Buddhist monks' election bid

There is controversy in Sri Lanka over more than 280 Buddhist monks who are contesting the April parliamentary polls.

It is the first time such a large number of clerics have stood for election in this predominately Buddhist country.

The religious establishment in Sri Lanka has condemned the monks' action - and some devout Buddhists feel it is part of a dangerous new trend that may bring clerics into disrepute and damage Sri Lankan Buddhism.

But Venerable Uduwe Dhammaloka of the Hela Urumaya Party is standing firm: "We have decided to contest these elections to protect our country."

"The politicians get perks and profit in an immoral way so we have decided to put right all these things" he explains.

"Righteous state"

The appeal to the devout has been that Sri Lanka's Buddhism is under threat even though it is the state religion.

The monks have promised "a righteous state" which cleans up politics.

Flanked by traditional dancers and drummers the monks marched through the streets of Colombo on nomination day - stopping the traffic as pedestrians stared at their religious leaders openly seeking power.

Critics say fielding only monks as candidates is just a clever publicity stunt by an extreme nationalist party that has not won many votes in the past.

The president of the clerical party, Venerable Ellawela Medanana, says there needs to be a Buddhist voice in parliament.

His party has been trying to capitalise on the majority Buddhist community's fear that Christians and foreigners have been trying to undermine their faith by conducting unethical conversions.

But within the Buddhist faith itself there are marked differences of opinion.

"I don't like the monks getting involved in politics," says one lady praying at dusk in the Bellanwilla temple in Colombo.

"They should lead the people of this country in the correct way but that does not mean they should rule themselves.

"If they carry on like this there will be no Buddhism left in our country," she said.

"I do not like it, and if they do this they will be divided," says another man.

"Another Iran"

There must be some for whom the monks' message of cleaning up Sri Lankan politics does have an appeal but it is not clear whether that will translate into anything more than a protest vote against the two main parties who have dominated the political scene here since independence.

But the birth of an all clerical party in Sri Lanka has triggered angry responses from monks aligned to rival parties.

"I do not think anyone will vote for them" says Buddhist monk, Venerable Galagama Dhammaransi.

"If they were elected there is a very good chance our country would become like another version of Iran," he adds.

Venerable Dhammaransi is himself not immune to politics.

He is one of a group of monks who gathered in the holy Buddhist city of Anaradapura to kick off the election campaign of the Sri Lankan president's party - blessing the candidates.

He objects strongly to the new clerical party - not because monks are seeking seats in parliament but because he thinks their policies are all wrong.

Sri Lanka has a long way to go before it has a clerical government like Iran.

But for years the politicians have preached a potent blend of nationalism and religion.

It is only logical one day they would find themselves confronted by monks who say they can do a better job of protecting this Buddhist nation.