The appointment of militant Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero as Chairman of the ‘One Country, One Law’ (OCOL) Presidential Task Force has shocked the country in general and the Sri Lankan Muslim community in particular.
The controversial Gnanasara Thero is the General-Secretary of the Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – meaning Buddhist Power Force. The Bodu Bala Sena described by some political analysts as an “ethno-religious fascist organisation” has a notorious reputation of targeting the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka by thought, word and deed. The vitriolic hate propagated against the minorities, especially the Muslim people, by BBS supremo Gnanasara Thero has been strongly condemned by right-thinking people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
The elevation of the BBS General Secretary as Head of a Presidential Task Force assigned the sensitive goal of reforming Sri Lanka’s legal system and evolving a uniform civil law has been criticised and continues to be criticised. There is genuine suspicion and fear among many that this appointment in the long run would be detrimental to the country and its people. Given the BBS Secretary-General’s track record of alleged involvement in the instigation, aiding and abetment of anti-Muslim violence in the past, there is much apprehension and insecurity among the Muslim people over Gnanasara Thero’s new avatar.
Given the fact that Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero rode to fame or notoriety in a vehicle of venomous and vitriolic anti-Muslim propaganda, misgivings and doubts about the new PTF Chair are quite understandable. After all, it was the anti-Muslim violence of June 2014 at Aluthgama and Beruwala in the Kalutara District that made Gnanasara Thero known globally.
The Bodu Bala Sena was accused of fomenting violence against Muslims then. Gnanasara Thero allegedly played an active role in instigating violence though he was not involved directly in any violent act. The Aluthgama-Beruwala anti-Muslim violence was reported extensively in the global media then. Gnanasara Thero’s name figured prominently in those reports. He was even equated with Ashin Wirathu, Myanmar’s Buddhist monk reputed for his Muslim persecution.
The appointment of BBS General-Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero as the Head of OCOL Presidential Task Force has revived bad memories of the anti-Muslim violence in Aluthgama and Beruwala in 2014. The negative role played by the Thero and the BBS is under the spotlight again.
The Irish statesman Edmund Burke reportedly said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It is against this backdrop therefore that this column revisits briefly the tragic events of 2014 pertaining to the BBS and the Aluthgama-Beruwala anti-Muslim violence.
How it Began
The original spark that belatedly ignited the subsequent conflagration was a minor ‘accident’; 12 June 2014 was a public holiday being Poson Poya day. A Buddhist monk, Ven. Ayagama Samitha Thero, was travelling in a three-wheeler to a temple through a largely Muslim inhabited area in Aluthgama. Some Muslim youths were engaged in conversation after parking their motorcycles by the roadside. Two motorcycles parked on the road by the Muslim youths had obstructed the Buddhist monk’s vehicle.
The Sinhala driver had scolded the youths in harsh language and uttered racist remarks. This resulted in the Muslim youths also replying in the same vein. When Samitha Thero also started scolding the youths, he too had been chided in return. One youth had also yanked the hand of the driver. The monk was also pushed. This incident was subsequently distorted and a false allegation made that a Buddhist monk had been assaulted by Muslims.
Angered by the altercation with the Muslim youths, Ayagama Samitha Thero had gone to the Aluthgama Police Station to lodge a complaint. The officers on duty had taken the matter lightly and “advised” the monk to ignore the very minor incident. The cops had also pointed out that the monk had no visible injuries. The Buddhist monk was infuriated by the attitude of the Policemen. He accused the cops of being in the pay of Muslims and left.
Mob Goes on Rampage
Thereafter the rumour mills began to work overtime. “News” began spreading that Muslims had assaulted a Buddhist monk who was in a serious condition. Large crowds began to gather. A mob converged at the Police Station demanding that the Muslims who had allegedly assaulted the Buddhist monk should be arrested. Stones were pelted at the Police station.
