I. Editorial in The Island, 20 June 2014 entitled “Unstoppable psychos”
Prabhakaran is long dead and his mindless violence is a thing of the past. But, the country is not yet free from terrorism as has been seen from Sunday’s violence. Close on the heels of anti-Muslim attacks in Alutgama and Beruwala has come a dastardly assault on a Buddhist monk—not by non-Buddhists but by a group in yellow robes, according to the victim.
Ven. Watareka Vijitha Thera was abducted, assaulted and dumped on a road in the early hours of Thursday. Prior to the attack he had complained to the police that his life was in danger following an incident where he was threatened by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which also disrupted a multi-religious event he was attending. Subsequently, he was roughed up in public. Two policemen assigned to protect him were withdrawn about two weeks before Thursday’s incident. Why was he deprived of security in spite of threats to his life? An explanation is called for.
Ironically, the trigger for Sunday’s organised violence on Muslims was an attack on a Buddhist monk allegedly by some Muslim youths who were arrested and remanded. Violence broke out following a BBS protest in Alutgama against that attack a few days later. But, mum’s the word on the part of the self-appointed defenders of Buddhism on the brutal attack on Vijitha Thera. Why?
Is it that the mad men who indulge in ethnic violence, claiming to champion the Sinhala-Buddhist cause, have a special licence to harm dissenting monks who oppose their ethno-religious extremism?
Vijitha Thera is a UPFA member at the Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha, but, surprisingly, no government bigwig has cared to visit him in hospital! Attempts are being made in some quarters to vilify Vijitha Thera in a bid to justify violence against him. One may not subscribe to his political ideology, but one agrees with him on the need for protecting the rights of all communities, big or small. Those who harmed him must be brought to justice immediately. A few weeks ago a group of monks stormed a ministry looking for him. If the police interrogate those intruders they may get a lead on Thursday’s incident.
The police lost no time in tracing the leader of a criminal gang which abducted two traffic policemen in Kurunegala and shot one of them dead recently. The suspect died in police custody. The police should be able to nab those responsible for Thursday’s attack equally fast.
Some of the self-styled patriots responsible for Sunday’s violence against Muslims once used brutal LTTE attacks on Muslim villages and mosques to justify their call for military action against Prabhakaran, and wept buckets for the hapless victims. Today, in the southern parts of the country in peacetime they are doing what the LTTE did to the Muslims in the North and the East!
The Muslims in Alutgama and Beruwala as well as elsewhere must be feeling as insecure as their brethren were in the so-called ‘border villages’ when Prabhakaran was around.
Anti-Muslim violence could have been nipped in the bud if action had been taken when the BBS started aggressive protests opposite shops owned by Muslims. But, the police looked the other way. Mobs graduated from protests to attacks on properties. Still, the police didn’t do much to rein them in. The victims were made to reach out-of-court settlements with the perpetrators! Now, the fanatics have begun to destroy lives.
It is high time the government ordered a crackdown on the psychos responsible for the Alutgama/Beruwala violence as well as the attack on Vijitha Thera. The time has come for ridding the country of all forms of terrorism, regardless of the causes the perpetrators flaunt, so that the members of all communities, religious, ethnic or otherwise, will be able to live as equal citizens in peace and harmony.
II. Editorial in Sunday Times, 22 June 2014: “Buddhism betrayed by extremist monks”
It is the supreme irony of our time that, in claiming to defend Buddhism, a handful of monks with their hate speech and instigation to violence have managed to do quite the opposite. The mob attacks this week on Muslim houses and businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town drew international censure. Attracting equal, if not more alarm was video footage of a radical Buddhist monk spewing revulsion and animosity at the Muslim community during a public rally just hours before violence broke out. It is not the first time he has done this.
The international reporting has made little distinction between the country’s ordinary Buddhists, the majority of whom do not condone the attacks, and the extremist groups that fuelled it. “Sinhala Buddhism” — as it has come to be known — is being labelled, per se, as “extremist”.
This is neither fair nor accurate. But as we said in our editorial of May 11, 2014, it is time to turn the searchlight inward. The actions of these fringe elements are undoing the yeoman service rendered by our Dhammaduta or missionary monks overseas who preach Buddhism as a pacifist, non-violent philosophy. Even as more and more Westerners are embracing the teachings of the Buddha, a motley crew of misguided radicals here is distorting the message beyond recognition.
There are, in this country, countless Buddhist monks who are humbly and silently, working for the good of people. They are not seen at political rallies, do not have propaganda apparatuses and do not deliver incendiary speeches inciting violence against fellow citizens. But because they are not ‘visible’, the public face of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ has become those monks that dive headfirst into any situation with their arms flailing and their voices dripping with contempt.
The violence that broke out this week is deeply worrying, not least because of its ethno-religious nature. The attacks seemed orchestrated and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Their target was a minority community that was powerless to fight back. Many felt so scared after two days of assaults that they did not return to their houses (some had none left) for days.
