Colombo Telegraph

WikiLeaks: Party Of Extremist Buddhist Monks Stirs Up Tension During Holiday Season

“The Buddhist extremist JHU party looks set to stir up religious tension during this holiday season. Its members have made several ultimatums to the government and say they will begin a ‘fast-unto-death’ if these demands are not met by December 12. The party is also actively planning commemorations for the one-year death anniversary of Soma Thero, an outspoken monk who was a lightning rod for Buddhist extremism. The Supreme Court will hear a challenge on December 7 to the JHU’s proposed constitutional amendment elevating Buddhism to the status of state religion. In the meantime, there have been attacks on three Christian churches since November 1, with a mixed response from the police. The Christian Affairs Ministry does not seem capable of staying informed about the various pieces of religious-related legislation or the attacks on churches. While the JHU is likely grandstanding for political attention, the upcoming anniversary of Soma Thero’s death is giving cause for some concern among Christians, but considerably less so than a year ago.” the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.

Soma Thero

The Colombo Telegraph found the related leaked cable from the WikiLeaks database. The cable discusses the activities of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. The cable is classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” and written on December 04, 2004. The cable is signed by the US Ambassador to Colombo Jeffrey J. Lunstead.

The ambassador wrote; “A Presidential investigation into the December 12, 2003 death in St. Petersburg Russia of Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero (a marginal figure in the Buddhist clergy known for his extremist beliefs who advocated against everything, including Christianity, Hinduism, liquor, that he believed interfered with being a “pure” Buddhist); — A ban on liquor sales in all supermarkets; and — A date for its anti-conversion bill to be voted on in Parliament.”

Placing a comment the ambassador wrote; “The GSL, as represented by the Buddhist and Christian Affairs ministries, seems to be adopting a head-in-the-sand approach to the JHU’s proposed amendment, apparently hoping, by refusing to acknowledge it, that it will disappear. While the JHU is likely grandstanding for political attention with all its actions, the upcoming anniversary of Soma Thero’s death is giving cause for some concern among Christians, but considerably less so than a year ago. The JHU, which had not been created at the time of Soma Thero’s death, seems to be trying to capitalize on Soma Thero’s death to rally support. The atmosphere in Colombo and around Sri Lanka at Christmas time 2003 was one of much greater fear and anxiety than today; attacks on churches in December 2003 were reaching a climax and there were reports of several incidents weekly. The situation has improved in a year, although not necessarily due to any improvement in relations among the different faiths. To some extent, the JHU and its followers have been able to channel their energy into the anti-conversion bill and the proposed constitutional amendment. With the general lack of support for these legislative efforts, the JHU has decided to create this public campaign to force the GSL to address its issues. It is unlikely the party will be successful.”

Read the cable below for further details;

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 001952 

SIPDIS 

DEPARTMENT FOR SA, SA/INS, DRL, DRL/IRF
NSC FOR DORMANDY 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/06/2014
TAGS: PGOV PREL KIRF CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA:  PARTY OF EXTREMIST BUDDHIST MONKS
STIRS UP TENSION DURING HOLIDAY SEASON 

REF: COLOMBO 1895 AND PREVIOUS 

Classified By: James F. Entwistle, Deputy Chief of Mission.  1.4 (b,d) 

¶1.  (C) Summary:  The Buddhist extremist JHU party looks set
to stir up religious tension during this holiday season.  Its
members have made several ultimatums to the government and
say they will begin a "fast-unto-death" if these demands are
not met by December 12.  The party is also actively planning
commemorations for the one-year death anniversary of Soma
Thero, an outspoken monk who was a lightning rod for Buddhist
extremism.  The Supreme Court will hear a challenge on
December 7 to the JHU's proposed constitutional amendment
elevating Buddhism to the status of state religion.  In the
meantime, there have been attacks on three Christian churches
since November 1, with a mixed response from the police.  The
Christian Affairs Ministry does not seem capable of staying
informed about the various pieces of religious-related
legislation or the attacks on churches.  While the JHU is
likely grandstanding for political attention, the upcoming
anniversary of Soma Thero's death is giving cause for some
concern among Christians, but considerably less so than a
year ago.  End Summary. 

