Buddhists Behaving Badly

What Zealotry is Doing to Sri Lanka

by William McGowan, Foreign Affairs, New York, August 2, 2012

Militant Buddhism was a driving force behind the 25-year war between the majority Sinhalese (74 percent of the population) and the minority Tamils (18 percent), who were fighting for an independent state in the island’s north and east. (Muslims, who make up six percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were often caught in the middle.) During the war, monks repeatedly undercut efforts to work out a peace agreement…

As one prominent lay Buddhist painfully (and discreetly) explained to me more than twenty years ago, “Buddhism is hollow now in Sri Lanka. We are only going through the motions.” Today, those motions are growing ever more disturbing.

McGowan provides a fascinating account of the war’s tragic, mounting equation, and he is doubtful that anything can save this country from its own internal flames.

A Buddhist monk protesting in Colombo 2010

A Buddhist monk protesting in Colombo, 2010. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Courtesy Reuters)

In Sri Lanka last September, a Sinhalese mob led by some 100 Buddhist monks demolished a Muslim shrine in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. As the crowd waved Buddhist colors, gold and red, a monk set a green Muslim flag on fire. The monks claimed that the shrine was on land that had been given to the Sinhalese 2,000 years ago — an allusion to their proprietary right over the entire island nation, as inscribed in ancient religious texts.

The Anuradhapura attack was not the only recent incident of Buddhists behaving badly in Sri Lanka. In April, monks led nearly 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists in a march against a mosque in Dambulla, a holy city where Sinhalese kings are believed to have taken refuge from southern Indian invaders in a vast network of caves almost two millennia ago. The highly charged — but largely symbolic — attack marked a “historic day,” a monk who led the assault told the crowd, “a victory for those who love the [Sinhala] race, have Sinhala blood, and are Buddhists.”

Such chauvinism is at odds with Western preconceptions of Buddhism — a religion that emphasizes nonviolence and nonattachment — but is in keeping with Sri Lanka’s religious history. Militant Buddhism there has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha foresaw the demise of Buddhism in India but saw a bright future for it in Sri Lanka. “In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish,” he said. The Sinhalese take this as a sign that they are the Buddha’s chosen people, commanded to “preserve and protect” Buddhism in its most pristine form. According to myth, a young Sinhalese prince in the second century BC armed himself with a spear tipped with a relic of the Buddha and led a column of 500 monks to vanquish Tamil invaders. In addition to defending his kingdom from mortal peril, the prince’s victory legitimized religious violence as a means for national survival.

Militant Buddhism was a driving force behind the 25-year war between the majority Sinhalese (74 percent of the population) and the minority Tamils (18 percent), who were fighting for an independent state in the island’s north and east. (Muslims, who make up six percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were often caught in the middle.) During the war, monks repeatedly undercut efforts to work out a peace agreement.

The sangha, as the clergy is collectively referred to in Theravada Buddhism, has historically exercised political power from behind the scenes, embodying a broad form of religious nationalism. But in the later years of the war, it became more overtly politicized. In 2004, the hard-line National Heritage Party (known as the JHU) elected seven of its members to Parliament; all were monks, and the party ran on a platform calling for a return to Buddhist morality in public life. Soon after being seated, the JHU staged an intramural brawl on the floor of Parliament.

The JHU also worked to scuttle a March 2002 Norwegian-brokered peace settlement that called for limited Tamil autonomy. Monks declared that Sri Lanka had always been a Sinhalese kingdom, that autonomy violated the near-mystical idea of a unitary state, and that there was no option other than a military one. Peace negotiations simply made the Tamil Tigers stronger, as one of the party’s more outspoken clerics, Athuraliye Rathana, whom the Sri Lankan media dubbed the War Monk, argued. “If they give up their weapons, then we can talk,” he said. “If not, then we will control them by whatever means necessary. We should fight now and talk later.” In the spring of 2006, monks attacked an ecumenical group of peace marchers and led a long sit-in against a cease-fire agreement that soon came apart, leading to another round of fighting.

As the bloodshed wore on, much of the Buddhist clergy gave its blessing to a final offensive on the separatist Tamil Tigers. In May of 2009, the Sri Lankan military emerged from that battle triumphant. But its brutal offensive against the Tigers has made President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government the target of broad international condemnation. Reliable estimates of civilian deaths range as high as 40,000, and Britain’s Channel Four has documented summary executions of Tamil Tiger prisoners in its program “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Although human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, have called for an investigation into humanitarian abuses and possible war crimes, the Rajapaksa government has resisted. The monks have backed this obstinacy, saying that such demands attack what Sinhalese refer to as the Buddhist “motherland.”

