Sunday, September 24, 2023

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Thailand’s Jumbo rescue of tusker ill-treated at Sri Lankan temple

By: Krishantha Prasad Cooray

It is now official. Thailand is spending over two hundred million rupees to fly Muthu Raja – the abused, crippled tusker – back to Thailand. Distraught by the appalling treatment of the tusker at the Kande Viharaya in Aluthgama, the Thais have made a jumbo effort to rescue the noble beast. They have finalised plans to fly the animal back to Thailand for treatment and hopefully a comfortable retirement. 

Muthu Raja’s tale speaks volumes on how Sri Lanka, the repository of Theravada Buddhism is treating animals in the 21st century. Metta and Karuna are trampled on for all beings, including one of the most sacred animals of the Buddhist culture. Yet, Buddhism is abused and misused as the last refuge of the scoundrel, the corrupt and the power-hungry. The unholy nexus between the state and temple has corrupted both. Justice and humanity is only possible via international intervention – even in matters sacred. 

The elephant renamed Muthu Raja in Sri Lanka but known in Thailand as Sak Surin was a gift to President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2001. The elephant’s arrival in Sri Lanka was supposed to be an enduring symbol of friendship between the two Buddhist nations. The then 10-year-old tusker was to be groomed to carry the relic casket at the annual pageant (perahera) of the Sri Dalada Maligawa. 

Instead, Muthu Raja ended up being sent to the Kande Viharaya at Aluthgama. That is where trouble started. Reports emerged of the continuous hard labour the animal was put through: the majestic tusker was put to hard-labour logging and transporting heavy loads in chains. Instead of being a prince of the temple and a shining symbol of the two countries’ commitment to the Buddha’s teaching of kindness, Muthu Raja was made a servant to enrich his masters. He was worked so hard, his front left leg is crippled due to prolonged use of chains with metal spikes. 

Animal rights activists alerted the Thai embassy in Colombo and petitioned Bangkok triggering the months long rescue.

The elephant renamed Muthu Raja in Sri Lanka but known in Thailand as Sak Surin

It was only after the intervention of the Thai embassy in Colombo that the animal was rescued from the Kande Viharaya and brought to the Dehiwala zoo in November last year to undergo treatment from a Thai vet flown down by the Thai government. The entire episode is a blot on the image of our country which claims to be a beacon of Theravada Buddhism. 

In theory, elephants in Sri Lanka are protected by law, considered sacred by Buddhists, but there was a jumbo failure on the part of the wildlife authorities to protect Muthu Raja. There was no murmur from the devout Buddhists in the island who are usually vociferous about any perceived threat to the religion. Just like when, also in Aluthgama Muslims were terrorized and their houses burnt, most of the do-gooders were mum and washed their hands off as the main instigator of violence was a thug in robes. Sources with knowledge of the case say the Wildlife Department made legalistic excuses saying they had no authority over an imported elephant. The silence of the self-appointed guardians of Buddhism is even more deafening. The less said of the Foreign Ministry, responsible for the relationship with Thailand, the better. Perhaps the minister feels he cannot control the genie of hate that the Rajapakse campaign unleashed.  

But who guards the guardians? The press is silent. The many scandals seeking TV stations are hiding. Social media, that ceaseless echo chamber of outrage, has only murmurs – none of the frothing emotion and anger that erupt whenever a minority is involved. Other religious leaders are also mute. Like Jerome, they too seem more interested in the treasures of earth rather than heaven. 

Luckily for Muthu the last and increasingly only resort of those facing injustice was at hand: international intervention. The Thai authorities are preparing for the return of the elephant they gifted 22 years ago. Three veterinarians, a mahout, two assistants and a specially built cage will be flown to Sri Lanka on a chartered flight on July 1st to bring back the tusker. Mahouts and other vets are to be flown to Colombo to train the elephant on how to enter and exit the cage and to become familiar with it so it will not panic when being flown back home. The flight is expected to be about six hours. Six hours of shame for Sri Lanka. 

1st of July will be a black day for Sri Lanka. Not only did Burghers, Tamils and Muslims leave because of the abuse and misuse of Buddhism at the hands of the corrupt and power-hungry. Now animals too have joined their ranks. But it is not only the direct perpetrators who are responsible. All of us are. We who are silent, we who do not challenge the චිවරදාරි (those in robes) imposters, we who continue to bestow respect, deference and resources to those we know to be foul on the inside despite being dressed with the raiment and office of that which is good and just – we are all responsible for Muthu’s plight and shameful flight.

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