“If you take countries like England, for example, the parliament has very close connections with the church. Kings and queens take their vows in the church. Why can’t Buddhists of Sri Lanka have the same power?”
The revered bhikkhu tucks in his saffron-coloured robe, offers a guest bananas and King Coconut water, smiles benignly. Everything in this man’s disposition radiates the peaceable philosophy so widely associated with gentle Buddhism. But Rev. Iththbekande Saddhatissa is a radical, accused of spreading xenophobia, religious intolerance and Sinhalese domination over Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.
He preaches politicized Buddhism.
He organizes rallies aimed at suppressing Tamil aspirations for autonomy in the north of a deeply divided island nation.
He embodies Sinhalese chauvinism.
He has the ear of a government that has embraced a version of fundamentalist Buddhism unrecognizable elsewhere on the planet — and the state’s official faith in a country where Buddhists comprise 70 per cent of the population.
He is secretary general of the small and extremist but disproportionately influential National Organization for Ravana Balaya, named after the mythological 10-headed king of ancient Lanka.
It was Ravana Balaya that demanded the elections commissioner declare the outcome of September’s provincial council poll in Northern Province — won overwhelmingly by the Tamil National Alliance — illegal. He vowed to keep the province’s duly elected chief minister away from Colombo, even preventing him from attending parliament. He sought to have Navi Pillay , the United Nations high commissioner on human rights, tossed out of Sri Lanka in August for urging the government to conduct a credible war crimes investigation in the 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tigers. He masterminded a demonstration in front of the British High Commission to protest calls for an international war crimes probe by Prime Minister David Cameron. He has promised to mobilize island-wide agitation against any attempt to implement the 13th amendment, a stipulation included in the rewritten constitution that would allow for the devolving of police and land powers to provincial councils, a key promise of the TNA electoral platform.
Saddhatissa is not alone in promoting repeal of the 13th amendment. Two coalition parties in the ruling government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa — the reactionary Sri Lanka Buddhist Party and the National Freedom Front — have also called loudly for abolishing the proviso forced upon Sri Lanka’s constitution by India, and described by its opponents as a time bomb waiting to explode. But Saddhatissa brings a distinct moral dimension — the virtue of monks — to the battle he’s waging.
The Buddhist clergy — bhikkus — are everywhere visible here, in their robes and with shaved heads, whether clutching briefcases as they go about secular business or as educators on university campuses. While in other countries Buddhist monks have laid down their lives in peaceful civilian dissent brutally quashed, in Sri Lanka some advocate bloodshed to maintain purity of the common weal. In the country’s historical annals — authored for millennia by bhikkus who have monopolized the past — Buddha came to the island and, on his deathbed, anointed its people as guardians of “true” Buddhism.
“Any nation where there is a majority of a certain religion, it should have the priority in that country,” he says during an interview at the tranquil Ravana Balaya compound on the outskirts of Colombo. “If you take countries like England, for example, the parliament has very close connections with the church. Kings and queens take their vows in the church. Why can’t Buddhists of Sri Lanka have the same power? Why can’t Buddhists be closely associated with the government? This culture has been present in Sri Lanka for so many centuries, where kings had a close relationship with the temple.
“In the context of politics, I can justify it. There’s no problem with Buddhist monks doing politics. The problem arises when they are extremists or fundamentalists.”
Yet that’s how many describe Ravana Balaya, an accusation Saddhatissa rejects, pointing out his organization has no members sitting in parliament.
“I’m not a racist, neither is my organization racist or extremist. People may perceive it that way because I stand up for justice and that has been misinterpreted.”
There’s no misinterpretation, however, when Saddhatissa demands nullifying the results of a mostly free and fair election that brought 32 TNA candidates to power, under the leadership of former Supreme Court judge C. V. Wigneswaran. The odium he has directed at Wigneswaran and the none-too-tacit threat of mass protests over the 13th amendment has stirred fears of a resurrection of violence in a country that has known far too much bloodletting — whether in the near three decades of war with Velupillai Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the earlier horrors of Sinhalese slaughtering Sinhalese in insurgencies wherein young Marxist revolutionaries with the People’s Liberation Front almost bludgeoned the state to its knees. The second, 1987 revolt — known as beeshana kalaya , or “the time of great fear” — lasted three years and provoked a terrible wave of blood lust retribution in which at least 40,000 were killed, largely at the hands of police, army and paramilitary death squads, young people beheaded and their skulls stuck atop pole in public squares.
For such a tiny country, population only 20 million, Sri Lanka’s recent history has been brutally interwoven with violence.
Saddhatissa believes the nation is headed in that direction again, if the 13th amendment is implemented.
“There is an old Sinhalese saying that if you give a monkey a barber’s job, he will slit your throat. I believe that although (the TNA) are asking for an autonomous state within a federation, they will gradually demand an independent state in the north. The TNA leaders are saplings that grew under the ice of Prabhakaran and now have become mighty trees. And the push for an independent state later on will be motivated by Western powers.”
The international community fails to understand the realities of Sri Lanka, the 38-year-old monk insists — ignoring the fact there has not been a single instance of terrorism since the civil war ended, thus arguably little cause to leave tens of thousands of troops garrisoned in Northern Province, often squatting on expropriated private land, which has fuelled bitter opposition.
Saddhatissa calls political autonomy as granted to Quebec, for example, unfeasible for Sri Lanka. “A country like Canada is vast and it can afford to do these things. It would not work in Sri Lanka. Our sovereignty is at stake when different provinces deal in different ways with the central government.
“The people who voted for the TNA believe they will reap some benefits by giving the party power. But give it another two years and they will see that the TNA will fail because they cannot achieve their objectives.”
Both Wigneswaran and President Mahinda Rajapaksa should take his warning seriously, says Saddhatissa. “If they do not heed what we’re saying, we will rally people and get them out on the streets to get our wish, because we are patriotic people and the security of the country is our priority.”
As many like-minded commentators of influence in Sri Lanka have noted, the Tamils already have a quasi-independent state — Tamil Nadu, a province of India. And they should go there. Saddhatissa won’t take his resentment that far. He claims Tamils can coexist with Sinhalese in Sri Lanka — indeed, nearly 35 per cent of Tamils who reside in the capital already do. But not with any special accommodations for their language or their primarily Hindu faith.
“If you create a separate Tamil state in the north, then what happens to the Tamils in other parts of the country? There has been no injustice to these Tamils. The chief minister (Wigneswaran) was educated in a Colombo school and he has basked in freedom of education in the West.”
He’s equally dismissive of accusations — now accepted by the UN — that upwards of 40,000 Tamil civilians died in the final months of the war in wanton and indiscriminate bombardment by the army.
“I don’t think that even throughout the 30 years of war there had been 40,000 dead, or 70,000 dead, which some people claim. This is a doctored figure. The terrorists that died — well, they deserved it. America and other western nations have double standards. Nobody inquires about their human rights infringements and the numbers of deaths they have caused in countries like Iraq. When it happens to them, it’s terrorism. But when it happens to some other country, it’s a war crime.
“Nothing of that nature ever happened in Sri Lanka. None of the Tamil civilians were killed and there is no need for such an inquiry.” (The Star)