Sri Lanka: Religion as a refuge for scoundrels in cricket and politics

Buddhism like many other religions is of multiple uses for many people particularly those struggling to stay in power.

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Buddhists monks in Colombo, Sri Lanka [ Photo: Xinhua]

The saying ‘Religion is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ does not do justice to religion. Scoundrels seek refuge in an infinite number of niches and if religions are the final refuge in the order of priorities of a scoundrel, are religions to be faulted?

A scoundrel is described as one who violates society’s accepted principles or morals to his advantage irrespective of the consequences to others. The best known are: great philosophies, patriotism, tribalism, and even sports.  The choice is dependent on opportune moments.

Right now in Sri Lanka, it should be cricket. Immediately after Lanka’s triumph over Zimbabwe to enter the finals of the World Cup, the refrain on TV was: ‘Nagitimu Sri Lanka’ (Arise Sri Lanka).

But the mood right now in paradise lost seems to be one of caution and circumspection and even TV is not exhorting Lanka with the expected frenzy for the nation to arise in the wake of the victories at Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

But to bring back home the World Cup even cricket’s scoundrels seem to have realised the task ahead is no cakewalk. We’ve got  to beat teams like: India, South Africa, Australia and England. Financial bankruptcy appears to have a sobering effect on cricket’s enthusiasts as well as scoundrels.

No one is staking claims for the start of the current upsurge which took place in the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Sooriyawewa where Sri Lanka beat Afghanistan 2-1 in the three match series. Not even Namal Rajapaksa, the crown prince of the Rajapaksa family and party. They had expended much of their time and energy building up the stadium which was once the home in the Hambantota range for wild elephants.The elephants are roaming on the highways in the town in search of another home and there is much sympathy for them. Should credit be given to the creators of the international cricket stadium named after the political patriarch of the party and family which was the womb of the resurrection of Sri Lanka cricket?

Religion, however, continues to be the last refuge of scoundrels in power because it provides some sort of legitimacy and a cover against criticism by world powers and the United Nations.

The most outrageous example of attempts of using  religion — Buddhism —  as a protection against international criticism and imposition of sanctions is of Myanmar’s military junta who staged a coup against a freely elected leader  Aung San Suu Kyi and her party leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in February 2021 and sentenced her and party leaders to life imprisonment in Kangaroo trials conducted by the Junta.

Irrawaddy, an independent online agency, reports that in just 16 months after the coup, Min Aung Hliang, the leader of the junta, consecrated five pagodas in just 16 months in the land that is known throughout the world as the Land of the Pagodas.

It says that a junta plan is afoot to build the biggest sculpture of a sitting Buddha in the world at the junta’s new capital Naypyidaw to forge its legitimacy as a protector of Buddhism. And the junta constructed a replication of Myanmar’s famed Shewezigon Pagoda in Moscow. Min Aung Hlaing, his wife and son secretly flew to Moscow to attend the consecration.The consecration was attended by Deputy Speaker of the Federal Council of Russia, Konstantn Kosachev, and Deputy Defence Minister Col. General Alexander Fournier, the Irrawaddy reported. Contributions for the Moscow Pagoda had mainly been made by a Myanmar millionaire who has a close relationship with the junta, reports said.

Russia is an open ally of the Myanmar regime which very many countries shun. It is one of the main suppliers of military armaments, particularly to the Myanmar air force.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, in a report last year released at the UN in New York, said that the Myanmar military imported weaponry worth at least  USD one billion since the coup, ‘despite overwhelming evidence for atrocity crimes’.

Weapons and materials to manufacture arms have continued to flow uninterruptedly to the military. The report identified more than 12,500 unique purchases or recorded shipments directly to the mlitary or known arms dealers working on behalf of the military. The armaments included fighter jets to drones, communication equipment and components for navy ships.

The report describes an attack last year on Pazigyi village in Central Saging region where daily confrontations between the soldiers and resistance forces were taking place. Some 300 villagers including children had gathered to mark the opening of a new NUG office. A Russian-built fighter jet dropped two 250kg (550libs) bombs on the crowd. The bombs detonated with deadly impact ripping bodies of men, women and children. The attack continued with two Mig-35 helicopters firing on survivors and those trying to help the wounded. Some 160 people were killed.

The report identified the main sources of the estimated USD 1 billion worth of arms are as follows:  Russia – 406 million worth of arms and related raw materials, China – USD 254 million, Singapore – 254 million.

“State owned entities in Russia, China and India were among those identified as exporters,” the report said.

Russia and China had accused the UN rapporteur of going beyond his brief while Indian government has thrown the ball over the shoulder — as rugby players often do — when cornered. The arms contracts involving state-owned companies had been signed by a previous government, the report said.

Fifty-five million people of Myanmar, very poorly armed, have been fighting a military junta which is flashing money on armaments for its survival and no tangible support has come to the assistance of rebel forces other than the ineffectual sanctions passed by the United States, the European Union, the UN special rapporteurs reports and mild admonitions declared by ASEAN countries of which Myanmar is a member. What a contrast it is when compared with the situation in Ukraine, which deserves the assistance given in arms and the spirit of support by European and other Western nations.

What are Asian Theravada Buddhist countries doing about Myanmar? The government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Lt. Col in the Sri Lankan army upped the relations with the junta rulers of Myanmar. Perhaps among military men there is an Esprit de Corps that tickles their conscience.

But what’s the problem now?

Sri Lanka, commendably, with much alacrity, condemned the burning of the Quran outside a mosque in Sweden.

But is not the Lanka government obliged to take a closer look at the plight of the 55 million Myanmar people, 75 percent of whom are Buddhists in the context of Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which states, ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly the duty of the state is to protect and foster the Buddha sasana…’

What are the words….. ‘the duty of the state to protect  and foster the Buddha sasana’ imply? Is the Buddha sasana confined only to Sri Lanka and does it not include the Buddhist doctrine and its adherents wherever they are? Can Sri Lankan Buddhists look away from the subjugation of Buddhists by consecutive military juntas since 1962?

Or do we still follow the ‘Neutral Non Aligned policies’ of Gotabaya and continue to buy rice from Myanmar for its army to purchase arms amounting millions of dollars while the poor people are starving? And will our diplomats ask the Indian government which had given contracts to government institutions to sell arms to the military junta in question after February 1, 2021 while the Narendra Modi’s BJP government was in office?

Nonetheless Modi too is using Buddhism as his credentials using Buddhism to become a world leader, flaunting the Dhamma Chakra on the Indian flag and saying that Buddha was an Indian while his domestic politics are based on the Hindutva policies of the BJP which is a far cry from the liberal and tolerant teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism like many other religions is of multiple uses for many people particularly those struggling to stay in power.

Gamini Weerakoon

Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader.

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