Christmas in Colombo
-------------------- 

¶2.  (SBU) Despite statistics showing only eight percent of
Sri Lankans are Christian, the Christmas season is in full
swing in Colombo.  Building facades are decorated with
lights, shop windows are adorned with garlands, and some of
the larger retail outlets would rival the atmosphere of a
U.S. department store in December.  The Buddhist extremist
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, with nine monks in
Parliament, has different sentiments about this holiday
season and is raising a ruckus on several fronts. 

The JHU and its political relevance
----------------------------------- 

¶3.  (C) In addition to the JHU's recent proposal to give
Buddhism the status of state religion through constitutional
amendment (see below), the party's MPs have been vocally
pressing other ultimatums.  Several of the JHU monks have
publicly announced that they will start a "fast-unto-death"
if the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) does meet their demands
by December 12.  They want:
-- A Presidential investigation into the December 12, 2003
death in St. Petersburg Russia of Venerable Gangodawila Soma
Thero (a marginal figure in the Buddhist clergy known for his
extremist beliefs who advocated against everything, including
Christianity, Hinduism, liquor, that he believed interfered
with being a "pure" Buddhist);
-- A ban on liquor sales in all supermarkets; and
-- A date for its anti-conversion bill to be voted on in
Parliament. 

¶4.  (C) Most contentious, perhaps, is the issue of Soma
Thero's death.  Since his death and cremation ceremony on
December 24, 2003, extremist Buddhists have alleged that a
Christian conspiracy was responsible for his death although
there is no evidence of this.  GSL medical officials
conducted an autopsy and ruled his death was due to natural
causes -- he was in poor health and traveled against doctors'
advice.  With the one-year anniversary of his death
approaching, JHU members and other Buddhists are planning
commemoration ceremonies and rallies.  As with his death last
year, Christians are concerned that this anniversary could
again foment anti-Christian sentiment.  (Many interlocutors
feel that the heavy police presence and government
denouncement of potential violence prevented the attacks
feared last Christmas Eve.) 

Supreme Court and the proposed constitutional amendment
--------------------------------------------- ---------- 

¶5.  (C) Compared with the public clamor over the JHU's
previous religious anti-conversion bill, there has been
little public discussion of the party's recently proposed
constitutional amendment to make Buddhism a state religion
(see reftel).  There also seems to be little awareness of the
Supreme Court hearing on the proposed amendment, scheduled
for December 7.  Contacts in the Christian Affairs Ministry,
as well as the Catholic Church and some other Christian
groups, told poloff on December 6 that they did not know
about the upcoming case before the Supreme Court.
Alternatively, interlocutors representing Hindus,
evangelicals, and long-established Anglican congregations
recently told poloff they would instead choose to support the
petition filed by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a
local think tank challenging the proposed amendment in the
court.  Since the proposed amendment is more than a
"Christian issue," none of the Christian groups wanted to be
seen opposing the amendment individually.  (Note:  There has
been little public debate on the proposed amendment, largely
because there has been little media reporting on it.  Of
those aware of the issue however, we have not met any
interlocutors -- of any faith -- who think this amendment is
a good idea.  Institutionally, the JHU supports the
amendment, although it is struggling with internal dissension
on the issue.  End Note.) 

¶6.  (C) There has been no official stance by the GSL on the
JHU's proposed amendment.  In a December 6 conversation with
poloff, D.W. Abeywickrama, Secretary to the Buddhist Affairs
Ministry, said that since the amendment is a private member's
effort, his ministry had not been asked for its view.  He
admitted he had seen the draft amendment but had not studied
it in detail and, therefore, could not say what the GSL's
official view would be.  He indicated that the ministry would
wait for direction from the Supreme Court's ruling before
taking a stand.  Officials at the Christian Affairs Ministry
will not comment on the amendment since they state it "has
not been officially referred" to them.  Following the Supreme
Court hearing, the JHU amendment will likely follow a track
similar to the group's anti-conversion legislation:  review
and revision in the Attorney General's Department before
being returned to Parliament for a reading a possible vote.
At present, there is no timeframe for a vote, but it is
unlikely to occur in the short term. 

