Image courtesy News First
History of threats
Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero is the Chief Incumbent of the Rotalawela Mahaweli Maha Viharaya in Mahiyanganaya, in the Uva province. In July 2013, the Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha of which Vijitha Thero is a member had discussed the destruction of a building above the shop in Mahiyanganaya, where Muslims used to pray, as this was deemed to be an illegal construction. The Thero had opposed the destruction, as it was a period of religious festivities for Muslims. Vijitha Thero had also pointed out that there were other illegal constructions in the town, and that it was wrong to only destroy a place where Muslims prayed.
The others in the Pradeshiya Sabha were surprised at the Thero’s stance as it was contrary to what was expected of him – as a ruling part representative of the Pradeshiya Sabha and a Buddhist monk.
Vijitha Thero had denounced not only Muslim extremism but also Buddhist extremism. He spoke out against the activities of local politicians and businessmen and reiterated that those destroying the good name of Buddhism were not the Muslims, but Buddhists themselves like the local businessmen. Earlier this year, when there was a controversy about Muslims practice of “Halal”, Vijitha Thero had supported the Muslim community and insisted that Halal was a positive practice.
Vijitha Thero has recently been subject to serious threats and physical attacks, the cause of which is believed to be a speech he made criticizing religious extremism and calling for harmony between Buddhists and Muslims on the backdrop of increasing tensions between the two religious communities in the country. He believes the perpetrators are believed to be members of the organization, ‘Bodu Bala Sena’, which is considered by the Thero and many human rights defenders and even some government Ministers to be an extremist Buddhist organization.
Details of the latest incidents
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) had organized a rally in Mahiyanganaya on the 2nd of August 2013 with the aid of the Chief Buddhist Priest from a leading Buddhist temple in Mahiyanganaya called Mahiyangana Rajamaha Viharaya. Vijitha Thero believed that their preaching instigated religious divisions in an otherwise peaceful community. Those who attended the event were threatened with physical abuse if they visited Muslim-owned shops. Although Vijitha Thero attended the event, he took no stance for or against the event at the time.
Soon after the event, Vijitha Thero accepted an invitation from the Up Country Muslim Council (UPMC) to deliver the keynote address at a Ramadan (a Muslim religious event) held at the Badulla Muslim Ladies College on the 8th of August 2013, in the nearby Badulla town. At the event the Thero spoke at length about lessons Buddhists can learn from Muslim friends. He criticized the preaching and ideologies of the BBS that was inciting religious hatred, and also highlighted what he saw as correct values of Buddhism. The recording of the speech was later posted online by a Muslim media unit called ‘Knowledge Box’. Following the event, on the 11th of August, the Thero received information from the Girandurukotte Police (near to his temple) that he might be the subject of an attack by BBS members, who had seen the video of his speech. Acting on their advice the Thero escaped to a nearby forest to wait out the threat. Not knowing how long he would be required to hide away, the Thero contacted the organizers of the event in Badulla who assisted the Thero to escape to Badualla in a three-wheeler (a popular vehicle used all over Sri Lanka). In the days following, the Thero spent his time hiding in Colombo in the Western Province, until he returned to Mahiyanganaya on the 17th of August to visit his fellow priests at the temple.
Physical attack on 19th August
On his way back to Colombo on the 19th of August, at the last of the 18 hairpin bends in the Mahiyanganaya area, the Thero got down from the vehicle he was travelling in to deal with a problem with the vehicle tyre. There he encountered two men who he had identified as being associated with the BBS. One being the driver of the Chief Priest at the Rajamaha Viharaya in Mahiyanganaya, who helped organize the Bodu Bala Sena event in Mahiyanganaya. The Thero believes that he would have informed the said Priest of his whereabouts. After fixing the problem with the tyre, the vehicle with Vijitha Thero continued the journey towards Colombo.
