Buddhist Monks Spearhead Nationalist Movement in Sri Lanka
Politics at play
COLOMBO: The simultaneous bombing of four posh hotels and three churches in Sri Lanka by a bunch of Islamic radicals on April 21 Easter Sunday, was clearly not aimed at the island’s majority Sinhalese Buddhist community as the targets indicate.
And yet, a noticeable consequence of the terrorist act is the revival of a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalistic movement, with Buddhist monks spearheading it.
When the bombings took place, the immediate reaction of the population was to ensure that innocent Muslims were not attacked in retribution. But it did not take long for Lanka’s hardboiled politicos to sense the electoral advantages of whipping up communal sentiments, given the fact that the Presidential election is due at the end of the year.
Therefore, in May, there were anti-Muslim riots in the North Western Province obviously instigated by opposition politicians. There were calls for the boycott of Muslim businesses, and for investigations into the alleged nexus between Muslim politicos and the terrorists. The Sinhala-Buddhist agitators were seeking the scalp of cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and Provincial Governors Azath Salley and M.L.A.M. Hizbullah.
There was a shrill cry for a probe into the charge that Dr.Shafi Shihabdeen, a Muslim gynecologist at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, had sterilized 8,000 Sinhalese Buddhist women without their permission in a clandestine bid to reduce the proportion of Sinhalese Buddhists vis-à-vis Muslims in the Lankan population.
Politicians were brazenly vying with each other to exploit communal sentiments to serve their partisan interests using Buddhist monks for this purpose.
President Maithripala Sirisena took the unprecedented step of pardoning and releasing the firebrand anti-Muslim Buddhist monk and General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ven.Gnanasara Thera, who was serving a term for contempt of court.
It is believed that Sirisena was planning to use the monk to get Sinhala-Buddhist support for his re-election as President. He needed a Sinhala-Buddhist rabble rouser like Gnanasara Thera to counter the appeal of the Rajapaksas who were planning to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Presidential contest.
Gnanasara Thera was needed also to counter Rathana Thera, a monk MP of the United National Party (UNP) headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, from whom Sirisena is estranged.
Rathana Thera took up the cause of the 900 Sinhalese women who had complained against gynecologist Dr.Shafi Shihabdeen and sat on a “fast unto death” in Kandy to force Minister Bathiudeen and Governors Salley and Hizbullah to resign owning responsibility for the terror attack.
But in a dramatic move, all Muslim Ministers, and the two Governors, resigned. The sacrificial act widened the communal divide and showed the Sinhala-Buddhists in a bad light. To repair the damage and win over the Muslims , President Sirisena re-appointed two Muslim Ministers, Kabir Hashim and M.H.A.Haleem.
Gnanasara Thera blamed Rathana Thero’s unilaterally planned ‘fast unto death’ for the mess and then launched his own campaign to garner Sinhala-Buddhist support but without alienating the Muslims.
Gnanasara Thera held a mass rally in Kandy, the center of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, in which he demanded the replacement of the present parliament by a “Sinhalese parliament”. “If even 7,000 of the 10,000 Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka support a political party formed by him, majority could be secured in parliament,” he claimed.
Under Sinhala-Buddhist rule, he said, the minorities will enjoy all rights so long as they acknowledge the primacy of Buddhism the Sinhalese-Buddhists. As regards the Muslims he said that the Sufis should take over the leadership of the Muslim community from the Wahhabis as only the peaceful Sufis can co-exist with other communities in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka.
In her paper, Dynamics of Sinhala Buddhist Ethno Nationalism in Post War Sri Lanka, written for the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in 2016, Ayesha Zuhair says that the “ doctrinal cover and historical rationalization for monks engaging in electoral politics was provided by the scholar monk Walpola Rahula in 1946.”
In his book Bhiksuvage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikku) Walpola Rahula asserted that monks could engage in politics given their mandate to perform “social service”, which, he said, “they had done since the time of the Buddha.”
Rahula went on to say that from King Duttagemunu’s time (161-137 BC), “patriotism and the religion of the Sinhalese become inseparably linked… and assumed such overpowering proportions that both bhikkhus and laymen considered that even killing people in order to liberate the religion and the country was not a heinous crime.”
In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike brought together a powerful coalition of the Buddhist clergy, Ayurvedic physicians, school teachers, farmers and workers to capture power and make Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka. Monks became so important that an ambitious but disgruntled monk Somarama Thera assassinated Bandaranaike.
Later, the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions gave the “foremost place” to Buddhism and added that it will be the duty of the State to protect and foster it. Subsequently, writer Dr.Gunadasa Amarasekera enunciated the ‘Jathika Chinthanaya’ (national consciousness) concept under which all communities in Sri Lanka would live within an over-arching Sinhala-Buddhist culture.
The Jathika Chinthanaya spawned Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist organizations which had monks as leaders like Sihala Urumaya/ Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Ravana Balaya, and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
Of these, the BBS is the most prominent. Its CEO, Dilanthe Withanage told Zuhair: “Although Sinhalese are the majority of this country, and although Buddhism is given some recognition in the constitution, this is not happening in practice. We thought we have a duty to protect the Sinhalese and Buddhism, and the BBS was created for this purpose… Sinhalese can be considered as the majority, but with globalization, it is a global minority. If something happens to the Muslims and Tamils all the embassies will raise their voices. But if something happens to the Sinhalese, no one is there to protect.”
Founded in 2012, the BBS founded carried out campaigns against the Burqa and Halal certification. In 2012 and 2013, there was a spate of attacks directed against Muslims and Christians.
Zuhair reports that a BBS spokesman Mawathagama Pemananda Thera said in a public meeting held in Kandy on 17 March 2013, that the Quran orders Muslims to spit three times on meals offered to non-Muslims, though there is no such statement in the Quran which orders Muslims to do so.
“The BBS also accused its critic, Watareka Vjitha Thera of the Jathika Bala Sena (JBS), of working with Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry and Commerce and leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), to illegally settle several displaced Muslims in the Wilpattu National Park. The BBS stormed the inaugural press conference of the JBS on April 9, 2014 at Nippon Hotel in Colombo and demanded that the organization be disbanded. Here Gnanasara Thera also attempted to disrobe Watareka Vijitha Thero, as confirmed by Police Media Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana.”
“On April 12, 2014, Gnanasara Thera alleged that the concept of ‘Thaqya’ in the Quran allows Muslims to acquire the wealth of non-Muslims through fraudulent means, whereas the Quran explicitly states otherwise.”
“Subsequent to this a BBS mob had raided the Ministry of Industry and Commerce on 23 April 2004 in search of Watareka Vijitha Thera.”
“ The National Shoora Council noted that with such stringent laws in place, the police in a shocking manner released the offenders at the police station itself without reporting facts to and producing the suspects before the Magistrate.”
According to Zuhair, the spark that set off anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014 was Gnanasara’s public exhortation: “If one Marakkalaya (Muslim) lays a hand on a Sinhalese, that will be the end of all of them.”
The Aluthgama riots totally alienated Muslims from the Rajapaksa regime and their en masse protest vote led to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January 8, Presidential election.