lanka."

The views expressed here are impeccable. We may perhaps replace the phrase "by peaceful means" in the first sentence with "by lawful means" as no one has found a method of dealing with dedicated suicidal terrorists "by peaceful means".

This Resolution reminds the Government of its basic obligation to ensure peaceful conditions for ordinary citizens to go about their legitimate activities.. This obligation has long been evaded by a succession of SL Governments and terrorists have been allowed to run rampant in the country. Furthermore the challenge to the Government is to create the conditions for a peaceful existence within a unitary state. There are many multi-ethnic unitary states in the world where peaceful conditions prevail and there is no reason why this should not be case in Sri Lanka.

The second resolution states:

"2. The proposed constitutional amendments will pave the way for the creation of an independent state of Eelam, which is the sole objective of all Tamil separatists. In the circumstances this conference of the Maha Sangha while expressing its dissatisfaction at the proposed constitutional amendments, demands that these proposals be not implemented."
The view of the Maha Sangha given here coincides with the scenario that ACSLU has portrayed as resulting from the adoption of devolution. It will only be a matter of time before the Chief Minister of the Eelam Region is a member of the LTTE. Then such a Chief Minister could engineer the rupture of the Region from the Union and proclaim unilaterally the independence of "Tamil Eelam". As the ACSLU analysis of the Devolution Law has shown the provisions of the Constitution are firstly incapable of preventing this from happening, and secondly from reversing it once it has happened. The demand of the Maha Sangha that the devolution proposals "not be implemented" must be stated more strongly. They should be withdrawn unconditionally.

The third resolution reads:

"3. Whereas the government declares that the constitutional amendments are aimed to solve the Tamil problem and to correct the historical injustices caused to the Tamils, this conference of the Maha Sangha demands that the government declares in what ways the Tamils have suffered any injustices purely because they have been members of that community and in what ways the Sinhalese who constitute 74 percent of the population have special privileges by virtue of being Sinhala. Furthermore in regard to the question of alternative solutions this conference requests the government to state the problems for which alternative solutions are required."
This resolution contains a very vital question avoided both by Eelamists and by devolutionists. This amounts to nothing more than the demand that those who claim that an "Ethnic Problem" exists in Sri Lanka should define this problem and establish its existence in unambiguous ways. ACSLU has shown that there has been no systematic discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka
[NOTE 1]. It mis now time for those who argue the contrary to state their claims. It also involves, as the Maha Sangha has stated clearly, the obligation to identify the "special privileges" allegedly given to the Sinhala people, privileges which are in excess of those enjoyed by the majority linguistic group in most countries in the world.

It is only after the existence of the Ethnic Problem has been clearly demonstrated that the question whether devolution is the proper remedy for this problem can be considered. The devolutionists in fact have put the cart before the horse - they have identified a "solution" without first identifying a problem which their solution is supposed to rectify [NOTE 2].

The fourth and fifth resolutions contain a common theme. The fourth resolution reads:

"4. Sri Lanka is the sole Sinhala Buddhist country in the World. Hence this conference of the Maha Sangha emphasises that in solving the political, social and economic problems of the country the Sinhala Buddhist identity should be safeguarded. "
The fifth reads:
"5. For an unbroken period of almost 2500 years the Maha Sangha, the rulers and the people have protected and safeguarded the Buddha Sasana and the Buddhist Culture in Sri Lanka and propagated the sublime message of the Buddha to the rest of the world. Today the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka is faced with numerous threats both internal and external. Hence, this Conference of the Maha Sangha requests the co-operation of the International Buddhist community in protecting the Buddha Sasana and the Buddhist heritage in Sri Lanka.''
This is the Dhamma-Dveepa ("Island of the Dhamma") Principle against which Eelamist theorists have long riled, calling it the "Mahavamsa mind-set" of the Sinhalese. Central to this is the place to be accorded to Buddhism in the unitary state of Sri Lanka. Matters like this cannot be determined in the abstract but in terms of accepted international practice. That practice is that in almost every country the religion of the majority is conceded a special place. This is true of all Islamic countries where in fact no religious tolerance is shown to other religions except in a limited way to Christians and Jews (often referred to as the "people of the Book") [NOTE 3].

The same is also true by and large of Christian countries. In most of these countries one or the other of the Christian sects is the established religion. This is the case in the U.K. and most other European countries.

