Image courtesy BBC
Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero is a Buddhist Monk and the Chief Incumbent of the Rotalawela Mahaweli Maha Viharaya in Mahiyanganaya, in the Uva province. Vijitha Thero is also 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 has also been appointed as an all island Justice of the Peace. Amongst Buddhist Monks, Vijitha Thero has immerged as the most prominent and consistent public critique of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS – meaning Buddhist Power Force). Despite many Buddhist Monks participating in inter-religious events, services, discussions and other symbolic events, no senior Buddhist Monk has come forward to publicly challenge the BBS’s version of Buddhism in the way Vijitha Thero has done. Despite expressing fear for his life, having been in hiding and having sought Police protection, Vijitha Thero didn’t give up his critique of the BBS.
It is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) that has physically attacked and issued death threats against Watarekke Vijitha Thero. It is the BBS that had threatened younger Monks in Vijitha Thero’s temple. It is the BBS that disrupted a press conference organized by Vijitha Thero. It is the BBS that had obstructed and threatened Vijitha Thero as he tried to conduct religious rituals for a dead person in Mahiyangana. It is the BBS who had tried to prevent Vijitha Thero from attending Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha meetings. It is BBS who had carried out propaganda campaigns against Vijitha Thero. It is the BBS who had raided the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, claiming to look for Vijitha Thero. It is the BBS who had called up a safe house Vijitha Thero had sought refuge and threatened the Monk in charge not to give Vijitha Thero shelter. It is the BBS who had taken a lead role in passing a “Sangha Agna” against Vijitha Thero.
While the above have not been proved in a Court of Law (and unlikely to be proven soon given the slowness of the Police to conduct investigations and arrest suspects), there is compelling evidence, including Vijitha Thero’s personal testimony, backed up by photographic, video evidence and media reports, to indicate that BBS’s culpability. Police have also been present in some of the incidents.
It is also the BBS that instigated the riots in Aluthgama and Beruwala in Southern Sri Lanka earlier this week. And now, two days after the riots, when Vijitha Thero has been abducted, beaten up and dumped on the roadside in an utterly humiliating manner, a prominent BBS leader has denied being involved in the attack. So if not the BBS, who else would have attacked Vijitha Thero?
Vijitha Thero had made complaints and had discussions with the National Human Rights Commission, Senior Police officers in the Mahiyangana area and in Colombo, appeals and meetings with politicians including with the President himself. Vijitha Thero had said that the President had promised to support him in his work and provide protection. These had resulted in Police escorts to Vijitha Thero when he was visiting his temple, attending Mahiyangana PS meetings etc. But the attacks and threats had continued despite assurances by Police and the President. On 7th June 2014, Police protection was suddenly withdrawn. There was no clear explanation when Vijitha Thero had inquired from the Police about this. Was this a coincidence?
The consistency of attacks on Vijitha Thero indicates a personal vendetta against him or a deliberate attempt to silence his critique of the BBS and standing up for rights of non-Buddhist religious groups. Below are some of incidents in which Vijitha Thero has been targeted, based primarily on Vijitha Thero’s own testimony and based on media reports.
Attack on 19th August 2013
When Vijitha Thero was travelling to Colombo on the 19th of August from Mahiyangana, a mob including a Buddhist Monk (who Vijitha Thero recognized as a member of Kandy’s BBS), attacked his vehicle which was caught in traffic and shouted “Arapiya Thambiya Dora. Ada tho maranawa (You Muslim, Open the door. We’ll kill you today)”. 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 had followed the vehicle and tried to attack it on three different occasions when the vehicle slowed down for traffic. 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, all prominent supporters of the BBS.
Attempted attack on 31st August 2013
When he visited an old friend (another Buddhist Monk) in Warakapola on 31st August 2013, seeking shelter for his student monk who was bullied by the BBS supporters in the University, 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 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. Vijitha Thero had later left the area through some jungle routes.
