By Jehan Perera –
The recent divergence of opinion over the public funeral of a Buddhist monk who had been the chief incumbent of the Buddhist temple in Jaffna is an unfortunate example of the need for greater sensitivity, consultation and dialogue in situations of ethnic contestation. The Ven Meegahajandure Gnanaratana had been the chief incumbent of the Buddhist temple in Jaffna since 1991. He was also the chief monk for the Northern Province. The Naga Vihara temple in Jaffna is an important religious site. It is the first place of visit of Buddhist pilgrims from the south of the country who come to Jaffna on pilgrimage to other sites of historical antiquity, including the islet of Nainativu where the Nagadeepa temple is located which traditions states the Buddha himself visited. The Naga Vihara temple is also the main Buddhist temple for military personnel stationed in Jaffna.
Accordingly when the venerable monk passed away it was deemed fitting that his funeral should take place in Jaffna and not in his hometown in the south of the country. Tradition dictated that his funeral would be a public one in a public place. In the Sinhalese Buddhist tradition, when an important monk passes away, it is common to have a public funeral in a public place to enable a maximum number of people to attend it. This confers merit on all concerned. Public places where these funerals take place include parks and school grounds depending on the availability of such places. Independence Square in Colombo, which is near to sports grounds and shopping complexes, is one of the places where public funerals have taken place. But in Jaffna, in which there are hardly any Sinhalese civilians living as residents, this tradition became a matter of controversy and subject to much suspicion and speculation.
The venerable monk’s cremation in Jaffna was opposed for several reasons including being in a location adjacent to a memorial for Tamil victims of a 1974 assault by police and a Hindu temple. A group of 12 Jaffna based lawyers filed action in the Jaffna Magistrate’s Court to disallow the cremation of the monk in the location that had been selected. They claimed that cremating of bodies could be harmful to the environment, and that no permission had been obtained from the Jaffna Municipal Council. In addition, concern was expressed that holding the funeral in that location would be a pretext for building a monument in the monk’s name and furthering that attempt at domination. However, after inquiry the judge decided that the land was government land belonging to the Archaeology Department and that the funeral could take place.
When there is ethnic contestation, different views may prevail as to the suitability of the funeral venue just as much as it would in the case of more directly political issues. In the Tamil tradition funerals of religious clergy usually take place at cemeteries rather than in public spaces. Therefore the public funeral of the venerable monk in a public space became seen by opinion formers in Jaffna as another effort at demonstrating Sinhalese domination over Jaffna. The funeral itself took place with high level participation of the military, including the army commander who had a long period of service in Jaffna in different capacities, including commander of all security forces. With the resident Sinhalese population in Jaffna being negligible most of those who attended the funeral were from the military. This added to the northern perception that the funeral was meant to assert Sinhalese domination over Tamils and further inflamed their opposition to it. Usually it is the lay faithful of the temple together with the monks in the temple who make the arrangements for a funeral of a monk. But in this case in this was not possible. Due to the war nearly all the Sinhalese who resided in Jaffna had left with hardly any returning. This prevented the normal course of making the funeral arrangements and this role was taken over by the military.
The military in the north seeks to win the hearts and minds of the people by engaging in social service and by undertaking development projects. This is strongly criticized by political activists from Tamil civil society and also by politicians as part of a government strategy to weaken Tamil nationalism. However, a few days before the controversy over the funeral arose, the army had organized a food festival in Jaffna. This was appreciated by the general population who got an opportunity to savour different types of food at reasonable prices. On the other hand, the continued presence of large numbers of military personnel in Jaffna and in the north is a source of much heartburn to the Tamil people who see them primarily as an alien force meant to subdue them and deny them their aspirations. The army was deployed as early as the 1960s to keep Tamil nationalism in check and prevent it from mobilizing in protest against Sinhalese dominated government rule.
This history of the usage of the military to resolve problems arising from ethnic politics has made it politically strategic to those who have political aspirations to demand the withdrawal of the military and to gain political support as a result. The funeral of the venerable monk provided such an opportunity to those who hold nationalist positions. Many of those who took up stances in opposition to the funeral of the monk were those who engage in the politics of confrontation with the government. One northern political leader said “On the one hand, they talk about reconciliation while on the other hand they proceed with creating divisions, which is not acceptable. Tamils have no qualms about the cremation of the deceased Buddhist monk taking place in their territory, but the venue for such cremation should have been carefully selected after the concerns of the people have been carefully weighed.”
One key problem in Jaffna that led to the tension over the venerable monk’s funeral is that there was insufficient dialogue and consultation on both sides. On the side of the government there was the need to discuss the issue of the venue with the municipal authorities and the provincial council. They may have offered better options for the place where the funeral could have been held. The government could also have sought to discuss with the civil society. The verdict at recent elections has shown that the people of Jaffna have opted for cooperation with the government as their preferred way forward. The power of the government is a reality that people who live in all parts of the country realize, and accommodate themselves to. The politics of confrontation which reached their height under the LTTE led to much loss rather than to the anticipated victory and separation.
In Jaffna there are several inter-religious committees and groups. The deceased monk’s assistant monk the Ven Meegahajandure Sirivimala, from the same ancestral village as his mentor, has shown himself to be both liberal and conscious about the need to engage with those of other religions and has been an active member of inter-religious committees. These inter religious committees could have been invited to take the lead in organizing the funeral ceremonies. If this had been done there would have been a section of civil society that could have advised the other section that the public funeral was part of Sinhalese Buddhist culture and not another crude attempt to dominate the north. In addition, the military role could have been subordinated to the civilian, as is necessary in a democracy.
Sri Lanka needs to aim to be a pluralist society, in which no one community can lay claim to territory as theirs, and the others are in second place. In this regard Colombo city has a positive practice of permitting religious processions that block traffic for hours to take place, which are open to all religions. This is the way it should be in all parts of the country, in recognition of its multi-religious, multi-ethnic and plural nature.