The mob then went on the rampage. At least six businesses owned by Muslims were attacked on that day (12). The then Cabinet Minister for Transport and Kalutara District MP Kumara Welgama was hooted at by crowds and his vehicle attacked for trying to calm the situation. Finally the Police Riot Squad was deployed in large numbers at Aluthgama and the situation was brought under control. Tear gas was used to disperse the mob.
On the following day Muslim elders persuaded the two Muslim youth involved in the fracas with the Buddhist monk to surrender to the Police. The two Muslim youth voluntarily presented themselves to the Police. They were accompanied by a Moulavi who had not been involved in the incident. However the Police took all three into custody and consequently produced the trio at the Kalutara Courts. They were remanded.
Enter the BBS
Enter the Bodu Bala Sena! The BBS General Secretary Gnanasara Thero then went to Aluthgama and issued a statement criticising Muslims over the 12 June Aluthgama incident. He accused the Police of “living inside mosques,” meaning that the Police was partisan towards Muslims. The BBS Gen. Secy. and other BBS activists accompanying him entered into discussions with representatives of the Sasana Arakshaka Balamandalaya in the area. The Sihala Ravaya was also associated in the talks.
It was resolved to stage a public rally condemning the incident on Sunday 15 June under the auspices of the Sasana Arakshaka Balamandalaya. Prior to the BBS meeting in Aluthgama a great deal of anti-Muslim hate mongering had prevailed on social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc., where overt threats of violence were made including remarks like “shall we bring a can of petrol?” etc.
When the BBS made preparations to stage a rally in Aluthgama on Sunday several reputed Muslim organisations made representations to the IGP and senior Police officials that the proposed event be disallowed. Several Muslim Cabinet Ministers from Rauff Hakeem to Faiszer Mustapha made entreaties that the BBS event should be not be allowed. The BBS protest was however given the green light despite Muslim misgivings and fears. Later Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem who was then Justice Minister was to tell Reuters, “I just can’t understand a Government which prevents even a trade union or student protesters going to protest marches … allowing the BBS to conduct the meeting.”
What the Muslim leaders greatly feared happened. Though the Sasana Arakshaka Balamandalaya supposedly organised the Aluthgama rally, the dynamo that powered it was the Bodu Bala Sena. The BBS-backed rally was attended by over 7,000 people. Most of the attendees were outsiders transported for the event and were not from Aluthgama.
BBS Gen. Secy. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero was the star speaker.
He delivered a provocative speech full of racist venom in which he asserted that the Police and military were Sinhala and that no Muslim or Tamil or anyone else could harm a Sinhalese and get away with it. “This country still has a Sinhalese Police, this country still has a Sinhalese Army. It will be the end of all if someone at least lays a finger on a Sinhalese,” Gnanasara Thero said. Video clips of Gnanasara Thero’s speech went viral then.
Gnanasara Thero made several references to incidents in Aluthgama involving Muslims and criticised the then Government for the elaborate security arrangements in Aluthgama. Gnanasara Thero also was critical of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, saying “Mahinda Mahathaya” should be aware of how the minorities were empowering themselves at the expense of the majority community. He also said he was prepared to be called racist for speaking out on behalf of Sinhalese.
Gnanasara Thero called upon all Sinhalese to unite regardless of political differences. Gnanasara Thero also made a disturbing announcement. He wanted the Muslim-dominated area called Dharga Nagar or Dharga town in Beruwala to be renamed. The singer Madhumadhawa Aravinda also appeared on the platform and sang emotional songs in Sinhala that were highly inflammatory.
At least 900 Policemen were on duty in the vicinity when the BBS-backed rally was in progress. After the BBS meeting ended at 5 p.m. a procession consisting of Buddhist clergy and laity began. The participants in the procession were followed by a vehicle convoy in which members of the Sihala Ravaya also joined. The procession chanted anti-Muslim slogans. Neither Gnanasara Thero nor any prominent BBS functionary participated in the procession.