Disruption of the Press Conference on 9th April 2014
On 9th of April 2014, Vijitha Thero had organized a press conference at Nippon Hotel in Colombo, together with other religious leaders, to introduce a new organization he had formed called “Jathika Bala Sena”. A mob of BBS supporters led by BBS leader Gnasara Thero had forcibly entered into the hotel premises and surrounded Vijitha Thero and discredited him in bad language and threatened him. Intimidated by them, Vijith Thero was compelled to make a public statement apologizing for betraying the Buddha Sasana and country to Muslims. Police was watching the event and took no action to assure the continuity of the press conference or deal with those making threats and disrupting the press conference. BBS left the venue soon after they had forced Vijitha Thero to make that statement. Later Vijitha Thero made a complaint to the Slave Island police regarding disrupting the press conference and being forced to make a statement under threats. Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana said there had been no violence at the media conference.
Obstructions and threats to conduct religious rituals on 26th December 2013
Vijitha Thero was invited by a Buddhist family in Mahiyangana town to deliver religious sermon at his home in Mahiyangana town on 26th December, 2013, in memory of a dead family member. The sermon was disrupted when Thero was informed through a phone call by Podi Hamuduruwo (Junior monk)that a group of BBS supporters had entered the temple of the Thero, and started shouting and making death threats to Vijitha Thero frightening the young monks at the temple. Vijitha Thero had immediately sought Police protection. The Police had initially refused and Vijitha Thero had to call the Police headquarters and wait until the local Police was given instructions to supply necessary security.
Propaganda campaign against Vijitha Thero by BBS in January 2013
On 4th January 2014, Vijitha Thero informed Mahiyangana Police regarding a propaganda campaign which was being organized against him during the period 10th – 18th January 2014, led by K.P Gunawardena, who has been released on bail in relation to the assault of Vijitha Thero in August 2013. On 9th January 2014 at around 5pm Vijitha Thero called the Police Headquarters in Colombo and requested them to provide security to the temple and Podi Haamudhuruwo (Junior Monk) during the said period. Police had confirmed that security would be provided during the 8 days [from January 11th to 18th] that Ven. Gnanasara-led BBS were staying were at the Mahiyangana Raja Maha Viharaya.
Buddhist Monk providing safe refuge to Vijitha thero threatened on 18th March 2014
On 18th March 2014, a BBS supporter and local politician had come to the safe house where Vijitha Thero took refuge in Colombo and noticed Vijitha Thero’s presence there. In the afternoon of the same day, the Chief Monk of the place where Vijitha Thero was staying received a threatening call from BBS telling that he also might have to face issues if he continues to offer accommodation to Vijitha Thero. Having understood this is no longer a safe place for himself, Vijitha Thero left his safe temple in the evening of 18th March 2014.
Intimidating and threatening Vijitha Thero and younger monks in his temple on 18th April 2014
On 18th of April, 2014 a mob of people attached to BBS had arrived at the temple in Rotalawela, in seven vehicles and had threatened to attack Vijitha Thero and also threatened a younger monk in his temple. Vijitha Thera had made a complaint to the Police with regard to the incident after he received the details from the resident monk via phone.
Passing the Sangha Agna against Vijitha Thero on 22nd April 2014
On 22nd April 2014, members of the Mahiyangana Regional Sangha Council passed a Brahma Danda Sangha Agna (resolution of silent treatment to a Buddhist Monk as a punishment) not to allow Vijitha Thero to enter in to any temple in Mahiyangana. Chief Prelates of 21 temples and four Sil Mathas (Female Buddhist leaders) in Mahiyangana signed the document. The charges were based on the content of the keynote speech which Vijitha Thero delivered at an Ifthar event during Ramadan Festival held at the Badulla Muslim Ladies College on the 8th of August 2013. Member monks of BBS took the leadership in bringing this resolution. The resolution was passed in the absence of Vijitha Thero without hearing his side of the story.
