Buddhist monk’s role in counter-insurgency
This article recalls a little known but very significant non-violent contribution that Ven Dhammananda made to the counter-insurgency operation which the British euphemistically called the `Malayan Emergency’ over six decades ago in then the Federated States of Malaya (now Malaysia) which included Singapore. His role was primarily in defence of Chinese civilians who had little or no part in the uprising
August 31 marks the fourth death anniversary of the Venerable Dr Kirinde Sri Dhammananda, the Sri Lankan-born Buddhist Scholar monk who was the foremost Theravada Buddhist Bhikku in Malaysia and Singapore. His many books contributed greatly to introducing Buddhism to many English-speakers in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Born on March 18, 1919, Martin Gamage in Kirinde, Matara, Ven Dhammananda was ordained at the age of 12. After completing his studies in 1938, he entered Vidyalankara Pirivena, in Peliyagoda, Kelaniya, for the next seven years, Venerable Dhammananda attended a diploma program at the Vidyalankara Pirivena where he studied Sanskrit, Pali Tripitaka Buddhist Philosophy, besides other secular subjects.
At age 26 he successfully graduated with a Diploma in Linguistics and Pali Tripitaka. His seven years of intensive learning and training in monastic discipline from 1939-1945 at the Vidyalankara Pirivena provided him the relevant knowledge and skills in the dissemination of the Buddha Dhamma.
When World War II ended in 1945 the Japanese military occupation had left Malaya’s economy in shambles. Food was scarce, wages were low and unemployment was widespread. Not surprisingly this resulted in labour unrest and a number strikes that occurred between 1946 and 1948.
The British administration dealt harshly with the strikers since it wanted to repair Malaya’s war-damaged economy quickly. The income from Malaya’s tin and rubber industries was important to Britain’s own post-world war recovery. The anti-strike measures included arrests and deportations. The strikers became increasingly violent.
Turn an insurgency
It soon led to a JVP style insurgency that took shape between April and June 1948. Armed Chinese gangs publicly executed foremen and other key figures in British-owned rubber plantations on the country’s West Coast. Their executioners lectured the horrified spectators about their “war against imperialism” before melting back into the jungle.
On the morning of June 16, 1948 three young Chinese cycled into Elphil Estate, Perak and shot dead a 50-year-old British planter, Arthur Walker. A few miles away, Ian Christian and his manager J Alison were tied on to chairs and similarly murdered. The Government declared emergency. Under new anti-terrorist laws introduced, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and other Left parties were outlawed. And police were given the power to imprison, without trial, all those suspected of assisting the insurgents. At the time the ‘international community’ did not call these British anti-terrorist measures a violation of human rights.
The MCP retreated to rural areas to form the so-called Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), also known as the Malayan People’s Liberation Army (MPLA). The MNLA began a guerrilla campaign, targeting mainly the colonial resource extraction industries, which in Malaya were the tin mines and rubber plantations.
By March 1950, the guerillas - now known as `CTs’ (Communist terrorists) - intensified their terror campaign, killing hundreds of soldiers, policemen and civilians and attacking trains and blowing up railway lines. Two years later, on January 5, 1952, a ship from Colombo called at Malaya’s Penang Harbour, after a three-day voyage. The disembarking passengers included 33-year-old Ven Dhammananda. He had been selected by the Venerable Kiriwaththuduwe Sri Pragnasara, then Head of the Vidyalankara Pirivena, Sri Lanka, for Buddhist missionary work in Malaya. Ven Dhammananda’s arrival was on a request made by Sri Lankan members of Malaya’s oldest Buddhist Association, the Sasana Abhiwurdi Wardhana Samithiya, Kuala Lampur.
Having stayed in Penang for a few days after arrival there, Ven Dr Dhammananda left for the Brickfields Buddhist Vihara, Kuala Lampur, where he assumed duties as Chief Incumbent and quickly set about the task of reorganizing the temple’s activities, despite prevailing crisis. The Brickfields temple - established in 1894 - has always been the focus of Sri Lankan Buddhist activity in Malaysia.
