The head of Sri Lanka's hard-line Buddhist monks met with the Indian High Commissioner on April 29 to ask for military assistance to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. Sri Lanka is currently facing its worst crisis in its 17-year-war against the Tamil Tigers, who want an independent homeland in the country's north and east. On April 22, the Tigers managed to capture an important military garrison at Elephant Pass, and are now moving north in a bid to retake Jaffna, which they controlled from 1990 to 1995. Reporter Waruna Karunatilake spoke to Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, president of the influential National Sanga Council, who led a delegation of monks to the Indian high commission. Excerpts from the interview:
TIME: Your organization has been advocating the military defeat of the Tamil rebels What is your reaction to the current situation in the Jaffna Peninsula?
Thero: The news coming from the North is not very good. We have received reports that the terrorists--after capturing Elephant Pass--are moving further into Jaffna Peninsula. Our main request to the Government is, even at this late stage, to depoliticize the conduct of the war. The reason for the failure of the war effort in the past has been due to the politicization of the war effort by politicians, to suite their political ends. There are many experienced, retired officers of the Armed Forces and the Police. We must take advice from them and conduct a planned military strategy.
TIME: Your organization met the Indian High Commissioner [Shivashankar Menon] in Colombo last week and requested military support. Why?
Thero: There are countries with whom we have friendly relations. The Sri Lankan government is the current chairman of the seven-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ( SAARC ). In a crisis like this, we must try to get various types of assistance from these countries. In 1971 when there was a crisis--not as grave as this--many countries, especially India and Pakistan, came to our help.
TIME: Aren't people here just fed up with the war?
Thero: People in this country contribute to the war effort in various ways. Some join the armed forces while others contribute by paying taxes and so on. People have the right to know what is happening and the government must keep them informed. It is only then that people will make sacrifices. People here really do not know the real situation. They have very little understanding of what has happened in the war--and what can happen. The government must educate the people. And they must tell the truth.
TIME: Why is the Army facing this situation?
Thero: We failed to encourage our soldiers, therefore, the morale of the soldiers has gradually reduced.
TIME: Are you asking the Sri Lankan government place the country on a war footing?
Thero: Definitely. The entire country must be placed on a war footing. We must declare war. The war effort must be given priority over everything else. Everything else must be secondary.
(On May 3, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga put her country on war alert, announcing new wartime measures and civic restrictions.)