Category Archives: Hinduism

The War Monk: Yes, there is one

The death of Osama bin Laden is an opportunity for reflection.  He was a religious wanna-be.  He did not have religious training and his interpretation of Islam was neither Orthodox nor representative of the majority of Muslims (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/04/bin-ladens-theology/).  Every religion is vulnerable to the theft or distortion of ideology for political gain.  Buddhism is not immune either.  Yes, there is a “War Monk,” and he is Buddhist.

I was introduced to the War Monk in an article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine.  He was quoted saying, “We musn’t talk to them; we can crush the LTTE [Tamil Tigers].  It is like surgery.”  He was not alone – he made the list: “The List: The World’s Worst Religious Leaders,” (4/7/2009).  FP was quoting Athuraliye Rathana, a Theravadan Buddhist Monk and member of the Sri Lankan parliament.  FP did not coin his nickname, and their list included representatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Most Americans are not looking for the latest news about Sri Lanka.  Searches of CNN and MSNBC produced very few stories.  There is one MSNBC/AP story today (5/6/2011) and one story on CNN posted 5/2/2011.  BBC News Online posted a story on April 13, “Sri Lanka rejects secret UN war report as ‘flawed.’”  The United Nations was looking into war crimes associated with the civil war between the victorious government and the Tamil Tiger challengers.  The top leaders of the Tamil Tigers are dead and the UN wanted to investigate both sides in regard to the civilian deaths which human rights groups say are in the thousands.

One would think that a UN report on war crimes would be sensational enough to grab headlines, but apparently not when it’s Sri Lanka.  What really grabbed the UK media was that the War Monk, Rathana, was wielding his rhetorical sword their direction.  On May 21, 2009 the London Times Online posted the story “Victorious war monk Athuyaliye Rathana turns on Britain.”  Well now, that’s a little closer to home than the Indian Ocean.

The history of this exotic Indian Ocean island should be required reading in all seminaries, kibbutzim, ashrams, and madrasahs.  The story of Sri Lanka is one of years of tragedy and violence that in proportion to its population, compares to the U.S.’s Civil War, World War II, Darfur, and al Qaeda all in one little slice of hell that is slightly larger than West Virginia.

The New Yorker had a comprehensive article (01/17/2011) by Jon Lee Anderson who had been to Sri Lanka before and since the current government crushed the Tiger rebellion.  His 15-page story is worth every word.  It should be read as a shocking example of what people around the globe have in common with Sri Lanka.  The Tamil Tigers were using suicide bombers back before most Americans gave that phrase a thought.  Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict has followed ethnic and cultural lines in which the majority is Buddhist and the minority is Hindu.  The Tigers were “guerilla fighters” (p.41) who were eventually crushed by the government in shocking brutality which caught up thousands of civilians – one report said 40,000 (p.42).

When Anderson was in Sri Lanka in 1986 he said, “The Army had developed a pattern of mass arrests, torture, and, with growing frequency, murder.  He met with a Tamil Catholic priest about whom he said, “The conflict had grown so terrible that he had come to question the very existence of God,” (p. 45).

Remember, Hinduism was the religion of Mahatma Gandhi.  One of the five precepts of Buddhism is do not kill.  But in the end, the Sri Lanka story is not about Buddhism or Hinduism.  It’s about power and exploitation.  The exploitation is more potent when a religious imperative can be contrived, like using the Bible to justify slavery.  Sadly, Sri Lanka has shown us that any religion can be hijacked.

It seems disturbingly easy for humans to desensitize themselves to violence, and even grisly oppression, when all that matters is that you are not the one who is being oppressed.  When tracing the roots of atrocities (in which most religions have had some role over time), there is also some relationship to the local economy.  The poor were bin Laden’s target audience and the lack of egalitarian economic opportunity set the stage in Sri Lanka.

Bin Laden was one of the most notorious opportunists in recent history, but there are many like him and the War Monk, who take advantage of poverty, exploit religious rhetoric, and justify their own political agenda.  We should be more frightened of poverty than terrorism.  If people are not hungry and have jobs, it becomes easier to learn to separate the religious practices of the faithful from the propaganda of the unscrupulous.

I’m not sleeping better because bin Laden is dead.  When there are enough jobs in Sri Lanka and no more hungry children in Afghanistan, then I’ll sleep better.  That goes for things at home, too.  The original terrorist is poverty.

– J.B.

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