by Kumar Rupesinghe
In spite of bombings and heavy rain, over 5000 people from Colombo took part in a demonstration and rally calling upon the two parties to stop the war. The rally also demonstrated the largest coalition of forces to join the National Anti-War Front (NAWF) — mass mobilization campaign for peace. There were representatives of the UNP, the SLFP, the Communist Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the New Left, the CWC, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the Tamil National Alliance, the Western Peoples Front, the Up Country Peoples Front , trade unions, a significant group of religious leaders, including Bishops and many civil society representatives.
After the demonstration, the meeting began with the traditional blessings of the religious leaders, who invoked blessings for peace and the no war campaign. Then a group of monks walked in, and, as is our culture, some of us got up to worship the monks and to make sure that they were provided proper seating. They did not seem to be in a mood to listen to us and I saw them unfolding a poster from inside the saffron robes and one of them seizing the microphone and shouting at the audience. It was then that I realized that these monks had come to disrupt the meeting. I know that my colleagues pleaded with them to leave the premises in peace. But the monks were in no mood to do this and shouted at the organizers and started to push the organizers aside. It was then that the pandemonium started. Many in the crowd were outraged by the blatant provocations of the monks and I witnessed with horror, monks hitting people with their umbrellas and people in the meeting shoving and pushing the monks. This was and is a regrettable incident. I understand that the monks had turned up with 25 goons from the underworld, who also made it their business to assault the supporters of the NAWF. The police remained passive without doing anything to stop the pandemonium. This, in spite of warning to the police that such a thing could happen.
When I was interviewed by T.V, in my statement I said that witnessing these events was one of the saddest incidents of my life. I then stated that I valued and cherished the teachings of Lord Buddha and have tried to emulate his teachings of non violence. I said that I did not think that these monks represented the teachings of Lord Buddha.
It was clear to everyone that the monks had come with the explicit purpose of disrupting the meeting. Outside the grounds where the meeting took place, the monks gave a press conference which was very revealing. They said that they will not allow peace marches to take place in any part of the country. They stated that there will only be war preaching and no peace preaching in the country. They even said that they would resort to violence to stop the rallies in the future. They also challenged us to have meetings in the North and the East and in particular in Kilinochchi. A few days later, at a hastily convened press conference the monks tried to say that they came to the meeting only to have a dialogue with the peace activists. Television replays showed another story. It is interesting to note that even the JVP and the JHU have also denounced the actions of the monks from the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya.
Resurgence of militant political Buddhism
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have taken to violence and intolerance. One of its first manifestations was in 1959, when Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was worshiping a monk, the monk took a pistol and shot the Prime Minister. The environment and political atmosphere was similar to the one now when Sinhalese extremists forced the Prime Minister to abrogate the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact and then eventually assassinated him. This was in every imaginable way an outrageous crime. Over the years, sections of monks began to take collective violent action. The best example was when the Sinhala Urumaya attacked over 150 churches and destroyed and set fire to several of them two years ago. A fact finding mission that was undertaken at that time demonstrated without any doubt, that the Sinhala Urumaya members and, in particular, some monks who are today in Parliament were responsible for these acts. A scrutiny of their pamphlets at that time incited the people to attack churches saying that these churches were engaged in unethical conversions. As a result of this blatant act of terrorism, the US State Department banned the organization.
Another instance was when Sarvodaya was engaged in a demonstration in Kandy near the Temple of the Tooth, throughmeditation sessions. Other religious leaders were also present at this meditation session. A group of monks came and disrupted the meeting. When the participants continued to practice meditation and Ahimsa, the monks began to physically attack the participants.
Recently, Rev. Athureliye Ratana of the JHU took a group of hoodlums to Seruvila and threatened to march into Mavil Aru and open the anicut by force. Fortunately, the Chief Incumbents of the two main temples in Seruvila, who had been attempting to resolve the water dispute through peaceful means, prevented him from carrying out this act. This action of the monk is in marked contrast to the actions of Lord Buddha in the settlement of the water dispute between the Koliyans and Sakyans. The position of the Lord Buddha is graphically represented in the Dhammapada Commentary. The Commentary describes how Lord Buddha averted a war by his presence and his teaching and mediation. These commentaries are essential reading to our own militant monks who preach war.
I have taken some time to give a description of the activities of these monks and as to what should be the reactions of those who participate in peaceful demonstrations.
The newspapers in their reporting of the event based on their political leanings, set out to give different interpretations of the event. The Minister of Information fortunately put the record straight with a strong condemnation of the actions of the monks for blatantly disrupting the meeting and violating a fundamental right, i.e. the freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression. Sadly, the international news coverage showed monks in yellow robes going on the rampage and shouting for war at a peace rally. This spectacle of monks engaged in these actions only brings disgrace to Buddhism, which is known as the religion that is based on a value frame of non-violence and tolerance.
The events which led to the disruption of the meeting bring into sharp relief, several matters which are of critical importance to all of us who cherish a free and democratic society in the country. The event hopefully will open up a serious debate on a number of issues.
One of them is what does one do when monks who are supposed to profess the ideals of Ahimsa and non-violence come to a peace meeting to wreck the meeting? According to our culture and traditions, we have been taught to worship monks and pay respect. What then do we do when they preach the very opposite of what Lord Buddha taught? I seek edification from the Buddhist scriptures to seek guidance on this important matter. There is no question that if the monks are so determined to disrupt peace rallies, then we have to be prepared to meet this challenge with non-violence. Whilst the police should ensure the maintenance of law and order, the organizers and those coming to the rallies should be trained in advanced techniques of non-violence. This means taking the example of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The movement must and should wrest the process from those who would wish to turn these rallies into violence. Gandhi in his Satyagraha campaigns taught the art of positive non-violence and these techniques must be emulated by the peace movement. This is the need of the hour.
Another question that comes up is the nature of violence and non-violence within the anti-war movements in Sri Lanka. How does an anti-war movement dedicated to peace and co-existence deal with the question of violence and intolerance? The question which I wish to pose is, what do we do in a situation where monks under the cloak of the saffron robe engage in violent acts. Mahatma Gandhi, of course, never faced an assault by Hindu priests or other kinds of religious fanatics. The brunt of the attacks on his movement came from the British army and the police. But in conditions of an ethnic conflict when feelings amongst the population are polarized unlike in the broad front against British imperialism, Gandhi had great difficulty in restraining the people, particularly during the Hindu – Muslims clashes. Nevertheless, the peace movement must emulate and learn the lessons from the great teachers of positive non violence.
The NAWF and non violence
Another matter which I wish to take up here is the role of the National Anti- War Front. It has been stated that NAWF never issued statements or demonstrated against the violence of the LTTE. The NAWF has over the years repeatedly condemned the brutal killings and acts of violence of the LTTE. These press statements have been issued consistently, including when a busload of passengers were subjected to a claymore attack in Kebitigollewa. It may be opportune at this moment to provide the readers with a quotation with regard to our position on violence and war.
“It is our view that violence begets violence. Violence is like a cancer which has spread to all parts of our island. We condemn all forms of violence. We also state that violence will not resolve the problems that are with us here in Sri Lanka. Proxy wars or selective wars will eventually lead to a total war and will devastate the entire country. The consequences of such a war are unthinkable. Let us all take a leaf from India and learn from the great teacher of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi with his philosophy of Ahimsa threatened the very basis of the British Empire. Another example that we much cherish is that of Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years in prison, was able to extend the hand of friendship and reconciliation towards De Klerk, his arch enemy. The greatest example of all is the teachings of Lord Buddha. The Buddha was, both in his teachings and actions, the quintessential symbol and teacher of non-violence.