In the Polgahamula area, around 1km away from Peradeniya (Kandy district) a mob of about 30 men, including a Buddhist Monk (who Vijitha Thero recognized as a member of Kandy’s BBS), attacked his vehicle which was caught in traffic. The attackers had broken and removed one door of the van, broken the windows of the vehicle and assaulted the Thero, another passenger and his driver. The Thero’s neck was injured in the attack and the driver’s wallet, driving license and money too had been robbed. They managed to drive away, but the mob followed the vehicle and attacked it at three different occasions when the vehicle slowed down for traffic. Thereafter the attackers disappeared.
A different pair of men then started following the Thero’s vehicle in another vehicle. The Thero recognized them as Mr. Gunawardhana, the President of the ‘Dayaka Sabhava’ (benefactors Committee) of the Mahiyangana Rajamaha Viharaya and Rathanasiri Thero from the same temple. The Thero is convinced that his whereabouts and journey details were made known to the Priests at the Mahiyangana Rajamaha Viharaya after his vehicle had stopped due to the tyre problem in Mahiyanganaya, and that these two individuals had ample time to catch up with the Thero’s vehicle which had to stop in an area called Ududumbara to replace tyres.
Attempted attack on 31st August 2013
When he visited an old friend (another Buddhist Monk) in Warakapola on 31st August 2013, seeking shelter, that Buddhist Monk had criticized Vijitha Thero’s positions with regard to the BBS and informed some persons affiliated with BBS that Vijitha Thero was there. When Vijitha Thero heard this, he left the temple towards evening, as it seemed that the old friend was now a supporter of the BBS principles, against Muslims, and that persons he had called may try to attack him. When he was walking away from the temple, he had seen about 10 persons coming in his direction in a van, which he assumed were the BBS supporters his former friend had notified via the phone. He had promptly hidden in the nearby bushes, and watched as the van continued towards the temple and parked outside without switching on the lights.
Preventing the participation in the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting on 26th Sept. 2013
On 21st September 2013, while he was in hiding, Vijitha Thero had come to know that the monthly Pradseshiya Sabha meeting would be held on 26th September 2013. At the same time, he had heard that persons opposed to him had planned to organize a protest against him on that day in Mahiyangana, and that he may even be attacked. As he has already missed the previous months’ meeting (as he was seeking treatment at a hospital after the 19th August attack), and that the Pradeshiya Sabha membership could be suspended if he didn’t attend three consecutive meetings, the Thero had decided to attend the meeting and also visit his own temple and community nearby.
Early morning on 26th September 2013, Vijitha Thero visited his temple and was warmly welcomed by the community. He had heard through friends that persons against him in the Mahinyangana town had made public announcements through loudspeakers that Vijitha Thero will attend the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting that day, and asking people to join a protest outside the Pradeshiya Sabha, and to close all shops. There were also black flags hung in the Mahiyangana town as a sign of protest. About 75-100 people including some Buddhist Monks, had attended the protest held right outside the venue where the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting was being held.
Vijitha Thero had sought Police protection prior to attending the meeting, and was finally compelled not to attend the meeting as the Police could not guarantee his security. During the protest, a local journalist who was a friend of Vijitha Thero, had been slapped by one of the leaders of the protest, Mr. Kasun, the President of the Mahiyangana Town Buddhist Association.
Actions taken for safety and complaints to Police
Police complaints after the attack on 19th August
The Thero managed to reach the Kegalle Police station after the attack near Peradaeniya on 19th August, but his pursuers also followed him there, and Mr. Gunawardhana had verbally abused the Thero in plain sight of the Police officers present. The OIC (Officer in Charge) of the Police station had been unhelpful and initially refused to accept a compliant regarding the incident and also refused to arrest the persons responsible for the attack, even when the Thero identified them. The Thero then contacted persons with influence to convince the OIC to accept the complaint. The official complaint number for the incident is CIB 85/223. Later, Vijitha Thero learnt that the complaint was transferred to the Peradeniya Police and finally to the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Kandy. After the Thero had made the complaint to the Kegalle Police, he had made his way to a hospital in Colombo under police protection.
