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Interview with Sulak....


Exploring Thai links and the basic Buddhist concepts, with Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand

Sulak Sivaraksa, an internationally renowned human right activist, a reputed Buddhist scholar, al so a renowned social critic from Thailand, is in a one on one concinnous conversation with this writer, said that Thai's consider the word "Thamil" derogatory and a contemptuous word. He said that, in the earlier days, Sinhalese and Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka were responsible in brainwashing the Thai's to hold the Tamils, contemptible people. He added that the Thai culture originated from Tamil Nadu India and Hinduism, Brahminism, Thailand from Tamil Nadu, in the South India.

Sulak elaborated that, even today the prayers in Thailand areconducted in classical or "Chen Tamil" by Thai Brahmin priests, also in the king's palace and king's festivals, by the Rajaguru, the chief Brahmin priestof Thailand.

He went on to express his fear of the fast emerging trend of worshipping consumerism, capitalism,also the worship of money andtechnology. According to Sulak, this trend is the fast developing craze inthe modern world, which is today, considered auniversa l phenomenon. He reminded that, everyone has to be aware of the danger of technology, and the danger of money. He analyzed that both posses the positive and negative elements. Technology and money in his opinion have more negative elements, thanpositive e lements.He appealed that, people have to go back to their spiritual past, to spirituality, and to their original culture. Understanding the past is important, that might lead to understand the presentas well as one'sfuture.

Sulak further warned that, now-a-days, States on the whole succumb to super states, as the Chinese National Corporation,World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organizations, and these are much more dangerous. Also States are dangerous, he s aid. Sulak a strong believer in human rights and rule of law, said that, citizens must make use of the states, must also, check the state tofollow natural laws and make state organizations to run the country transparently.

Excerpts of the conversation are as follows:

K.T.R: I want to know your general interest on human right, nationally and internationally?

Sulak:Well of-course, I feel that human right is universal. There is no Asian version of human rights.

K.T.R: But some leaders say that, there is an Asian version of human rights?

Sulak:Do you want my views?

K.T.R: Yes.

Sulak:I tell you that there is no Asian version of human rights, but there is a distinctive Asian culture, but human right is universal.

K.T.R: But in Malaysia and in other ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries claim of autochthonous versions of human rights. You may elaborate.

Sulak:You want my view?. Mr. Mahathir Mohamed is a hypocrite and Mr. Lee Kwan Yew is a hypocrite, so was Mr. Suharto. However, Mr. AbdurrahmanWahid would agree with me. I have known him for thirty years and I belief that he will not change, even i f he is today the President of Indonesia. He is a good spiritual person, deeply committed to his religion - Islam. He also says that, Indonesians were Buddhists before and they were Hindus before and so he feels that, Buddhism and Hinduism helped Indonesi ans.

For me, human right is universal, because no body wants to be hung. No body wants to be exploited. Would Mr. Mahathir like to be exploited? He would say "No". He claims of the "Third World Asian values." These Third World Asian values are different from the Western Values, then again, Thai valuesare different from that of Malaysian values. Whatever values you hold to, nobody likes to be hurt. So, there should be at least the rule of law. Even that rule of law in some countries, really in most countries, was made by the oppressors, and made by those in power. Mr. Suchinda killed so many people and he passed the amnesty law to absolve him and all those involved in criminal acts. He got scot-free. Therefore, that rule of law is wicked, is bad, has to be cha nged, has to be challenged . Rule of law, if it allows exploitation, if it allows certain abuse of power, that rule of law is no good. So, we have to have a rule of law, that is more appropriate to our natural laws.

K.T.R: What you think of State Terrorism? You alleged that, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, (was the Army Commander who spearheaded the bloodless military coup on 23 February 1991 to throttle the elected Government of Late General Chatichai Chunhawan .Subsequently, he assumed as the Prime Minister of Thailand from 10 June 1992 to 23 September 1992), and he mercilessly cracked down a popular uprising against him where it was alleged that he was responsible for the killing and involuntary disappearances ofhundreds of Thai people. Before stepping down, he proclaimed amnesty, absolving all his alleged criminal deeds. The same thing happens in many other countries.

Sulak:Yes, - number one - you find the worst state, and you must understand that, according to one historian, the definition of the state or government is that, - State is an organization, which pass laws to legitimize them to kill their own citiz ens. You see, It is unfortunate.

