On Wednesday (9), Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, the General Secretary of the hard-line Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), stormed a media conference that was being addressed by a group of Muslim Maulavis and Buddhist clergy.
Flanked by two dozen young monks, the hard-line monk forced the organizers to suspend the event; the Maulavis fled the scene while the Buddhist monks were humiliated and forced to beg forgiveness for siding with ‘Lebbes,’ a pejorative term for the Muslims.
A monk, Watareka Vijitha Thera was forced to apologize to the entire nation and the Maha Sangha for ‘letting down the Maha Sanga before the Muslims and betraying Buddhism.’
Below is an English translation of what Gnanasara Thera said during the hullabaloo. He was berating the monks who had been holding the media conference.
“Don’t you feel ashamed to come here in a saffron robe? Get out. I was looking for you, Watareka Vijitha Thera. Aren’t you ashamed to wash dirty linen of mosques? We will remove your robe and dress you in a Burka. This man is a dog. Not worthy of the robe. You defamed the entire Maha Sangha. You shamed the nation by going after mosques. We should not let bastards like you to exist. When did we dishonour our robe?
“You call us for a debate. Let’s debate now. The media is also here. We are representing an entire nation. But, we have to wait, while the Muslims are destroying the jungles in Wilpattu. Not a single Sinhalese can take firewood from Wilpattu. Muslims go and build houses and live there. You are seated at the same table, dressed in a saffron robe with those Muslims.”
Anti-Semitic hate speech
Those remarks are anti-Semitic and amount to hate speech. But, the BBS monk got away scot free.
Sri Lanka has a problem with the nascent Sinhala Buddhist extremism. What the country is now witnessing is the emergence of rabid Buddhist extremism akin to Burma, where Buddhist mobs have killed hundreds of Muslims in Rakhine State, leading to a mass exodus of Muslims, unseen even during the repressive not so distant days under the military Junta.
Gnanasara Thera could well be the local parallel of Burmese rabble-rouser, Ashin Wirathu, the extremist monk who has instigated local Buddhists to take on Muslims, leading to a bitter racial conflagration.
Religious extremism is not exclusive to Wahabbism or Shiv Sena. Islam, given the allure of Salafism and the dominant role of Political Islam in the Muslim societies, could well be susceptible to illiberal and extremist intrusion. The emergence of Political Islam in the post Arab Spring societies is a case in point. But, those very weaknesses are omnipresent in other religions in varying degrees. Buddhists can well become extremists. Long standing social and cultural values, governance structure and other independent institutions could help dilute the pervasive influence of religious extremism. That is why Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where the illiberal regimes have purposely nurtured religious extremism, are among the major breeding grounds of Islamic extremism whereas Indonesia, world’s largest Islamic country, is a cosmopolitan moderate Islamic State. Sri Lanka’s domineering popular narrative is anti-West, anti-minority and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. The Bodu Bala Sena fits the bill and is covertly and overtly being backed by the incumbent regime, which uses Buddhist nationalism in order to legitimize the regime. This particular popular narrative itself is shaped by the incumbent regime, which relies on crude populism to justify the erosion of basic liberal democratic credentials of the institutions of the Sri Lankan State. The manipulation of a largely rural and conservative population has been made easier by the absence of independent national institutions, erosion of judicial independence and the suppression of media freedom.
Sri Lankan society today is more regressive, insular and illiberal than it had been 10 years before. Such a polity is vulnerable to manipulation by its own government and marauding religious and ethno nationalist elements. Sri Lanka has sadly reached that dangerous point. Once the wheels of ethno-religious extremism are set in motion, they take a life of their own. The State apparatus could become subordinate to the apparatus of ethno-religious extremism.
During the recently concluded Western Provincial Council election, the ruling UPFA itself fielded a candidate, a former singer Madu Madawa Aravinda, who asked that only the Sinhala people vote for him. Twenty five thousand voted for him, though he could not obtain sufficient votes to enter the Provincial Council.
In our saner, less insular days in the past, such a blatantly racist call would have shocked us.
The rising Sinhala Buddhist extremism is increasingly challenging the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State. Ethnic and religious minorities, who have been coerced into submission by the State and its increasingly majoritarian policies, are becoming despondent. The government itself has come down hard against ethnic minority parties such as the SLMC for speaking on behalf of the Muslims.
The antics of the BBS on Wednesday and the fact that those marauding monks got away scot free are proof of extensive damage sustained by our national institutions and ensuing deformity of our long- standing social and cultural values in recent times. The government should not turn a blind eye to the religious extremism at its midst. Sri Lanka does not need a Buddhist Taliban.