Buddhist countries are natural allies of Sri Lanka
by Senaka Weeraratna on 04 Mar 2014 9 Comments

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy must tilt towards extracting the maximum support and assistance from countries that have a shared Buddhist heritage, because these countries are our natural allies. A shared past acts as a powerful reminder of a sense of duty to one another particularly in times of crisis. This is true in human affairs. It is equally true in international affairs and underlying religious ties and loyalties must be activated to gain maximum advantage. The unity and solidarity that underlies the formation and functioning of the European Union (EU) and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) work on this simple formula – common faith and shared religious heritage.


The dynamics that come into play from a common religion and shared religious heritage is best illustrated in the formation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which is the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations and has a membership of 57 states spread over four continents. The OIC is the collective voice of the Muslim world and committed to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world. It has its headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Even Sri Lanka which is a predominant Buddhist country (70% Buddhist) applied for Observer status of the OIC in 2008 to attend Muslim Summit Conferences.


Unfortunately there is no equivalent international Buddhist body at par with the OIC or comparable Buddhist summit conferences for leaders of predominant Buddhist countries. This is a glaring lacuna in the multilateral relationships of Buddhist countries that needs to be addressed and corrected and Sri Lanka in terms of its Constitution (Article 9) with a mandate to not only protect but also foster Buddhism is duty bound to play a pioneering role within the framework of the Buddhist religious tradition to create the necessary climate for discussion and take forward the decisions made towards final implementation in collaboration with the rest of the Buddhist world. We must find solace and comfort from the pioneering role played by Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera who founded the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in 1950 in Colombo, purely on the premise of Buddhist fellowship. The proposed summit body for Buddhist nations takes the idea much further – to address challenges to Buddhism and protect Buddhist nations, communities, territories and space, and provide a global moral voice for Buddhists that is sadly lacking to date. 

Religious affiliation governs States’ conduct


There is further illustration of the proposition of religious affiliation governing states’ conduct in the international arena in the form of the repeated rejection of Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union (EU) despite a geographical situ in Europe.  Turkey is a predominant Muslim country unlike the rest of Europe which is predominantly Christian with a shared past and common Christian civilization. The large mass of Europeans have not erased from their collective memory the bitterly fought wars (Crusades) against the Arabs in the Middle East and more importantly a historical fact closer to their home territories i.e. armies of the Ottoman Empire (predecessor of modern Turkey) twice laid siege to Vienna in 1529 and 1683 which served as a bulwark for Christian Europe against Islamic incursions. In December 2011, a poll showed that as much as 71% of the participants surveyed in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK were opposed to Turkey’s membership in the European Union. 


Buddhist Asia


Buddhist Asia includes Buddhist heritage countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan and Mongolia. A number of countries have a significant Buddhist population such as India (Hindu), Indonesia (Muslim), Bangladesh (Muslim), Malaysia (Muslim), Nepal (Hindu); there is a small Buddhist minority even in The Philippines. Certain regions of Russia (e.g. Kalmykia, Buryatia) have predominant Buddhist populations; Kalmykia is the only predominant Buddhist region in Europe.


Australia is another continent separated from Asia’s landmass but now tends to be closely associated with Asian related discussions, conferences and joint conduct. There is a growing and active Buddhist population in Australia.


The estimates of the total global Buddhist population vary significantly. The most widely accepted estimates range from 550 million practicing Buddhists to estimates that exceed 1 billion. According to one source, the number of Buddhists around the world is grossly underestimated. The statistics found in nearly all encyclopedias and almanacs place the number of Buddhists at approximately 500 million. This figure completely ignores over one billion Chinese people who live in the People’s Republic of China.


Currently there are about 1.4 billion Chinese living in the People’s Republic. Surveys (Gach-Alpha Books, US State Dept. report on China, Global Center for the Study of Contemporary China, BBC News, China Daily, and a report by Christian missionaries in China) have found that about 80% to 90% of Chinese in mainland China identify with Buddhism as one of their religions. [http://www.thedhamma.com/buddhists_in_the_world.htm]


Whatever figure one accepts, the total number of Buddhists is nevertheless significant and in turn Buddhist influence should be brought to bear on the global decision making process. Buddhist representation or Buddhist organizations should be co-opted as associate members or affiliates of UN sponsored international organizations. The current reality is that Buddhists are highly under-represented in international organizations and sometimes subject of discrimination in staff recruitment of UN and UN related bodies. There is no effective Buddhist leadership at the international level nor lobbying at any serious level to influence change or reform. The grievances of Buddhists are dismissed or taken lightly and Buddhist countries are no match to powerful cabals such as the EU or OIC, which have the power and muscle to outmaneuver weaker Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even Thailand.


Asoka’s legacy in uniting Asia under umbrella of Buddhism


The Indian Emperor Asoka established the world’s first welfare state in the third century BC upon embracing Buddhism. He renounced the idea of conquest by the sword. In contrast to the western concept of ‘Rule of Law’, Asoka embarked upon a ‘policy of piety or rule of righteousness’. The basic assumption of this policy of piety was that the ruler who serves as a moral model would be more effective than one who rules purely by strict law enforcement.


