Photo by Thyagi Ruwanpathirana
The speech delivered by Ven. Galaboda-atté Gnanasara at a public meeting in the Aluthgama on 14 June 2014 is broadly considered as the primary cause that triggered the subsequent rampage and violence in that area. Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the organisation of which Ven. Gnanasara is the Secretary General, is squarely accused of encouraging, instigating and perpetrating a bout of Sinhala-Muslim rioting that killed some nine people, injured hundreds and damaged millions worth property. Political analysts unanimously agree that BBS and its most vocal voice, Ven. Gnanasara, and his fiery speech at Aluthgama, were instrumental in triggering the violence. The press is very keen to zoom in on Ven. Gnanasara’s role in rousing anti-Muslim hatred among Sinhala-Buddhists. Colombo Telegraph, to cite but one example, published footage of Ven. Gnanasara’s full speech, with some of its most controversial sections translated into English. Critics have been (quite rightly indeed) near-unanimous in their contempt over some of the language used in the speech, especially the unambiguously pejorative nature of the references to Muslims. In the Sinhalese language, the term marakkala, for instance, is generally considered as impolite, while hambaya carries even more pejorative connotations. The speech also included pejorative references to Islamic religious practices such as male circumcision.
The Buddhist clergy has every right to stand up against what it believes to be proselytization, or any expansionist advances of other religious groups that exploit socioeconomically vulnerable segments of the Sinhala-Buddhist community. However, BBS receives the world’s wrath due to the methods it deploys in executing this mission. Especially after Aluthgama 2014, BBS’s negative international image as Sri Lanka’s face of Buddhist terror has been reinforced. Whereas the Sinhala language print media expressed contempt of the violence, the slightest reference to BBS was avoided, with the blame going to usual international forces (jathantara balavega) trying to destabilise the peaceful, hunky-dory regime. The English language newspapers, however, have been highly critical of BBS. Given the extent of politicisation the press has undergone in ‘Rajapaksarised’ Sri Lanka (from free laptops to regular editors’ encounters at Temple Trees) it is not implausible to assume that a political green light had been given for expressions of such criticism, which, at the present stage, is quite advantageous to the Rajapaksa regime. As the world castigates Sri Lanka over war crimes, human rights violations, repression of dissent and the infringement of civil liberties, critiques of BBS in the English language media provides the regime with a fine example to showcase the extent of press freedom in the country, where, despite the aggression of hardline groups, the press is free to engage in scathing critiques and the military is ever so kind and considerate to rebuild Muslims’ torched properties. As one reads through such critiques of BBS, one also ought to recall that soon after the Aluthgama rampage, there was an alarming lack of coverage of the events in mainstream media. Although individual journalists used their social media channels to communicate on the violence, it was only much later that the mainstream press (especially the English language press) began to report and write critically about BBS. What was the force that triggered such a sudden critical stance? It was surely something more than the journalists’ good conscience.
Although Sri Lanka’s position as a focal point of international attention has receded since the days of the 5th peace process, political developments in Sri Lanka are followed by a number of influential personalities in the West on a near-minute basis, whose opinions are much sought after in academic, policymaking, diplomatic and supra-national lobbies. One such person is Erik Solheim. A cursory glance at Mr Solheim’s twitter feed provides proof of his continuing interest in Sri Lankan affairs. In many a case, such influential international observers unfortunately tend to see what they want to see, ignoring crucial aspects of a complex picture. In the Sinhala-Muslim case, for instance, the emphasis on Mr Solheim’s Sri Lanka-related tweets is near-exclusively on BBS’s villainous nature (which the Sri Lankan liberal lobby highlights as the direct cause of the violence) and violence against moderates. Concerning the latter, Solheim refers to the case of Ven. Watareka Vijitha, victim of an extremist attack. These are indeed issues that require the highest levels of national and international attention. However, more attention and emphasis ought to focus on who writes the play-script and why, and not on the comedians who parrot on-stage. This is the key to the puzzle, and any meaningful international action – be it in the form of non-governmental pressure groups, funding for non-governmental bodies promoting peace and reconciliation, pressure in the domain of high politics, or international support to opposition political parties – could be taken.
This article seeks to shed light upon the question of what BBS represents in the present-day Sri Lankan political landscape. In so doing, it is deemed worthwhile to delve into BBS’s ideological centrepoints and their historical antecedents. As for Aluthgama 2014, it is of interest to reflect upon the Marakkala Kolahalaya, or, as George Rowell puts it, Ceylon’s Kristallnacht which devastated British Ceylon a century ago. This politico-historical reflection is helpful in placing BBS’s rhetoric and ideology in perspective, but, as I shall subsequently argue, it is inadequate in understanding BBS’s exact role in the present-day Sri Lankan political sphere. That role is best understood in the backdrop of the power dynamics at interplay in Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka. The mammoth caveat of an article of this nature is that it does not provide adequate space to delve into the specifics of ideological linkages between BBS and Buddhist revivalist currents in 19th and early 20th century Ceylon. It is also inadequate in that (and although much of this article’s core argument was shaped by recent interactions with a number of senior figures in government, opposition and academia) this writer has not yet had the opportunity of interacting personally and directly with BBS’s key personalities. A diachronic and historically informed reading of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology in present-day Sri Lanka is best carried out in the form of a lengthy monograph. The present article, however, is intended at contributing to (and questioning) existing debates and dominant readings of BBS, as an extremist agitator, an unprecedented religious nationalist current, and an instigator of communal violence.