Three months after Ven Dhammananda took charge of the Vihara, the then British High Commissioner in Malaya, Sir Gerald Templar paid the Sri Lankan Bhikku a visit at the temple. Sir Gerald had succeeded Sir Henry Gurney whom the rebels had assassinated.
After a cordial discussion with the Ven Dhammananda, Sir Gerald revealed the actual purpose of his visit. He wanted to know from the monk whether Buddhism had any links with insurgents’ revolutionary political ideology and whether Bhikkus were secretly helping the insurgents! What prompted Sir Gerald to raise the question was that the majority rebels were Chinese. Most Malaysian Chinese are Buddhists (with a Confucian background). Moreover, even the insurgents who were arrested had claimed to be Buddhists.
Ven Dhammananda soon allayed Sir Gerald’s unfounded fears and suspicions. The monk made him realize that the Buddha Dhamma had nothing to do with armed revolution. The British High Commissioner was so impressed by the Ven Dhammananda’s erudite explanation in precise English of Buddhist texts that he appealed to him to help the Government in `the hearts and minds war’ to win over Chinese peasants, who were caught in the terrorists’ grip. The British official offered the monk vehicles and other facilities necessary for the task.
Ven Dhammananda however realized that to engage in such a mission under government patronage was to court certain death at the hands of the insurgents. He therefore politely declined the offer but promised Sir Gerald to give all the assistance on his own to spread the message of goodwill and peace. The Sri Lankan Bhikku saw it as an excellent opportunity to begin the revival of Buddhism on an extensive scale in Malaya, where the first Buddhist temple was established in Taiping in 1892.
So, with Chinese interpreters, Ven Dhammananda set off on his mission, covering about 40 new villages, which the Government had opened up to relocate Chinese from terrorist-infested areas. Sermons were delivered and blessings were bestowed (chanting pirith and tying pirith thread). This work continued for about two years.
Gradually, with patience the Sri Lankan Bhikku was able to tactfully prevent many Chinese peasants from being drawn towards the guerilla movement. He helped them understand their religion correctly since they were largely ignorant of it although officially they were considered Buddhists. Eventually Ven Dhammananda became their guide and teacher. It was due to his efforts that, many Chinese in the country became aware of the real teachings of the Buddha.
When independence came to Malaya under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on August 31, 1957, the insurrection lost its rationale as an anti-colonial war. Serious resistance from the guerillas ended with a surrender in the Telok Anson marsh area in 1958. The remaining rebels fled to the Thai border and further east.
On July, 31, 1960 the Malayan Government declared the Emergency over.
During the conflict Security Forces killed 6,710 guerrillas and captured 1,287. Of the total number of guerrillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict and about 500 at the end of the conflict.
Those killed were 1,346 Malayan troops and 519 British military personnel and 2,478 civilians. Recorded missing as a result of the conflict were 810.
Ven Dhammananda realized that the only way to prevent the young, educated Chinese from being converted to other religions was to ensure that they understood the proper teachings of the Buddha.
In all his talks, he presented Buddhism in a rational and logical manner to prove that it is compatible with modern science.
Thus, in 1962 he established the Buddhist Missionary Society (BMS) at the Buddhist Temple.
It is largely responsible for the propagation of Buddhism through publications and the sponsorship of Buddhist seminars, lectures and talks, as well as regular Dharma discussions, youth leadership training and welfare activities. Its role as a missionary society is clearly stated among its "aims and objectives" as follows:
In June 1991, the Malaysian Government honoured the Ven Dhammananda by conferring on him the title, JSM, for the services he rendered to the country by way of social service and guidance.
When he passed away on August 31, 2006 at the age of 87 he was the Sangha Nayaka of both Malaysia and Singapore.
Casual conversation between friends. Anything goes (almost).
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- How foolish you are,
grasping the letter of the text and ignoring its intention!