Colombo : A group of monks chanting from sacred Buddhist scripts is not a typical scene near the UN compound in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, but 100 monks from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand and Bangladesh were there to support the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar.
The demonstration was led by two of Sri Lanka’s most prominent monks, Madoluwave Sobitha Thero and Belanwila Wimalarathne Thero. The group presented a petition to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, seeking greater UN intervention in Myanmar and calling for an end to the junta’s assault on the protests.
The demonstrators then moved on to the embassies of the USA, UK, Russia, China, India and France to deliver copies of their petition.
“Myanmar is a Buddhist country, we share the same heritage,” Sobitha Thero said. “What we are asking for is that the Myanmar government stops the harassment of Buddhist monks, who hold a special place in both our societies, and restore the will of the people.”
Monks play a leading role in Sri Lankan politics. No government can be elected or survive without the support of the Buddhist clergy and politicians have routinely sought the approval of the monks when pressing for new policies and on occasion shelved them when faced with their opposition.
Recently their influence has grown. Eight Buddhist monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) political party are members of parliament and a lay member of the JHU is a government minister.
The JHU has not openly come out against the crackdown in Myanmar. However, its parliamentary group leader, Ellawala Medananda Thero, said it also did not condone the brutal assault on monks.
“Monks should not be beaten, assaulted and shot dead on the streets when they are staging peaceful protests,” Medananda Thero told a press conference in Colombo on Oct 2.
The Sri Lankan government’s only reaction to the crisis in Myanmar has come from Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama: “Sri Lanka is eager that Myanmar resolves all issues through a peaceful process of national reconciliation and political accommodation,” he told the UN General Assembly in New York.
Similar Buddhist protests have been held in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and Israel.
“This sends out a signal to the junta that Buddhists all over the world, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, support us,” Ykk Asma Thero, a Buddhist monk from Myanmar, who was part of the Colombo protests, told IRIN. “We hope and pray that the junta changes, but we will keep up with our campaigns if it does not.”
Sri Lankan monks also say the local protests are a sign that at least part of the clergy is actively engaged in upholding basic rights.
“Human rights are universal, it is the same here and in Myanmar,” Badegama Samitha Thero, a Sri Lankan monk who has served as an elected member of parliament, told IRIN. “As monks we carry an extra responsibility when they are challenged.