After the Rajapaksa family fell out of power in January, last year, almost every ultra-nationalist group representing Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy went into a dormant phase.
They stopped holding dramatic press conferences, stopped disrupting public events organized by other religious groups and refrained from storming into government offices.
Their presence was barely noticeable in the country’s political sphere.
This was in sharp contrast to their conduct during the Rajapaksa administration, under which they were fully protected by the top brass of the state apparatus.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, one of the most powerful men in the previous administration, had no qualms about being seen with the Bodu Bala Sena, a violent ultra-nationalist organization, when he attended as Chief Guest at an event organized by them in 2013.
Rajapaksa happily posed for pictures with the leaders of the BBS, a year before the ideologues unleashed violence on the Muslim community in Beruwala and Alutgama.
Former President Rajapaksa, after the Presidential election in 2015, publicly claimed that he had nothing to do with the BBS. He described the organization as a ‘Western conspiracy’, created to cause problems between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities.
But despite his protestations, it was common knowledge that Rajapaksa and his brother were the political face of militant Sinhala-Buddhist organisations.
Given the complexity of the situation, the Police and other law enforcement bodies turned a blind eye to the violent acts of these Sinhala supremacists, knowing they had the blessings of certain members of the top echelon.
Although, on the face of it, the Rajapaksa government set up a special Police unit to look into religious issues, the whole exercise was mere eyewash, with the Police unit making zero progress on some of these critical matters.
These privileges enjoyed by the BBS and other ultra-nationalist groups ended when the new government came to power in January 2015, on the promise of introducing democratic reform.
This is why the BBS and its allies, the Ravana Balaya and Sihala Ravaya, chose to lie low: They were uncertain as to how the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration would respond to their rabble rousing and attacks on ethnic and religious minorities.
These organisations began their resurgence under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, just before the Parliamentary election, in August, last year.
They tested the waters by contesting the last Parliamentary elections as a separate political front. The BBS, which contested as the Bodu Jana Peramuna, could not secure more than 20,000 votes across the island – but, what must be understood is that a sizable proportion of the BBS supporters are die-hard Rajapaksa supporters. Therefore the number of votes secured by the BBS at the first Parliamentary election it contested does not paint an entirely correct picture of their support-base across the country.
There were strong parallels between the campaigns of the BBS and that of former President Rajapaksa in the run up to the Parliamentary elections of 2015, with both parties relying heavily on Sinhala-Buddhist rhetoric.
Another important milestone in the resurgence of the BBS under the new government was the ‘Sinha le’ campaign.
The ‘Sinha le’ phenomenon first started innocuous publicity campaign and ‘Sinha le’ stickers were distributed and displayed on vehicles. The movement transformed later into an organization that functioned as a BBS proxy. They even held a meeting opposite the Dalada Maligawa, in Kandy, in an attempt to show the strength of the Sinha le movement.
The Sinha le movement reached a new height in January 2016, when a group affiliated with the organization sprayed the word ‘Sinhale’ on the gates and walls of some Muslim houses in the Nugegoda area.
It was obvious the group targeted the Muslim household to unabashedly exhibit their idea of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ supremacy. The images of the houses sprayed with the words ‘Sinha le’ went viral on social media platforms and strongly condemned.
The act resembled the inception of the anti-Jewish campaign, launched by Nazis, soon after Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power. In the aftermath of the dictator’s rise to power, his regime moved quickly to introduce anti-Jewish policies, in a bid to eliminate Jews from the socio-political activities in Germany.
Nearly 500,000 Jews in Germany, who accounted for only 0.86% of the overall population, were singled out by the Nazi propaganda machine as an enemy within, responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for its subsequent economic disasters, such as the 1920s hyperinflation and Wall Street Crash Great Depression.
Sinha le and the BBS
Shortly after the launch of the Sinha le movement, the BBS made a dramatic move within the Homagama Magistrate Court premises, while the habeas corpus case filed by Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, was taken up for hearing.
BBS General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, who had no direct connection with the case, stood at the hearing and began to address the open court, praising the conduct of the suspects.