K.T.R: It is observed thatstates are not willing, or unable to safeguard their own citizens. Human right means that, it is the duty of a state to safeguard the life and right of each of its citizens. Human rights mean, upholding the sovereign righ ts of the individual human being. The general allegation is that, the states use to orchestrate terrorism. Even in my country, i.e., Sri Lanka, the allegation is usually leveled, that the Government security forces are involved in rampant human right abus es and killing innocent civilians. What is your comment about the State orchestrated terror against its own civilians?

Sulak:About Sri Lanka, that is very well known. I feel that citizens must have the right to challenge the state. You see, worst than that, now-a-days, states on the whole, succumb to the super states, such as China National Corporation, World Bank , International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and these are much more dangerous outfits, than the states. States are dangerous also, so I think, as citizens, we must make use of the states on the one hand, at the same time, checking the state an d try to check to make the state run the country transparently.

Even this country (Thailand) is not perfect. At least I have fought in my own case for the last thirty-five years or forty years, it has become a little better in some sense, but much worse in many other sense

K.T.R: What was your role in the last Tamil conference held in Bangkok, in May 1999, organized by Poet Laureate Sethuraman from Tamil Nadu, India?

Sulak: That conference, O.K., you see, that man Mr. K.Satchithananthan, one of your friend,who happens also to be my friend, wrote to me and asked me, that they want to have a Tamil co nference, here in Bangkok. The Tamil people here told them that, it was O.K. They set the date and arranged everything for the conference. Suddenly, the Tamil people here were frightened and said it could not be held in Bangkok. So, he sends the man to me et me. For me, if the Tamils want to have a conference here, then they should be able to have the conference here. For me, if they could not have the conference here, it is the abuse of basic human rights. As our constitution said, not only for the Thai c itizens, but for anyone, in the law of Thailand, international conferences could be held, provided they have a Thai host. So, I said, O.K., I will be your Thai host. Accordingly, I informed the Ministry of Interior and I informed the people.

You know the word "Tamil" in Thai language is a bad word, because we have been brain washed by the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese monks in the "Mahavamsa" said that, Tamil is a bad guy. I do not belief in that. I said everyone is good in my opinion, unless pro ved that he is wrong. Even if he is wrong, we should be friendly with him, try to dialogue with him and not to condemn him. This is my approach. So, when the man came, I helped to organize that international meeting. Unfortunately, I was not here to parti cipate in the meeting, as I was to go abroad.

K.T.R: I was also approached to preside over the session, where the delegates were to read research papers. Unfortunately, I too left Thailand on some pressing work on that particular day. But later, I learnt that the Indian and Sri Lankan embassies alleged that the conference was organized to support the separatist organization of the Tamil Eelam.

Sulak:Well, I brought that man Sethuraman to meet the Indian Ambassador, and in fact, we all had dinner with the ambassador. The ambassador was very nice and kind, but he was supposed to preside over the inaugural session of the conference but as he could not go, he sends his number two.

K.T.R: O.K., what do you wish to say of the allegation, that this conference was connected with the Tamil separatists militant organization of Sri Lanka?

Sulak: I do not believe in that. I do not think that anybody is so stupid to make such an allegation, when one of the Sri Lankan Government minister (Late S.Thondaman) officially participated in that conference. When a Sri Lankan minister came to Bangkok to participate in the conference, representing the Sri Lankan Government, then, how could anyone make such a frivolous allegation?

K.T.R: Despite the minister's participation, I understand that, still the Sri Lankan Embassy holds the view that, the separatist organization was behind the conference.

Sulak:They can hold any view. Sometimes embassies are so stupid. You know, few years ago, I asked people here to raise money to help the Sri Lankan refugees. I have an Ashram here, you know, 35 km from the Bangkok airport and you must know that, lot of people fled to this country, both Sinhala and Tamils. By that time they came to Bangkok, I have housed many Tamil and Sinhalese refugees in my Ashramam. As the refugees grew in numbers, I appealed to the Thais, that we will raise money to put up a building, so that many more may stay there for years My argument was that, we are very much indebted to Sri Lanka. Buddhism came from Sri Lanka and now they are in trouble we have to help them, in fact, by housing them at our Ashram. Raising money was secondary, the main purpose was to raise the consciousness of the Thai people, to be concerned of our neighbors.

