It is Poson Poya day in June, one of the holiest days in Sri Lanka that marks the arrival of Venerable Mahinda, the beloved son of the Emperor Asoka of India (304–232 BC) bringing with him the gift of the Buddhist philosophy, or Dharma, to Sri Lanka. On this holy day, I am at the historic temple in Kelaniya. The epic Mahawamsa, or great chronicle, claims that the Buddha visited Kelaniya to mediate a dispute between two warring clans in the country.
The months of May and June also mark the second year anniversary of Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the death of Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tigers. The anniversary is a time of retrospection, and a time to look forward to reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the two major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.
But overshadowing any hope for reconciliation are allegations of war crimes lodged against the Sri Lankan government by the Tamil Diaspora and the international community.
The government emphatically denies the claims of indiscriminate killings and argues that a “zero civilian casualty policy” informed its operations and that throughout the war the Tigers used civilians as human shields.
On June 3, Channel 4 in Britain premiered a documentary called “Sri Lanka's Killing Fields.”
The government of Sri Lanka claims that the video was doctored; the documentary has stoked nationalist fury among the Sinhalese community.
I spoke to the Honorable Ranil Wickremasinghe, a former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the current leader of the opposition, about the way forward for Sri Lanka.
He said that the bitter history of conflict can be overcome by reclaiming the philosophy of Emperor Asoka, who embraced the Buddha’s teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India.
Horrified by the carnage of war, Emperor Asoka forged powerful policies of reconciliation founded on Buddhist philosophy and pursued an official policy of nonviolence, tolerance, and mutual respect that united a warring empire.
In more recent times, the Sri Lankan government was locked in a 25-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group with the goal of creating an independent state in northern Sri Lanka for ethnic Tamils.
The LTTE felt that the Tamil population could never be properly represented in a government dominated by the majority Sinhalese. The LTTE began with assassinations of Sinhalese leaders and Tamil political figures who were politically aligned with the government.
A turning point was 1983, when a Sri Lankan Army patrol was ambushed by the LTTE and 13 of the 15 members of the patrol were killed. This sparked riots throughout Sri Lanka that killed an estimated 400 to 3,000 Tamils.
After the riots, the LTTE launched a guerrilla offensive. The fighting continued until the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace accord, led by Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) entered the north with an LTTE ceasefire.
But the LTTE refused to disarm their militants, launching a full-scale conflict with the IPKF. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.
The war in the north continued until 2002, when there was a temporary ceasefire. But it fell apart after the 2004 tsunami.
In 2007, the Sri Lankan army began a new offensive, which swept through the east and then the north, and by 2009, it had captured the de facto capital of the LTTE, Kilinochchi. On May 18 of that year, Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, was killed, officially ending the war.
But reconciliation has been difficult. An international think tank report this week said that Sri Lanka's postwar policies are a hindrance to reconciliation between the country's embittered ethnic communities, two years after the end of the civil war, according to the Associated Press.
Belgium-based International Crisis Group said in a report published Monday that "the government's intransigence and triumphalism" after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels "has meant the country is yet to see any semblance of compromise or inclusiveness."
The group said that after the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government "has refused to acknowledge, let alone address, the Tamil minority's legitimate grievances against the state."
It also urged authorities to end the state of emergency, revise powerful anti-terrorism laws, and stop repression of media and political opponents.
I visited Sri Lanka to retrace my roots and reclaim my own history and the rich history of the home of my ancestors.
The history of Sri Lanka is much more than the ethnic strife that has defined it in recent decades. It is a 2,500-year-old civilization and culture of magnificent architecture and art and spiritual enlightenment. It is a country of dream-like elegance, of which Mark Twain once said, “Dear me, it is beautiful! …. (it) quivers and tingles with a thousand unexpressed and inexpressible things, things that haunt one and find no articulate voice….”
All Sri Lankans are spiritual heirs of Emperor Asoka and his friend, King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka, to whom Asoka sent his own son as an emissary of the Buddhist Dharma nearly 2,500 years ago.
When the king adopted Buddhism, he created an inclusive socio-legal system founded on kindness to all to ensure the triumph of human dignity and spirit.
It is these ideals that can help Sri Lanka move forward. On this Poson Poya Day, I was reminded of his legacy of good governance and at Kelaniya, the temple of legend, my spirits soar at the sight of the magnificent mural of the Buddha mediating conflict between two clashing tribes through the force of truth and compassion.
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