‘We will sniff the powder and even eat it’
Anti-dampening powder in a passport leads to Anthrax alert and the stripping of two monks
By Santhush Fernando
Was it security, paranoia or lack of knowledge regarding the lifestyle of Buddhist monks that led to the ignominious disrobing of two Buddhist monks in connection with last week's anthrax scare at the Canadian High Commission?

Ven. Ambalangoda Sudharma Thera the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who accompanied two Bangladeshi novice monks to the High Commission on October 25, relating the incidents of that day said, in spite of the two Bangladeshi monks volunteering to sniff and even taste the "unknown white powder" to prove their innocence, they had to disrobe upto their undergarments in front of a woman who called herself a nurse.

Ven. Sudharma Thera - who had lived in Canada for 10 years - speaking at his temple in Ambalangoda told The Sunday Times that he accompanied the two Bangladeshi novice monks, Ven. Ajithananda Thera and Ven. Sugathananda Thera to the Canadian High Commission to obtain visas to travel to Canada. They were hoping to go on November 10 to attend a festival for Bangladeshi Buddhists. They had come from Bangladesh ten months earlier to pursue higher studies in Buddhism to receive higher ordination.

Ven. Ambalangoda Sudharma Thera said the Sri Lankan receptionist at the visa counter had noticed a white powder in the passport of Ven. Sugathananda Thera and had asked what it was. Ven. Sugathananda Thera replied that he had applied some powder to prevent the pages from getting damp. The receptionist then left only to return with other officials who told them that some tests had to be conducted on the powder.

Then a Canadian woman, wearing a mask and gloves introduced herself as the nurse at the High Commission told that Ottawa has been informed of the incident and that standard security procedures had to be followed.

The nurse said the monks would have to remain in the High Commission for the next 48 hours as the powder on the passport was suspected to be Anthrax. It was then that Ven. Sugathananda Thera had offered to sniff it or even eat the powder to prove the officials wrong, Ven. Sudharma Thera said. "All who were in the room were asked to leave except for the three of us. We pleaded with the officials to at least release our tutor monk as he had no involvement in it," Ven. Sugathananda Thera, one of the Bangladeshi monks said.

The nurse had then told the two Bangladeshi monks that they would have to remove their robes and wear regular clothes to have a bath as stipulated by the Canadian Government. Ven. Ambalangoda Sudharma Thera had told her that according to the code of conduct for Buddhist monks they could neither wear regular clothes nor bathe without wearing robes. The three monks had also informed officials that it was almost midday and they should have their meals as they were not permitted to eat after 12.30. To this request the staff had only provided them some soft drinks.

Then, new robes were brought and the monks were asked to bathe in the clorinated swimming pool in the premises of the High Commission. The Sri Lankan monk had refused to bathe in the pool and was led to a private shower. After the monks had finished taking a bath, the nurse too removed her gloves and mask and got in to the pool saying that she too may have been exposed to a potential bio-hazard.

When contacted by The Sunday Times, a Canadian High Commission official said the three monks along with four employees had to undergo precautionary measures as they may have come into contact with a dangerous substance. The precautionary measures included taking a shower and leaving behind the contaminated clothing, the official said.

However, he denied that the monks were forced to disrobe and bathe in the pool saying they were given the choice of selecting between a private washroom and the pool.

Although the official said that a "strong cleaning soap" was given to the monks, he was unable to clarify whether it was capable of decontaminating a potential anthrax agent. The official said staff members had acted in accordance with the security protocol of the government of Canada. He also said that the staff had acted with respect and dignity befitting the status and position of a Buddhist monk.

At about 1.30 p.m. the Police had arrived at the High Commission and the monks had related the incident to them. They were then taken to the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station to record a statement. Police had also taken away the sealed robes and passports and handed them over to the Medical Research Institute (MRI).

Inspector U.K.C.M. Uduwella told The Sunday Times that by Friday, neither the report from the MRI nor the passports had been handed over to the police. He said since the monks had said in the statement that they had no wish to take up the issue in courts, the Police had nothing further to do with the case.

Meanwhile a Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry official told The Sunday Times that the Ministry had conveyed its deep concern over the incident to the Canadian High Commission.

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