Real Heroes II

IMP1 photo: A Buddhist monk walks the beach in Galle.
IMP1 photo: A Buddhist monk walks the beach in Galle.

People in Sri Lanka told me I should meet the “Russian monk.”  When I finally located him, I called and asked if I could interview him.  He agreed.  Ven. Rathanasara is not really Russian, he’s Sinhalese, but he was educated in Moscow and speaks both Russian and English fluently

On the day of the interview, I took a series of buses out to a temple north of Colombo. It didn’t look like much: a small temple with a partially-finished residence. Inside, a novice monk greeted me and led me upstairs to meet Ven. Rathanasara, the head of the temple. If there were other monks living there, I didn’t see them.

Rathanasara told me a moving story, beginning with his education:

“In the seminary, [1968-70] we were taught that love of Buddhism, love of country means only a Sinhalese country,” Rathanasara told me. “In 1970, the Left Movement started. I didn’t pay much attention—but my ideas began to change.” Later, Rathanasara got a scholarship to study in Moscow, where his affinity for left-wing politics grew. He also had the opportunity to participate in international peace movements, including the Asian Buddhist Congress for Peace. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1980, where, he said, “There was a movement against the Tamil people [supported by] many Buddhist monks, but I refused to join with them.”

Rathanasara had gone to Colombo and was shopping in the Pettah market district when the 1983 riots broke out. “[That] was a very bad day for Sri Lanka,” he said. “That day changed my life.” Witnessing Tamils being burned alive by Sinhalese mobs, Rathanasara confronted one mob and asked, “Why are you doing this?” “Go home,” the leader of the group shouted at him. “Go back to your temple. This is no time for a sermon.”

Rathanasara suddenly found himself working against his own people. He hid 21 wounded Tamils in his temple. Later, a Sinhalese mob that came to his gate and demanded that he release the Tamils into their “custody.” He refused. Eventually, he was able to hide his charges in rice bags and smuggle them to safety.

“From that day on,” he told me, “I began my peace work.” During the second JVP rebellion of 1987-89, he began a peace movement supported by 10,000 young monks, but the Premadasa government spread the word that the organization was a JVP front. “All of the other monks went and hid, but some of us had to face the government.”

A family member warned him in 1989 that the government intended to assassinate him, and he fled the country. Later, after the death of the JVP’s leader, Quaker Peace & Service smuggled Rathanasara back to Sri Lanka under their protection. He was able to convince many local JVP leaders to lay down their arms.

In the early 1990s he joined with Fr. Oswald Firth to found the Inter-Religious Peace Foundation, and in 1995 he helped form the National Peace Foundation with Dr. Jehan Perera. When I met him, he spoke of his recent work organizing the Buddhist monks to support peace. He claimed the support of about 20,000 monks, less than half the total number, and mostly young, less powerful, and less organized than the extremists who supported the war.

Rathanasara felt strongly about reconciliation with the Tamils. “They are living in this country, too. What’s the difference? They eat the same food. If they practice their religion, they are good people. If they are not nationalist, they are no threat to us. We must always fight for human rights, and not for nationalism.”

He also refused to identify himself as a Sinhalese Buddhist monk: “I am only a Buddhist monk.” Because of his anti-nationalist positions, the Sinhalese community stopped supporting his temple; when I spoke with him, he worked as a tour guide to feed the monks in his charge, operate a pre-school, and pay for his peace work. Buddhist monks were traditionally supported by donations from their congregation; for a Buddhist monk to work at a job was virtually unheard of in Sri Lanka.

Rathanasara saw language as one of the major obstacles to peace. “Only two or three Buddhist monks speak Tamil,” he says. “It is important not just to speak, but to read. There are ancient Tamil Buddhist texts, but most monks don’t know about them.” He had a Tamil translation of the Dhammapada which he read over a loudspeaker on holidays. The Tamil people, he said, like to hear it. “The Sinhalese people don’t like to hear it. They say it is the LTTE language.”

Rathanasara’s commitment to peace changed his perspective on Buddhism, as well.

“Our Sinhalese Buddhist monks can bless the soldiers who go to kill people,” he told me. “I can’t. I can’t bless anyone who plans to kill people.”


  1. This post does touch on the complication that Buddhism — considered in the western world by many as the epitome of peace — is a ideological underpinning of the slaughter of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

    It also touches on the fact that the JVP — which began as youth rebellion with a radical and progressive agenda soon enough accommodated to Sinhala chauvinism regardless of whether Rohana Wijeweera — the JVP leader and founder — was dead or alive.

    But this story doesn’t address the massive success the demonisation of Tamils as terrorists has been able to achieve with the support, not just tacit either, of most political parties in the country and the Buddhist establishment.

    Unless, you address the Tamil question in Sri lanka with consideration and support for justice then any religion and any party formation is complicit in the genocide that now is unfolding there. And to play funny bugger games in order to sideline that reality only serves to make the posts here apologies for the slaughter now under way.

    • Dave, you really ought to spend some time there. It’s a lot more complicated than you suggest. It IS true that the demonization of Tamils has been an overwhelming success. That’s because not only the major Sinhala parties, but also the LTTE has participated in this. It’s one of their primary strategies to maintain support among the Tamil people, and they have used it quite effectively. The best (but not the only) example is how LTTE provoked the Chandrika administration in 1995 when she tried to seperate “Tamils” and “terrorists.”

      In addition:

      * The vast majority of Sinhalese don’t want to fight.
      * The vast majority of Tamils don’t want to fight.
      * The hardline Buddhists are a minority– even among monks they have at best 50%, and among civilians they don’t include a very high percentage. However, by adopting extremists tactics they’ve been able to shift the national discussion to exclude opposing viewpoints.
      * The LTTE represents a minority within the Tamil community. It has decimated the traditional Tamil leadership– and all competition within the Tamil community– in a ruthless bid to gain power.
      * The northern Tamils, including the LTTE, do not view the eastern Tamils (who differ in culture and traditions) as equals, but as a colonized people. Eyewitness accounts indicate that even eastern fighters are made to sit on the floor when in the company of northern fighters. Most easterners I interviewed have no love for either LTTE or the government, they just want to be left alone.
      * Karuna’s faction began as a movement representing the interests of the east, but he quickly lost the advantage and became just another tool of the government.
      * The reason UNP and SLFP have been historically unable to agree on a solution is that the real struggle is between thoxse two parties, representing competing leaderships within the Sinhalese, and they don’t care how long the war with the LTTE goes on. In fact, they both use it to increase their own advantage.
      * The Rajapakse administration is an abomoination. While it distracts the country and the world (and you) with its assault on the Tamils, it has been steadily dismantling democratic systems. Says one respected commentator, “When he’s finished, there can be no opposition.”

      In short, there is no political party, Sinhala or Tamil, that has the best interest of the people at heart.

Comments are closed.