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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative >Tsunami & Aftermath > The Sangha & its Relationship to the Peace Process in Sri Lanka
The Sangha & its Relationship to the Peace Process in Sri Lanka
A Report for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs -
Iselin Frydenlund, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
January 2005, © International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), 2005
Full Text in PDF [see also Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalism]
|From the Conclusion:
In Local and International Media, many Buddhist monks have voiced consider-able hostility towards the Norwegian-facilitated peace process in Sri Lanka, because they fear that a political solution to the conflict will ultimately result in a division of Sri Lanka into two separate states. Equally, Norway’s role in the peace process is viewed with suspicion, as Norway is considered to be pro-Tamil.
Furthermore, although radical Buddhist groups are small in number, many of their ideas regard-ing the endangered state of Buddhism and fear of a physical division of the country resonate deeply within the Sinhala Buddhist public at large. This was manifested in political terms in the historic entry of Buddhist monks into the Sri Lankan parliament in 2004. Consequently, radical opposition to the peace process – and Norway’s role within it – cannot simply be dismissed as coming from ‘fringe groups’.
Importantly, however, Buddhist monks do not act as a monolithic body on political issues. In-deed, several important Buddhist monks have voiced strong support for the peace process, among them the Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala, one of the head monks in Kandy. Moreover, it seems that more Buddhist monks support the peace efforts now than was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, two contradictory trends can be discerned since the inception of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process. On the one hand, anti-Norwegian protests have increased: the moderate scepticism of the first years of the peace process has been radicalized through forceful media criticism following the stalemate and lack of progress since 2003.
On the other hand, a new political space has developed for monks who favour a political solution and who publicly support the peace process. This is partly due to the fact that both of Sri Lanka’s two leading political parties have been engaged in the Norwegian-facilitated peace process while in power, meaning that monks affiliated with each of the parties have been involved in the process. And, in a new and positive development, a number of influential opposition monks have contin-ued to support the peace process even while it is being managed by the rival party. Another reason for the increased number of monks supportive of the peace process is the general growth in Sri Lanka’s peace movement. This has created a new space for anti-war activities, also for Buddhist monks. Therefore, in spite of the negative climate during the autumn of 2004, it does seem that a positive shift has taken place within some sections of the Sangha. However, it is too soon to assess whether this represents a major trend, moving the Sangha away from the dominant Sinhala nationalist discourse.
In sum, the Sangha represents a great variety of political opinions. And, despite major attempts to establish unity, the relatively loose organizational structure of the order prevents it from having a common policy towards political issues. Moreover, it is hard to identify distinctive social and geographic differences between the monks who have opposed the peace process and those that have promoted it. While caste is an important element in the organizational outlook of the Sangha, it seems to be of less importance now than in the past, as modern education provides for new kinds of meeting places. Furthermore, caste seems irrelevant for political influence or national prominence, as well as for an individual monk’s view of the peace process. Rather, the age and social class of monks are important. Elderly head monks linked to the political estab-lishment seem to be more inclined to support the peace process than young monks in opposition to Sri Lanka’s social, economic and political elites in general, and to the Sangha elites in particular.
Lack of political consensus in the south and opposition to the various peace processes by nationalist and Buddhist pressure groups have time and again made peacebuilding difficult in Sri Lanka. How, then, could opposition to the peace process by religious actors be transformed into a constructive dialogue about Sri Lanka’s political future?
First, while it is essential to empower the minority of courageous Buddhist monks engaged in peace work, it might be even more important for the Norwegian foreign ministry to approach and hold discussions with politically influential monks that are critical of Norway and the peace process. Hopefully, this would result in a fruitful dialogue, one that would also be symbolically significant for concerned Sinhala Buddhists. There is a widespread feeling among monks that they are excluded from the decisionmaking process in Sri Lanka. Indeed, many of the so-called political monks feel it is their duty to serve as ‘advisers to kings’ and ‘guardian deities’ of the nation.
If left out of processes aimed at determining Sri Lanka’s future, they may easily become spoilers of the entire peace process, casting themselves as the only true defenders of Sri Lanka and Buddhism against the alleged dangers of federalism or a devolution of power. While still being critical of Norway’s role or the way in which various Sri Lankan governments have man-aged the peace process, these monks could play an important role in communicating acceptance of a politically negotiated solution, as opposed to a resumption of war. However, as both political and monastic unity are of major concern to the monks, this dialogue should be as inclusive and open as possible (round-table conferences, for example).
Second, as a facilitator in a conflict with important religious overtones, Norway would benefit from building up networks with Buddhist actors and becoming more visible on the ‘Buddhist scene’ through participation in public ritual events. This is particularly important for Norway, which is often accused of having a hidden Christian agenda behind its engagement in Sri Lanka. Thus, although the provision of financial support to Christian-based inter-faith networks may play an important role within the peace process, there is a risk that such networks will simply be viewed as having been ‘bought off by the Norwegians’ and not necessarily taken seriously by larger sections of Buddhists. One possible strategy for supporting pro-peace actors might be to encourage support from countries with less Western or Christian identities. Indeed, as an Asian and partially Buddhist country, Japan already plays a significant role in this regard, while Thailand – which, like Sri Lanka, is also a Theravada Buddhist country – might be another suitable source to draw upon.
Third, a negotiated settlement between the two parties that does not address Buddhist concerns will not be sustainable. While Buddhist ideals of nonviolence and compassion can easily be applied in a reconciliation process after a political solution has been reached, recognition of some of the Buddhist monks’ demands should be considered during the peace process itself. If dialogue and informal inclusion in the peace process are not followed up by real concessions on the part of the government or the LTTE, the monks will simply withdraw and use their influence even more forcefully against a political solution. One important concern among the Sinhala Buddhist public is fear of spatial disintegration of the island, leading to a threat to Buddhism in general and the destruction of the Buddhist heritage in the north and east in particular. Therefore, ways of guaranteeing access by the Sangha to Buddhist historical sites in the north and east should be addressed in order to soften the criticisms voiced by radical Buddhist groups.
Finally, what is needed in the peace process are public figures of good ‘Buddhist standing’ – individuals who are regarded as taking Buddhist concerns seriously while at the same time advocating core Buddhist values such as nonviolence, compassion and universalism. "