Since the war ended, Buddhist clerics have been at the forefront of promoting punitive triumphalism. The Sinhalese majority widely views its victory over the Tamils as a ratification of its scripturally ordained dominion, with other groups occupying a subordinate position. Accordingly, steps toward reconciliation have been faltering. Government efforts to resettle the nearly 300,000 Tamils displaced by the fighting, now mostly accomplished, were slow and chaotic, leaving resentment. The military has established large cantonments in Tamil areas, treating civilians with a heavy hand. According to the International Crisis Group, “When challenged by public protest, the military has shown itself willing to physically attack demonstrators and is credibly accused of involvement in enforced disappearances and other extrajudicial punishments.” Although the rehabilitation of former Tiger cadres — as many as 11,000 individuals — has largely proceeded according to schedule, there have been accusations of mistreatment of prisoners while in custody and harassment of them after their release.

Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, recently said that the north and east were not exclusively Tamil areas, hinting that the government might resume Sinhalese land colonization programs, which were a major point of friction in the run-up to the war. Meanwhile, Tamils have complained that the military has allowed Buddhist temples to be erected where Hindu temples had been destroyed in the fighting, or near traditional Hindu shrines. There are also accusations that monks have taken advantage of the postwar confusion to seize Tamil land, especially in areas adjacent to new military bases. Last year, the ICG warned of a “recipe for renewed conflict” and said that reconciliation “seems harder than ever.”

Another sign of militant Buddhism’s enduring power is the government’s refusal to confront the human rights abuses committed in the war’s final push. President Rajapaksa, who went to Kandy, the cultural capital, immediately after the 2009 victory to genuflect to the country’s top Buddhist clerics, has rejected a UN Human Rights Council resolution, passed in March, that called for an inquiry into humanitarian abuses and possible war crimes. Only recently did the Rajapaksa government concede that there were any civilian casualties at all. In fact, as the UNHRC voted on the March resolution, hundreds of Buddhist monks led a prayer vigil in Colombo against it. Hundreds more led protests when it passed. The Los Angeles Times quoted one demonstrator as saying, “Evil forces both local and international have joined hands to deprive Sri Lanka of the present environment of peace and take this blessed island back to an era of darkness.”

Some see an irony in Buddhist monks aligning themselves so closely with a government that resists accountability for humanitarian abuses. But the greater irony is that, in protecting and preserving their particular form of Buddhism, the Sinhalese seem to have injured it gravely. The sangha’s preoccupation with politics has come at the cost of spiritual focus. Most monks in Sri Lanka no longer meditate, which is supposed to be Buddhism’s core. Some Western Buddhists have gone on missionary trips to Sri Lanka to revive meditational practice. But success has been fleeting.

There has also been a breakdown in monastic discipline. Last February, a monk was sentenced to death for murder — the first monk so sentenced since Talduwe Somarama killed Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959 after he reneged on the full implementation of a Buddhist nationalist agenda. Over the last decade, there have been nearly 100 cases in which Buddhist monks have been charged with sexual abuse of minors, and many instances of monks, particularly young ones, being cited for public intoxication and hooliganism. The fundamentalist idea that Buddhism is a unique national possession has encouraged a sense of moral superiority, which makes it hard for many Sinhalese to accept how bruised their Buddhism has become. As one prominent lay Buddhist painfully (and discreetly) explained to me more than twenty years ago, “Buddhism is hollow now in Sri Lanka. We are only going through the motions.” Today, those motions are growing ever more disturbing.

Sri Lanka’s toxic identity politics are not altogether unique, especially in other Theravada Buddhist nations. Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, for example, provided a similar rallying point against British colonialism. But the conflation of “the land, the race, and the faith” among the majority there, along with a view that this majority is the steward of its own uniquely pure form of Buddhism, has been a great source of political and cultural disharmony with the country’s many non-Buddhist minority groups, most recently the Rohingya Muslims. Although Buddhism might eschew violence on a doctrinal level, it is not immune from nationalist myths that see a place for it.

————————————————-

Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy Of Sri Lanka

Review by Patriia Lee Dorff, Summer 1992

Sri Lanka is a country whose reputation as an earthly paradise cannot be easily reconciled with its recent tragedies: a bloody civil war between the majority Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists, and the minority and largely Hindu Tamils. McGowan traveled to Sri Lanka in 1986 and spent two years as a reporter talking to the various Buddhist and Hindu factions. He is a deft writer with a keen eye for observation, and he shows how the roots of this violent war lie in the economic legacy of colonialism. Tracing the history and development of the conflict, McGowan provides a fascinating account of the war’s tragic, mounting equation. He is doubtful that anything can save this country from its own internal flames.

