IT IS a regular humid, traffic-jampacked weekday evening in Colombo on 12 April. At one of the busiest intersections in the city, a group of people gather. They light some candles and, slowly but surely, gentle voices begin to fill the air. They are reciting, if you listen closely, a combination of excerpts from the Subhasitajaya Sutta (where the Buddha teaches the importance of “well-spoken” words) and a line from the Sri Lankan national anthem that, roughly translated, means “We are all children of the same mother”. However, this quiet little vigil doesn’t last long. Soon a number of Buddhist monks, flanked by civilian supporters and policemen, emerge from the gigantic building on the opposite side of the road. They abuse, manhandle and harass the candle-lighters, demanding they end the vigil and disperse, and ask the police to arrest them, calling them “traitors”. The police take some demonstrators to the nearest police station. No formal arrests are made, but they are allowed to leave only after giving statements.
The aggressors were from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) — an extremist Sinhala- Buddhist organisation that has been fuelling an anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka recently and is a neo-fascist hate-group of sorts led by some Buddhist monks. Self-proclaimed defenders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and protectors of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, they are not unlike what the Shiv Sena is for Hindus in India.
Frighteningly, they have many supporters who believe their claim that Sri Lanka is under threat, naturally, from the minorities. While hundreds of people attend their rallies, they have also acquired a significant following online — their Facebook page has over 8,000 ‘likes’ and their brand-new Twitter account is gathering momentum. The BBS has gained renown for a unique brand of hate-speech, which twists ‘morality’ to suit their cause and instills in their supporters the kind of paranoia typical of racism, endowing them with a sense of moral righteousness. In short, the BBS claims that Muslims, Christians and certainly the Tamils have no real place in Sri Lanka, a “Sinhala-Buddhist nation”. They can live there if they want, but only as second-class citizens, under the rule of the ‘superior’ Sinhala-Buddhists.
The rise in religious extremism and a renewed vigour in anti-minority sentiments come four years after the Sri Lankan government defeated the separatist Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ostensibly ending nearly 30 years of civil war. Many Sri Lankans had hoped it would mean lasting peace and stability, but that was not to be. It is in the prevailing atmosphere of despair and frustration, amid flagrant corruption and the crippling cost of living, that fundamentalism has taken root. The general feeling of anger and anxiety has been channelled by hardliners into a campaign of hatred against ‘the other’. The Sri Lankan Muslim community has not provoked this attack in any way. Instead, it is the BBS’ cleverly timed propaganda that appeals to the Sinhala-Buddhist’s fears in a powerful way.
In fact, the trajectory of the BBS has been chillingly familiar, resonant of well-known fascist movements in history. First, they systematically demonise the minority community they wish to target. The BBS leads a campaign of vicious lies and rumours about the Muslims through their rallies, online forums and text messages. These statements are as absurd as they are untrue: there was once a text message in circulation saying that a particular brand of sanitary napkin in the local market, manufactured by a Muslim-owned company, was using a ‘poison’ that would render Sinhala-Buddhist women infertile. At their meetings, they rage about the rapid growth of the Muslim community, claiming they are ‘breeding’ to ‘overtake’ the Sinhalese, although the Sinhalese make up 74.9 percent of the nation’s population and the Buddhists, 65 percent — a majority of them Sinhalese. Muslims form only 9.7 percent of the population.
Second, they attack the target community’s religious beliefs, rituals and places of worship. In April 2012, a 2,000- strong mob led by monks raided a mosque in a town in central Sri Lanka during prayers. Just a month later, another mob attacked a mosque in a Colombo suburb, throwing rocks and rotten meat. About five such incidents have been reported over the last year, while organisations like the BBS have put immense pressure on certain mosques to shut down. In some cases, they were successful. More recently, the BBS managed to halt the Halal certification on animal-based products in Sri Lanka. This campaign was carried out unabated, publicly supported by government officials at the very top, particularly Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Third, they shut down businesses owned by members of the target community. On 28 March, there was an attack on a Muslim-owned apparel business, Fashion Bug. Later, video evidence showed the mob being led by a robed monk. Chillingly, the crowd, standing among the debris, cheers as the monk flings a rock and shatters one of the windowpanes of the building. Policemen stand around, seemingly there to protect the attackers from harm, not to stop the mindless attack. That perhaps is the final step, or something all fascists do quietly along the way: they get the powerful behind them.
How and why the government sees this as being in line with its own agenda is a mystery. A common belief among moderates is that for the government, it helps to have a ‘new enemy’. After the defeat of the LTTE and suppression of the Tamils in the north, perhaps targeting a new minority secures their place as the protector of the people.
THE BBS and its actions clearly violate the law; they should be condemned by those in power and stopped for engaging in and inciting communal violence. Instead, the Sri Lankan government has maintained a stoic silence. No condemnation, no legal action, no serious investigation. Large sections of the citizens, therefore, feel comfortable aligning themselves with the BBS and its ideology.
Moreover, the deeply ingrained culture of blind respect and reverence for Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka gives the BBS a shield of protection, a sense of invincibility. The support of the masses comes easily after that. Anyone who publicly criticises the monks or questions their agenda is branded a traitor to the nation. On their virtual forums and at their rallies, they discredit any critics, labelling them everything from “enemies of the state” to “bastards” to “sexual deviants”.
Not surprisingly then, the peaceful, moderate segments of Sri Lankan society have not been quick to organise resistance against the BBS. Where, then, can the resistance to this mindless campaign of hate come from?
The vigil organised on 12 April was the one of the first public civil actions against the BBS. It will not be the last time that critics are intimidated and forced to shut up, however. Yet, for a vigil attended by a relatively small group of people, the disproportionately aggressive response they were met with from the BBS and the police was telling.
The vigil was organised by a group calling itself ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’. They were clear that they did not want an “anti-BBS protest”, opting instead to carry out a peaceful demonstration where the non-violent philosophy of Buddhism was highlighted. Joined by others, including non- Buddhists, the group chanted verses about the Buddha’s teachings on “well-spoken words”, the antithesis to hate speech, and sang a few lines from the Sri Lankan national anthem about national unity. The agenda of the vigil was clearly non-political; rather, it attempted to show from a Buddhist perspective that the BBS could not call itself a Buddhist organisation as long as it engaged in hateful violence.
While solid political resistance may be necessary in the face of this new aggressor, the most effective kind of resistance may just need to come from within the Buddhist community itself.
Most progressive Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka shy away from the public eye; but this situation requires them to step forward to galvanise and lead both Buddhists and non-Buddhists to stand against the BBS and its false ideology. Intellectuals and scholars need to write and speak about the core values of Buddhism, thereby shattering the power of the BBS’s rhetoric. Sinhala-Buddhists need to do their part in ending this violence, which is being carried out in their name. Sri Lankans need to rally around a singular objective: we have a common enemy, but it’s not the minorities as we have been told.