Anti-Islam movements: a comparative perspective?
The anti-Islam fervour that engulfed the world since 9/11 has not subsided in the last decade. In every western state, there are clearly articulated anti-Islam lobbies, which – not dissimilar to Ven. Gnanasara’s and BBS’s view of Islam – express contempt of Islamic practices, from the veil to ideas on procreation, not to mention debates on the construction of mosques and minarets. Every so often, ministers of religion harbouring controversial views on Islam stand up in open protest, giving expression – as Dr Kalana Senaratne accurately observes (concerning the attitude of many a Sinhala-Buddhist to Ven. Gnanasara’s controversial claims) – to views that many subscribe to, but are reluctant to openly voice. The recent controversy over Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewall Metropolitan Tabernacle in Northern Ireland, who describes Islam as satanic (a statement that First Minister Peter Robinson readily backed, stating in public that he would only trust a Muslim to go to the shops for him), is exemplary of the seething layer of Islamophobia, present in nearly every non-Islamic sociocultural context in a multitude of forms. If a cue is to be taken from the recent EU polls, the electoral successes of far-right wing parties (whose aversion to the Islamic faith and cultural practices is no secret) across several electorates could also be read as an overall expression of anti-Islam and and-anti-Muslim attitudes. Acts of vandalism on Islamic places of worship also constitute a globally proliferated phenomenon, and should not be conceptualised as something unique to any given country or region. On 29 April 2014, to cite but one recent example, a mosque was profaned in the otherwise considerably peaceful village of Kruszyniany in eastern Poland (a region home to the Tatars, an Islamic community living in the region since the 14th century). A prominent slogan written on the walls was ‘Resistant Poland’, an expression from the WWII era, which is being fast claimed by far-right-wing activists. In the South and Southeast Asian region, Myanmar’s 969 Movement has been the most famous anti-Islamic voice. Its chief personality, Ven. Ashin Virathu, has been described in Western media as the instigator of a strong anti-Muslim (anti-Rohingiya, to be precise) discourse, which has received a wide following in the Buddhist community of Myanmar. Similarly, Thailand has also been home to violent clashes between Buddhist and Muslim groups. It is in the backdrop of this broader picture that the ‘ideology’ that BBS purports to propagate is best conceptualised. Concerning BBS’s activism, one writer highlights the necessity of distinguishing between the anti-Islam and anti-Muslim dimensions of BBS rhetoric. In terms of the former, BBS’s ideas share commonalities with fellow travellers across the globe. The anti-Muslim dimension is very much associated with the local sphere, and the legacy of conflictual and prejudiced relations between the Sinhala and Muslim communities, which can be traced back to the Sinhalese antagonism of Coast Moors, which found expression in the riots of 1915, especially in Colombo, where Coast Moor businesses were attacked.
However, as it will be highlighted below, BBS’s ideology and fiery rhetoric are somewhat unhelpful in fathoming that organisation’s position and role in the present-day Sri Lankan political landscape, in which the prospect of national elections loom, with a government whose powerbase slips onto thin ice in the absence of the crucial criterion that brought it to power in the first place: ethno-national mayhem.
BBS and the Legacy of Buddhist Revivalism
In nearly each of his public orations, Ven. Gnanasara proudly refers to the Buddhist revivalist tradition, spearheaded by monk leaders such as Ven. Migettuwatté Gunananda, The Most Ven. Hikkaduwé Sri Sumangala, and lay leaders such as Anagarika Dharmapala. These characters occupy near-canonical positions of esteem and respect in the Sinhala-Buddhist socio-political tradition. From children’s story books to standard school textbooks, the work of Ven. Gunananda (best known for his oratorical feats at the Panadura-vadaya, an intense debate with Christian priests in Panadura in 1873), Anagarika Dharmapala and The Most Ven. Hikkaduwé Sri Sumangala (as well as other leaders of Buddhist revivalism) is given pride of place. The contributions of such pioneers in reviving the Buddhist establishment, Buddhist education and in the revival of the Sinhala language and literature are often evoked with deference, admiration and a profound sense of (Sinhala-Buddhist) national pride. The BBS leadership seeks to highlight a parallel between BBS’s mission and objectives with those of the late 19th and early 20th century Buddhist revivalists. This is evident, for instance, in Ven. Gnanasara’s constant reiteration in his public speeches that he represents ‘the great Migettuwatté Gunananda tradition’. It is also of interest to observe Ven. Gnanasara’s keenness to remind fellow Bhikkus at each public meeting (Bodu Maha Samulu) he attends that they are the proud inheritors of the Gunananda/Sri Sumangala tradition of patriotic Buddhist leaders, who stood bravely to protect Sinhala-Buddhist interests at times of external infringement. This image of the Buddhist monk as a provider of guidance to the country’s socio-political life is one that carries tremendous significance in the Sinhala-Buddhist sociocultural mindset. Among the monk leaders and politicians who came to occupy centre-stage in the politics of post-5th Peace Process Sri Lanka, Ven. Gnanasara can be considered as the monk who best grasped this reality. The discerning analyst must never underestimate the substantive impact that such statements can have on BBS’s Sinhala-Buddhist audience. The promise of the present-day manifestation of a Sangha leadership that represents the Great Gunananda/Sri Sumangala tradition is strong enough to leave many Sinhala-Buddhists elated and deeply moved, perceiving in Ven. Gnanasara and BBS their quintessential ‘protectors’.
