Last Tuesday Sri Lankan history would have changed drastically if action had not been taken to prevent a clash between Muslim and Buddhist extremists in Colombo. SSP Premalal Ranagala and the police should be commended for the way they acted to contain the situation that was developing. SSP Ranagala was shown bundling the BBS monks into their vehicle and sending them off. Perhaps for the first time since the appearance of this mad monk phenomenon on our streets, we saw a cop adopting the right attitude and tone of voice towards these troublemaking monks. Had they not been packed off in that manner, Colombo would have gone up in smoke. The Muslim extremist Towheed Jamath organization and the Bodu Bala Sena had announced rival demonstrations in Central Colombo over the Palestinian issue. That Muslims in this country would want to demonstrate in favour of Palestine is quite natural.
But the fact that the BBS wanted to organize a rival demonstration in favour of Israel in the same vicinity shows that this was an attempt to provoke a religious riot. Israel has helped this country and there is nothing wrong in organizing a rally to support Israel in their war against terrorism but did it have to be right near the pro-Palestinian rally? This in-your-face attitude, and willingness to use even foreign issues to confront Muslims in a needling way shows that the BBS is involved in a concerted attempt to spark off a July 1983 style Muslim-Sinhala riot. They may not be a terrorist organization in the conventional sense of bearing arms and carrying out attacks, but what they are doing is in fact a kind of terrorism. Perhaps the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium was not too far off the mark when they so designated the BBS. The Towheed Jamath movement is also cast in the same mould. They have been working below the surface and using intimidation and coercion to have their way within the Muslim community. In places where they are in the majority such as Kattankudy, the Mulsims who do not agree with them live under a reign of terror.
Muslims who disagree with their interpretation of Islam, particularly committed Sufis have been chased out of Kattankudy and are now living in areas like Dehiwela. A Supreme Court order giving them safe passage to return to their homes remains unimplemented because whenever they try to return, Towheed mobs appear on the roads to prevent their return. Sufi places of worship have been desecrated. Towheed extremism operates like an underworld. So what we saw last Tuesday in Colombo was a drawing of battle lines by two extremist mobs – a situation the likes of which this country has never seen before. The websites were full of predictions of doom. The Lanka News Web was predicting that Maradana would become a ‘battle zone’ on Tuesday. It was no mean achievement that the police managed to stop both groups before anything untoward happened.
SLFP delegation meets Mahanaykes
Last Wednesday, several SLFP cabinet ministers and members of parliament went to Kandy to meet the Mahanayake theras to complain about the activities of the Bodu Bala Sena. Dr Rajitha Senaratne who has been embroiled in a running battle with the BBS in recent times led the delegation which comprised of Ministers Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, Salinda Dissanayake, Mervyn Silva, Duminda Dissanayake and MP Thilanga Sumathipala. They met the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter at 11.00am, the Anunayake of the Malwatte Chapter at 5.00pm and the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter at 6.00pm. This was probably the first time since the founding of the SLFP in 1951 that a group of SLFP ministers and parliamentarians were meeting the Mahanayaka theras to complain about the activities of a bhikku organization. This was no doubt a unique situation for the Mahanayakes as well, because at no time in living memory were there organizations of this nature who made it their life’s work to pick quarrels with ministers, minorities and with anyone they thought stood in their way.
The SLFP delegation got a very sympathetic hearing from the Mahanayake thera of the Asgiriya Chapter Udugama Sri Buddharakkhita Thera. The Asgiriya Mahanayke thera has always been very critical of the activities of the BBS. Last year the registrar of the Asgiriya Chapter, Anamaduwe Dhammadassa Thera, said that they do not accept some of the actions of the Bodu Bala Sena and that if the monks are acting in place of the law enforcement authorities then they must have the consent of the government. He also said that if the public have concerns over the actions of certain monks then they should raise the issue with the ‘Sangha Sabhawa’ which has the authority to take action against any monk. Last year the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera said that Buddhist monks should provide advice to politicians, but should refrain from political activities and that it is not suitable for young Buddhist monks to participate in demonstrations on the roads.
The Asgiriya Mahanayake complained to the SLFP delegation that the Buddha Sasana Ministry was sitting on the legislation that had been drafted giving the Mahanayaka Theras legal authority to disrobe errant bhikkus. Minister Duminda Dissanayake who is the son-in- law of the PM (who is Buddha Sasana Minister) promised to look into this matter and to get copies of the draft legislation for the members of the delegation to study. The meeting lasted for about 45 minutes and the Ven Mahanayake had told the SLFP politicians how disappointed he is with these bhikkus who are bringing disrepute on the Buddhist community. He had said that if the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera is agreeable, all the Mahanayakes can issue a joint statement about the behaviour of these bhikkus.