AUTHOR William McGowan

PUBLISHER Farrar, Straus and Giroux

YEAR 1992

PAGES 397 pp.

PRICE $25.00

Massacre of Aid Workers Goes Unpunished

by Human Rights Watch, New York, August 2, 2012

“Governments that demanded action at the UN Human Rights Council shouldn’t be mollified by the Sri Lankan government’s tepid proposal to pursue criminal inquiries,” Ross said. “Regarding investigations into wartime abuses, the government’s ‘action plan’ reads more like an ‘inaction plan.’”

The Sri Lankan government’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for the execution-style slaying of 17 aid workers six years ago is indicative of its deeper unwillingness to prosecute soldiers and police for atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite compelling evidence of participation by state security forces in the killings, government inquiries have not progressed and no one has been charged with the crime.

On August 4, 2006, gunmen executed the 17 Sri Lankan aid workers – 16 ethnic Tamils and one Muslim – with the Paris-based international humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger, ACF) in their office compound in the town of Mutur, Trincomalee district in northeast Sri Lanka. The killings followed a battle between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for control of the town.

“The sixth anniversary of the summary executions of 17 aid workers has brought the Sri Lankan government no closer to obtaining justice for the victims,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “President Rajapaksa’s callous indifference to the suffering of the aid workers’ families will be a sad hallmark of his administration.”

The bodies of 15 of the aid workers, both men and women, were discovered on August 6 lying face-down with bullet wounds to the head and neck fired at point-blank range. Two bodies of ACF workers who apparently had tried to escape were found in a vehicle nearby. The group had been providing assistance for survivors of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The nongovernmental organization University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in April 2008 published detailed findingson the ACF killings, including accounts from witnesses, weapons analysis, and compelling information about the government security forces believed responsible. Those allegedly directly involved include two police constables and Naval Special Forces commandos. Senior police and justice officials were linked to an alleged cover-up.

In July 2009 the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, created in November 2006 to investigate 16 major cases of human rights abuse, exonerated the army and navy in the ACF killings, instead blaming the LTTE or Muslim militia. The commission made it difficult for witnesses to testify and made no effort to remedy a botched police investigation. Its full report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa has never been published.

In response to a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in March 2012 calling on Sri Lanka to provide a comprehensive action plan to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), established by the Rajapaksa government to analyze the failure of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, the government on July 26 published a National Plan of Action to Implement the Recommendations of the LLRC.

The plan of action vaguely calls for the government to “[a]scertain more fully the circumstances under which specific instances of death or injury to civilians could have occurred, and if such investigations disclose wrongful conduct, prosecute and punish the wrongdoers.” Itsets out a 12-month timeframe to conclude disciplinary inquiries and 24 months for prosecutions.

The government proposal merely leaves responsibility for investigations with the military and police, the entities responsible for the abuses, using processes lacking in transparency, Human Rights Watch said.

The Sri Lankan government has a poor record of investigating serious human rights abuses, and impunity has been a persistent problem. Despite a backlog of cases of enforced disappearance and unlawful killings going back two decades that run to the tens of thousands, there have been only a small number of prosecutions. Past efforts to address violations by creating ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka have produced few results, either in providing information or leading to prosecutions.

On May 23, 2009, shortly after the LTTE’s defeat, Rajapaksa and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a joint statement from Sri Lanka in which the government said it “will take measures to address” the need for an accountability process for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

The eight-member Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission held public hearings on human rights abuses during the last years of fighting. But the commission did not have an investigatory mandate, nor did it demonstrate independence or impartiality in its proceedings.

In April 2011 a panel of experts authorized by the UN secretary-general issued a comprehensive report on violations of international law by both sides during the final months of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. It called on the Sri Lankan government to carry out genuine investigations and recommended that the UN create an independent international mechanism to monitor the government’s implementation of the panel recommendations, conduct an independent investigation, and collect and safeguard evidence.

Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the secretary-general or other UN body to create an independent international investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This investigation should make recommendations for the prosecution of those responsible for serious abuses during the armed conflict, including the ACF case.

Governments concerned about impunity for serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka should publicly support an independent international mechanism, Human Rights Watch said. Sri Lanka’s history of inaction on even prominent cases with strong evidence demonstrates the need to avoid further delay.

“Governments that demanded action at the UN Human Rights Council shouldn’t be mollified by the Sri Lankan government’s tepid proposal to pursue criminal inquiries,” Ross said. “Regarding investigations into wartime abuses, the government’s ‘action plan’ reads more like an ‘inaction plan.’”