The BBS, it appears, is also in the good books of the high priests (Mahanayaka theras). BBS has been keen to make public displays of good relations with the highest levels of the Buddhist establishment. BBS’s ideas, except perhaps a rare fringe, enjoy tremendous popularity among Buddhist monks at all levels. Even the Most Ven. Wavuldena Knanissara, chief prelate of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya, the only high-profile monk to issue a statement after the Aluthgama violence, has been extremely cautious to avoid any criticism of BBS. This substantive support base within the Bhikku community is one of BBS’s primary strong points.
The Buddhist monk as protector of Sinhala-Buddhist interests?
The monk-protectors of Sinhala-Buddhists, as BBS claims itself to be, are more dependable than the petty politicos who come around at election times and fly away in fancy cars and helicopters thereafter. Here is a group of saffron-robe-clad guides, who represent a long tradition of Bhikkus that tirelessly stood for Sinhala-Buddhist interests. The image of the monk-leader exhumes a sense of reliable leadership, with a historically proven commitment to Sinhala-Buddhist interests. This public sentiment equates, to a considerable degree, to the long-standing lament in Sinhala folklore of not having a dedicated ‘ruler’ who would unconditionally protect the Sinhalese-Buddhists (which is captured in the verse Ané kubinné thopatath rajeku inné…). Ven. Gnanasara evokes this point in his Aluthgama speech, expressing his (and by implication BBS’s and the Maha Sangha’s) preparedness to give leadership and guidance to the Sinhala-Buddhists. This Sinhala-Buddhist protectionist discourse is articulated in such a way that it appeals to the ordinary Sinhala-Buddhist listener with a shock-wave effect. This is Ven. Gnanasara’s primary strength and his key skill, which have enabled him to emerge as a leading public figure second to none in so short a span. However, as I shall argue later in this article, BBS may deploy the analogy to the Buddhist revivalist tradition in its propaganda and outreach efforts, but in reality (and as opposed to a view upheld by some analysts), BBS does not represent a present-day exponent of the Buddhist revivalist tradition.
1915 to the run-up to 2015: a shared legacy?
Given the substantial damage caused by the Aluthgama incident, which resulted in Ven. Gnanasara and BBS appearing in international headlines, it is deemed useful to reflect upon this unfortunate outburst of anti-Muslim violence. As many analysts have looked into the incidents of Aluthgama and adjacent Dharga Town, this writer does not intend to focus exclusively on that outburst alone. To understand what happened in Aluthgama, it is of interest to reflect upon the historical dimensions of Sinhala-Muslim antagonism. The immediate causes of the Aluthgama violence share striking commonalities with the Sinhala-Muslim violence that engulfed British Ceylon a century earlier, in 1915. It is indeed a coincidence of history that the same anti-Muslim sentiment is making a come-back in Sri Lankan socio-political life in the run-up to the centenary of the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots, which specialists such as Professor Michael Roberts describe as a ‘pogrom’. The immediate causes that led to the riots of 1915 share a parallel with those of the 2014 Aluthgama violence.
In 1915, it all started with a dispute over the passage of a Buddhist perahera (of the Valahagoda Devalé in Gampola), past a mosque built by Coast Moors. A court case between the Basnayake Nilamé (chief lay officer) and the Moors led to a Supreme Court decision dated Februry 2, 1915 that left the Sinhalese less than satisfied. The incident that really triggered rioting that spread virally across the island occurred in the early morning hours of May 29, 1915, in Kandy, during yet another Buddhist perahera. Using a range of primary sources, C.S. Blackton evokes the Kandy incident as follows:
The procession went according to normal plans until it neared the new mosque in Castle Hill Street. The singers had apparently agreed to be silent as they passed this place of worship. The crowd, however, had grown to great size and so the police decided to divert the procession away from the mosque entirely. The procession directors agreed to this but, as one account puts it, as the procession turned back “some Moormen outside the mosque jeered and hooted as if they had bested the Buddhists after all. So the latter returned, attacked the Moormen and wrecked the mosque, going on to attack their shops”. According to the Governor’s initial report, the first violence broke out between one and two in the morning, “an attack by a crowd (which appears to have been composed of Buddhists) on Mohammedan mosques and shops to which considerable damage was done…” The mob was reported to have used clubs and stones, but casualties were light.