According to Vijitha Thero, the Mahiyangana Regional Sangha Council does not have a legal power to pass such a resolution. Such resolutions are usually passed by an accepted Sangha (Buddhist Monks) body such as Nikaya (a chapter of Buddhism). According to Vijjitha Thero “Brahma Danda is a way of punishing a monk who committed an offence by giving him the silent treatment. The night the resolution was passed some monks called me and said they had no idea for what they put their signature. They breached their own resolution by calling me over the phone.”
BBS raid on Ministry building to hunt for Vijitha Thero on 23rd April 2014
On 23rd April 2014, BBS had surrounded Ministry of Industry and Commerce building in Colombo claiming that Vijitha Thero was hiding there. The BBS monks had forcefully entered the Ministry, checked all the rooms, and CCTV cameras to find Vijitha Thero. Soon after monks went away, Minister Rishad Bathiudeen made a statement to media condemning the action of the monks, and mentioned that it is both illegal and shameful that a group of monks to enter forcefully into a government ministry’s building without permission and to check all of its rooms searching for another monk. He also stated Vijitha Thero was not inside the ministry building. The following day, BBS made a public statement saying that they were invited by the ministry officials to come and check the ministry premises. “We got information from very reliable sources that Vijitha Thera was inside the ministry. However, we did not enter the ministry premises by force. We were invited by the officials at the ministry to go inside and to see for ourselves whether Vijitha Thero was there or not.” said the Chief Executive Officer of Bodu Bala Sena, Dilantha Withanage.
Obstructions to attend Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha meetings (Sept. 2013 – April 2014)
On 26th September 2013, BBS had organized a protest in Mahiyangana town, as Vijitha Thero was due to attend the PS meeting. The Thero was unable to attend a PS meeting even after going to Mahiyangana, as the Police had advised him that they (the Police) will not be able to offer him protection.
On 28th October, 2013, when Vijitha Thero attended the PS meeting in Mahinyangana under Police protection, they were unable to carry out the meeting due to continued disruption by an unruly mob outside organized by the BBS, who were shouting in abusive language and using gunfire meant to ward off elephants. Therefore, the meeting was postponed.
Vijitha Thero was unable to attend the PS meeting on 23rd of January 2013 also due to security issues. On the 22nd of January, Vijitha Thero left to his home Temple from Colombo. On the 23rd of January, he received a call from villagers in the town warning him that there were about 8 vehicles with outsiders suspected to be BBS members parked in the town, and that he should not attend the meeting. Therefore, he didn’t attend and returned secretively to Colombo.
BBS also organized a protest in front Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha in order to prevent Vijitha Thero from participating in the PS meeting on 22nd April 2014. Vijitha Thero was not able to enter the meeting hall through the main gate as a mob of Buddhist monks, businessmen and residents blocked his way. The protesters displayed posters which mention “Mohammed Vijitha” naming Vijitha Thero as a Muslim person. During the protest Chief Sangha Nayake (Chief Buddhist Monk) of the Uva Bintenna Province Ven. Navinne Dhammananda Thero stated that Vijitha Thero should convert himself to another religion. Also Chief Adikarana (Court) Sanga Nayake of Mahaweli ‘C’ Section, Ven. Karaliyedde Rathanasara Thero mentioned that Vijitha Thero has received an honorary title named ‘Mohammed’ as he has betrayed poor Sinhala Buddhist folks for monetary gains from Muslims. Under the Police protection, Vijitha Thera entered into the Pradeshiya Sabha building from its backdoor. Vijitha Thera and other UPFA members of the Pradeshiya Sabha were unable to leave the meeting for an hour after the meeting was over. Later Police escorted Vijitha Thero from the meeting hall as a tense situation that had erupted between the protesters and Police.
Court order prohibiting the campaign calling for inter-religious harmony organized by Vijitha Thero on 24th March 2014
On 24th of March, 2014 Vijitha Thero along with some other religious leaders had organized a campaign at “Galle face ground” in Colombo city, against religious extremism targeting Muslim people in the country and calling for inter-religious harmony. The police interrupted the campaign and dissolved the crowd and Vijitha Thero was taken to the Police to get a verbal statement. The Court ordered to organize the campaign in Hyde Park instead of Galle face grounds, claiming it can be disturbing to public and situated in a high security zone.