Next the SLFP delegation met Niyangoda Sri Vijithasiri Thera, the Anunayake of the Malwatte Chapter who also said that these unruly bhikkus have made all Buddhists look like extremists. He too stressed that disciplinary action had to be taken against these bhikkus. Soon afterwards, the delegation met the Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte chapter Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera. Though the Asgiriya Mahanayake thera had refused to meet the BBS, the Malwatte Mahanaye had always entertained the Bodu Bala Sena. Yet, he too had been critical of the BBS when the SLFP delegation met him. In fact after the last meeting that the BBS had with the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera, Gnanasara himself told the press that the Ven Mahanayake had advised them against having confrontations with ministers. The SLFP delegation’s meeting with the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera lasted more than one hour.
The Mahanayake Thera had shown the SLFP delegation a book titled “Sri Lankawe Muslimwaru” and he had got minister Senaratne to read out aloud for the benefit of the others, some marked pages of the book. The book had details of how in the past the Sinhalese and the Muslims had coexisted in this country with Muslim children being educated in temples, and temple lands being given to Muslims to build mosques and so on. The Malwatte Mahanayke had said that Halal certification was ‘a business project’ meant to earn revenue for a certain organization and that this should have been resolved through discussions. The Malwatte Mahanayke also complained that there were many loose cannon among bhikkus, some monks did not have preceptors, some did not have temples, at times nobody knew how a purported bhikku had donned the saffron robe.
Echoing what the Asgiriya Mahanayake had said earlier, the Malwatte Mahanayake said that when bhikkus behave in this manner people blame the Mahanayakes but that they did not have legal authority to disrobe such bhikkus. The Malwatte Mahnayake Thera had told the delegation that he had advised the BBS about their behaviour in public the last time they came to see him. He had also said that he will take steps to summon a meeting of all the Mahanayake theras to discuss this matter.
The following day, three members of the same SLFP delegation met Ittepane Dhammalankara Thera, the Mahanayake of the Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha Sabha of the Siyam Nikaya to which Galagodaatte Gnanasara also belongs. The meeting with Dhammalankara Thera had lasted nearly an hour and he too had basically echoed the views expressed by the other Mahanayake Theras and he said in addition that he and Ven Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera, the Anunayake of the chapter, had discussed convening the Sanga Sabhawa of the Kotte Chapter to take action against Gnanasara. Dhammalankara thera had also told the SLFP delegation that even though many people think that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was backing these groups there was no such thing. Dhammalankara Thera had said that he had been present when Gotabhaya met all these groups – the BBS, Ravana Balakaya and the Sinhala Ravaya along with many other bhikkus and that Gota had told the gathered monks that he has nothing to do with any of these groups and that he does not approve of their conduct either.
News coming down the grapevine indicates that almost all ministers in the government seem to think that Gota is behind the BBS with the possible exception of Rajitha Senaratne and Thilanga Sumathipala. Thilanga had said even before he met Ittepane Dhammalankara Thera that Gota couldn’t possibly be behind these groups, because he (Gota) was a very rational person and there was no conceivable benefit that he could derive from the activities of these monks. Now that no less an authority than Dhammalankara Thera has told SLFP politicians that Gota was not behind these organizations, the word will spread within the SLFP. Quite clearly, opinion is building up within the bhikku hierarchy that this nonsense has gone far enough and that it should come to an end. The Mahanayakes know that even though only five politicians came to see them, this delegation had the backing of many more within the SLFP parliamentary group. Besides the Mahanayake Theras would have taken note of the fact that while Minister Rajitha Senaratne had an ongoing confrontation with the BBS, none of the others did and despite that, they had publicly joined Senaratne to complain about the BBS.
The participation of Thilanga Sumathipala the in the SLFP delegation would come as a surprise because his brother Jagath Sumathipala, who heads the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, had in the wake of the Aluthgama incident issued a joint statement with 22 other organizations including the BBS, and Sihala Ravaya saying among other things that “…none of the speakers made any provocative speeches, whether racial or religious.” Yet the speech in Aluthgama made by Gnanasara was a textbook example of a provocative speech full of incitement. The Muslims too were to blame for the Aluthgama incident firstly by initiating that unnecessary confrontation with a bhikku and his driver and secondly for not maintaining a distance from the Buddhist procession as it passed the mosque in Dharga town. Worse still is the fact that video footage seems to confirm that the first object was thrown at the Buddhist procession from the side of the mosque. It was certainly evident in the video footage that the Moulavi was having trouble controlling some hotheads in the mosque premises.
While all that is true, that still does not change the fact that Gnanasara made a speech replete with hate, provocation and incitement. In fact that speech gave the Muslims the excuse that their people had been provoked to a fever pitch after listening to Gnanasara’s insults and threats that were broadcast over loudspeakers for all to hear. Parliamentarian Thilanga Sumathimapla’s presence in the delegation shows in a way how polarizing the activities of these bhikkus can be. Since the BBS was not gunning for Thilanga, he could easily have played safe and stayed out of the delegation while giving Rajitha moral support. But the fact that even Thilanga was personally present in Kandy would have been a powerful message to the Mahanayakes as to the extent of the outrage among the lay community at the activities of these monks.