Compare the above account with the following description of the outbreak of the June 2014 Aluthgama riots, as published in an online news outlet (my translation follows):
‘The perahera had soon transformed into a protest march with patriotic slogans, and it proceeded with police protection. As the protesters passed by the mosque, a club was thrown at the [Sinhala-Buddhist] protest marchers from the direction of the mosque. At that very moment, Ven. Akmeemana Dayarathana of the Rawana Balakaya had exclaimed through a loudspeaker “a Buddhist monk has been attacked inside the mosque. Don’t just look on anymore”. This had roused the marchers’ anger, and they went on to attack the mosque with swords, clubs and daggers, setting it on fire.
Seeing that the situation had deteriorated, Sumith Edirisinha, Premalal Ranagala and Gnanasara had turned their vehicle and gone away. Gnanasara took off to Colombo, asserting, “Patriotism is more precious than mother’s milk”. The police used tear gas to control the violence, although they had been provided with only 300 tear gas canisters, all of which were emptied within half-an-hour. The anti-riot water canons, which were in fact used to repel the flames, were also empty in no time, with the machines stopping as the water supplies ran out.’
In each case, it appears that the Muslim groups were insufficiently conscious of Sinhala-Buddhist wrath and, broadly speaking, the extent of the anti-Muslim feelings in the Sinhala-Buddhist socio-political psyche, which can at least be traced back to the 19th century. However, it certainly is not this writer’s intention to take a partial stance, and blame the Muslim community for the agitation of Aluthgama (or for that of 1915, for that matter). It is also vital to remember that the above-quoted accounts (and their own primary sources) are not immune to subjective drifts. The most important insight to be gleaned from these twin accounts is the salience of the underlying currents behind the riots. By 1915, the Buddhist revivalist movement had built a strong following across the length and breadth of Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. The ideas of its prominent leaders, as well as the emphasis on Buddhist education (along the lines of Christian missionary education) were powerful in garnering widespread public support. When the Gampola and Kandy incidents erupted, there was an existing Sinhala-Buddhist revivalist ideology in operation, and it was only a matter of time until the immediate causes of the Sinhala-Moor antagonism were juxtaposed with the thrust of Buddhist revivalist fervour, especially the latter’s protectionist and supremacist discourses, which perceived the Christian and Mohammedan faiths as intrusive entities in the Sinhala-Buddhist land. It is commonly assumed that the outcome of the riots and the Colonial Government’s violent clamp down of the situation had a marked impact on the orientation of the subsequent anti-colonial activism. However, the riots of 1915 can also be conceptualised as an outcome of the Buddhist revivalist (and by implication, majoritarian and supremacist) reading of Sinhala-Buddhist identity that had been popularised over the preceding decades. In a seminal contribution to the academic literature on the 1915 riots, George Rowell develops this argument cogently with a range of evidence, noting that it was the backdrop of Sinhala-Buddhist socio-political activism (in which the first two incidents took place) that lay behind the island-wide proliferation of the riots.
A parallel argument could also be developed with regards to Aluthgama. Since its inception, BBS has been strongly propagating its Sinhala-Buddhist protectionist ideology through mass mobilisation among the Sangha as well as among laymen. Its large-scale public conventions take the form of public rallies organised by the major political parties, with the additional touch of Sinhala-Buddhist practices and features, such as the observance of prayer (pansil) and readings of patriotic verse. At such events, BBS also effectively mixes elements of political propaganda, such as a theme song and the clearly visible presence of white-clad security guards, which may serve as an expression of BBS’s power and influence. These external features are combined with the articulation of an ideology that visibly inspires from the late 19th and early 20th century Buddhist revivalists. BBS leaders’ (and in particular, Ven. Gnanasara’s) fiery oratory, with its near-unprecedented public appeal, served to reinforce a strong Sinhala-Buddhist protectionist sentiment over the 2012-14 quarter. This was also, and inevitably, a majoritarian and a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist discourse. As Ven. Gnanasara has repeatedly stated, he and BBS are opposed to multi-religious ceremonies and initiatives (which he derogatorily terms Sarva-agamika poottu). Ven. Gnanasara has expressed opposition, for instance, to ministers of religion of other faiths sitting next to Buddhist clergy at public functions. Arguments of this nature extend to the demand that Buddhist clergy should never rise from their seats when the National Anthem is played or sung, whereas ministers of religion representing other faiths should do so. Despite public statements of this nature, Ven. Gnanasara has also been keen to find common cause with Hindu clergy, in his crusade against Christian and Islamic proselytization. The extent of sincerity in such initiatives is to yet to be observed.
It is in this backdrop of the powerful dissemination of a Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian discourse that the initial ‘trigger incident’ (an assault on a local Buddhist monk in which Muslim youth were involved), the subsequent public meeting on June 15, 2014, and the ensuing violence took place.
