Buddhism, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

This interview was conducted in July 1993 in Japan and published in the Tamil Times. The views expressed by Sulak Sivaraksa on the Sri Lankan conflict are still worthy of consideration and reflection.

An Interview With The Thai Buddhist Social Thinker and Activist Sulak Sivaraksa

Interviewed by N. Shanmugaratnam on 20 July 1993 in Kyoto Japan:

[Sulak Sivaraksa - Pic: Sulak Sivaraksa.org]

Sulak Sivaraksa is a well-known Thai social thinker and activist. A nominee for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, Sulak is being tried by the Thai Supreme Court on a charge of defaming the King of Thailand. The charge of lese majeste, if proved, carries a maximum penalty of fifteen years in prison. Currently, Sulak is a Visiting Professor at Ryukoku University, Kyoto. In Japan, he is engaged in dialogues with Buddhists, non-Buddhists, atheists and socialists on problems of Asian societies. The present interviewer, who identifies himself as an atheist and a socialist, has also participated in some of these discussions. The purpose of this interview, however, is to present Sulak’s views on issues that are likely to interest readers of Tamil Times. Sulak has recently published a book entitled Seeds of Peace-A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. He has also been engaged, along with several others, in a dialogue with Buddhist monks and lay Buddhists from Lanka on the ethnic conflict with the aim of promoting justice and peace in Lanka. He is due to return to Thailand shortly to face trial. This interview took place in Kyoto on 20 July 1993.

You are an advocate of a Buddhist approach to social change. The title of your recent book is Seeds of Peace-A Buddhist Vision For Renewing Society. Can you state your worldview in a few words?

I have discussed at some length the Buddhist Vision in the book mentioned by you. The beauty of the Buddhist view is that you do not have to believe in a god. First of all, you have to be a peaceful, humble and simple person who is in harmony with other beings including non-human beings such as animals and plants and the natural world in general. I respect other religions and believe in learning from them too. But I think they spend a lot of time and effort to prove the existence of a god. The basic question is one of finding ways to help those who suffer. In a sense everyone in this world suffers in one way or the other. Helping others is a good way to build friendship. I believe that friendship is possible even between persons who hold different views and spiritual values. I know that there are problems when disagreements take irreconcilable forms. I have been beaten up a few times by people who thought that I was their enemy because I disagreed with them. One has to be patient at such times and prepared not to let anger and hatred take the upper hand.

How does Buddhism define an alternative path for social development?

Before answering that question, let me say something about the dominant approaches of our times, capitalism, and socialism as we have known it. Both these approaches have used social engineering strategies in their own ways. I think social engineering has failed to create the conditions for human development. Capitalism does not merely make use of human greed but glorifies this human weakness as a great virtue. It celebrates self-interested behaviour. Capitalism encourages accumulation of wealth but does not easily allow even a basically fair distribution of it. It subordinates human development to the accumulation motive by putting the economic objective above all else. I have discussed the new religion of consumerism and how it ruins the Thai society in my last book. The equalitarian ideology of socialism is wonderful but in reality it has led to state capitalism and authoritarianism. Capitalism permits some individual freedom while denying a fair distribution of wealth. Under socialism we are ensured of a fairer distribution but denied basic freedoms. I do recognize the merits of Marxist class analysis and the contribution of Marxism to the debates on social development. Now turning to Buddhism, the most crucial difference it has with capitalism is that it does not seek to make a virtue of self-interest, greed and self-aggrandisement. In fact, Buddhism condemns greed, which can easily lead to aggression and hatred, and shows how to be content by changing yourself and striving with your fellow human beings to improve everyone’s wellbeing. Unfortunately, Buddhists have failed to deal with problems in that spirit. We have failed to deal with the injustices of feudalism and capitalism and with the impacts of Hinduism and Confucianism on Buddhist philosophy. We have to understand socio-cultural realities in our societies and their tensions and evolve appropriate approaches so that no section feels discriminated against. As a Buddhist, I am an advocate of what has come to be knows as the middle path when it comes to development. We cannot turn the clock backwards. We must adopt from the modern systems whatever is good for the people’s human development and build a righteous society. This is no easy task and I know it involves compromises for the sake of peace and harmony. I would refer those interested to know more to my book.

If I may turn to a more specific issue, Thai and Lankan Buddhist clerical establishments have had a very long and cordial relationship. You have been involved for some time in peace promotion in Sri Lanka. Do you think that Buddhist peace activists like you in Thailand could play a role in bringing about a resolution of the Lankan conflict?

Let me first tell you something about Thai-Tamil relations of which many people do not seem to be aware in Thailand or in India and Sri Lanka. Before the establishment of close links between Lankan and Thai Buddhists, we had a long period of interaction with South Indian culture. Tamil Nadu already had a rich culture many centuries ago and there was constant intercourse between Thai and Tamil culture. The version of Ramayana we have in Thailand came from Tamil Nadu. The Brahmanic mantras chanted at ceremonies in the Thai court are Tamil in origin although many people still think that they are Sanskritic (in origin). In fact, some scholars have deciphered the words and shown them to be Tamil. And Buddhism came not only from North India but from the South as well as Tamil Nadu had one of the most active centres of Buddhism in Kanchi.

Sorry to interrupt you at this point. I have been told that in your language the word Tamil means something very bad. Is this true?

