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The Gnanasara Thera factor

Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera at the Homagama Magistrate Court. Picture by Samantha Weerasiri

Busy as it is dealing with various political conundrums that crop up from time to time, the government this week encountered yet another unexpected hurdle- in the form of Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera and his organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

The rabble rousing monk made an unexpected appearance at the on-going hearings at the Homagama Magistrate’s Court on the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. There, he berated the government for prosecuting soldiers and disrupted court proceedings, ignoring the Magistrate’s warnings.

This led to the monk being charged with contempt of court and an arrest warrant being issued against him. The monk surrendered to Police a day later but a tense situation arose when he was remanded and had to be taken away under custody.

Of course, this is not the first instance that Ven Gnanasara Thera has attracted national headlines. Unheard of only a few years ago, within a short span of about four years he has emerged as the most extreme among the leaders of several fringe groups that espouse a philosophy of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy at the expense of marginalising other communities in the country.

Ven Gnanasara Thera’s organisation, the BBS, was founded in 2012. It spent the next two years propagating a doctrine of fear. It claimed that Sinhalese Buddhist would be swamped and overshadowed by other communities. It urged action against other communities. Whenever there was a dispute with racial connotations, it was quick to rush in, claiming to be the ‘saviours’ of the Sinhalese Buddhists. It targeted the Muslim community in particular, more than any other community.

Racial hatred and discrimination

In 2013 and 2014, it was involved in a series of incidents, storming institutions, disrupting meetings and holding public discourses that openly encouraged racial hatred and discrimination. Despite many calls for its activities to be curtailed, law enforcement authorities appeared to be reluctant to act against it.

Throughout these incidents, Ven Gnanasara Thera was in the forefront of it all. He has personified the BBS in all of its public encounters and has not been shy to state his case. A monk with a forceful presence, he possesses an abrasive personality and a manner of speech that is incongruent with monkhood. His oratory is laced not only with racy racial rhetoric but also with derogatory comments that freely disparages other communities and religions and invites action against them.

The government in office at the time led by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not act against Ven Gnanasara Thera or the BBS despite many blatant acts of inciting communal hatred. Rajapaksa may have desisted from dealing with the BBS for political reasons: he too relied mostly on the Sinhala Buddhist vote to remain in office and may have not wanted to be portrayed as the person penalising the BBS.

Anti-Muslim riots at Aluthgama

There was also speculation that the BBS enjoyed the tacit support of then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa has been seen publicly with the Thera on several occasions but has denied any link with the controversial monk. However, as Ven Gnanasara Thera escalated his public forays against other communities but escaped censure for his actions, the perception that he enjoyed patronage from the highest levels of the then government gained currency.

The BBS’s most notorious involvement was with the anti-Muslim riots at Aluthgama in June, 2014. It is believed that what was a minor dispute escalated into a full scale riot because the BBS held meetings in the region and Ven Gnanasara Thera allegedly made speeches that inflamed communal tensions and incited action against the Muslim community. Despite inquiries into these events, neither Ven Gnanasara Thera nor the BBS have been formally charged for their alleged role in the riots in which four persons lost their lives and some eighty homes were destroyed.

Ven Gnanasara Thera and his BBS may be a minor player in the larger political arena in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the BBS has any widespread support in the country apart from its hardcore membership. Nevertheless, its influence is disproportionate to its numerical strength, primarily because it is believed it can play a crucial role in shaping public opinion among the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community.

If this is what influenced former President Rajapaksa to refrain from instructing law enforcement authorities to act decisively against Ven Gnanasara Thera or the BBS, that proved to be a costly blunder. Though Rajapaksa’s intentions would have been to portray himself as a champion of the Sinhalese Buddhists, it also created the perception that he was acting against the interests of the minority communities.

As the results of the 2015 presidential election amply demonstrated, the votes of the minority communities went decisively against Rajapaksa. Some stalwarts within the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in fact blamed the BBS and its General Secretary for Rajapaksa’s defeat. It is also likely that moderate sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist community voted against Rajapaksa because they were shocked at his inaction against the likes of Ven Gnanasara Thera and did not feel comfortable with the general aura of lawlessness and impunity that the monk represented.

In the post-election period, the BBS and Ven Gnanasara Thera had kept a relatively low profile although he did call for an apology from Pope Francis prior to the pontiff’s visit to the country. The ‘invasions’ previously undertaken by the BBS had not occurred for some time. However, this week’s incidents prove that this was the calm before the storm.

It is worthwhile to note that the events leading to Ven Gnanasara Thera’s detention were not politically orchestrated. His appearance at the court proceedings was in itself a surprise as was his subsequent conduct. What followed was a judicial order as a direct consequence of the monk’s actions.

It is a tribute to both the magistrate who made the order and the judicial system in general because the latter now permits judicial officers to act according to the letter and spirit of the law without having to take orders from politicians.

However, even if the law is allowed to take its course without any undue interference, the government will need to monitor the political fallout from the incident carefully. That is because there will be opposition politicians who will be keen to exploit Ven Gnanasara Thera’s detention into a larger than life drama and portray it as a traitorous act rather than a consequence for a punishable offence.

Sinhalese Buddhist community

Already, there is an opposition group which is attempting to depict the proposed changes to the constitution as an attempt to harm the unitary status of the country. They are also trying to suggest that the proposed changes to laws that govern Buddhist monks are an attempt to control monks – although the Mahanayake Theras have themselves signified their consent to the proposed changes.

To these opposition groups, Ven Gnanasara Thera’s detention will be the perfect opportunity to whip up hysteria among the majority community, claiming that the government is now persecuting Buddhist monks and trying to stifle the majority community and its advocates. With Local Government elections due in a few months, this has the potential to snowball into a major political issue.

Certainly, the law must be allowed to take its due course with regard to Ven Gnanasara Thera’s indiscretions. However, the government and its spokesmen must be careful in what they say and do about the issue.

The least preferred outcome from all this is for Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera to emerge as a hero and as a champion who sacrificed his freedom and spent time in jail for the sake of the Sinhalese Buddhist community.

In today’s world where every event is a media circus, there is a danger of that happening. That is why, the due process of the law notwithstanding, this matter needs to be handled with sensitivity and common sense.

(Courtesy Daily News)

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