The monks say they will not accept any salary as members of parliament, they will not live in government-provided accommodation nor will they travel with bodyguards in tow, a familiar sight in strife-torn Sri Lanka.
Their mission, they insist, is to use political power to restore Sri Lanka to its pristine Buddhist glory like the way it existed over 2,500 years ago.
“We formed our party to protect our country and Buddhism from a crop of corrupt politicians,” says Jackson Weeratunga, a spokesman for National Heritage Party, formed by Buddhist monks only two months ago.
Despite the short time at its disposal, the Hela Urumaya, as the party is popularly known, garnered over 500,000 votes and won nine valuable seats in Friday’s elections after an intense campaign in which the main villains were the island’s politicians, Catholic conversions and the open market economy.
As if to project an image that it is not a communal party, the Hela Urumaya says it is ready to join forces with the country’s Hindu minority to take on Catholics who it says are engaged in “unethical conversions” of poor Buddhists and Hindus.
“America is using unethical conversions to Americanise our society,” says Damma Kusala, 65, who was a successful businessman until he gave it up all to be ordained as a monk a year ago and is now an active member of Hela Urumaya.
“Our economy is in doldrums, cheap products are imported. Our culture is under attack,” Kusala added.
Although all the nine party members elected this time – of the about 190 who contested – are all monks, it is attracting a large number of passionate Buddhists who seem to think that Sri Lanka’s numerous problems will be washed away if only the monks were to take power.
Spokesman Weeratunga, 64, is one of them. A marine engineer who speaks excellent Hindi besides Sinhalese and English, he was attracted to Hela Urumaya almost the moment it was formed.
“Our traditional politicians have failed Buddhists in this country,” he said, speaking at the temporary headquarters of the party located in a house owned by an Indian national.
“We should have been a rich and prosperous country. Instead, our national debt is more than what we earn. We are very, very annoyed the way the country is being run. We want to change all that,” Weeratunga maintained.
The Hela Urumaya’s monks went from village to village, from street to street, and from one town to another, seeking votes. They went everywhere, even to Jaffna, to spread what they said was the Buddha’s way of life. In return, they got nine seats.
An overwhelmingly Buddhist country located at the foot of India, Sri Lanka is home to some 40,000 monks – people who are expected to give up the material world and live like ascetics, thinking and spreading religious values. But many of them have repeatedly taken to the streets over the years, mostly on political issues.
When President Chandrika Kumaratunga called snap elections in February, several monks got together to hurriedly form a party to take on corrupt politicians and to put an end to what they say is the political hegemony in Sri Lanka of Roman Catholics.
One monk told IANS that there was no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. “Ethnic problem? What ethnic problem?” quizzed the middle aged monk. “Look at Colombo. Thousands of Tamils, both Hindus and Christians, live here among Sinhalese Buddhists. Do they have a problem? If they don’t have, what is the problem?”
Explained monk Damma Kusala: “We will not accept any post. Our intention is to put into place a Buddhist constitution and establish a ‘dharma rajya’ (kingdom of justice). We will not accept any salary, or vehicles or
bodyguards that the government may provide. We will ask the government to credit our salaries to a fund set up for charity.”
But will not the power of parliament corrupt even the monks? “No way,” said an elderly monk, speaking in halting English. “The doctor treats so many patients but he doesn’t contact any disease. The same is true of us. We are here to correct the system. Nothing will happen to us.”
© Copyright 2004 IANS India Private Limited, New Delhi. This article was published on April 5, 2004, by Indo-Asian News Service. Posted on Religioscope with permission.