Religious protector from ethnic strife

Maura R. O'Connor, for the Pulitzer Center

Unlike other parts of the Eastern Province in Sri Lanka where ethnic Sinhalese constitute up to 20 percent of the population, the only Sinhalese to be seen in the district of Batticaloa are wearing camouflage and carrying guns as members of the Sri Lankan Army, Navy, or Special Task Forces (STF). The presence of a Sinhalese civilian here is so rare I've seen it elicit more interest from Tamils than the site of an American or European. (Westerners in Batticaloa are a common phenomenon after the tsunami brought hundreds of NGO workers from around the world.)

That's why it's extraordinary to see a Buddhist temple in the center of Batticaloa town, replete with stupa, Buddha statues, and scarlet robes drying in the sun. The Sri Mangalarama Viharaya Temple is run by a lone Sinhalese priest, the 39-year-old Rev. Ampitiya Sumanarathana Thero. For the last ten years he has lived amidst the Tamil community, first when it was under LTTE control and now, since July 2007, under the Sri Lankan government's control. During the intense period of fighting in 2007, the temple was a sanctuary for hundreds of civilians seeking refuge from shelling, including dozens of pregnant women.

I assumed that the greatest threats to the Rev. Thero's survival in Batticaloa would come from Tamils who might view his presence as encroachment, or see him as a potent symbol of the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority in the country. On the contrary, he said he feels loved by the Tamil community and that the only threat comes from the local police and security forces. In the last two years, he said he has undergone physical abuse, harassment, death threats from the police and army, as well as accusations of being an LTTE sympathizer because of his relationships to Tamils and the work he has done for the poor and war-afflicted.

It was difficult to verify all the instances of abuse that the Rev. Thero related but several other community leaders told me they had seen him being beaten and harassed by the police. Another prominent religious leader in Batticaloa described how the Rev. Thero often went out of his way to provide care to people at the IDP camps outside of town, carrying food to them by himself.

If the past is any indicator, the Rev. Thero has more than enough cause to feel at risk. In 1998, his predecessor at the temple disappeared, his fate still unknown. It is generally assumed that he was murdered. "If you still can't find him, what else happened?" the Rev. Thero told me. "There is no idea as to where he is or where he went. A lot of other temples in the East have the same problem."

More recently, in 2006 a Buddhist monk living at a temple in Morawewa in Trincomalee district was shot and killed. The Ven. Handungamuwe Nandarathna Thero was reportedly an activist, joining fasts in protest of the war and injustices against the Tamil community. He preached in Tamil and, remarkably, ordained a Tamil as a monk. According to a joint statement issued by the Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC), on May 13, 2006, several farmers saw gunmen on motorbikes fleeing from the location of the monk's shooting, unhindered by armed forces in the vicinity.

These cases are part of a long campaign of violence against religious leaders that has heightened in recent years, according to the ALRC. Srilankablogimagesmall2

"Religious leaders have played a key role in intervening to protect and provide assistance to people affected by the conflict. They are at the forefront working for human rights, justice and peace which is considered an essential aspect of the four main religious traditions practiced in Sri Lanka. Places of religious worship serve as critical places of refuge where people in danger seek assistance and sanctuary, but they have also been targeted in the violence over the last few years." Source: ALRC

So far, the Rev. Thero said that his complaints to various human rights bodies and police have not resulted in any changes. Furthermore, he said he struggles to receive funding for the temple and grows coconuts, bananas, and flowers to sell in order to supplement the 500-year-old temple's upkeep. And, he is completely alone, without the company or support of other Buddhist monks. So, I asked him, why does he stay in Batticaloa?

"Even though the war is technically over, there is little difference for the people," he said. "I have to be here. I could leave but the road to peace and harmony in this country depends on people like me staying. If I get up and leave, how can there be an end to this?"

Before I left, the Rev. Thero introduced his friend Mr. Jejanandathi, a Hindu Tamil. "He has give a lot of support to the poor," Mr. Jejanandathi said. "Even if another priest comes, they wouldn't help as much as he has." He then explained how he has given explicit instructions to his family that should he pass on, the care and education of his six-year-old child is in the Rev. Thero's hands.