I went to the Supreme Patriarch, Sangarajah and asked him to patronize, as we want to do the Pappa ceremony, do you know that the Pappa ceremony is the forest robe ceremony. The main idea is to raise money to help people of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Ambassador, without checking with me, without consulting with me, went straight to the Sangarajah and said that, this is interference and asked Sangarajah to withdraw. The old- man, he withdrew. For me, that was the silly thing to do. You see, ambassadors some times want to show their powers. You see.

K.T.R: Was it the Woman Ambassador?

Sulak:Yes. In fact, she was a nice person, but obviously misinformed, but at the same time, I have respect for her. Sri Lanka being a small country, afraid of so many things, partly perhaps, because misinformed. So, I think I have answered you clearly about everything.

K.T.R: About Tamil, what do you say about the usage of the word Tamil in Thailand?

Sulak:Tamil in Thai is a derogatory word.

K.T.R: What is the meaning of the word Tamil in Thai?

Sulak:Tamil is something you know, if you are bad,you call it "Thamil." The main political eventof 1992, in Thai, they call it "Prussapa Thamil". - The Tamil May. So anything bad is Tamil.

K.T.R: Anything bad in Thai is called Tamil?

Sulak:Yes. If you are called a Tamil, then you are dreadful person. This, of-course, we understand,because we have been brain washed by the Sinhala. I wish to tell you that, our culture, most of our Indian culture, in fact, comes from Tamil Nadu, much more so than from the Northern part of India. The last stronghold of Buddhism in India was Tamil Nadu. Our relationship with India was mostly through Tamil Nadu. Not only Buddhism, but also Brahmnism, that Brahmins came from Tamil Nadu. They brought prayer, Hindu prayer, they performstill now at the Kings festivals in classical Tamil and not in Sanskrit.

K.T.R: You mean to say that, your "Rajaguru," conduct prayers at the Kings festivals and at the Kings palace, in Classical Tamil?

Sulak:Yes ..Yes, always in Tamil. We should know that, and we should revise the word. Tamil should not be used anymore with contempt. Would you like, If somebody says that, the word "Thai" is something bad or dreadful, we will not like it. For me, that is the beginning of human right.

K.T.R: You know that Pra Maha thera Upali went from here, sometime in 1752, when there were no Buddhist monks and when nobody can read the Pali language.

Sulak: Not true. The first statement of yours is true, but the second statement was not true. Quiet a number of people at that particular period of time in the Kandyan kingdom knew Pali, including Valvita Saranankara, but during that time, he was not an ordained monk.

K.T.R: When Pra Maha thera Upali arrived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), there was no talk about "Dipavamsa" and "Mahavamsa" - the Buddhist Pali chronicles and their existence were completely unknown to the world. According to my research, I found that, it was the Thai Buddhist monks who were responsible in taking away the Tamil Nadu Buddhist connections. They introduced the North Indian connections and this was the main reason for the existence at present, of the steep cleavage between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. It is further alleged that, they altered the versions of the Buddhist chronologies, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. Furthermore, Kandyan monarchssentenced to death, those Buddhist monks, who went to the extent of altering the versions of those chronicles.

Sulak:I have my doubts. I do not know. You may be right, but this is your version. Give me evidence. At this point of time, we will not debate this subject. I am lawyer by profession and I need evidence for any such logical conclusions.

K.T.R: You know something that, the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka has no written chronicles. We have lost everything during the Great Flood. Again in 1621, when the Portuguese captured the Tamil kingdom, they burnt one of the best libraries in the South East Asia, "Saraswathy Mahal," that housed rarest manuscripts. Due to barbarous acts of the Portuguese, we lost everything on our history, culture, literature, language and what not.

Sulak: They also burnt the Buddha's tooth. Portuguese arewonderful people and at last, they have now lost Macao, their last outpost in Asia.

K.T.R: I want to have your views on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Sulak: Too complicated. I do not know everything. I can tell you that, when our common friend, Mr. Satchithananthan approached meand requested me to help in some way to resolve the conflict, I felt that we could help. He said that, there are quiet a number of Tamils, who belief in non-violence, who want tosettle the issues amicably with the Sinhala people. He said, unfortunately lots of Sinhala Buddhist monks are very violent and chauvinistic in their approach to the conflict. In my book, I call it the Capitalistic Buddhism. Of-course, Buddhism becomes chauvinism, nationalism, but for me, Buddhism should be small "b" separate from the state. Buddhism teaches us love everyone, including our enemy.

