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Buddhist nationalism behind Sri Lanka's violent surge

The island nation's government is receiving new support from an unusual political group.

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As the war that has ravaged Sri Lanka for 25 years once again degenerates into widespread violence, the government is receiving new support from an unusual political group.

They are orange-robed, barefoot Buddhist monks. But instead of extolling peace and harmony, they are employing the uncompromising language of military strength.

"Day by day we are weakening the LTTE militarily," says the Venerable Athuraliye Rathana, a monk in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, as he spoke of the government's campaign to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. "Talk can come later."

Sri Lanka's hard-line monks are at the frontline of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, which views Tamils as outsiders. In January, they joined the government's ruling coalition with their party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, or National Heritage Party – pushing its narrow one-seat majority up to nine.

Since 1983, the Tigers have been fighting for a crescent-shaped homeland, or "Eelam," in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil minority, which is Hindu and Christian. Tamils have suffered decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

Many observers say that a resurgence of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has played its part in several recent human rights violations.

The monks are arguing vociferously against any self-determination for the Tamils in the north, including even the measure of autonomy that most observers believe is necessary for peace.

Nine seats is not many in a 225-seat parliament, but the monks wield greater power because they share their nationalist ideology with many other members of the government, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who runs the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

Despite enjoying a strong majority on the island nation, the presence of 50 million Tamils across the Palk Strait in southern India can rattle Sinhalese Buddhists. Buddhist nationalists are able to tap into deep fears that any territorial concessions to the Tamils would lead to eventual Indian subjugation.

"I feel so sorry for the Tamils who are suffering," says a Sinhalese taxi driver in Colombo. "But giving them power in the north would not be good. They might try to extend their power."

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