‘India is like our eldest brother in the South Asian family’

Kotugoda Dhammawasa, 92, the Supreme Patriarch of Sri Lanka’s second most powerful Buddhist sect, Amrapura Maha Nikaya, expressed his deep reservations over the decision of President Maithripala Sirisena’s government to give the strategically sensitive Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China. “The Chinese are our friends, but the entire country rejects the decision,” he said. 

The Supreme Patriarch, who has recently taken over as the head of the Amrapura Maha Nikaya after the passing away of the 103-year-old revered Davuldena Sri Gnanissarathero, did not mince words in saying that he did not like territory to be given to any country, including India. 

Hardnews visited his office at Mount Livinia in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for an exclusive chat on topics ranging from the relationship between India and Sri Lanka to China, the violence against the Rohingyas and the most critical issue of why Theravada Buddhism, which is the dominant religion of the island country, reconciles with violence. Theravada Buddhism has been blamed for the ethnic violence in this country of 21 million people. 

The genial and extremely alert Supreme Patriarch’s interview is important as the holders of this office are the keepers of political morality and the national leadership routinely seeks their support and approval on key issues. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramsinghe were both present at the anointing ceremony of this Supreme Patriarch of the Amrapura sect. Excerpts from the interview:

 

On ties with India 

India is like our eldest brother in the South Asian family comprising Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. They should all work together as one unit for enhancing mutual understanding. Sri Lanka should try its best to work with India and Pakistan to build peace in the region. 

India and Sri Lanka’s relations are very old and historic and we should do nothing to damage these ties. The new generation must remember that a north Indian prince, Vijaya, started the Sinhalese civilisation. Similarly, Tamils came from India. Muslims also came to our island through India as they wanted to trade here. Our national religion is Buddhism, which came from India. Our culture, our alphabets and even our names all came from India. Due to these reasons, Sri Lanka cannot stand without India or hurt its relationship. I remember in the early days, children from the northern areas would walk and swim across to Madras to watch a movie. 

On China 

With China, we have a long relationship. While India is a relative, China is a friend. The connection between the two communities began due to Buddhism. The communists came to power in China due to the rampant poverty. Since then they have grown as an economy and it has become one of the richest countries of the world. They have come to our rescue in the past when there were acute food shortages here and India was not in a position to do much.

I condemn how the Chinese authorities have destroyed the Buddhist sites of Larung Gar, but I want to tell you that a majority of Sri Lankans have a positive and friendly feeling towards China. 

On Hambantota 

We oppose giving land to China for the Hambantota port even though they are our friends. We reject the decision of the government, so does the entire country.

We also hear rumours that Trincomalee port and Matala airport in Hambantota will be given to India. We oppose that too! Our considered view is that working together with other countries is fine, but giving away our land on 99-year-leases is not a good idea. 

How Theravada Buddhism reconciles with violence 

The people who resort to violence are religious fanatics. You also have it in your society. I can tell you that they are a small group of fanatics who are politically inclined and they want to use violence to meet their objectives. Many times Mahanayaks are not able to confront violence and extremism in time and that creates problems. We took cognisance by removing them from Nikaya and as Bhikus, but they use political contacts to return to the fold. For the, fanaticism is like business and they use it to benefit politically. 

Rohingyas

Though I don’t have a complete picture, I think here again in Burma the violence is the handiwork of a few people who want to strengthen themselves politically. It is important that love and compassion is used to bring peace here.  

 

(Pic credit: president.gov.lk)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2017