He said "Well Mr. Sulak, you are in a good position to do something, as you know many monks in Sri Lanka." In fact, many of them are closely connected to my country Siam, Thailand. So, I raised money and brought thirty monks here and spent three weeks with them, meditation, dialogue, discussing various things and asked them to be open and fair to the Tamils. They were wonderful with me for three weeks. I spent all my time with them. I thought that, I will do my small contribution. I thought I was successful. But on the last day, when Imentioned the word "Tamil," they were upset. I feel that, to change people are not easy, but I thought that, I have done something. Some of them confessed to me openly, well not openly, but personally that, if they go back home and if they teach non-violence, the audience would not like that and they would lose their leadership role. It was unfortunate. Lots of people prefer leadership role to be a good human being. This is not the only time I am doing this, but I do it all the time in my small way.

K.T.R: Chauvinism is in their blood. Even in Mahavamsa, after the Elara-Dutta Gamunu war, the Buddhist monks preached chauvinism to Dutta Gamunu who showed remorse for killing thousands in the war.

Sulak: Well, of course, this has to be eradicated. I talked to the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter, he said, well Ven. Upali from your country, told us not to ordain the low caste. I said yes, Ven. Upali was a good man, but he can also make mistakes. You cannot ever rule it. Buddha said, ordain everyone. He said, No.. No ..No. It was good for his position to ordain only those in the high caste.I asked him, will you ordain a Tamil. He again said, No.. No.. No I said why not? I said Buddhagosha the great commentator is a Tamil from Tamil Nadu. In the earlier days, I said that, there were Tamil Buddhists in Tamil Nadu as well as in Sri Lanka.

For me, in my mind, the country number one is India, where Lord Buddha was born. I am indebted to India and especially to Tamil Nadu where our culture, not only the Buddhist culture, and the Hindu culture, the best human culture, came only from that part of India. The second country I am indebted is Sri Lanka. We have relationship since from the days, we were converted to Sri Lankan Buddhism inthe Sukkothai period.

People of this generation have no idea. They know vaguely about India, since the Buddha was born there, but they have no idea about our links with Tamil Nadu. They have no idea about our links with Sri Lanka, that is why, I want to make my country aware that, these two countries are important to us. If you do not know your roots, then you are uprooted. That is why when this country came to be called "Thailand" fifty years ago, we were forced to wear Western dress. We were forced to uproot our culture. We were prohibited from chewing betel-nuts. We were prohibited from wearing our dress, which they claimed is Indian dress, Cambodian dress, but it is universal. It is our "Dhoti" that is universal. The younger generation, some even do not know that, they we re forced to wear the present dresses.

We were forced to uproot from our own culture andfrom the links to our culture, that is with Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, in India. So, I do whatever I can, to restore that links and I feel that we must be concerned not only of our historical past, but also show concern of our present. Anyway, in a small way, I can do to serve the people in Sri Lanka, people in India, including the people in Tibet. I think Tibet is also part of our Buddhist culture.

(Sulak Sivaraksa is organizing a seminar on religion in Bangkok,sponsoring it through his The Sprit in Education Movement, and he has invited Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet to participate. Unfortunately, China has expressed its concern to the Thai Government, over the participation in the seminar by Dalai Lama. In 1951, China annexed Tibet. Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, with 80,000 of his followers and established a government in exile to fight for Tibet's autonomy from China.)

Although, for me personally, my great grandfather came from China. I also feel very much indebted to China. But, I feel that China has gone wrong. Number one - Moa'sm uprooted Chinese culture. Mao condemned Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but after M ao, they are now worshipping consumerism, capitalism and they also worship money, technology,. unfortunately this craze is now universal. My point is that, I want the people to be aware of the danger of technology, danger of money. It has both the positiv e and negative elements. Technology and money in my opinion have more negative elements than the positive elements. So in my opinion, we must try to go back to that spiritual past, spirituality, past culture, of course, the past has also something negativ e, it is not all positive, but I feel that we must understand our past in order to understand the present and the future. This is the role I try to do for the last thirty-five to forty years.