by Anura Gunasekera
In June 2014, in Aluthgama, a minor altercation between a Muslim man and a Sinhalese eventually resulted in a massive conflagration, in the course of which a large number of properties belonging to Muslims had been destroyed whilst several Muslim men had also been killed. There is irrefutable evidence that a racist hate-monger named Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara, the leading voice of the ” BoduBalaSena”, had been responsible for providing the impetus to the anti-Muslim attacks with an inflammatory anti-Muslim speech.
As in all such previous instances of violence against minorities in this country, the police, obviously largely Sinhala-Buddhist in composition, had been inactive observers of the mayhem unleashed by Gnanasara. The response of the then regime- led by Mahinda Rajapaksa- was to totally sanitize the scene of the crimes, obliterating all evidence and precluding any possibility of a forensic investigation. That action was led by armed personnel, reportedly acting under the explicit orders of Gotabhaya Rajapakse, then Defence Secretary. Despite the loss of life and destruction of property, belonging largely to Muslims, to date no action has been taken against the perpetrators.
In June 2016 a mob led by a number of similarly saffron clad individuals attacked a house in Boossa, occupied by Rohingya refugees and compelled the eviction of the inmates, including helpless women and children. Uniformed policemen were passive onlookers of that vile incident. With a feeling of total nausea, I watched the unspeakably vile conduct of the so-called Buddhist priests, in a video clip of the incident circulated shortly afterwards. It was not possible to understand how ordained followers of the compassionate Buddha could generate such hate, such vitriol, against a group of displaced, destitute, human beings. In November of the same year there was a wave of attacks against Muslim owned establishments in Galle.
On the 27th of February, in Ampara, armed Sinhalese had destroyed several Muslim establishments, accusing Muslim food vendors of serving to the Sinhalese, food laced with drugs inducing barrenness. The fact that the latter assertion defies current medical technology is of no consequence to those who initiated the violence.
A few days ago, in Digana, a Sinhalese lorry driver who had earlier been assaulted by a gang of Muslim men died. The funeral had been attended by a large crowd, which reportedly included the same Gnanasara. It is not clear whether the deceased had been a relative or a friend of Gnanasara, unless the only connection between the two had been a shared ethnicity and religion. Be that as it may, immediately after the funeral armed crowds had fanned out in to Digana town and destroyed several business establishments belonging to Muslims. Subsequently the violence had also spread to Teldeniya. Given the historical nexus between Gnanasara and anti-Muslim violence, not even by the greatest stretch of imagination could one say that his presence in Digana that day, and the violence that took place thereafter, were coincidental.
On the 5th of March, when a mob surrounded the Teldeniya police station where some of the rioters had been restrained, Gnanasara was present again along with other Buddhist priests.
Today, I watched a ten-minute video clip of a speech by a shaven headed, saffron robed individual, who identified himself as ” Kalawane Wijithasiri Hamuduruwo”, exhorting the Sinhalese of this country to rise up against Muslim citizens, whom he referred to in an openly derogatory manner as , ” thambiyo”.
In the course of his hate speech, he repeatedly asserted the veracity of the so called ” wanda pethi” programme being carried out by the Muslims against the Sinhalese and, specifically, urged the Sinhalese not to patronize Muslim establishments and to take over such locations. In the course his diatribe he also railed against Christian sects, accusing them of converting Buddhists with material enticements.In short, it was a violent, racist,” hate speech”, quite similar to the speeches and statements made from time to time by Galaboda At the Gnanasara and other saffron clad individuals, all specifically aimed against the minorities in this country.
Although all the above racist actions have been orchestrated and led by Buddhist monks, I am not aware of a single leading Buddhist cleric, including the Mahanayaka prelates of the different Nikayas, unequivocally condemning such conduct. Some months ago there was a half-hearted statement made by a group of leading Buddhist clergymen, in which they chastised Gnanasara but also offered reasons as to why he was compelled to behave as he did.
The incidents of ” July 1983″ fanned the embers of a simmering discontent between Sinhalese and Tamils, leading to an inferno of violence which took twenty eight years to be subdue- but not yet extinguished. The escalating anti-Muslim violence is yet another manifestation of the deep seated insecurity of the Sinhalese, which led to the earlier conflict. However, there is another, more profoundly alarming facet to such violent and destructive demonstrations of extremism.
Black July was orchestrated by the government controlled Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya, setting in motion a wave of anti-Tamil vigilante action in most parts of the island. The sporadic, but wide-ranging anti-Muslim attacks are currently managed by the Bodu Bala Sena, a creature to which at its very inception Gotabhaya Rajapakse offered his patronage and, by implication, impunity for its conduct. Whilst Gotabhaya is no longer in the driving seat, the BBS continues to enjoy the same license through the inaction of a supine government. It is only a matter of time before other groups, acting independently, replicate the violence now being perpetrated by the BBS.
Shaven headed men wearing saffron robes are accorded veneration, reverence and an unacceptable degree of impunity for their actions, simply because they are Buddhist priests and by implication, untouchable. This dimension of the Sinhala- Buddhist psyche is exploited to the maximum by racist criminals like Gnanasara and other like minded monks.
We have in place a fragmented national governance which, despite pre-election promises to bring about reconciliation between the country’s ethnic groups and to redress ethnically oriented anomalies, has continued to be inactive when actually confronted with the realities of ethnically motivated strife. It continues to permit extremists to orchestrate the action and to shape events, by its tacit refusal to act urgently, and decisively, to control situations created by the extremists. Unlike the Rajapaksa government, which marginalized minorities as a matter of policy, this government is not racist; what is more dangerous is that this government is ineffective and by its inability, or reluctance, to respond appropriately, enable extremists to write the national narrative.
Extremists are always a very small minority in any nation, irrespective of the sentiments that they give voice to. However, extremism creates its own dynamism, its own momentum, when it appeals to existing fractures in the collective psyche of a nation, of a group of co-ethnics, or of co-religionists. Most Sinhala Buddhists, fed by historical myths regarding the exclusivity of the Sinhala Buddhist origins and the blessings and endowments, supposedly delivered by the Buddha himself, consider themselves to be a group apart, the real owners of this bit of real estate. Other people are simply here on sufferance. Insert divisive rhetoric in to this fissure and one will find a ready response. The tragedy of this country is that we are still not a nation but a disparate group of ethnicities and religions, eyeing each other with suspicion and distaste but compelled by geographical pressures to live on the same bit of land.
Eventually, assisted by the inaction, the indifference and the silence of a liberal and moderate majority, extremism creates the tidal wave of horror and violence that will engulf a whole nation. Witness the LTTE and the JVP in this country, and the Al Quaeda, the ISIS, the Interhamwe, the FARC and the many other violent movements elsewhere.
The tottering Sirisena-Wickramasinghe coalition, needs to urgently put together the pieces of the scattered jig-saw puzzle that is their polity and resolve the crucially important issues facing it. If the present violence is permitted to expand unchecked, we will move back to the abyss that this nation has retreated from. The LTTE created havoc in this land despite moderate assistance from co-ethnics living in other countries. The Muslims are a bigger, global nation, one and a half billion co-religionists spread in numbers all over the world and, despite separation through distance and language, fiercely united by the common tenets of a faith which demands-and receives- total allegiance.
If this situation is not brought under control immediately, we will be unleashing a beast that we will never be able to control and a war we will never win.