Attacks continuing on churches
------------------------------ 

¶7.  (C) While the efforts to legislate cultural and religious
differences between the various faiths in Sri Lanka play out,
there remains a separate, but related tension exhibited in
the continuing attacks on Christian churches.  Since November
1, three Christian churches have been attacked.  In the most
egregious incident, intruders attacked a pastor and his
family at the Margaya Fellowship Church in Matugama, located
approximately 45 miles south of Colombo.  While this is not
the first incident of harassment against this church, on this
occasion, the attackers hacked off the pastor's wife's hair
with a sword before setting fire to parts of their residence.
 Police have not made any arrests to date.  More recently,
the Assembly of God church in Yakkala (some 30 miles east of
Colombo) was attacked on November 14.  The pastor informed
the police that he recognized the alleged Buddhist
perpetrators from previous attacks on the church, but the
police have claimed they do not have any evidence to arrest
anyone.  On December 2, the Believers' Church in Kuliyapitiya
(60 miles northeast of Colombo) was attacked; the pastor was
threatened and the church was vandalized.  Police initially
detained three people for questioning, but released them
after the pastor agreed not to press charges in exchange for
assurances of no further harassment. 

Little advocacy from the Christian Affairs Ministry
--------------------------------------------- ------ 

¶8.  (C) Recent discussions with officials at the Ministry of
Christian Affairs suggest that attacks on independent
evangelical congregations fall below the Ministry's radar
screen.  Ministry Secretary Manel Kuruppu told poloff
recently that outside of the Catholic Church and the National
Christian Council (NCC), which represents long-established
Anglican churches, her ministry had little contact with
evangelical or other Christian groups.  Her argument was that
those groups are not represented by umbrella organizations
and the ministry thus cannot be expected to speak with each
church and organization individually.  She said she had not
communicated with NCEASL and was not aware of the National
Christian Fellowship, which also represents a segment of
evangelical churches.  (Note:  More disturbing, she did not
seem inclined to initiate contact with them either.)
Yogarajah confirmed Ms. Kuruppu's comments, stating that
NCEASL had a representative on an intra-ministerial committee
under the prior United National Party (UNP) government, but
had only spoken with ministry officials "a few times" since
the April 2004 change in government. 

¶9.  (C) Regarding the various pieces of religious-related
legislation, Ms. Kuruppu was not familiar with the current
status of the JHU's anti-conversion bill nor had any input to
a similar bill that the GSL was drafting.  She assumed that
the Attorney General's Department would refer any related
matter to the minister before sending it to Parliament and,
therefore, would not comment on anything until it had been
officially referred to the minister.  (Note:  In trying to
detangle the legal process for these bills, we have not heard
that it is a requirement for the Christian Affairs Ministry
to be consulted.)  When asked about the process of developing
a response to any legislation, Kuruppu said that Minister
would not comment until he had conferred with the Catholic
Church and the NCC. 

¶10.  (C) Separately, when asked about the November 1 attack
on the Matugama Church, ministry officials said they had no
knowledge of the incident, despite reporting in several local
English-language papers.  Kuruppu told poloff that the
ministry would ask the police directly to report on any
attack on a church.  During a follow-up December 6
conversation, another ministry official told poloff she was
not aware of the latest attacks (see para 7) and asked for a
fax with the relevant information. 

Comment
------- 

¶11.  (C) The GSL, as represented by the Buddhist and
Christian Affairs ministries, seems to be adopting a
head-in-the-sand approach to the JHU's proposed amendment,
apparently hoping, by refusing to acknowledge it, that it
will disappear.  While the JHU is likely grandstanding for
political attention with all its actions, the upcoming
anniversary of Soma Thero's death is giving cause for some
concern among Christians, but considerably less so than a
year ago.  The JHU, which had not been created at the time of
Soma Thero's death, seems to be trying to capitalize on Soma
Thero's death to rally support.  The atmosphere in Colombo
and around Sri Lanka at Christmas time 2003 was one of much
greater fear and anxiety than today;  attacks on churches in
December 2003 were reaching a climax and there were reports
of several incidents weekly.  The situation has improved in a
year, although not necessarily due to any improvement in
relations among the different faiths.  To some extent, the
JHU and its followers have been able to channel their energy
into the anti-conversion bill and the proposed constitutional
amendment.  With the general lack of support for these
legislative efforts, the JHU has decided to create this
public campaign to force the GSL to address its issues.  It
is unlikely the party will be successful.  End Comment. 

LUNSTEAD

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