There was a separate insurance claim submitted for vehicle damages.
On the 24th of August, the Thero received a phone call from the TID of the Kandy Police to come to Kandy and make a formal statement regarding the attack. However the Thero who was in hiding after treatment to his neck, did not meet the TID initially due to the possibility of a second attack. He however met with the TID on the 4th of September.
Mr. Gunawardhana and Rathanasiri Thero had subsequently been arrested since the incident, but later released on bail. The case against them continues.
So far there have been no positive efforts by the TID to find out the identities of the Thero’s attackers and bring them to justice.
Seeking Police protection before the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting on 26th September
After he had learnt of the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting to be held on 26th September, 2013, and the possible attacks against him and attempts to prevent him from attending it, Vijitha Thero sent a letter dated 22nd September, 2013 to the Inspector General of the Police (IGP) regarding his concerns and requesting security to attend the meeting. This was also followed up with telephone calls to the Chief Minister of the Uva Province (Uva is the province that Mahinyangana is situated in) and the Governor of the Western Province. But there was no clear response or assurance of security.
When he had gone to Mahiyanganaya to attend the meeting in the Mahiyangana town, Vijitha Thero had first gone to the Mahiyangana Police station to seek protection in order to attend the Pradeshiya Sabha meeting. The OIC of the Police station had advised Vijitha Thero that it might not be safe for him to attend the meeting, and that the Police would be unable to ensure his safety. Based on this, Vijitha Thero was compelled not to attend the meeting and to leave for Colombo. He had made a complaint at the Mahiyangana Police with Ref. no. CIB/4/69/212, and the Police had accompanied him to a safer location beyond Mahiyangana.
Since the attack on the 19th of August, the Thero has had to cope with the threats by remaining in hiding in various places, with the support of some friends and supporters. He continues to fear for his safety, as all the persons responsible for the attack on him on 19th August, as well as those who have been hostile to him and threatened him in the past, are still left to roam free.
Due to him being compelled to stay in safe houses away from Mahiyangana, Vijitha Thero had been informed by his employer, the Divisional Secretariat of Mahiyangana, that he has to vacate his post, thus he now has no job and source of monthly income. This has made it very difficult for him to maintain the temple and the group of young monks under him.
Vijitha Thero is one of the many individuals threatened by religious extremism in Sri Lanka for his work on collaborating with other religions, to link together inter-faith groups. This incident has been reported in the media, and the Thero and some of his supporters have also participated in a press conference held in Colombo on 10th September 2013.
Professional life and work of victim
Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero is the Chief Incumbent of the Rotalawela Mahaweli Maha Viharaya in Mahiyanganaya, in the Uva province. The Thero’s temple is located about 16kms from the Mahiyangana town center.
Vijitha Thero was born on 1st March 1966, and was ordained into monkhood on 12th April 1979.
Vijitha Thero is an elected member of the Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha (a local government council in the Badulla district, in the Uva province), representing the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). He is also the Buddhist Affairs Officer of the Mahiyanganaya Divisional Secretariat and has been appointed as an all island Justice of the Peace.
He is also a well-respected member of the community. While being involved in ‘Voice of Dharma’, a movement that focuses on using religion to achieve social justice, the Thero is also a member of several inter-faith groups working towards reconciliation and harmony between religious communities. The Thero has been very concerned about rights of farmers in the area, and has been involved in attempts to find solutions to the recurring elephant attacks in the Mahiyanganaya area, the increasing number of kidney patients in the area and the cancellation of local farmers’ pensions.
In 1996 he published a book titled “Maa dutu Ashraff” (The Ashraff I saw), about the founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a political party. He also served as the Chairman of the National Unity Alliance, which was registered as a political party, and together with Mr. Ashraff, had given talks about ethnic and religious co-existence around Sri Lanka.