Around 150 to 200 youth and young men in yellow robes were at the front of the procession. When the procession passed near the Aluthgama Mosque some stones and pieces of wood were thrown from inside the mosque. These were only a few and did not impact on the procession. However this provided an excuse to claim provocation. When the procession went through areas where Muslim houses and shops were visible those at the front started attacking them. Stones were thrown. Windows and doors were smashed. In some instances attempts were made to set fire. Molotov cocktails or petrol bombs were thrown. Muslim families started fleeing from homes.
Some Muslim youth then assembled together and tried to block the procession from proceeding. There were face-to-face confrontations between both groups. The Police then intervened and tried to disperse the Muslim youth. Tear gas shells were fired.
Then more “outsiders” began to arrive in vehicles. They clambered down from the vehicles and commenced targeting Muslim establishments and homes. Groups of persons with fuel cans and weapons like clubs and rods joined those in the procession. While one segment of the original BBS procession tried to continue towards their target destination of Dharga Nagar, others began scattering in different directions.
Very soon a different scenario emerged where groups began targeting homes where Muslims were living amidst Sinhala people in mixed neighbourhoods. The assailants were mainly outsiders and not from the neighbourhood.
The anti-Muslim violence began spreading to nearby Beruwala where there is a substantial Muslim population. Historically Beruwala is of great significance as the place where Arab seafarers had first beached in Sri Lanka. With their homes under attack several Muslim families left their houses and sought refuge in mosques and schools. Thousands gathered at the mosque in Dharga Nagar and Walipitiya. Thousands of Muslims from Beruwala town and Ambepitiya also sought safety in the Jamiyah Naleemiya Arabic College in Beruwala.
Anti-Muslim Violence Spreads
Anti-Muslim violence began spreading. Incidents of violence occurred in Dharga Town, Cheenawatte, New Town, Ambepitiya, Mahagoda, Kotapitiya, Adhikarigoda and Meeripenna in the areas of Aluthgama and Beruwala. Several buildings and dwellings on Sapula Kanda Road, Masjid Road, Hospital Road, Lotus Road, Milton Road and Simon Silva Road were damaged in the attacks. Two mosques in Adhikarigoda were torched. Three other mosques were attacked. Several media personnel trying to cover the incident were assaulted by the mobs.
Thousands of Muslims who sought refuge at the Walipitiya Masjid and at Naleemiya Arabic College were greatly endangered when a mob numbering hundreds encircled the premises, thereby trapping the hapless Muslim families inside. Several in the mob were well armed and shots were fired.
Some Muslim youth armed themselves with swords and knives and confronted the mob targeting the Walipitiya Mosque. Stones were thrown at each other. There was a direct confrontation that went on for more than two hours. Again the mob consisted of unknown persons who were not from the locality.
When this confrontation was on, another group arrived from another direction in a vehicle and opened fire on the Muslim youth defending their mosque and families. The injured persons were taken into the Madrassah (Quran School) and given first aid as they could not be transported to hospital due to the prevailing situation. Three persons died in the incident. The victims were identified as labourer Mohammed Shiraz (30), shopkeeper Mohammed Sahuran (40) and tile layer Mohammed Imran (41). Another seven Muslims were injured in the shooting incident.
The situation was finally brought under control by the rapid deployment of the Police Special Task Force (STF). The STF dispersed the mobs besieging Walipitiya Mosque and Naleemiya College. The STF apparently fired rubber bullets and tear gas shells; 400 STF personnel were stationed in the troubled areas. Curfew was clamped down.
Journalists interviewing Sinhala residents of the affected areas found most people expressing their sorrow and regret for what had happened. They emphasised the fact that they had nothing to do with the violence and that the perpetrators were unknown outsiders transported from elsewhere. There were several instances where Sinhala neighbours and friends had provided shelter to endangered Muslims. Many blamed the BBS Bhikkus for instigating the violence and the Police for not preventing it.
