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Sri Lanka's Top Buddhist Monk Shuns Non-Violence for Quick End to War

The leader of Sri Lanka's Buddhist monk political party is calling for a resolution to the country's 25-year war between government forces and Tamil militants. The monk, who heads a party in Sri Lanka's parliament, supports using the military to do it. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

Many have suffered in Sri Lanka's war, one of the world's longest-running, that has left 70,000 people dead and left nearly a half-million more homeless.

Athurliye Rathana, a Buddhist monk who heads the Jathika Hela Urumaya party in Sri Lanka's parliament, wants to end the suffering by putting a quick end to the war. Speaking with VOA at a seaside hotel in this former tourist haven, Rathana says he supports the government's latest military offensive to quash the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"Anytime a militant group is harmful to peaceful people, then government should have the right to exercise constitutional law and order," Rathana said. "And, LTTE is unlawful and so, under our constitutional law, anyone cannot exercise militancy. But [with] the LTTE separatist movement, the government has some duty to control their military activities. I say only one thing, 'Please do your duty.'"

For comments like that, the Sri Lankan media has branded Rathana the "war monk," an anomaly in a country where most monks are committed to nonviolence. But his sentiments are common in Sri Lanka's majority ethnic Sinhala community.

Rathana is a celebrated figure in this predominantly Buddhist nation, where monks are cherished for their spiritual guidance. The pro-war activism of Rathana and others has spurred as many as 30,000 Sinhalese young men to join the army in the past few months.

But Rathana has many critics. Among those is Mano Ganesan, a Hindu Tamil member of Sri Lanka's parliament.

"I'm surprised. Buddhism teaches non-violence and love for another," Ganesan said. "Whereas, in this country, in the name of Buddhism, they propose killings, they propose murders, they propose abductions, even these extra-judicial killings and disappearances have been justified by these very monks in this country. Can you believe it?"

Rathana's activism was energized after the 1998 bombing of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka's spiritual capital, Kandy - allegedly by Tamil militants. He says the temple is sacred to Buddhists because it houses a tooth allegedly snatched from Buddha's funeral pyre.

He says the barrages of attacks and suicide bombings aimed at civilians by alleged Tamil militants have spurred many Sri Lankans - Buddhist and otherwise - to call for military action.

"As the Buddhist way of life, under the Buddhist philosophy, we cannot invade any country and we cannot disturb others," Rathana explained. "Under the Buddhist way of life, it is wrong. Why [are we] involved in conflict as a Buddhist country? Any occasion we did not react against Tamil people, if such incidents happened in India, in Pakistan and in America -[where] Muslim people attack churches or any sacred place - I think common people are roused and confused. We are also confused. But we never attack normal Tamil civilians. That is the truth. That is the heart of Buddhism."

Violence has flared up again in this former tourist haven, as government troops regained territory in the island's eastern fringes. Fighting still rages in the north, where aid groups operating in the region have reported that hundreds of Tamil militants and civilians have died over the past few months.

Their claims cannot be independently verified because the government has barred journalists from travel near the front lines of the conflict.