The right method of governing is not only by legislation and law enforcement, but also by promoting the moral education of the people. Asoka began by issuing edicts concerning the ideas and practice of dharma, dealing with universal law and social order. Realizing that poverty eroded the social fabric, one of his first acts was to fund social welfare and other public projects. Asoka’s ideals involved promoting policies for the benefit of everyone in society, treating all his subjects as if they were his children and protecting religion. He built hospitals, animal welfare shelters and enforced a ban on owning slaves and killing. He gave recognition to animal rights in a number of his rock edicts and accepted state responsibility for the protection of animals. Animal sacrifice was forbidden by law.


An important aspect of Asoka’s governance was tolerance. In one of his rock edicts, Asoka calls for religious freedom and tolerance, and declares that by respecting someone else’s religion, one brings credit to one’s own religion. The idea of religious tolerance only emerged in the West in 1689 with the publication of John Locke’s book ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’. The Inquisition which commenced in Europe in the 12th century and lasted for over 600 years stands in marked contrast to any form of religious tolerance. Difference of religious opinion or heresy was punishable by death, including burning at the stake.  


Purely from a Buddhist perspective, politics of governance under a Buddhist ruler can be summed up by the Sanskrit word ‘cakravartin’ (the wheel turner), which means a king (ruler) who protects his people and the Buddhist teachings. Asoka was the prototype of this ruler whose political ideas were to inspire a countless number of other Asian Emperors and rulers. One enthusiastic follower of Asoka in Japan was Prince Shotuku (574 - 622 AD). An ardent Buddhist, Shotuku drafted a 17 Article constitution (the first Buddhist Constitution of Japan), which was promulgated in 604 AD. Shotuku appeals neither to ‘self-evident truths ‘ (as in the American Constitution) nor to some divine right of kings as the basis of law, but begins pragmatically by stating that if society is to work efficiently for the good of all, then people must restrain factionalism and learn to work together.


A key feature of this Japanese Constitution of Prince Shotuku is the emphasis placed on resolving differences by appeals to harmony and common good, using the procedure of consensus and dialogue. This approach is in marked contrast to the western view that factions can be controlled only legally by a balance of powers. Decision making by discussion and consensus is a significant characteristic of Japanese society. Every effort is made to ensure that minority dissident factions are not allowed to lose face.

International organisations under Western domination


What we see today in western dominated international organisations such as the United Nations, and related bodies such as the UNHRC, ICC and the like are proceedings conducted on an Inquisitorial footing i.e. witch hunts aimed at devastating the target country or individual, usually of non-European descent, thereby perverting the course of justice. No quarter is given to the other party until it submits to the political will of the bullying nations. It is a shameless display of brute power making a mockery of institutional rules and procedure. The targetted country is assumed to be guilty right from the start, ruling out any mitigating circumstances. It is virtually a re-enactment of the Inquisition under the auspices of the United Nations rather than the Catholic Church as in the days gone by.


Clean Hands Doctrine


There is a maxim in equity - “He who comes into equity must come with clean hands”. This maxim is not a principle of moral persuasion but an enforceable rule of law. The clean hands doctrine of equity, though applicable in municipal law, should have resonance in international fora. How many of the bullying countries accusing Sri Lanka of crimes against humanity and war crimes have clean hands or a flawless record? Issues of this nature are too complex to be resolved by finger pointing, naming, shaming and embarrassing the other party in front of an international audience comprising representatives of countries from four corners of the globe.


The Japanese approach advocated by the Buddhist Prince Shotuku to use the method of consensus and dialogue and do not allow the accused party to lose face is a far more enlightened approach to resolution of complex human rights issues than the ‘burning at the stake’ inquisitorial approach of the West. It is the employment of double standards and devious methods to achieve ulterior political ends of powerful Western actors that have resulted in the moral collapse of the UN and related agencies.  


Buddhist heritage countries must not allow a fellow Buddhist country with a shared past and bonds based on common religious heritage to be ‘thrown to the wolves’ at the UNHRC in Geneva. Japan in particular has been the beneficiary of goodwill of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) at the San Francisco Conference in 1951.


The Treaty of Peace with Japan (also known as the Treaty of San Francisco, Peace Treaty of San Francisco, or San Francisco Peace Treaty), between Japan and part of the Allied Powers was officially signed by 48 nations on September 8, 1951, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, United States. It came into force on April 28, 1952.   


“A major player in providing support for a post-war free Japan was the delegation from Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). While many were reluctant to allow a free Japan capable of aggressive action and insisted that the terms of surrender should be rigidly enforced in an attempt to break the spirit of the Japanese nation, the Ceylonese Finance Minister JR Jayawardene spoke in defence for a free Japan and informed the conference of Ceylon’s refusal to accept the payment of reparations that would harm Japan’s economy. His reason was “We in Ceylon were fortunate that we were not invaded, but the damage caused by air raids, by the stationing of enormous armies under the South-East Asia Command, and by the slaughter-tapping of one of our main commodities, rubber, when we were the only producer of natural rubber for the Allies, entitles us to ask that the damage so caused should be repaired. We do not intend to do so for we believe in the words of the Great Teacher [the Buddha] whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that ‘hatred ceases not by hatred but by love’. He ended the same speech by saying “This treaty is as magnanimous as it is just to a defeated foe. We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that with the closing of this chapter in the history of man, the last page of which we write today, and with the beginning of the new one, the first page of which we dictate tomorrow, her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_San_Francisco and


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