Police Inquiry and Mediation Board hearings:
Police had requested both Vijitha Thero and K.P. Gunawardane (accused of attacking and threatening Vijitha Thero) to be present at the Mahiyangana police on 24th January 2014 for an inquiry. Even though Vijitha Thero attended, K.P. Gunawardane had not attended the inquiry. On 30th March 2014 the mediation board hearing was scheduled to be held in Mahiyangana as the case was referred to mediation board through the Court. Mr. K.P. Gunawardane did not attend the mediation board hearing and sent a letter mentioning that he is unable to attend the hearing as he is sick, and requested another date to attend. So the hearing was postponed.
Ther are two court cases pending. One is in relation to the assault of Vijitha Thero on 19th August 2013 and the other is in relation to the disruption of Press Conference on 9th April 2014. The first one had seen the suspects arrested been released on bail and there has been no progress since then.
On 5th of May 2014, eight BBS members including four Buddhist monks accused of disrupting the press conference convened by the Jathika Bala Sena led by Vijitha Thero in Slave Island and denigrating the Koran, were released on bail. Summons were issued for two other Buddhist monks (Ven. Welimada Chandrananda Thero and Ven. Wellampitiya Sumanadhamma Thero) who did not appear in the court. On 9th June 2014, Ven. Gnasara Thero and other accused persons including Ven. Welimada Chandrananda Thero and Ven. Wellampitiya Sumanadhamma Thero who did not appear in the previous court hearing, were present at the hearing at the Slave Island Magistrate Courts. When leaving the court room, Ven. Gnasara Thero said “where’s this dog? I could have better killed him and gone inside (prison) on that day”. Vijitha Thero’s lawyer Maithri Gunaratne had also complained to the Police that Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) General Secretary Gnanasara Thera had made some insulting comments against him. Meanwhile some unknown persons have followed Vijitha Thero’s vehicle after the court hearing. Vijitha Thero has sought Police protection to avoid people following him and Slave Island police has confirmed that two of the persons following Vijitha Thero were Police Intelligence officers.
Support and strengthening of the BBS by the government and Chief Buddhist Monks
While all the above has been going on, the government and the Mahanayakas (Chief Buddhist Monks) appear to be supporting and strengthening the BBS. Media reports had stated that on 21st April 2014, Ven. Gnanasaara Thero received a 9mm pistol and 50 bullets from the Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for self-protection. On 21st April 2014, Gnasara Thero met the Mahanayake Thero of the Malwatta chapter. Generalizing reasons for his extremism Gnanasara Thero had received encouraging advice from the Mahanayaka. The Mahanayake said that monks can either create or change regimes. On 2nd May 2014, there was an event was organized by BBS to commemorate 150th Birthday of Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist in 20th Century). Mr. K.P. Gunawardana previously released on bail in relation to the August 2013 attack on Vijitha Thero was one of the main organizers. BBS leader Gnasara Thero also participated at this event. Asgiri Mahanayaka Thero (Chief Monk of the Asgiri Sector Buddhist monks) was reported to have blessed BBS appreciating their efforts to protect Buddhism.
 For more details about background of Vijitha Thero and attacks and threats to him in August-September 2013, see http://groundviews.org/2013/10/09/buddhist-monk-attacked-by-bodu-bala-sena-and-police-inaction/
 Those who released on bail were 1. General Secretary of BBS: Ven. Galabodaathe Gnasara Thero, 2. Convener of BBS: Ven. Witharandeniya Nanda Thero, 3. Ven. Ariyawansha Sambuddha Thero, 4. Chandrananda Thero, 5. P. Wewala and 6. Badulla District BBS organizer: K. P. Gunawardana (who was previously released on bail for attacking Vijitha Thero).
 Lankadeepa Newspaper, 6th of May, page 12