Sri Lankan Government Finds Support From Buddhist Monks

Colombo, Sri Lanka - With full-scale war under way once more in a country plagued by a quarter-century of nasty ethnic conflict, an ever more assertive government has found a sturdy ally in what might seem an unexpected source: hard-line Buddhist monks.

The monks have long been active in Sri Lanka’s polarized politics, but for the first time they have joined the governing coalition with their own political party. Called the Jathika Hela Urumaya, or National Heritage Party, they now hold nine seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament.

The party sits at the extreme end of ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism here, as the government battles a separatist rebellion among its Tamil minority, which is mostly Hindu and Christian. The Buddhist monks deeply resent foreign powers and oppose any talk of a federal system to appease Tamil demands, which they fear would dilute the notion of Sri Lanka as a united nation.

“In Sri Lanka we have faced foreign invasions,” said the Venerable Athuraliye Rathana, the voluble monk who leads the party in Parliament. “We have been not just preaching. We have been fighting.”

In recent months the government, with the monks’ support, has been pressing a military campaign against Tamil rebels, scoring a string of victories, particularly on the contested and strategic eastern coast. The rebels are fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east.

A cease-fire signed by both sides in 2002 hardly bears mentioning now, as the country faces a near-daily ritual of mine attacks, air raids, suicide bombings and mysterious abductions. The United Nations says more than 200,000 civilians have fled their homes since April 2006, raising the total number of internally displaced to nearly half a million.

At least 1,300 civilians were killed in 2006, Nordic peacekeepers said, the bloodiest year since the truce was signed. For now, the fighting shows no sign of abating.

In the coming months, said the national security spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, the government will take on the remaining eastern jungle redoubts of the rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, potentially isolating it in the north and strengthening the government’s hand in any future talks.

He rejected the term “military strikes.” “We liberate the Tamils from the clutches of the L.T.T.E.,” is how he put it.

The government said it would welcome peace talks, though the Tamil Tigers have expressed no desire to return to the bargaining table.

“Our intention is not to conclude this through military means, but through negotiations,” said the foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona. “At the same time,” he was quick to add, “we will take every measure to counter terrorism in this country.”

[On Feb. 22, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the truce, the rebels said in a statement that its collapse had “destroyed the confidence of the Tamil people and their expectations regarding future peace efforts.” The statement suggested no mood for compromise. “It has also compelled the Tamil people to resume their freedom struggle to realize their right to self-determination and to achieve statehood,” it said.]

The government’s drive in the east has won favor with the monks’ party, whose support was crucial in electing Mahinda Rajapakse as president in November 2005. It has since commended him for showing a firm hand and standing up to international pressure to end the offensive.

“If several more L.T.T.E. camps are destroyed, the L.T.T.E. will be confined to their camps in the jungle like Pol Pot,” Mr. Rathana, the party leader, said, referring to the former leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. “Without military action this cannot be defeated.”

His cellphone trilled, like a bird caught in the folds of his burnt-orange robes. He answered the call, then returned to the business of war and peace. He called the Tamil Tigers terrorists and said that he had grown disenchanted with negotiations but that now, as a government representative, he was not ruling them out entirely.

Asked about the involvement of Buddhist clerics in affairs of the state, he fired back a query of his own. “Is politics polluted?” he asked. “Was Mao Zedong polluted? Was Mahatma Gandhi polluted?”

A vast majority of monks in the country remain apart from politics, but there is nothing in Buddhist doctrine that frowns on activism in worldly matters. “There is a lot of flexibility and gray area,” said Asanga Tilakaratne, a professor of Buddhist philosophy at Kelaniya University in Colombo, the capital.

Buddhism is believed to have come to Sri Lanka around 300 B.C., via northern India. Buddhist rule here was challenged first by a Tamil Hindu kingdom that established itself in the north of the island in the 14th century and then by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, until independence in 1948.

Today a majority of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists. The Hindu and Christian Tamils are the largest minority, followed by Muslims. Buddhism is accorded a “principal” place according to the Constitution, though it is not the state religion; Sinhalese is the official language.

How those faiths and ethnic groups live together in this tiny island nation is at the heart of the brutal civil war that has raged since 1983. The monks have been at the vanguard of resisting Tamil demands for independence.

Buddhist clerics have been important in Sri Lankan politics for hundreds of years; the monks are said to have stood by ancient Buddhist kings in battle and mediated between quarreling rulers. A monk was responsible for the assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, in 1959 over a proposed federal system of government, which the nationalists still staunchly oppose.

Nirvana is not the first thing their political activism, past or present, brings to mind.

Three years ago factional disputes led to a bizarre tableau of monks brawling on the floor of Parliament. More recently the monks tried to storm the gates of a vital irrigation canal that the Tamil rebels had blocked. Around the same time, a half-dozen monks scuffled with antiwar protesters here in the capital.

Outside groups have been favored targets. Norway, which has tried to broker peace talks between the government and guerrillas, has been greeted with particular scorn. The monks have burned Norway’s flag in street protests and, on occasion, effigies of its peace envoy to Sri Lanka.

They have also accused foreign aid groups of colluding with rebels. In January the monks’ party, incensed by news reports that the Dutch aid agency Zoa Refugee Care had been accused of aiding Tamil rebels, barged into the agency’s offices and took files, which it gave to the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry for an inquiry.

On its Web site, Zoa denied assisting the rebels and said in a statement the next day that the government had informed the aid group that the allegation had been based on a misunderstanding.

Aid work has been a casualty of the latest conflict. Relief agencies have repeatedly complained of lack of access to the areas in greatest need.