Eighty-eight persons sustained major injuries in the violence that required hospitalisation. These included six Police officers and two Buddhist monks. Over 100 persons consisting of elders, women, children and youth sustained minor injuries not requiring hospitalisation. About 8,000 people were temporarily displaced. The majority of the injured and displaced were Muslims.
Forty-one Muslim-owned businesses were destroyed. Of these 11 were completely gutted. About 500 Muslim dwellings were also attacked. Many houses were set ablaze and/or stoned or smashed with poles. A very large number of houses suffered extensive damage. At least 25 houses were totally burnt down. Several vehicles owned by Muslims were damaged or burnt.
There were signs of anti-Muslim violence erupting again when a large mob including persons in robes attempted to march towards Dharga Town in the evening of Monday 16 June saying the area needed to be renamed according to the wishes of the BBS General Secretary. However Special Task Force Personnel and the Anti-Riot Squad of the Police stationed in the vicinity restrained the mobs from proceeding. A heated argument took place. When the mob tried to break through the Police cordon, the STF and Anti-Riot Squad fired tear gas shells and dispersed the mob.
On the night of 16 June 2014 the violence spread to Welipenna when a mob of 50-60 men armed with guns, Molotov cocktails and knives destroyed 26 shops and nine houses. Karuppan Sivalingam (58), an unarmed Tamil security guard, was hacked to death when the mob raided a Muslim owned chicken farm in Henagama near Welipenna.
Former Cabinet Ministers and Muslim Party Leaders Ruff Hakeem and Rishad Bathiudeen accused the BBS of instigating racial tensions and called upon the Government to ban the BBS and take legal action against its leader Gnanasara Thero. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who was also a Cabinet Minister then, called for the arrest of BBS Leader Gnanasaara Thero and other BBS functionaries for instigating the riots. President Mahinda Rajapaksa did nothing. He told the Ministers that Gnanasara Thero would become a “hero” if arrested.
The Bodu Bala Sena was neither contrite nor remorseful about what had happened. BBS Spokesperson Dilantha Vithanage stated that BBS members had been protesting peacefully, when they came under attack. Gnanasara Thero said the BBS had not been involved in the clashes and blamed them on “an extreme Muslim group” that had picked a fight with the Sinhalese. Subsequently 13 key members of the BBS were detained by the Police for alleged involvement in the violence. Gnanasara Thero threatened to self-immolate if the arrested persons were not released. All 13 were set free.
Well-known journalist Dharisha Bastians wrote a series of insightful articles on the Aluthgama-Beruwala anti-Muslim violence for the Daily FT. I shall conclude this article by excerpting a few paragraphs here:
“Gnanasara Thero’s hate speech against Muslims did not begin in Aluthgama last Sunday. It has been growing increasingly rabid, increasingly violent and inciteful for 18 long months. The Government has been criminally derelict in the case of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara.”
“Privately, the Government persists with the theory that the Bodu Bala Sena cannot be directly linked to the Aluthgama riots. The railing monk, his open threats against the Muslim settlements in the area, his clarion call for the Sinhalese to ‘awake,’ these are only auxiliary to the violence. But after months and months of similar rhetoric, wild allegations and calls to arms, why does the Government fail to connect the dots or read the writing that has been on the wall since Gnanasara Thero first began his ranting?”
“The Bodu Bala Sena and its fierce monks may not have marched with the mobsters last Sunday night. They may not have carried the fuel cans and petrol bombs, or pointed out the Muslim homes and businesses to the mob. The blood and ashes, they may not be on their hands. But the words, the anger and the suspicion that wrought the attacks against Muslims in Aluthgama that day, unfolded first upon their platforms. So in the end, the Bodu Bala Sena did not need to do much. They had already struck the first match. All they had left to do was to watch it all burn down.”
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article appears in the “Political Pulse” Column of the “Daily Financial Times”dated November 3rd 2021.It can be accessed here-