On cue with the Chairman of the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust writing to the newspapers saying that the vision, mission and ideals of the national icon, Anagarika Dharmapala must not be confined just to his birthday on September 17, President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week announced that the next 12 months would be ‘Dharmapala Year’. It is [...]


Anagarika Dharmapala – 150th Birth Anniversary


On cue with the Chairman of the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust writing to the newspapers saying that the vision, mission and ideals of the national icon, Anagarika Dharmapala must not be confined just to his birthday on September 17, President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week announced that the next 12 months would be ‘Dharmapala Year’. It is a fitting tribute to a personality who inspired the national freedom movement in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, resurrected significant Indian sites revered by Buddhists, and took the sublime message of the Buddha to the West.

The fact that the Government of India issued a stamp in his honour (the first Sri Lankan national to be so honoured in a foreign country) demonstrates the influence Anagarika Dharmapala had, far beyond the shores of this country.
Having cut his teeth in mass mobilisation with the American Theosophist, Col. Henry Steele Olcott, Anagarika Dharmapala travelled not just the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, but traversed the world. Widely acclaimed as the one person who, after Emperor Ashoka of India revived Buddhism in India, he was the first to start Buddhist temples in the West. The Maha Bodhi Society he founded in 1891 galvanised the Buddhist world at the time.

To fully comprehend the magnitude of his achievements, one has to propel one’s mind back to what were then the dark days of colonial rule when he took the Buddha’s teachings to the very colonial heartland – the United Kingdom. His life is fascinating as it is enriching. He wrote profusely to newspapers, journals, to people in Sri Lanka and around the world; he could inspire an audience either in English or Sinhala, both the peasant and the intellectual, with his fiery oratory and reasoned speech. One could say, paraphrasing Shakespeare in Julius Caesar; “His life was so noble, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man”.

He paid a price for what he did. In India he was physically attacked when he visited Buddha Gaya and challenged the sitting Mahanta who had taken charge of the Buddhist site. He slept under a tree and took the Mahanta to court in Imperial India. He lobbied Indian freedom fighters to give management control of Buddha Gaya to the Buddhists, and was only partially successful, but nonetheless thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, visit these holy places in India today due to his pioneering efforts. He was held under house arrest for five long years in Calcutta, the then capital of India by the British Colonial Government due to the 1915 riots in Sri Lanka where his brother was falsely accused of treason, incarcerated and died in prison, only for the British Government to apologise later for a miscarriage of justice.

Anagarika Dharmapala was proud of his Sinhala-Buddhist ancestry but he didn’t think only Sinhala Buddhists must live in this world. He was a nationalist and an internationalist. He was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda and in regular correspondence with them on common issues. As President Rajapaksa said this week, Anagarika Dharmapala never ran down foreigners. He saw the good in them. He wanted some of their good habits, like their work ethic emulated. He was opposed to colonialism not to everything foreign, and wanted the people of this country to rise on their own feet.
The fruits of freedom which all Sri Lankans enjoy today have their genesis in his efforts.

Port City; satellite state
On the subject of colonialism, the past, independence and the present, a legitimate question that has arisen nowadays is whether this country is just about to swap British colonialism for Chinese colonialism.

The whistlestop visit this week of China’s President Xi Jinping brought to sharp focus the ever-increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. For some time now, Chinese aid, short-term commercial loans at high interest rates, and unsolicited projects approved with increasing regularity by the Cabinet of Ministers with transparency thrown to the winds, have heightened fears that the degree of reliance on China for Sri Lanka’s economic development does not match the country’s ability to pay back. And that when payback time does come, eventually, it will be time to pawn the country.

Hyped as that may sound, the “Plan of Action” between Sri Lanka and China unravelled this week “to deepen the Strategic Cooperative Partnership of Sincere Mutual Assistance and Ever-lasting Friendship”, as it is officially called, has a definitive, distinct Chinese flavour to it. The 25 point extraordinarily long joint statement issued before President Xi’s departure and the 27 agreements annexed to it and an undisclosed more (See our page 1 story) illustrate the volume to which China’s long-term involvement in this country extends.

The ‘Plan of Action’ spans from military cooperation to strategic interests, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), investment in the power sector, infrastructure development of roads, waste water disposal etc., etc., to teaching the Chinese language in universities, to the massive Colombo Port City development project, to searching for the wreckage of the fleet of China’s explorer Zheng He, the Admiral credited with drawing up the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) as an alternative to the Silk Road that saw trade between China and the West overland across the Himalayas.

This rather innocuous announcement, i.e. the search for the wreckage of Zheng He’s fleet has already sent jitters around the Indian Ocean that the Chinese are using this ploy to establish listening posts and surveillance equipment to keep a tab on what’s going on in the vital sea lanes in this part of the world. They have already started looking for this wreckage off the coast of East Africa.

A string of agreements have been signed to develop Hambantota, including the port they built fitting in like a glove to the Maritime Silk Road strategy. With the Sri Lankan Government in a hurry to showcase its economic development, devoid of transparency, which suits the Chinese fine, with neither Government interested in squashing kick back rumours, one must ask the question if Sri Lanka is getting too immersed in global power-politics with this China connection.
When the Chinese began building the Hambantota harbour, Sri Lanka tried to soothe the ruffled Indian feathers by offering New Delhi a consulate in the southern city. And when a senior Sri Lankan diplomat in Beijing was asked to brief the Chinese of this offer to India, a senior Chinese leader had wisecracked; “We can provide them the binoculars also”.

The danger comes therefore from two fronts. As much as this country needs capital to develop, how much of it will over-heat the economy to the point of burnout; and how much is Sri Lanka getting dragged into China’s orbit in the bigger scheme of things and become a playground for super power rivalry in the future.

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