Misguided Buddhist Zealots
By Imaad Majeed
Since the end of the conflict in 2009, a new phenomena has emerged. That of Buddha statues being erected along the A9 route that leads to Jaffna.
Over 28 Buddha statues have been counted along this route since the war concluded in May 2009. The comedy of this charade (what else can one call it?) is that these statues are placed in areas where little or no Buddhists reside.
This has caused a stir amongst the local Tamil communities who whisper (yes they can still only whisper or speak of it in hushed tones too afraid to make public their protests) that this is just one more example of Sinhala chauvinism stamping on the cultural and religious sensitivities of the Tamil community. Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalists will argue that as a country that aims to preserve Buddhist culture, it is only appropriate that statues of the Buddha are spread across the island. However, this is an issue of cultural sensitivity, and not that of preserving Buddhism.
Alongside statues there has also been a Dagoba built in the Mankulam town. What is striking is that the majority of these statues have been erected towards the North end of the roads beyond Vavuniya, an area that is strictly Tamil, having a 30 year history of conflict with Sinhala parties (i.e. the Sri Lankan Army). A Buddhist statue was erected in Kanakarayankulam, near a tank, causing the Tamil community of the area to voice resentment.
According to TNA member M. A. Sumanthiran, the presence of Buddha statues in these areas is a “message that the character of the area has been changed. It is a cultural intrusion”. He also mentioned an ancient Hindu temple that was demolished in Kanniya, Trincomalee, and a Buddha statue built in its place. The foundation of the kovil now holds a Buddhist flag, adding insult to injury. Sumanthiran added that, “the issue at hand is a question of trust. Will this type of behaviour help build trust among the communities?”
Yet, the other question that arises is that of who is responsible for this blatant disregard for Tamil culture? Champika Ranawaka, a member of the JHU and a government minister is spearheading moves to construct Buddhist temples in Tamil and Muslim areas. By using his former post as Minister of Environment to secure land for some of these statues to be erected, his actions are only one example of government officials abusing their power.
“There are no ethno-religious constraints in Sri Lanka,” said member of the JHU, Udaya Gammanpila, defending the statues. “We have never objected to the building of Hindu shrines in any part of the island, so why should Buddhist statues be treated any differently?” he asked. When the accusations of cultural intrusion were brought up, he claimed “harmony among communities is disturbed by making an issue of this”.
According to Gammanpila there are three reasons for Buddhist statues existing in these areas. “Firstly, there are tens of thousands of Buddhist soldiers stationed in the area, for whom these statues are a place of worship. Also, during the war many sites of archaeological value were destroyed. Buddhist stupas and statues have been built in these areas due to this. There are also many Buddhists who make pilgrimage to the North, and on their way stop by at the many Buddha statues. So there is a clear purpose, it should not become an issue,” he said.
An official speaking on condition of anonymity employed at the Department of Buddhist Affairs had this to say:
“There is no specific law governing the construction of monuments with regard to Buddhism. But there is a practice, if one is to put up a monument, it can be done without harming anyone else’s right to have his own faith, or religious beliefs. In doing so, they must not disgrace Buddhism or any other religion. This is the consensus. In the case of roadside construction, it is only necessary to acquire permission from the relevant local authorities,” the official said.