Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I delayed reporting on the story of the overthrow of the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka, because 1) it was happening so fast, and
2) because I was so blown away by the decisions of the US Supreme Court—overturning Roe v. Wade thus ending the federal right to abortion, allowing States to restrict and even criminalize the act of seeking for or providing abortions in ‘free states’; potentially ending access to birth control (in case you wanted to avoid an abortion); and then potentially ending the right to gay marriage and criminalizing gay sex (Texas, Florida), ending the protection of LGBT rights under Title IX, denying gender-specific health care to transgender persons; even potentially outlawing PREP because “it encourages homosexual behaviour” (Texas again); that I could barely pay attention to anything but the Republicans taking a wrecking ball to democracy in America and fast-tracking the Q-Anon Fascist State.
(whew, chest pains and shortness of breath, and it’s not just my heart condition….)
So when I reviewed the situation in Sri Lanka over the last week, and saw the videos of protesters not only storming the President’s palace, but actually forcing the Rajapaksa brothers to resign and flee the country, I thought “wait a minute….we are witnessing a democratic revolution in a Buddhist State in real time. I have to cover this for Engage.”
Thus, “Sri Lanka: The Revolution Now?” So why the question mark? Well, because although there is current agreement amongst majority Buddhists and minority Hindus, Muslims and Christians to throw out the Rajapaksa government, this has been a very recent development. The twenty-year civil war in Sri Lanka, driven by the State’s genocidal goal to restrict and eradicate Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka, to exploit religious hostility between Muslims and Catholics, and establish Buddhism as the “first among equals” under the Constitution of Sri Lanka—was supported by the Buddhist majority. Furthermore, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the military commander who ‘ended’ the genocidal war in Sir Lanka, had the full support of the powerful Buddhist monastic institutions.
That is, until the Rajapaksas totally fucked up. Their regime instituted giant tax breaks for the richest Sinhalese, took on huge international debts from China and other foreign states, which, when the Pandemic hit and tourism dropped to near zero, could not be repaid. Which resulted in bankrupting the country, economic collapse, skyrocketing prices of food and fuel, and the increasing scarcity of food and fuel, whereby ordinary Sri Lankans began to starve….
But wait, hold on, let’s go back a minute. There’s something strangely familiar about this story. It sounds a lot like another Buddhist majority state that is fighting against a military regime—Myanmar.
Similar story. When the Tatmadaw were committing genocide against the Rohingya and forced them into exile in Bangladesh, they had the full support of the majority Buddhist monastic institutions. In fact, the 969 movement, led by Buddhist monk and criminal sociopath Ashin Wirathu, actively drove up support for the Tatmadaw regime, hatred against the Rohingya, and the exclusion of other religious and ethnic minorities from equal representation in the Constitution of Myanmar.
However, when the people tried to elect a government that was largely free of control by the Tatmadaw, the Junta deposed the democratically elected government and drove them into exile. When the people fought back against the Tatmadaw—Buddhist, Muslims, Christians and other ethnic minorities together—the Tatmadaw started beating, detaining and killing Buddhists as well. (You can read a slew of articles on the democratic revolution in Burma in Engage under “Burma”).
What is potentially different about the response of the people of Myanmar in their case is that they made a commitment to write a new Constitution that would guarantee the fair and equal representation of all religious and ethnic groups in Myanmar, when the democratic government is reconvened. That has yet to be realized, because at this moment, 18 months after the Tatmadaw established military rule, the government is still in exile, the people are still fighting against the Tatmadaw while trying to survive a collapsed economy and COVID-19.
But here’s the final point—state-aligned Buddhist monastic institutions support military regimes when it benefits them and oppresses other religious and ethnic minorities. Until these same fascist military regimes turn against the Buddhists. Then they suddenly become supporters of ‘democracy.’ If you live by the Fascist sword, you may die by the Fascist sword.
Let’s return to what the people of Sri Lanka have achieved in a few months, from April to July 2022. They have deposed a fascist military government and thrown them out of the country. This is potentially another powerful example of a Buddhist majority population taking a stand against fascism and in coalition with other religious and ethnic groups. This is an incredible feat of populist democracy that we should celebrate.
As I’ve been saying over the last couple of years, the movement for democracy in Buddhist majority South and Southeast Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Myanmar, and now Sri Lanka, among many others) is the most powerful movement for democracy in the last hundred years. And it’s going to have a profound impact on the future of Buddhism as a whole.
More stories on Sri Lanka to follow…