The 60s and early 70s were relatively quiet times in Sri Lanka, as the Buddhist God experts consolidated their educational gains. Both principal parties competed for their affection, plying them with subsidies, new temples, and government-paid automobiles – Mercedes-Benz was a particular favorite. Clerical appetites, however, were insatiable. Younger monks helped form a guerrilla force called the JVP to help attack Tamil interests, that was only put down with the help of the Indian army.
[caption id="attachment_1297" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Flag preferred by Buddhist militants"][/caption]The most interesting thing about the JVP was its flag. The official national flag, depicted above, shows the lion of the Buddhist warrior-king Dutthagamani, along side green and orange stripes to represent the island’s Muslim and Hindu Tamil minorities. The JVP flag shows the lion without the minority stripes.
In 1978 the Buddhists won a huge political victory when the constitution was revised, to state explicitly that Buddhism held the “foremost place” of all religions in the country. More and more government money flowed their way, especially in the form of a massive program to establish Buddhist “settlers” in Tamil-majority areas – a concept not unlike that of the Jewish “settlers” in the Israeli-occupied territories on the west bank of the Jordan, who aroused pretty much the same level of hatred. After decades of fruitless peaceful lobbying for greater local autonomy in heavily Tamil areas, some hotheaded young Tamils began blowing things up, hoping to touch off a conflagration that might result in complete independence.
Step One succeeded, as thoroughly as Osama bin Laden succeeded in starting the wars that ruined America’s economy. In “Black July,” 1983, a Buddhist-inspired rampage in Colombo resulted in the murder of some 2,000 to 3,000 Tamils, including 53 young political detainees lynched in the capital’s main prison, while making another 150,000 homeless. A devastating civil war ensued, as the frustrated Tamils sought the extreme of full-blown independence rather than mere local autonomy. Over the next quarter-century, the fighting took from 80,000 to 100,000 lives – far more than have been lost in the current war in Afghanistan.
As wars go, the Sri Lankan civil war ranked high on the stupid scale. It was excruciatingly obvious that having two separate countries on one island was absurd, that having the Buddhists force their ways on the non-Buddhist minority just because Buddha was said to have claimed the island for himself 2500 years ago was equally absurd, and that an unromantic limited local autonomy scheme for the Tamils was really the only plausible outcome. But try telling that to the monks. Norway did, offering itself as a mediator to try to end the carnage; for its efforts, it found monks brawling and burning the Norwegian flag in front of its embassy. Buddhist monks have now formed their own political party, which holds the balance of power between the two major parties in the parliament, just as the ultra-Orthodox parties hold the balance of power in the Israeli Knesset.
In 2005, a new prime minister took office with the support of the Buddhist radicals, pledging to reignite a conflict that had wound down due to mutual exhaustion. He kept his word, and the result was the war crime allegations now being investigated by the UN.
[caption id="attachment_1299" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="Premadasa, before"][/caption]Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka took a bizarre turn in the middle of the war under the leadership of president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who took office in 1989, with full backing of large elements of the Buddhist clergy. First, he got into a public spat with a dissident monk named Ariyaratne, who opposed plans to build a hotel to boost the tourism industry because it would be located near a Buddhist shrine. The president might have made a rational argument that the hotel was necessary to boost a war-ravaged economy, and that since the island had Buddhist shrines everywhere you turned Ariyaratne’s logic would see the island’s business activity grind to a halt. Instead, he turned to religion, arguing that Ariyaratne was a bad Buddhist. Why? Because he allowed Catholics to participate in his anti-hotel demonstration, who had the gall to display a crucifix near a holy Buddhist shrine. “Will the Buddhist clergy ever be allowed to display the Buddhist flag and perform satyagraha in the Vatican?” a government paper snarled. There soon followed a crackdown on Ariyaratne’s followers, shutting them off from the media, denying them passports, etc.
[caption id="attachment_1300" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Premadasa, after"][/caption]Where this would have ended we’ll never know, because of another Premadasa initiative that backfired. When a former political ally named Lalith Athulathmudali turned into a political rival, Premadasa resorted to a tried-and-true tactic: he had Athulathmudali assassinated. In a Hollywood twist, he killed two birds with one stone by making it look like poor Athulathmudali had been killed by a Tamil terrorist, who then had the good sportsmanship to take his own life with cyanide. Premadasa even brought in Scotland Yard to confirm this conclusion to a skeptical nation. Not until years later did the truth come out, after an investigation resulted in a confession from the bodyguard who had actually done the deed. The Tamils, perhaps figuring that if they were going to be blamed for an assassination they may as well commit one, proceeded to blow up Premadasa in his car.
Now that the war is over, what is the biggest issue in Sri Lanka? Why, the demand for local autonomy in Tamil-majority areas, just as it was back in 1956 when the problems started. Just last week, the Associated Press dryly reported that “Talks aimed at power sharing after Sri Lanka's civil war appeared near collapse Friday, with an ethnic minority Tamil party demanding that the government explain its position within two weeks but the government saying it is unable to do so.”
It’s important to sort out what the Sri Lankan war does and does not prove about the role of religion in public life. It cannot, for example, be classed as a religious conflict exactly akin to the bloodletting in India at partition, or the continuing Sunni-Shia mayhem in Iraq. In Sri Lanka, religion combined with ethnicity as one of multiple causes. It must also be noted that the Tamils perpetrated their share (or more) of atrocities as well. They didn’t actually invent the technique of suicide bombing, but they pioneered its use as a routine tactic in organized warfare. The fact that the Tamils were not religiously driven, at least to any serious extent, also proves that religion has no monopoly on brutality.
And yet, it is still eminently fair to blame Buddhism for the 80-100,000 deaths that happened on what everyone agrees is a particularly beautiful island. God experts took a minor issue involving official languages that could have been – and on multiple occasions was about to be – easily resolved, and blew it up into a test of divine will, for their own narrow purposes. Don’t tell me this isn’t the “real” Buddhism. The real Buddhism is whatever the recipients of government handouts say it is.
Not all Buddhists think alike, any more than all Christians, Muslims, or Hindus think alike. There are some genuinely peaceful Buddhist monks out there, just as there are some genuinely peaceful God experts in other religions. The problems arise when God experts of any flavor start throwing their weight around, telling others what to do – which in practice seems to be a particularly strong temptation for those who earn their living purveying any brand of supernatural fraud.