The aborted LTTE attack on the troop carrier
in the seas off Vettilaikerni, on the eve of Vesak as most Sri Lankans
were preparing for the most hallowed day in the Buddhist calendar,
was an indication of how desperately the LTTE wants to provoke a
However, a typically last-minute rush saw some
element of state-sponsored celebration of the 2550 years of the
Parinibbana of the Buddha. The state's role was a far cry from the
2500 Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in post-Independence 1956. Probably,
there were other considerations today -- especially the north-east
insurgency that distracted the country's new leaders.
The highlight of the state's participation this
time seems to have been in decorating parts of the capital and issuing
commemorative stamps and a coin marking this historic occasion.
There was emphasis on the ritual aspects of Buddhism -- the customary
Dhansalas (the unique free eating places), the thoranas (pandals),
the devotional songs and the cultural events, but what of the need
to stimulate intellectual discussion on what the Buddha taught (the
Buddha Dhamma ), that in Buddhism both Shraddha and Pragnaa are
important -- i.e. rituals as well as mental cleansing and good conduct
Few were fortunate to hear the discourse by Ven.
Harispattuwe Ariyawansa Alankara invited to make the Vesak sermon
at the pinnacle of political power -- Temple Trees, where a tired
but attentive President of the Republic and his immediate family
members imbibed the advice of the Buddha on how a leader (king)
must rule. How those who do badly by the nation must be punished,
and those who serve it well, rewarded.
The Ven. Thera stressed the need to punish those who engage in the
manufacture, distribution and sale of dangerous intoxicants -- drugs
and liquor -- and the President was seen nodding in seeming agreement.
Yet, a mere five-minute walk from that very spot
where the learned and senior monk was imparting the sublime teachings
of the Buddha to the leader of the nation -- as has been in the
great tradition of this land for the past 2550 years (except for
the 450 years this country was under the yoke of western colonial
rule), gambling dens euphemistically called casinos were flowing
with whisky and wine -- in spite of a Government ban on liquor during
the Vesak week.
It is common knowledge that past Governments have
made it state policy to issue liquor permits to supporters of their
political parties, based on the recommendations of the local Member
of Parliament, or party organiser. Most often, these MPs or party
organisers recommend their kith and kin, or a close stooge from
whom he or she can rake in some commission from the profits.
In other words, the proliferation of liquor dens
throughout the country has been encouraged by none other than those
holding the office of President. Right opposite Temple Trees and
next to a school -- is a casino!
The fact that MPs and powerful businessmen are
involved in the casinos of this country, in the drug and liquor
trade, and are powerful financiers of all these politicians is well
known -- and the President downwards, from all political parties
without exception -- are prisoners of these barons.
Drugs, gambling, liquor and meat sales are not
the only issues -- and some of these bans, as we saw this week,
sometimes can lead to situations which need careful thought.
There is some anticipation that this is the first
step to prohibition or a total ban on alcohol. There is a need to
study whether this would only be counter-productive to the end objective
of weaning people away from addiction to liquor, and therefore pecuniary
loss, ill health and misery.
Several other issues remain: the problem of proselytization
or forced conversions which is a serious issue in this post-tsunami
era. In ancient times, the kings of Lanka gave protection to Buddhism
but in the colonial era, in the absence of a king, missionaries
had a field day running roughshod over the unprotected -- and poorer
-- Buddha Sasana.
With the advent of financially powerful 'New Religions'
now becoming more strident than traditional religions, and the proliferation
of NGOs, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. But is the
Anti-Conversion Law, the answer?
The story of the casinos staying open when all
others about them were forcibly shut is a case study on how loopholes
in the law are exploited. But to put in place laws, the country
must have a police service that is not the most corrupt government
institution. Obviously, much self-assessment is required to put
And while this may be just the right time to reflect
and reconsider strategies, we hope that when these Buddha Jayanthi
celebrations conclude in the coming week, our leaders will not slip
back into the normal routine, and that it won't be "business
as usual" as was the case with the casinos this week.