Yes. Thamin, that is how Thamil is spelt in Thai, means something dreadful, bloody, violent etc. There is a history behind this. I think the word in its current usage came into the Thai language from Sri Lanka through Mahavansa and the Sinhala Buddhist monks who used it pejoratively. In May this year, a peaceful mass demonstration was broken up by the police and several people got killed. A major newspaper headlined its story about this incident as “Pruspa Thamin” which means “May Thamil”, i.e. May Violence. I wrote a long article to that newspaper protesting against the misuse of a word, which actually describes the ethnic identity, and language of more than 50 million people. There was a positive response to my article from a popular columnist in the same paper who stressed that we should not use the word Thamin in the sense we have been using it all this time as it could hurt the feelings of the Tamil people. I hope this message will reach everyone in Thailand.

Now to return to your question about our role in promoting justice and peace in Lanka. There are people like me in Thailand who are very concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka and willing to do whatever we can to bring about a just resolution of the conflict and an end to the war. My nationality and religion could be both help and hindrance in this regard. The close ties between the Sri Lankan and Thai Sanghas provide us with a good communication channel. On the other hand, the nationalist elements in the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha may expect us to support their position or, at least, not to oppose them. The first message I have for the Sinhala Buddhists is that they should abide by the Buddhist precept of non-violence. You cannot be a Buddhist and an advocate or a supporter of violence at the same time. Almost ten years ago, I was asked by three international peace bodies: War Resister International, Peace Brigades International and International Fellowship for Reconciliation, to participate in a peace initiative in Sri Lanka. I agreed to this and visited Sri Lanka in 1984 and several times after that. I met with Buddhist leaders including the Mahanayake to whom I said that the Sangha had got too close to politics at the expense Buddhism in Sri Lanka. I also politely asked the Mahanayake to explain why there were no Tamil Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. I did not get a satisfactory answer. As a result of my visits and with the cooperation of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, (PRIO) we managed to invite 35 Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka to Bangkok for a dialogue and reflection on the ethnic problem. Tord Hovik of PRIO, himself a Buddhist, was very helpful to me. I noticed that the Sinhala Buddhist monks suffered from a mental block when it came to the Tamil question. We talked a lot and at one stage I proposed that a meeting with Tamil militants may help and that it could be held in Madras or Bangkok. The monks were not ready for such a dialogue yet. They appeared to be worried that such a meeting might adversely affect their credibility among the Sinhala people. We also discussed other matters of mutual interest including alternative development. I showed the monks some parts of Bangkok to help them see the negative aspects of so called development. They also saw some of the positive side. I raised another important question too. It concerned the virtual disappearance of Pintapata (the practice of begging by Buddhist monks) among the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy.

An upshot of our efforts was that we gained a few individuals who became dedicated to the peace process at the risk being attacked by chauvinists as traitors to the Sinhala Buddhist cause. Now some monks and laypersons are working with Tamils. Some of them have been exposed to training in Norway and the Philippines sponsored by HURIDOCS and PRIO. I will continue my effort but I know it is not an easy task to find a solution and end the war.

Can a Buddhist be a nationalist too?

Not the way many Buddhists in Sri Lanka are nationalists; they are Sinhalese before they are Buddhists. Buddha was born in India but his teachings spread far and wide across countries and states. A true Buddhist cannot be a nationalist although he or she may support those national movements that can serve as vehicles of the universal humanist values for which Buddhism stands. For a Buddhist, there is no Holy war or Just War. But in the real world Buddhists have been involved in state making and have often compromised their principles for the sake of patronage from states that oppressed the people. State patronage tends to divert the Sangha from the truly Buddhist course and co-opts it into supporting and justifying violations of people’s rights, Once you compromise with the state you enjoy a lot of privileges including material benefits, but that is not Buddhism.

Buddhism has not been able to contribute in a significant way toward solving the basic problems of the people for 2500 years. Its universal values have been distorted by the very establishments, which were supposed to practice them. Buddhists monks openly defend violence and display extreme forms of chauvinism and hatred toward non-Buddhists. Buddhism has failed for 2500 years, what makes you have faith in the Buddhist vision?

In 1973, there was a big student uprising in Bangkok which led to a political change at the top as at the dictators of Thailand fled the country. I was engaged in a dialogue with the students at that time. I told them the political change was only superficial and that we all should work for basic changes by following the Buddhist path. The student leaders told me that we had given 2500 years for Buddha and the time had come to give Mao the due place. Mao and not Buddha, they insisted, had the answer to Thailand’s problem. I told them that Mao and Buddha had similar aims but Mao believed in violence whereas Buddha believed in non-violence. Buddhism asks you to challenge your own inner self first before trying to challenge others but Maoism asks you to challenge others but not the self. They did not agree with me. For about three years, ‘hundred flowers bloomed’ but then the dictators returned with a vengeance in 1976. At this point, hundreds of students left Bangkok for the jungles to join the Thai Communist Party with the aim of making the revolution. They returned after some time quite disillusioned. These youths were basically Thai nationalists who found the Thai Communist Party to be more Chinese and than Thai. Some of them have developed beyond the limits of their old beliefs and begun to be interested in the Buddhist approach.

[Courtesy: Tamil Times, August 1993]

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