BBS and Muslims
BBS’s main wrath has focused on the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. It has been, to cite but one example, resolutely against the provision of any special regulations and/or practices that cater to the Muslim community. At BBS’s first anniversary convention held in Kegalle on 11 May 2013, Ven. Gnanasara called for the prohibition of allowing Muslim nurses in government hospitals to wear a uniform that corresponds to Islamic dress codes. BBS is also against the existence of a marriage law that accommodates Islamic customs. This opposition to special provisions extends to an aversion to madrasas and other forms of religious teaching, which could be taken up as an infringement of the right of a community to freely practice their religious faith. The latter has been BBS’s strongest anti-Muslim critique, claiming that controversial Islamic efforts are underway to sterilise young Sinhala-Buddhist females, proselytise young Sinhala-Buddhists (especially young employees of prominent Muslim-owned businesses) to alleged efforts by extremist Islamists to propagate derogatory views of Buddhism and Buddhist principles. The weakest of BBS’s anti-Muslim and anti-Islam arguments was perhaps that on the Halal certification. BBS called for a choice in the market, a Halal and non-Halal labels, strongly criticising the right of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama to grant Halal certifications. The gradual dying out of this debate is in itself suggestive of its futility, although it did help BBS in enhancing its media appeal.
Over the last two years, a broad consensus has emerged that BBS is resolutely anti-Muslim, with some critics, including a former head of state, observing that that BBS even calls upon Sinhalese to avoid Muslim-owned shops and restaurants. It is also important to remember that BBS’s high media exposure and its leaders’ prominence in the public eye results in a tendency to associate claims made by other Sinhala-nationalist-majoritarian-anti-Muslim outfits with BBS. BBS’s arguments concerning the Muslims highlighted above are, however, based on direct and clearly articulated evidence (in the form of speeches by BBS leaders, especially, Ven. Gnanasara), readily available in the public domain.
The legitimacy – or absence thereof – of such concerns is a controversial matter, and different groups may indeed harbour differing, and oftentimes conflicting positions. In terms of national security, however, a proliferation of Islamic fundamentalist ideas in Sri Lanka would mean a substantial challenge, which is best contained at its early stages. If such a threat does exist, that it took an organisation composed of Sinhala-Buddhist monks to voice concern over it makes one question the efficiency of the intelligence mechanisms of a ‘victorious’ state with a strong military force. As of late June 2014, Sri Lanka cancelled the visa-upon-arrival benefit to Pakistani nationals, explaining the decision as motivated by a growth of illegal immigration and asylum seekers. If such a challenge genuinely exists, it risks adverse domestic as well as foreign policy consequences and needs to be addressed as a number one national security priority.
That a government and a military that emerged victorious above a deadly secessionist foe some five years ago are incapable of taking such action would be hard to digest. It is here that one is left convinced on the necessity of questioning the ‘real’ rationale that guides BBS and its role in present-day Sri Lanka’s socio-political life.
BBS’s Duplicities? BBS as Contractors? Points to ponder
As opposed to the view that BBS is what it claims to be – an impartial organisation that stands for Sinhala-Buddhist interests – a process of weighing and counter-weighing of existing realities point at a very different picture, which may not be obvious at first sight. After the Aluthgama violence, BBS leaders attempted their best at reiterating that they are in no way connected to the Ministry of Defence or to its Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR). At a press conference held a few days after the Aluthgama violence, Ven. Gnanasara categorically denied claims that BBS is funded by the secret budgetary allocations of the Ministry of Defence. He also denied having any close or exceptional ties with the Defence Secretary. BBS leaders are perfectly aware of the fact that presenting themselves as an independent, impartial and politically non-committed body is the organisation’s strongest and most appealing weapon to be used in garnering mass public support. To complement this clear reality, some press outlets including Ravaya have claimed that GR requested BBS to clear his name from an association with BBS and the Aluthgama violence.
In an intriguing twist, the post-Aluthgama scenario witnessed a series of ‘expressions of disassociation’. Ven. Gnanasara’s efforts to refute an alleged BBS-GR link at the aforementioned press conference were complimented by an identical effort from GR, who, in an exclusive interview to the Daily Mirror, claimed that he would resign if such a link were ‘proven’. Journalist C.A. Chandraprema, a GR acolyte, has tried to dissociate GR from BBS. In an interview with the same journalist, a cabinet minister also cautiously brushes off a BBS-GR link. The minister does so by repeating an argument Chandraprema has highlighted, that GR’s association has been with the Most Ven. Kirama Vimalajothi, a respected senior prelate, and not with BBS’s more vocal elements. To substantiate this point, the minister refers to Ven. Vimalajothi’s post-Aluthgama rebuttal of BBS (by implication Ven. Gnanasara), noting that some BBS stalwarts are beyond his control. However, it is important to note that since the founding of BBS, Ven. Vimalajothi has adopted a somewhat reserved posture, allowing the younger prelates to spearhead the organisation. All this points at a common trend, in which considerable efforts are made to refute an alleged BBS-GR link. Visibly anti-BBS elements otherwise close to GR (such as Chandraprema) and BBS’s critics within the government continue to hammer BBS while ruling out a BBS-GR link. This debate, taking place in the open, is likely to leave Sri Lankan and foreign observers bemused. A critical question to raise is as to why all the parties concerned (except perhaps the BBS press conference) are keen to publish their views in the English language media (one must not forget that GR’s Daily Mirror interview coincided with the US Embassy’s revocation of Ven. Gnanasara’s five-year multi-entries US visa).
It is only upon closer observation that one is struck by the reality that all this amounts to a meticulously staged Rajapaksa-style comedy of errors, and not to a political crisis.