Gnanasara Thera praised the Army officers’ role in eradicating terrorism in the country and reprimanded the government and the Attorney General’s Department’ Senior State Counsel for giving instruction to arrest Army officers over Ekneligoda’s disappearance.
He said the Senior State Counsel involved in the case should also be arrested for instructing Police to arrest the soldiers.
The Magistrate attempted to explain the situation, but the Thera continued to address Court, reprimanding the government and the Attorney General’s Department.
Counsel Upul Kumarapperuma and Senior State Counsel Dileepa Peiris who were present in Court moved that legal action be taken against the Thera for creating an unruly situation in Court.
They further observed that it was tantamount to obstructing court proceedings and that Court should not allow such action to take place.
Homagama Magistrate Ranga Dassanayake then ordered the arrest of the Buddhist monk with immediate effect on multiple charges including contempt of court.
Gnanasara Thera surrendered to the Homagama Police station a day after the order, and was remanded for 14 days. It was crystal clear to those watching that Gnanasara Thera had staged the drama to trigger an arrest.
As expected, all hell broke loose when Ganansara Thera was produced before the Homagama Magistrate’s Court upon his arrest. Hundreds of Buddhist monks and their supporters gathered in front of the court premises demanding Gnanasara Thera’s release.
The protesters threatened to surround the court and exerted pressure on the Magistrate to release the Buddhist monk. Some of the monks even attempted trespassing the court premises by jumping over the gates.
While the Police Anti-Riot squad and the Special Task Force were called in to bolster security, the protesting monks tried to provoke even the security forces into an attack by calling them names and calling them “stooges” of the “yahapalana” government.
When all attempts to start a fight with the Police failed, three Buddhist monks pledged to immolate themselves, demanding Gnanasara Thera’s release. Another monk lay down under a bus belonging to the Prisons Department, preventing the prison authorities from taking the BBS General Secretary to the remand prison in Welikada.
It was typical BBS behaviour that was freely demonstrated under the Rajapaksa administration and the drama staged near the Homagama Magistrate’s Court showed that the BBS was not inclined to change.
After this incident, the BBS were no longer dormant and operated freely in the political sphere, picking up anti-minority slogans, at various points.
Two months ago, the organization held a protest in Vavuniya against Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. They said they had to intervene to protect ‘minority Sinhalese’ in the North and East provinces.
They were livid at media reports saying the Northern Province Chief Minister spoke against the ‘Sinhalese settlements’ in the North and establishment of Buddhist temples and Buddha statues.
They also vowed to come back if the Northern Province Chief Minister continued his action against the Sinhalese community in the North.
Last week, the BBS held a gathering in Kandy, marching from the Getambe Rajamaha Viharaya to Dalada Maligawa to hold an ‘Adhisthana Pooja’ for the well-being of Buddha Sasana.
The event was attended by a large number of BBS supporters and took place in the wake of a protest by Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath, a seemingly extremist Muslim organization based in Colombo, against moves to amend the Muslim Marriage Act as a requirement to regain GSP+ from the European Union.
The SLTJ protesters stated that as long as other customary laws such as Thesawalamai and Kandyan laws remained unchanged, Muslim law should not be altered.
Some of the placards said that setting up of a minimum age for marriage was not practical and it was a violation of rights of Muslim women – a remark that earned the ire of many progressive Muslims.
They claimed that they would resort to strong measures if the government continued its moves. The protest was based primarily on extremist demands and it gave the BBS good reason to launch into action with its allies.
After their protest march in Kandy, the BBS supporters attempted to meet the Mahanayake of the Malwathu Chapter of the Siam Sect, Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera, for a discussion. The request did not elicit a positive response from the other party.
However, after much persuasion Galaboda Aththe Gnasassara Thera and other monks were allowed to enter the temple premises and meet the Chief Prelate of the Malwathu Chapter. Later, they also met the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter and sought his support to protect the interests of Buddhists.
The group also handed over a letter to the Chief Prelates describing 22 acts or incidents they claim are being conducted against Buddhism.
