The rise of Sinhala-Buddhist ultra-nationalism (allegedly with political backing) could threaten reconciliation.
By Zachary Walko.
Since coming to national attention in late 2015, Sinha Le, the grassroots Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, has stoked ethnic tensions across this tiny, tear-drop island of 22 million people. While Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is not a new phenomena in Sri Lanka, the Sinha Le campaign’s popularity and social media presence has set itself apart.
In a recent interview with the author, Dilanthe Withanage, chief executive officer and founding member of the hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, or Buddhist Power Force), accused Sinha Le of enjoying political backing in an effort to draw members away from BBS and toward Sinha Le (a full transcript of the interview can be found here).
“I believe that these groups are manipulated by some political groups,” Withanage says.
“It’s a known fact,” he continues. “They are from – I think – some Rajapaksa groups are behind them.” Withanage was referring to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015 and now serves as a member of parliament.
Asked whether Sinha Le has support from Joint Opposition members, Withanage replied, “Some Joint Opposition people are behind promoting the Sinha Le, because what they want to do is … get certain groups away from BBS.”
Sinha Le, which means “Lion’s Blood” in Sinhalese, and their ilk represent a force endemic in Sri Lanka that demands further scrutiny from government and media alike. It is a critical time to examine these hard-line elements in Sri Lanka. In recent months, the government has taken steps to implement transitional justice commitments in line with UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 30/61, which was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in 2015. A recent report by the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a left-leaning advocacy and public policy research outfit in Colombo, examined Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism and contends that it “remains a highly potent force” that may present challenges to a meaningful reconciliation process.
Capitalizing on growing discontent with the economy and a perceived disintegration of Sinhala-Buddhist culture, Sinha Le’s rhetoric reveals a deep-seated suspicion that a hidden, nefarious hand is at work. The campaign’s reality is one in which Christian and Muslim groups are tightening their stranglehold on the economy and government, Western-funds are funneled to LGBTQ groups that influence poor youths to “become gay,” and a global Tamil agenda poses an existential threat to Sri Lanka, to name a few common fears. And while their ethnic intolerance and intimidation predominate on social media networks like Facebook, as they amass followers they have increasingly inched their way into more public domains.
Withanage of BBS has espoused many of these positions himself. “Actually, I was behind promoting Sinha Le,” says Withanage. As he tells it, it began with the BBS convention in 2014, when thousands of Buddhist monks flocked to Colombo. “In that [convention], we have specified that the name of the country should be Sinhale,” a name that refers to the area of Sri Lanka that remained free from colonial conquest prior to independence.
Sinhale was given a new, more potent meaning: Sinha Le – Blood of the Lion. The imagery of the logo, with “Le” colored red like blood, invokes a nativistic pride and suggests one should “bleed” to protect their Sinhala-Buddhist nation.
Despite sharing similar ideologies, Withanage was quick to brush Sinha Le aside as nothing more than a dwindling and splintered movement. According to him, Sinha Le became an increasingly popular word among certain groups: “Then, one or two Buddhist monks, who got away from some other organizations, they claimed that they’re behind Sinha Le.”
But who, exactly, is behind Sinha Le? Withanage, when asked for the monks’ names, recalled one in particular – Venerable Medille Pagngnaloka Thero.
Venerable Medille, a Sinhalese-Buddhist monk, is listed as a founding member on one of the movement’s websites. The websites, sinhalee.com and sinhalee.org, are also associated with the Facebook group “The Island Nation of Sinhale,” which has served as the launching pad for threats and intimidation aimed at the island’s ethnic minorities and LGBTQ community. Despite initially agreeing to an interview through an interpreter, multiple attempts to coordinate a meeting were ignored by Ven. Medille and emails to the organization’s media representative went unanswered.
Withanage sees no philosophical plan to change society on the part of Sinha Le, just a few guys who used a tattoo to create a popular sticker campaign. “Then a number of people tapped into this and tried to [claim] ownership of Sinha Le,” he says. In doing so, Withanage believes these monks “diluted” the movement and repelled many would-be followers.
Diluted or not, it is imprudent, perhaps even dangerous, to ignore Sinha Le’s appeal among some within Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Sinha Le’s burst of popularity, combined with BBS’s outspokenness on a range of concerns, speak to an undercurrent of ethnic tension that, if left unheeded, may present a greater obstacle to Sri Lanka’s tenuous road to reconciliation and the government’s transitional justice commitments. This tension becomes apparent when considering the contentious subject of power sharing or devolution in Sri Lanka’s post-war environment and the government’s reconciliation agenda.
