Sri Lanka's Missing Buddha statues: Human Rights Commission raps Buddhist Affairs Commissioner

By Himal Kotelawala and Shane Seneviratne, Sunday Times, March 22, 2009

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has held the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner responsible for failing to act in a case where 25 gold plated Buddha statues are reported to have gone missing in the present incumbency of the Dalada Maligawa Diyawadana Nilame. Nilanga Dela Bandara.

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HRC Legal Officer Ranil Abenayake told The Sunday Times that the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner was ordered by the HRC to take appropriate action on the matter and that a report from the latter was due on March 31.

The HRC in its ruling said the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner had the power to hold an inquiry into such unauthorised removals and if he felt that the Diyawadana Nilame had to be interdicted he had the authority to do so or go to courts, he explained.

"However in this case, he had taken no such action," Mr. Abenayake said. He said movable or immovable property of the Dalada Maligawa cannot be taken away from the premises barring under exceptional circumstances and that too with the approval from relevant authorities.

During the hearing of the petition by the HRC, it transpired that there was documentary evidence that some of the statues were given to various individuals including a divisional secretary, although it was claimed that the statues were distributed among temples.

Among the other reported recipients are the Divisional Secretariats in Vavuniya and Polpithigama and the Import and Export Department and the Controller of Import and Exports.

"We informed the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner to act under the powers vested in him by the Constitution. This is a serious matter as these statues are considered movable properties of the Maligawa. The Sacred Tooth Relic too is another such movable property," Mr. Abeynayake said.
The petitioners cited the Commissioner General of the Department of Buddhist Affairs, the Deputy Commissioner of the Kandy Regional Office ofthe Department of Buddhist Affairs, Secretary to the Buddhist Affairs Ministry, the Auditor General and the Public Trustee as respondents.

The statues were a gift to the Dalada Maligawa from the Thai government to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the arrival of the Siam Sect in Sri Lanka. The ruling of the HRC was given after Chairman of the Movement to Protect National Assets Ven. Kolonne Siri Shantha Vijaya Thera and the organiser of the movement, Buddhika Ushantha Dias filed a petition stating that the statues, a gift from the Royal Prince of Thailand presented to the Maligawa in 1993, had allegedly been illegally distributed among temples and individuals.

The petition alleged that the incumbent Diyawadana Nilame and the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner were responsible for the unauthorised removal of the statues as they are respectively the temporary and permanent caretakers of the Maligawa.

"The former Diyawadana Nilame Neranjan Wijeratne housed the statues in the new wing of the Maligawa. However, between 2006 and 2007 the statues begun to disappear gradually. We complained to the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner. He said that the statues had been distributed to various temples, but we were not satisfied with that explanation," Ven. Sri Shantha Vijaya Thera told The Sunday Times.
All property of the Dalada Maligawa comes under the temporary care of the Diyawadana Nilame, and the permanent care of the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner, the Thera said.

However, adding a strange twist to the saga, the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner Chandra Premagamage told The Sunday Times that all the statues were safe and the locations have been identified.

He further said they were distributed with the consent of the Mahanayaka Theras. "The statues are safe, and most have been housed at Buddhist temples. We are currently looking into the legality of the matter. If it is ruled that the statues must be returned, they will be returned without question," he said declining to elaborate on the action taken against the Diyawadana Nilame.

Meanwhile the Diyawadana Nilame Nilanga Dela Bandara too dismissed the allegations adding, that the statues were in safe hands.

"There is absolutely no problem here. The statues are safe. They haven't disappeared. They were distributed to temples with the approval of the Maha Nayaka Theras," he said. Responding to the findings by the HRC that a statue was issued to a divisional secretary, the Diyawadana Nilame said that the statue was given not as a private gift to him but as a gift to a temple that comes under his secretariat.

"These are baseless allegations. The Human Rights Commission has no right to talk about matters of the Dalada Maligawa. The statues were distributed with the consent of the Maha Nayaka Theras,” he said.