Sri Lanka Parties Scurry as Monks Take Poll Plunge

The decision by Sri Lanka's leading Buddhist monks' organization, the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya (JSS), to contest the April 2 general election is being seen as a clear threat to the prospects of mainstream parties in a country that has a 70 per cent Buddhist majority.

The JSS will put up 260 monks and will contest under a new party banner, the National Sinhala Heritage (NSH).

Its prime target is likely to be the newly formed alliance between president Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which plans to woo voters with its nationalistic plank.

Observers say the NSH will erode the vote bank of caretaker premier Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party, too, although to a much lesser degree.

Though a rookie in electoral politics, the NSH won't be a pushover. "This is a completely new phenomenon and is likely to wean away a large number of votes from all parties," says political analyst B.H.S. Jayawardena.

Jayawardena believes that the presence of some of Sri Lanka's most popular Buddhist monks in the political arena will attract floating votes, plus a neat chunk of votes from the leading parties, especially the SLFP-JVP alliance.

For those wondering why the monks are coming out of their cloisters and jumping into the heat and dust of elections, the monks have the answers ready.

"We have been watching for too long the manner in which political leaders are undermining the rights of the country's majority Sinhala Buddhists in order to bring the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the negotiating table," says the NSH secretary, the Venerable Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera.

He adds, "Protecting the country and Buddhism has been the traditional role of the monks in the 2,500-year history of Buddhism here and we are not doing anything new."

The young and charismatic Ven. Dhammaloka is seen by many as one of the most promising Buddhist priests in the country.

The decision by the JSS to field candidates follows the stoic silence by the SLFP-JVP to the 10 conditions presented by the monks to extend support to the alliance. A key demand is a pledge not to negotiate with the LTTE.

The announcement saw the alliance press the panic buttons. The following day, Kumaratunga extended an invitation to the JSS brass for a meeting.

But many fear that the entry of monks into the fray will further exacerbate the increasing ethno-religious divisions in the country. In fact, Jayawardene wonders whether such a trend is "healthy for a multi-ethnic multi-religious country" such as Sri Lanka.

A nagging worry is the rising anti-Christian sentiment following the mysterious death of one of the leading Buddhist monks in the country, the Venerable Gangodawila Soma, who died during a visit to Russia in December 2003.

Most Buddhist organizations in Sri Lanka allege that his death was the result of a conspiracy by the rector of the Russian university, who is a pastor, to kill Ven. Soma - a strident critic of religious conversions by some Christian sects in the island nation.

Following his death on December 12, 2003, several Christian prayer centers were attacked by mobs across the island.

But the JSS may be able to strike a chord among disgruntled voters. Says 59-year-old businessman K.W. Jayatissa, "The rights of the majority are being heavily undermined by all leading parties. They are trying their best to be in the good books of the LTTE and everybody is talking about minority rights. The majority is being largely neglected as a result. We welcome the move of the monks."

"It is better if religion is kept away from politics, given the volatile ethno-religious situation here," says Pakiosothy Saravanamuttu, the chief of nongovernmental organization, the Center for Policy Alternatives.

Agrees an adviser of the country's main Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, M.H.S. Salman, "Ours is a secular country, so the clergy joining mainstream politics from any religious group will only set a bad precedent."

He adds, "Such a move is very likely to give rise to insecurities among other religious groups, especially as this scenario has emerged when political leaders are trying to solve the ethnic conflict and there is a discourse about granting broad-based devolution to ethnic minorities."

Environment Minister Rukman Senanayake plays it defensively. "We should not pass judgement on this move. It is up to the people to decide whether it is right or wrong for the Buddhist priests to contest elections," he insists.

Some analysts believe that it could be a JSS bargaining tool. They say the monks may withdraw at the last minute, once they obtain assurances from Kumaratunga's alliance to promote the Sinhala cause.