The group called for the Chief Prelates to call for a meeting with the remaining sectors and to discuss the stated issues and then make recommendations to the President and the Prime Minister based on their findings. Chief Prelate of the Malwathu Chapter of the Siam Sect had responded to the demands saying that he will issue a response within two weeks.
Strongly deviating from its conduct under the previous administration, the Police, this month, took necessary measures to curb the activities of religious extremists and take them into custody.
Soon after the protest against moves to amend the Muslim marriage laws, the Police arrested Abdul Razik, the Secretary of the Thawheed Jamaath organization, for trying to incite racism.
The Police arrested Razik on charges of inciting religious disharmony by speaking against other religions in an offensive manner during the protest.
The Police also arrested an individual named Dan Priyasad, an activist of the BBS, for threatening to kill Muslims - Priyasad was an ardent Rajapaksa supporter during the last two election campaigns.
During a recent protest opposite the Fort Railway Station attended by a group of BBS protestors, Priyasad publicly acknowledged that they were ready to even carry out suicide bombings to eliminate Muslims.
Priyasad’s threat, which went live on Facebook, was the main reason for his arrest. By arresting religious extremists on both sides, the Police under the new administration gave the indication that they would no longer turn a blind eye to the matter.
It was against this backdrop that Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe said in Parliament that thirty-two Muslims from ‘elite’ Sri Lankan families had joined ISIS.
The Minister said the government had received such information, and added that the current administration would not allow extremism to spread in the country.
The Minister’s remarks, however, ruffled feathers among Muslim ministers representing the government. They said Rajapakshe’s revelation could lead to tension between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities. The matter was widely discussed among some Muslim ministers, on the sidelines of the Cabinet meeting, on Tuesday. It was against this backdrop that Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne refuted the Justice Minister’s statement, saying the government did not receive any such reports.
“The Sri Lankans from four families joined ISIS a long time ago and they did not leave from here. They first went to another country and then proceeded from there,”Senaratne said, addressing the weekly Cabinet briefing, on Wednesday.
“Wijeyadasa’s statement is not the stance of the government. He is making these statements having listened to certain groups of people,” he added.
The Co-Cabinet Spokesperson went on to explain that all foreigners engaging in religious activities were monitored by the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and the latter had reported that they were simply teaching people Arabic.
“The Muslims have become very worried by these statements. Around 30 Muslim Organisations have sought a meeting with me. The minorities expect the government to protect them better than the last government,” he said.
In the wake of this statement, Rajapakshe, in his capacity as the Minister of Buddha Sasana, held a meeting with some members of the BBS, including its General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, in Parliament, this week.
“Violence gets us nowhere,” the Buddhasasana Minister told the BBS leaders, “The remedy is meaningful dialogue that will end in an agreement between all concerned parties.”
At the discussion, Minister Rajapakshe invited the BBS to attend the meeting with the concerned parties. The minister said the BBS General Secretary had expressed his willingness to participate in the dialogue, thanking the Minister for the opportunity, hitherto denied.
“We did not have a platform to discuss these issues. That was why we had to carry out protests and various other campaigns to draw the attention of the authorities. We will not shy away from this opportunity. We will engage with the process and support the Justice Minister’s initiative,” Gnanasara Thera said at the meeting.
After the BBS stalwart’s response, a decision was made to have the four ministers charged with affairs relating to the four major religions preside over the series of constructive conversations that will occur between ethno-religious communities.
Justice and Buddhasasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Christian Religious Affairs Minister John Amaratunga, Hindu Religious Affairs Minister D.M.Swaminathan and Muslim Religious Affairs Minister Abdul Haleem will serve as members of the ministerial group.
The Justice Minister after the discussion told media that four ministers would offer leadership to ‘meaningful and constructive dialogue’ towards ending communal and religious mistrust. The ministerial group, the minister said, would soon facilitate a meeting with the various religious groups to iron out their differences.
It is a positive sign that the government has made policy level interventions to diffuse religious tensions, without cashing in on them for petty political mileage.