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Politics keeping Lanka from helping Tibet

BY AMEEN IZZADEEN, Dateline Colombo, March 25, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- A FREEDOM fighter, he was known as Tibet Jathika S Mahinda, though his original name was Tasilmgal. He 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. Ordained as a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition 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.

This monk from Tibet saw how the Sri Lankan culture and tradition were being swallowed by the fast-spreading western way of life and how the Sinhala Buddhists being converted to Christianity by missionaries from the West. With his poetic idiom, S Mahinda, a socialist at heart, told the Sri Lankans in general and the Buddhists in particular that the local culture and the tradition were much richer and more meaningful than what was being imposed on them by the colonialists.

Tibet Jathika S Mahinda – meaning S Mahinda the Tibet national – was indeed a true Sri Lankan national hero at a time when our efforts to gain freedom, not by violent means but by negotiations with the Brits, were led by the West-aping men in top hats and tailcoats.

He died on May 16, 1951. A statue of him adorns a temple in Pandura, his spiritual base, some 25 kms south of Colombo. But many Sri Lankans lament that the legacy of this national hero has not been given due respect or recognition.

An opportunity is now in hand. The country with which S Mahinda is associated – Tibet – is 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.

It is true that the Tibetan Buddhism differs from the Theravada tradition practised in Sri Lanka and that the region had little to do with the life and time of Gautama Buddha, but it is also true that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, represents the face of Buddhism. Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Harrison Ford are his ardent followers. Roberto Baggio, Italy’s hero in three consecutive World Cups in the 1990s is also a convert to Buddhism and known as the Dalai Lama of soccer.

So when the Buddhists in Tibet cry for their freedom, shouldn’t Sri Lanka, being a Buddhist country, show solidarity with them? Isn’t Sri Lanka constitutionally bound to protect and promote Buddhism?

“The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana…” says Chapter II of Sri Lanka’s constitution.

Sri Lanka’s leaders have invoked this constitutional provision to fund Buddhist projects in foreign countries. But then why is Sri Lanka silent on the Chinese crackdown on Buddhist Tibetans? The likely answer is: the Buddhist Sri Lanka’s survival is much more important than the political future of the Buddhist Tibet.

Sri Lanka, a country fighting a tough war against the separatist Tamil Tigers, is heavily indebted to China, which has been extending its unwavering support since the two nations entered into a rubber-rice pact in 1952, years before they formally established diplomatic relations. The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in the heart of Colombo stands as a gigantic monument to the friendship between the two countries. The conference hall was built by Chinese worker with Chinese funds for Sri Lanka to host the 1976 Non-Aligned Conference.

In 1971, China helped the Sri Lankan state with modern weapons to crush the rebellion by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna although JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was known to be a Maoist and backing Beijing in its ideological war with Moscow. When Sri Lanka was faced with the Tamil insurrection in the 1980s, India, which was then arming, funding and training Tamil rebels, refused to help. When Sri Lanka turned to the United States, Washington said, “yes, we can help, but you first get India’s nod.” But China put forward no such conditions.

So when China comes under international criticism for its jackboot policy in Buddhist Tibet, Buddhist Sri Lanka feels it is time to show its gratitude by maintaining a deafening silence.

A couple of years ago, the Dalai Lama expressed his desire to visit Sri Lanka and pay homage to the Buddha’s tooth relic which has been preserved in a historic temple in the hill capital of Kandy. But the government, apparently mindful of China’s concerns, refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa, though Sri Lanka is known to be the repository of the Buddha’s sublime teachings.

China’s is a rising superpower, no doubt. It knows how to buy the silence of countries like Sri Lanka by playing diplomatic hardball. But it must also know to respect the collective will of the Tibetan people. After all, they are not terrorists or separatists. The Dalai Lama even offered to stand down if violence in Tibet got out of control. He said he was only seeking greater autonomy for Tibet — and Beijing could keep defence and finance.

Sri Lankans could only wish that the Tamil separatists here have a leader like the Dalai Lama. But like many Sri Lankans, the Chinese also fear that greater autonomy could lead to a separate state.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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