This is also true of the United States concerning which the mistaken notion prevails that no religion is established by the State. What the American Constitution implies is that no one Christian sect is "established" in preference to other sects. But Christianity in general is given a privileged position as is seen in the proliferation of Christian statements like "God Bless America" in inscriptions in currency, utterances by the President, and the like. Recently the principle has been extended to other theistic religions, but non-theistic religions like Buddhism and secularism in general is under increasing threat.

Many people would subscribe to the principle that the State should be completely separate from religion, and there is much to commend such a position. But there is no reason why Sri Lanka should lead the way. After all it is the so-called arbiters of democracy who have to set the example. Not only have they not done so but are actually going backwards. The Sri Lankan pseudo-intellectuals who are propagating the myth of the "Mahavamsa mind-set" should first examine the practices in those countries who are their patrons and endow them with ample funds to carry on their activity before they denigrate Sri Lanka and its unrivalled chronicle the Mahawamsa, the like of which few countries can boast of [NOTE 4].

3. The Intervention of the Maha Sangha

It may be pertinent to inquire why the Maha Sangha had to break its traditional aloofness from politics and intervene in the political debate in this manner. After all it should be the task of the ordinary lay people to take the initiative on the matters on which the Maha Sangha has spoken.

It is a sad fact that while the Sri Lanka slides into racism and the disintegration which this corrosive doctrine has produced everywhere, the majority of the people of Sri Lanka appears to be unperturbed at the fate that awaits the nation and is continuing in their own mercenary ways. The support for devolution from the leaders of racial minorities is readily comprehensible, but the acquiescence of the Sinhala leaders is less easily explained. Yet the incapability of political leaders to discharge their responsibility as identified in the first Resolution we have considered is something that needs explanation. A part of this explanation must lie in the factor which ACSLU had identified. viz. the rise of the "neo- Sinhalas". They have turned their back on the tradition of the classic Sinhalas and have shown a readiness to compromise with racially minded separatists for purposes of personal, political and financial gain. In effect the Sinhala supporters of devolution constitute a "lumpen-Sinhala" dross unworthy of Sri Lanka's great heritage.

What will be the response to the Resolutions of the Maha Sangha? It is unlikely that the Government, to whom most of the Resolutions are addressed, will abandon the path they have set for themselves. But they should at least answer the call made in the third Resolution and justify their claims of the existence of "Discrimination against Tamils" and that devolution will address this problem. They should substantiate their claims about the existence of discrimination and compare what they see as discriminatory actions with the practices in other countries usually considered enlightened in these matters.

The Maha Sangha has stepped out its normal bounds to deliver a message to the nation in clear and unequivocal terms. It would be interesting to note what the response to this message will be.


[1] See the ACSLU document "The Myth of Discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka". [Return]

[2] According to SL Press reports shortly after the passage of these resolutions the Mahanayake Thera of Malwatte Chapter was met by a delegation consisting of the leader of the EPDP, the secretary general of TELO, the secretary of EPRLF, and the secretary of EROS. According to the Press reports these Tamil leaders claimed that "Tamil people in this country had been subjected to injustices under successive governments". However only two injustices are mentioned in the Press Report, the "worst being to make Sinhala the only official language in 1956" and the other "the government sponsored colonisation schemes". As ACSLU has shown both these are not valid. The practice of making the language of the majority the official language of a country is universal practice, and even Western countries in which Tamils have sought sanctuary adopt the principle behind the language law of 1956. The argument about colonisation schemes imply that the areas concerned constitute the "Tamil homeland" which is historically absurd. Injustice in land settlement can only be claimed if Tamils are not given a percentage of land in the colonisation schemes commensurate with their proportion in the population. The fact that these high-powered Tamil leaders could not produce any other credible evidence of discrimination shows that the position of the Mahanayaka Theras was fundamentally correct. All that the delegation could ask for was "meaningful devolution", which ultimately means the apartheid principle contrary not only to the principles of Buddhism but also to every decent and humane code. [Return]

[3] Indonesia if often considered the least fundamentalist of the Muslim countries. But even here the first principle of state ideology (the "panchaseela") affirms belief in a single God which is contrary to Buddhism and some other religions. [Return]

[4] Tamil separatist theoreticians never cease to claim that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. But it is curious that such an enterprising and industrious people never thought of writing down their deeds and exploits in Sri Lanka which they claim to be their homeland. The first history of Tamils in Sri Lanka written by a Tamil was composed at the request of the Dutch Governor in the eighteenth century and displays a monumental ignorance of real historical fact. [Return]