Dr. Kalana Senaratne, visiting lecturer in law at University of Peradeniya, says movements like Sinha Le are “violent depictions of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism” that “remain dormant and pop out when circumstances demand. These are forces meant to be unleashed whenever they feel the Sinhala majority are threatened… the moment has to be right.”
The government’s reform agenda gives the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists plenty of opportunity to rouse their followers.
According to Dr. Asanga Welikala, a research fellow at the Center for Policy Alternatives and legal scholar who specializes in constitutional reform and peace processes, “the idea that the state must be unity in form, the unitary state, is a very big deal for the Buddhist nationalists. And hence the reason why they are completely hostile to any kind of dilution of the unitary, or the centralized state — power sharing or devolution.”
Indeed, Withanage of BBS is “completely against the power devolution package,” stating it is the “completely wrong approach.” In his view, any attempt to devolve power based on ethnicity or religious groups “would be the destruction of the country.”
According to Welikala, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ approach to power devolution and their inability to consider unity in terms of power sharing and decentralization is counter to the “legitimate demand of the northeast, the Tamil majority, for a greater measure of self-government,” and thus threatens the reconciliation process.
If neglected, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists may represent a formidable challenge to the government’s efforts to implement any meaningful reform agenda. Because of this, Welikala warns against any mismanagement of the reforms process by the government. By doing too much at once or lacking political sensitivities, Welikala says, “Spoiler forces can come from nowhere and suddenly assume a dominate place within politics and sweep reform away,” which occurred in 2004. “Hopefully those mistakes will not be made this time.”
Apart from their reform agenda, the government is attempting to demonstrate improvements to its human rights situation in order to restore preferential tariff benefits with the EU, known as GSP+. Tax benefits were withdrawn in 2010 in response to Sri Lanka’s poor human rights situation.
Simultaneously, Sinha Le continues its hate campaign against minority Muslim and Tamil populations, including recent protests orchestrated by Sinha Le against a mosque construction in Kandy. In recent days, the group has also turned their ire toward LGBTQ activities.
During the lead-up to Pride week in June 2016, Equal Ground, a prominent LGBTQ organization in Colombo, faced online threats and intimidation emanating from Sinha Le-linked Facebook groups. Administrators of the “Island Nation of Sinhale” advertised Equal Ground’s participation at the popular Good Market in Colombo. The subsequent outpouring of violent threats and vitriol led to Good Market’s decision to postpone Equal Ground’s presence, citing security concerns. At the time of this article’s publication, the “Island Nation of Sinhale” group had amassed over 53,000 likes.
An email correspondence between Good Market and Equal Ground, which was provided by Equal Ground’s executive director, elucidates the fear. In the email exchange, a representative of Good Market states, “Sinhale is a new group with broad networks, and it is difficult to predict their actions… The issue has been linked to party politics, and we continue to hear that something is planed.”
Ultimately, the Equal Ground event was moved to the Butter Boutique, which similarly faced multiple online threats and intimidation.
“Friends were worried for me,” said Rukshi Nethicumara, Butter Boutique’s owner. “But there were no incidents.” Butter Boutique’s neighboring business shuttered their doors that day, fearing an attack from Sinha Le supporters.
“We met a lot of people outside of Colombo – a transgender named Ryan – it was his first time that he came to a forum and wasn’t judged,” Nethicumara recalled. “When they go to some places they aren’t even treated as normal people.”
In an interview at Equal Ground’s undisclosed office in Colombo, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, the group’s executive director, said, “We are always very, very focused on upholding security of our staff and our members. We have that in the forefront of our minds.” Equal Ground arranged for plainclothes police to be posted outside of the Butter Boutique event. Aside from a suspicious three-wheeler that drove by with a Sinha Le sticker, the event took place without incident.
Ultimately, BBS and Sinha Le are two sides of the same Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist coin. Both movements embody a deep mistrust of their government and see shadowy figures hell-bent on Sinhala-Buddhist destruction emanating from all sides. The justification for their suspicions are rooted in colonialism and foreign intervention, suspicions that run right down to their agricultural and education systems.
“If we are to follow the principles of Buddhism,” Flamer-Caldera says, “then Buddhism teaches us to be tolerant of everybody and give everybody a place with love. Do you really think that if I cut his hand then lions jump out of his blood? It’s red blood, just like everybody else’s blood. And if that bastard is dying and he needs my O-blood, he won’t say to me ‘Oh, you’re queer and I’m not going to take your blood,’ he’s going to bloody well take my blood. End of story.”
– Zachary Walko is a freelance journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka covering the government’s road to reconciliation and transitional justice. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, he was previously with the International Crisis Group where he supported a range of advocacy and human rights issues related to conflict and conflict resolution.