Sri Lanka's deafening silence on Tibet and gratitude to S Mahinda Thero

Lanka Business Online, March 25, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka is maintaining a diplomatic silence on the recent Chinese crackdown on protests in Buddhist Tibet as China is one of its main arms suppliers in the war against Tamil Tiger separatists, analysts say.

"…when the Buddhists in Tibet cry for their freedom, shouldn't Sri Lanka, being a Buddhist country, show solidarity with them?" asks Colombo-based journalist Ameen Izzadeen writing in the Khaleej Times.

"Isn't Sri Lanka constitutionally bound to protect and promote Buddhism?"

Sri Lanka's constitution gives Buddhism "the foremost place" and says that "it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana," or the continuation of Buddhism and its followers as a whole.

Sri Lanka's leaders have invoked this constitutional provision to fund Buddhist projects in foreign countries, Izzadeen says.

Then why, he asks, is Sri Lanka silent on the Chinese crackdown on Buddhist Tibetans?

"The likely answer is: Buddhist Sri Lanka's survival is much more important than the political future of the Buddhist Tibet."

Sri Lanka is "heavily indebted" to China in supporting its war against the Tamil Tigers with regular supplies of weapons, especially when other countries refused to sell arms to the island.

The Tigers are fighting for a separate state in the north and east for the Tamil minority in the mainly Sinhalese Buddhist country.

China has also given economic aid which in recent years it has increased along with loans on more commercial terms as well as investments.

Izzadeen also recalled a figure in Sri Lanka's movement for independence from colonial rule widely referred to as Tibet Jathika S Mahinda thero, originally named Tasilmgal, who came to Sri Lanka from the Sikkim-Tibet region in 1912 as a 14-year-old destitute.

"He preferred to identify with Tibet instead of Sikkim because Tibet was better known among Sri Lankans," Izzadeen says.

"Ordained as a Buddhist monk after his arrival in Sri Lanka, he mastered the local language and woke the sleeping Sinhala masses up by his powerful poetry which promised them hope and galvanised them into action."

The reference to Tibet Jathika S Mahinda literally meant S Mahinda, the Tibet national.

Izzadeen says that although a statue of Mahinda adorns a temple in Panadura, his spiritual base, some 25 km south of Colombo, many Sri Lankans lament that his legacy has not been given due respect or recognition.

An opportunity is now in hand, he says, with the country with which S Mahinda is associated – Tibet –in turmoil.

But the government of Sri Lanka maintains a "stoic silence" over events in that Buddhist land which was forcibly annexed by China in 1950, the writer says.

China has said several people were killed in the crackdown on recent protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule which drew worldwide condemnation.

Beijing has vowed to suppress any attempts by Tibetans to win independence, maintaining that Tibet is part of China.

Both China and Sri Lanka appear to have similar concerns over separatist movements.

"…like many Sri Lankans, the Chinese also fear that greater autonomy could lead to a separate state," Izzadeen says.

Sri Lanka, mindful of China's concerns, has even refused the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetans, permission to visit the island and pay homage to the Buddha's tooth relic which has been preserved in a historic temple in the hill capital of Kandy, he said.