BBS and its critics: the key critiques
Let’s take a peek into the critiques of BBS advanced by different quarters. I focus on recent critiques by three relatively well-known public figures, who openly commented that BBS linked to the Rajapaksa establishment, especially to its defence apparatus. One such person is Dr Nimalka Fernando, who, in her capacity as the Chairperson of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination Racism, made a vital reference in her submission to the 2014 UN HRC session. Dr Fernando clearly highlights the link between BBS, Ven. Gnanasara and GR. The other person is JVP chief Comrade Anura Dissanayake MP. In his speech in parliament on 17 June 2014, Comrade Dissanayake raises the issue of Ven. Gnanasara’s power. “How can one refer to cabinet ministers in such a derogatory manner?” he asks. Despite the power and influence Buddhist clergy wields among the Sinhala-Buddhist community, it is uncritical and implausible to affirm that any monk or organisation could afford to be bold enough to the level of Ven. Gnanasara, to engage in such scathing verbal attacks against and critiques of serving cabinet ministers. As Comrade Dissanayake rightly notes, the ministers in question keep mum, being well aware of the fact that the ‘mouth’ that utters the critiques are Gnanasara’s alright, but the ‘hand’ that directs that mouth to speak up is somebody else’s. Yet another example is the views expressed by Mangala Samaraweera MP, who, at a press conference, claimed that BBS is financed by the secret budgetary allocations of the Ministry of Defence. Mr Samaraweera’s open critiques of GR have visibly led to the latter’s extreme wrath, exemplified in the ongoing efforts to arrest Samaraweera over charges of infringing national security.
BBS as a ‘power force’ ?
These accusations could indeed be questioned, justified or in some quarters, refuted. What does appear to be an undeniable reality is that BBS has carte blanche in present-day Sri Lanka. In the title of a widely-read and shared article, one writer asks ‘Is BBS the boss?’ The most accurate answer to this question is an (un)ambiguous ‘yes and no’. BBS is the boss, given the carte blanche it enjoys to organise any event of any magnitude, anywhere in Sri Lanka. It is also the boss because it is the most influential among a number of other Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist outfits, from the Sinhala Ravaya to Rawana Balakaya. It is somewhat accurate to maintain that BBS and Ven. Gnanasara are several times more influential today than Jathika Hela Urumaya and its senior leaders, the harbingers of the 2004 saffron electoral drift, its Bhikku leadership still represented in Parliament and its lay leadership occupying a cabinet ministerial position. If BBS leaders are to contest a forthcoming general election, it will not be a challenge for them to fly through the campaign to their parliamentary seats.
Nevertheless, BBS is not the boss, due to the forces that entrusted BBS with carte blanche in the first place. If BBS is Frankenstein’s monster, the forces that nurtured BBS and helped it reach where it is today are the equivalent of Viktor Frankenstein, or indeed Mary Shelley herself. To go a bit more contemporary, BBS equals the exceptional yet programmable ‘hubots’ developed by the shrewd brain David Eischer in the Swedish TV series Äkta Människor, while The Triple Fraternity’s chauvinist underhand that nurtures BBS is Eischer himself.
Who then is this overarching force?
The answer to this question is no rocket science. The Rajapaksas, and especially the hardest-hardline Sinhala-nationalist extremist streak in the Rajapaksa brotherhood, are the progenitors of BBS. This is a fact that is explained by one basic reality. In post-war Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas are extremely concerned about the maintenance not only of undisputed political power, but also their position as the most fervent exponents of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, another competing advocate of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism will not be allowed to surpass the Rajapaksas’ monopoly of this primordial political tool. It is only utopia to assume that a group of monks, irrespective of their standing or level of influence, could develop an organisation that surpasses the Rajapaksa monopoly on Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In sum, the Rajapaksa rule would simply not tolerate (and is amply capable of outscoring and paralysing) the genuine rise of a new and fearless Sinhala-Buddhist outfit that questions and challenges the Regime’s Sinhala-Buddhist credentials and powerbase. The view that a social shift has taken place in Sri Lanka, which BBS hopes to translate into a power shift, or that BBS is a fascist movement of unprecedented proportions claiming power and control of the state, are therefore lacking in significance and relevance. Conceptualising BBS as a real challenge to the Rajapaksas, or as a new movement of theocratic fascism at a tense moment in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations only amounts to an argument deliberately seeking to encourage the international community (or segments of it) to sympathise with the Rajapaksas, and is best explained as yet another act of the play script.
There is only one viable exception to this rule.
