World churches hear divergent Buddhist views on Sri Lanka

By agency reporter
October 26, 2008

Leaders of Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority expressed divergent views on resolving the ethnic conflict in their country, while speaking to a delegation led by the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

"Our concerns are very much the same as yours," said Dr Ittapana Dhammalankara Anunayaka Maha Thera, chairperson of the Conference of Religions. He made the remark on 20 October when a five member delegation led by Dr Kobia visited the organization's offices at the Buddhist monastery of Narahenpita in Colombo.

The Conference of Religions includes all major religious groups: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians represented by the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. It has been a major advocate for a peaceful resolution of the protracted ethnic conflict.

More than 80,000 lives have been lost since 1983 when ethnic Tamil rebels known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began an armed struggle aimed at autonomy for the Tamil majority areas in the north and eastern regions, alleging discrimination at the hands of the Sinhala speaking Buddhist majority. The Sinhala majority accounts for over 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people.

Despite a ceasefire brokered by Norway in 2002, sporadic attacks by suicide bombers have continued. The government forces went on the offensive again when Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidential election in late 2005 and abrogated the ceasefire agreement.

Violence worsened again with nearly 10,000 people – mostly Tamil militants – killed so far in 2008, and the government forces launched an all out war against the Tamil "terrorists" to capture their remaining bastion in Vanni. In this northern district with more than a quarter million ethnic Tamil inhabitants, the LTTE run a de facto state.

The latest government offensive comes after its forces successfully expelled the Tamil rebels from their bases in the east in 2007.

"Those who are killed or injured [in the war] are the citizens of Sri Lanka", the Anunayaka Thera said.

"Churches coming together on this at the international level will weaken the [Buddhist] fundamentalist groups here," added the Buddhist monk.

On the other hand, the WCC delegation did not encounter the same enthusiasm for churches' support of a peaceful resolution to the conflict during a 21 October visit to Kandy. Located 116 kilometres east of Colombo, it is a sacred city to Buddhists in Sri Lanka, as a relic of the Buddha is kept in Kandy's Temple of the Tooth.

The two Mahanayakas, the highest ranking leaders of the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka, are based in Kandy. They lead the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters, the two main components of Sri Lankan monastic Buddhism.

"The problem is unresolved because people do not listen to or obey the teachings of religion," Udugama Ratanapala Buddhakarakkhitha Mahanayaka Thero of the Asgiriya chapter told the WCC delegation.

Still, the Mahanayaka maintained that "it is the government's duty to suppress and overpower the misguided [Tamil militant] groups and protect the civilians" against terrorist activities.

"As religious leaders, we will never tell the government to shy away from its duty to protect the civilians," he added.

Both he and Rambukwelle Sri Vipassi Mahanayaka Thero of the Malwatte chapter told the WCC delegation they thought little of dialogue with the Tamil rebels.

"The government is elected to protect the people, and I am unable to say something different. This conflict is not against the Tamil people. It is against terrorism," asserted Mahanayaka Buddharakkhitha. He pointed out that when the Sinhala Buddhist youth took up arms in the south in 1970, the government violently suppressed the leftist movement.

"In having divergent opinions even about the most pressing concerns, Buddhist leaders are no different than other religious leaders," said the Rev Dr Shanta Premawardhana, WCC programme director for Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation.

"We will continue to work with those religious leaders who are open to non-violent methods of achieving social change, and who are willing to seek political rather than military solutions. In the context of Sri Lanka, accompanying churches means working with religious leaders who are open to political solutions to this conflict," added Premawardhana.

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