COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan. 17 (RNS) -- Opposition to the latest international efforts to end Sri Lanka's 18 years of crippling civil war is coming from whatwould seem like an unlikely source, the island nation's leading Buddhist monks.

"Normally Buddhism is a very peaceful religion, but here some monkshave a very different interpretation," said Indika Perera, a programofficer with the nongovernmental National Peace Council of Sri Lanka."Aside from the Buddhist leaders, other religious leaders are almostall in favor of the peace process."

One year ago, Norwegian diplomats initiated peace talks afterwinning agreement from the Sri Lankan government and the separatistLiberation Tigers of the Tamil Elam (LTTE) to participate. Since 1983,the LTTE has been fighting for a homeland in the north of thisteardrop-shaped country of 19 million people off the southern tip ofIndia.

The war pits the majority Sinhalese people, who are predominantlyBuddhists, against ethnic Tamil militants, who are Hindus. But it is nota religious conflict. Buddhists and Hindus across the island sharecommon holy sites and shrines.

All the same, influential Buddhist leaders consistently and loudlyoppose current government talk of granting the LTTE significantpolitical autonomy in the north.

"The government must fight with them until they surrender. And thenreach a political settlement regarding their demands," said theVenerable Bellanwila Wimalaratana, a Buddhist monk who is deeplysuspicious of the initiative from Norway, which has a Tamil minority.

"Norwegian leaders have in the past supported the LTTE. So how canNorway play a role in finding peace now?"

Although Sri Lanka's populace is weary of a war that has claimed atleast 60,000 lives and scared off the hundreds of thousands of Europeanvacationers who once drove a thriving tourist industry, Perera said many voters take their cues from the conservative Buddhist prelates.

Speaking of the leaders of Sri Lanka's four main Buddhist groups andtheir opposition to a negotiated peace with the LTTE, Perera said:"They don't clearly say, but the common people understand that they areagainst it."

In the run-up to Sri Lankan parliamentary elections in October, topBuddhist clergy flexed their muscle over the issue of peace talks asthey have done previously at hints that Buddhism might lose its positionin the Sri Lankan constitution as the faith with the "foremostposition."

"The Buddhist leaders who are against it have played a very bigrole," Perera said. "They held hunger strikes and rallies."

The Buddhists' argument for fighting the LTTE until surrender is notbased on a religious rationale but on cultural and historical grounds.

As Wimalaratana explained, because Sri Lanka is the "most prominent"country in the world for "orthodox" Buddhism--it offers free Buddhisteducation and dispatches hundreds of teaching monks abroad--thecountry's territorial integrity is of vital importance to Buddhists theworld over.

"If Buddhism had not survived here, the entire Theravada movementof Sri Lanka would be lost.... We must continue this long-standingtradition," Wimalaratana, the author of 10 books in English andSinhalese on Buddhism, said during a recent interview in his Colombomonastery.

According to the tradition as taught in Sri Lanka, Lord Buddhavisited Sri Lanka three times in his lifetime, traveling south from theIndian mainland.

In some variants of Theravada Buddhism, for example, the Buddha isnot thought of primarily as a preacher of world renouncement but as theone who turns the Wheel of Dharma, or as the World Sovereign.

Sri Lanka's estimated 25,000 Buddhist monks take great pride inworking to preserve the purity of the Theravada strain of Buddhism thatemerged in Sri Lanka some 2,300 years ago. Adherents to TheravadaBuddhism live mostly in Southeast Asia while those who practiceMahayana, Buddhism's other main branch, are found in Tibet, China andJapan.

Buddhists worldwide recognize "ahimsa"--not harming sentientcreatures through deed or thought--as the first of five precepts ofBuddhist life.

However, with the very survival of Theravada Buddhism at stake,Wimalaratana said Buddhist leaders must not stand in the way of youngBuddhist men and women who want to join the country's paid armed forces.

"If everyone thought, 'I am a Buddhist, so I cannot enter thearmy,' there would not be anyone in the army," he said. "When you jointhe military, it doesn't mean that you are going to destroy your enemy,but protect your country."

Citing fishermen who kill fish for a living and doctors who dissectanimals for training, Wimalaratana said Buddhist fighters should not lettheir consciences trouble them.

Although Wimalaratana's viewpoint is shared by Sri Lanka's Buddhistestablishment, there is a growing peace movement among Buddhist monks.At a mid-December peace demonstration organized in central Colombo bythe Interreligious Alliance for National Unity, about 500 Buddhist monksattended, far outnumbering a handful of religious leaders from theHindu, Muslim and Roman Catholic faiths.