This exception applies to organisations developed with the tacit endorsement of the Rajapaksa regime, to serve a clear political purpose. As long as the ‘monster’ is under control, and can be programmed to suit the Regime’s political needs, the unprecedented power and energy the monster wields does not represent a threat to the Regime. This is the position of BBS today with regards to the Rajapaksa regime. The reasons for the latter to nurture an outfit of this nature are indeed manifold. In post-war Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa’s do not possess the skills, expertise or the willingness to engage in peacetime governance, which involves restoring normalcy in all aspects of life, adopting a magnanimous and inclusive attitude to ethno-national division, and developing a wholesome economic policy. These are goals for a strategically minded government to pursue. The Rajapaksa rule, on the contrary, is manned by shrewd tradesmen and dealers, whose sole interests lie in maintaining an essentially unstable, stagnating and servile economic climate, which helps them reap the best commissions and thrive. In this state of affairs, it is no easy task to face the electorate for repeated endorsement. Even in the Sinhala-speaking non-urban (and largely Sinhala-Buddhist) electorate that forms the Rajapaksas’ primary electoral base, the regime is increasingly unpopular. Incidents such as the cold-blooded murder of protesting fishermen in Negombo in broad daylight, the assassination of under-age pupils who protested for purified drinking water (due to the contamination of local water by factory waste released by a Norwegian firm) and the overall public discontent over the rising cost of living are among the factors that take their toll on the Rajapaksas’ electoral appeal.
In this context, BBS represents the ideal outfit that could serve the Regime’s power base more than any other. On the one hand, it projects the image of a fearless and impartial Sinhala-Buddhist outfit. On the other, it propagates an anti-Islam discourse, which creates a new ethno-national concern (or, to be more accurate, leads to a come-back of a long-standing ethno-national rivalry). These developments help keep a large segment of the public occupied, and also serve to deviate public attention from the pressing issues of socioeconomic hardship. Similarly, if BBS’s post-Aluthgama press conference is anything to go by, BBS leaders refer to GR as a “rata beragaththa veerayek” (a hero who saved the country), and pledge to ensure that a United National Party (UNP) government never comes to power again. These statements are made in the middle of a desperate attempt to portray BBS as an independent and impartial organisation. BBS may indeed possess such qualities, but within the framework of the space for action allocated to it by the Rajapaksa rule. In this space, BBS is also programmed to attack the JVP’s articulate and energetic new leadership, using no less a weapon than the state-owned Sinhala-language weekly with wide national and international circulation.
At another level (and given the petty calculations that govern the Rajapaksa government’s diplomatic agenda) the threat of a rising Islamic fundamentalist streak is also likely to be perceived at the Ministry of Defence and at Temple Trees as a means of wooing the South Asian region’s most powerful man, Shri Narendra Modi. Overall, the presence of BBS provides the Rajapaksa regime with a means of addressing concerns of a dropping electoral appeal, and if an outfit of BBS’s calibre calls upon the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate to side with the Rajapaksas during an election campaign, that request is unlikely to be left unheard. BBS, therefore, plays the role of the necessary guard dog that protects the assets.
What really is BBS?
The above discussion calls for a clarification of what BBS really is, and the role BBS plays in present-day Sri Lankan politics. It is important to clarify that contrary to BBS’s repeated proclamations, and the historical parallels that can be drawn to mid/late 19th and early 20th century Buddhist revivalism, BBS by no means represents a Buddhist revivalist streak in contemporary Sri Lankan society. Any scholar, policy analyst, or think tank that judges the opposite makes a monumental miscalculation. BBS, as highlighted at the beginning of this article, does voice reformist ideas from time to time (e.g. the call for a transparent policy on temple asset management), which, if implemented with broad consensus, could benefit the Buddhist establishment. Some of BBS’s concerns such as its aversion of polygamy and the presence of special legal provisions to facilitate Islamic practices are not unworthy of – despite the sensitive nature of these issues – a decent, inoffensive yet critical and thought-provoking public debate. However, these points are categorically obliterated by the fact that BBS’s position of prominence and media limelight is the result of its political affiliation to the most hard-line element in the Rajapaksa establishment. Despite exceptional efforts to state the contrary, an organisation of BBS’s calibre would not be allowed to raise a finger in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka as a fully independent and apolitical body. One also needs to be reminded of the myth that the Maha Sangha wields influence on government policy in Sri Lanka. This may have been the case at given instances in pre-2009 Sri Lanka, but is history in post-2009 Sri Lanka. From night-time car racing in the sacred city of Kandy to the political endorsement of a super-luxury casino culture, requests from the highest levels of the Bhikku hierarchy have been categorically ignored, and critiques from chief prelates have been effectively shunned by generous material gifts. It is no longer the Buddhist establishment that manipulates, guides and influences governance in Sri Lanka, but the unprecedentedly influential and thoroughly clientelist Rajapaksa-led political establishment that manipulates, guides and exerts shrewd control upon the Sangha-led Buddhist establishment.
