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Meet Gandhi of Sri Lanka: AT Ariyaratne

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Sri Lankan
Photo: sarvodya.org

By Aanya Wipulasena

Moratuwa, Sri Lanka: The Gandhi of Sri Lanka, an 84-year-old Buddhist who has worked for nearly 60 years to bring education to rural areas, is stepping up his public role. Appointed late last year as one of three civil society representatives to Sri Lankas Constitutional Council, A. T. Ariyaratne now helps ensure democratic rule and good governance by taking a primary hand in appointing high-ranking public officials.

But the revered peace advocate remains dedicated to his grassroots efforts, which he says are steeped in his personal heritage.

I was born in a village and I know how important it is to empower people at the root level for real development, Ariyaratne says.

Ariyaratne is from Unawatuna, a small coastal village in Sri Lankas south. He became a science teacher at Nalanda College, a boys school in Colombo and, in 1958, he led a group of teachers and students in a program to help students in a remote village in Kurunegala District, in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. That was the first of many trips by groups to help rural schools, and soon, the focus expanded from education to overall improvement of life in remote villages.

That work became Lanka Jatika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, a social service organization known in Sri Lanka as simply Sarvodaya, which means awakening of all in Sanskrit. Ariyaratne is its founder and president.

The child development center represents just one type of Sarvodayas work. Villages submit requests for specific projects, whether a new well, medical clinic or other infrastructure or development. Projects are built by volunteers from all over the country. Sarvodaya District Centers also identify projects in needy areas.

In the process, people build bonds across religious and ethnic barriers, Ariyaratne says.

Caste, creed or religion does not affect us, he says.

For Buddhists, the Sarvodaya movement is an avenue for learning more about their religion.

A. Perera, a former additional secretary to the Ministry of Education and a former director general of the National Institute of Education, says that though he was born a Buddhist, he didnt understand the essence of Buddhism until he met Ariyaratne in Sarvodayas early years.

As a youth, Perera, now 85, joined his grandmother in worshipping at the temple every Full Moon Poya Day, which is a Buddhist religious holiday in Sri Lanka. But he only carried out these outward gestures of Buddhism, to identify as a Buddhist, rather than to live as one. Perera says his focus was earning money.

Ariyaratne, on the other hand, lived out the Buddhist principles that were preached in the temples, Perera says.

He takes Buddhist principles and applies them in daily life and communal work, Perera says.

Ariyaratnes message of serving people challenged his single-minded focus on income, Perera says.

Until I joined Ariyaratne at Sarvodaya I was finance-oriented and did not have any spiritual development, Perera says. Ariyaratne changed these attitudes in people.

Perera has been working closely with Ariyaratne since that time, both as a volunteer and, at one time, as Sarvodayas general secretary.

Ariyaratne stands apart from other social leaders because he treats everyone he meets with equal respect, says Fazrul Rahman, the senior chief moulavi (Islamic leader) of Kandy, the capital city of the Central Province and one of Sri Lankas major cities. He has been partnering with Sarvodaya for more than 15 years.

What Ariyaratne follows applies to Islam, Hinduism or Christianity alike, he says in a phone interview.

Ariyaratnes wife of 55 years, Neetha Dhammachari Ariyaratne, 73, says her husband lives out his beliefs in everyday life. Their six children grew up with children from various ethnicities and social backgrounds, she says.

Not once did he stop our children from interacting with others, she says. And the children did not need lessons of religious harmony 8211; they saw how their father did it and followed his steps.

In spite of the accolades and high position, Ariyaratne says his wish remains the same as when he began his community work more than 50 years ago.

I want everybody who comes in contact with me to look at the world and society with loving kindness, he says. Then translate that loving kindness into compassionate activities.

(The story originally appeared in bignewsnetwork.com)

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Sri Lanka: Hardline Buddhist Groups Likely Behind Anti-Muslim Attacks

The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels

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Sri Lanka, Hardline Buddhist Groups
Muslim men stand near a damaged three-wheeler, after a mob attack in a mosque in the nearby village of Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka, May 14, 2019. VOA

Sri Lanka said on Wednesday hardline Buddhist groups were likely to blame for a wave of anti-Muslim riots that swept the island this week in apparent retaliation for Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels, killing more than 250 people and fueling fears of a backlash against the nation’s minority Muslims.

In the anti-Muslim unrest that started Sunday, mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest, ransacking mosques, burning Korans and attacking shops with petrol bombs, residents said.

Authorities have arrested some 78 suspected rioters, including three described as Sinhala Buddhist extremists who had been investigated for similar actions in the town in Kandy district last year.

Sri Lanka, Hardline Buddhist Groups

Sri Lanka said on Wednesday hardline Buddhist groups were likely to blame for a wave of anti-Muslim riots. Pixabay

“These are organized attacks on Muslim business houses and premises,” Navin Dissanayake, minister of plantation industries, said during a government news conference about the security situation.

Asked who was organizing the attacks, Dissanayake said: “I think these organizations that Amith Weerasinghe, Dan Priyasad, and Namal Kumara [are heading],” referring to the three Buddhist extremists arrested on Tuesday.

Local media reported on Wednesday that Priyasad was released on bail on Wednesday while Weerasinghe was remanded until May 28. The status of Kumara was not clear.

A police spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on the arrests.

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Muslims make up nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist. The Indian Ocean island was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The government stamped out the rebellion about 10 years ago.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force” have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying Middle Eastern influence has turned the community more conservative and insular.

In the same press conference, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, minister of public administration, said the group behind the attacks had political aims.

“This group is trying to tarnish the government’s image and show the government is unable to handle the situation,” he said, without naming the organization.

Sri Lanka, Hardline Buddhist Groups
In the anti-Muslim unrest that started Sunday, mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest. Wikimedia Commons

Authorities said the island was calm again, with no anti-Muslim violence reported on Wednesday.

Army probe

Also on Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s army said it was investigating a video posted on social media that showed a man wearing what appears to be an army uniform walking away seconds before an anti-Muslim mob attacked a building this week.

In the video, the man stands outside the building and then leaves. Seconds later, about two dozen people, including young men wearing motorbike helmets, run over and throw stones at the building.

Reuters could not independently verify the video. “The attention of the army has been drawn to a video clip where a person dressed in uniform similar to that of the army was watching while a group of violent saboteurs were in action in the general area of Thunmodara,” the army said in a statement announcing the investigation.

Two residents of Thunmodara, a town to the northeast of the capital Colombo, told Reuters that a mosque and some Muslim-owned shops were attacked.

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In over a dozen interviews in the hard-hit Kurunegala district northeast of Colombo, Muslims said attacks took place despite the presence of security forces.

One police source who declined to be identified told Reuters they did not have enough officers to handle the rioters. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera on Tuesday rejected allegations that police had stood by. (VOA)