Vesak thoughts
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 communal backlash.

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 exercises.

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 things right.

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.

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