It is in this convoluted, near-feudalistic and family-centred context of present-day power politics, where a triple fraternity wields uncontrolled and unchecked power, – and not in the historical legacy of Buddhist revivalist activism – that the genesis and coming of age of BBS should be conceptualised. BBS as an organisation, and its prominent public faces are therefore best described as skilled executors of a duty or a contract entrusted upon them by the most unfathomably hard-line element of the Rajapaksa fraternity. In sum, BBS’s hierarchy is manned by a group of monks with oratorical and organisational skills, who do have the potential to genuinely emerge as revisionist and revivalist Sangha leaders, but have deplorably reduced themselves to the pathetic level of contractors of a rogue state. The corollary to this is BBS’s large-scale popularity among the Sinhalese community, which, on first sight, does convince the analyst that BBS’s strength far surpasses a link to the defence high command. However, BBS’s popularity and the Rajapaksa administration’s tolerance of BBS needs to be contextualised in terms of the management of power dynamics under the Rajapaksa rule. To evoke a precedent from the not so distant past, one Sarath Fonseka used to be extremely popular among the Sinhalese masses, and towards the latter stages of the war, it is not untrue that Mr Fonseka was almost as eulogised as President Rajapaksa himself. Next to massive cut-outs of the incumbent were cut-outs of Fonseka, of equal size. There is next to no need to reiterate what befell Fonseka as soon as he decided to transgress the limits within which he was permitted to indulge his popularity of a national hero. BBS, despite its unprecedented ecclesiastic strength, is bound by a ‘range’ within which it can operate (which, in the case of BBS is indeed quite extensive).
In conclusion… BBS and Sri Lanka’s International Challenges
The Rajapaksa administration is keen to deploy BBS activism as a means of demonstrating to the world that Sri Lanka continues to be affected by ethno-national rivalry and crisis situations, to which the regime responds swiftly. Deploying BBS in such a way may have an effect in the local Sri Lankan electorate, but it is unlikely to garner international sympathy to the Rajapaksa regime. However, the BBS-related propaganda have been internationally viable in prompting media outlets, political analysts, commentators and academics in the West to interpret BBS as an ultra-nationalist, extremist, anti-Muslim and repressive outfit. This tremendous media exposure is highly beneficial to BBS in strengthening its visibility at international level. Such publicity is best understood as one of BBS’s objectives in making controversial statements and behaving in a way that attracts local and (especially) international media attention. This helps reinforce the sentiment that there is indeed a looming challenge of ethno-national violence in Sri Lanka, with the risk of a fierce Sinhala-Muslim outburst.
It is vital for international actors dealing with Sri Lanka to understand the futility of perceiving BBS and anti-Muslim violence in this way. The incident the world witnessed in Aluthgama was none other than a cautiously planned act, manipulated from beginning to end by the defence and intelligence authorities. Its objective was to create a tense situation that would keep the local community preoccupied and concerned, and simultaneously divert international attention from the Rajapaksa administration’s questionable record of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Eelam War IV, which are the present-day centre of attention due to the OHCHR investigation. Such incidents do risk a return in the months to follow, as the 2015 UN HRC sessions approach. Now, the regime has an opportunity of portraying its military as a minority-friendly and considerate one, which cleans up after extremists. Instead of focusing on BBS and playing into the Rajapaksa regime’s tune, Western media, analysts and academics (and indeed most importantly the OHCHR’s team of inquiry, and its staff, which is now being set up) ought to see BBS as a quintessential Rajapaksa brainchild, and the present-day Sinhala-Muslim ethno-national violence as what it really is – a pathetic episode of a political drama, intended at fooling the domestic and international lobbies. A failure to take stock of this reality risks erroneous judgements and conclusions (which is the Rajapaksa regime’s ultimate objective). Given this reality, calls for aclear and powerful statement of demarcation by the President and his brothers that they reject and repudiate the message and activism of the BBS and caution the country against it simply plunge into the depths of irrelevance.
Not being mislead by the Rajapaksa regime’s tactics is a challenge that international actors dealing with Sri Lanka need to overcome. This is vital for objective analysis, and in the case of OHCHR, (and given Colombo’s continued avoidance of an intelligent policy agenda on the international allegations and on the broader realm of domestic policy) for the execution of an insightful inquiry with the potential of holding stronger ground, going beyond Darusman.
A substantive body of work in Sinhala and English explores Dharmapala’s role as a leading figure in the Buddhist revivalist movement. On Dharmapala’s broader role as a leader and propagator of an international Buddhist establishment, and as the key advocate of ‘Protestant Buddhism’, see notably, Steven Kemper, 2011, “Dharmapala’s Buddhisms” in H. L. Seneviratne (Ed.) The Anthropologist and The Native: Essays for Gananath Obeyesekere. London, New York & Delhi: Anthem Press, 247-272.
While an impressive body of academic work exists on the 1915 riots, the following contributions are of special interest:
- The work on the riots by Professor Michael Roberts, a large segment of which is available in his excellent blog at http://thuppahi.wordpress.com
- P.V.J. Jayasekara, 1970, Social and Political Change in Ceylon, 1900-1919, Unpublished PhD thesis, the University of London.
- Robert N. Kearney, 1970, “The 1915 riots in Ceylon: a symposium, Introduction”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 219-222.
- Kumari Jayawardena, 1970, “Economic and political factors of the 1915 riots”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 223-233.
- Charles S. Blackton, 1970, “The action phase of the 1915 riots”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 235-254.
- P.T.M. Fernando, 1970, “The post-riots campaign for justice”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 255-266.
- A.P Kannangara, 1984, “The riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A study in the roots of communal violence”, Past and Present, Vol. 102, pp. 130-165.
- George Rowell, 2009, “Ceylon’s Kristallnacht: A reassessment of the pogrom of 1915”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 619-648.
Dr. Chaminda Weerawardhana is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.