While the scale was significantly smaller here, this country has seen it before — and it ended in three decades of strife. Just five years after the end of a bloody and agonising war, do we really want to drag ourselves into this morass again?
In Parliament, the Government alleged it was the June 12 assault of a Buddhist monk and his driver by some Muslims in Dharga Town that had first bred tension. The first attacks on Muslim shops and houses happened on that day. As revealed in our political commentary, some Muslims also hit back, damaging a few shops and houses owned by Sinhalese in Dharga Town.
Three days later, police authorised the rally at which inflammatory speeches were predictably made. A convoy of vehicles taking the said monk — who had been discharged from hospital and was at the meeting — back to his temple was then allegedly stoned and hell broke loose. Criminal misdemeanours exploded into a full-blown crisis.
There is dispute over who cast the first stone. Selective interpretations continue to be made. The facts are in danger of being lost amidst wild spinning by various sides. But there is no argument that a serious breakdown of law and order ensued and that the police and Special Task Forces stood powerless against it. As mobs swept through the towns, the state machinery whose duty it is to protect the citizenry just plain and simple failed.
In this country, brute force is used to crush labour and student protests while court orders are secured at the drop of a hat to deprive the populace of their right to assembly. This time, despite the very real prospect of violence, the precautions taken were pitifully inadequate and action came too late. What excuse could there be for this?
The Penal Code contains several sections applicable to those inciting religious hatred. One of these is Section 291B under which a British tourist with a Buddha tattoo was recently deported — lest she “wounded the religious feelings of any person”. While it might be difficult to establish a direct link between the hate speech and the riots that followed, the law gives the police sufficient grounds to act at least on “lesser” grounds. And, yet, the chief protagonists have gone free. The lapses have led to growing speculation of a link between them and the Government.
It should worry the President that some of these extremist Buddhist monks are increasingly questioning his leadership in public pronouncements. They are calling for a leader for the Sinhala Buddhists on the implication that he is doing a bad job of it. Crucially, the Sinhala Buddhists are his chief vote bank. Are these groups acquiring a taste for power and, thereby, turning into a force the Government will find hard to contain?
Intolerance is growing, fed by rabble-rousers. And underneath the violence are niggling religious, demographic and political insecurities that will need to be addressed dispassionately, fairly and humanely. There is concern about unethical conversions and the sudden mushrooming of prayer centres. There is also a creeping tide of fundamentalism among some Muslim groups, especially in the East. More and more people are returning from West Asia with religious practices unfamiliar to local communities.
These and other worries will not disappear overnight. But neither, will the bad blood between Muslims and Sinhalese, fuelled by the unpleasantness of this week. Nothing was achieved by wrecking the lives and livelihoods of people. Every community has core issues and anxieties. That doesn’t give anyone the right to take an axe to the other.
We have said this before and it must be repeated now: “Buddhist fundamentalism” must be in the Dhamma, where it all began. Not in aggressive action. There is a need to step back from the ongoing rampaging over the rights of others. Nothing is further from Buddhism than what is being done today in Sri Lanka in the name of that revered philosophy. It is time, not only for reflection, but for a sincere effort to ensure that what happened is never replayed.
The burning down yesterday of a Muslim-owned clothes shop in Panadura is an indication that some people might want this violence to spread. Sabotage is being mentioned. It is immaterial what motivates the miscreants — whether it is ethno-religious hatred, political ambitions or criminal tendencies. Law and order is at stake. The minorities have as much entitlement to live in this country as the majority does.
If this scourge is not nipped in the bud, there is no saying where it will take the nation. Is our hard-won peace so cheap that we squander it away like this?
III. Editorial in The Sunday Leader,22 June 2014, entitled “BBS And Its Religious Fanaticism”
The communal fires that were ignited in Aluthgama over the last week, is what is despicable about the island nation. It is what drove this country towards three decades of bloodshed and economic loss. It saw the fine fabric of society broken to unrecognizable shreds that no one dare desire a return to.
Yet the incidents in the sea side town and its environs have the potential to push the country to that bitter history of brutality. If we are to be blinded by the victory of defeat, then there are still lessons from the region that can provide evidence of what must be prevented.
According to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the trauma started in 1979 with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. ‘The West, led by the ‘United States after the election of Ronald Reagan, considered Afghanistan an important arena in which to check the Soviets’ ambitions. A jihad was launched in Afghanistan, with Pakistan as the inevitable conduit and frontline supporter because of its contiguity to Afghanistan. Afghan warlords and their militias were armed and financed to fight the Soviets. Alongside 20,000 to 30,000 mujahideen from all over the Islamic world, students from some seminaries of Pakistan were encouraged, armed, financed, and trained to reinforce the Afghans and confront the Soviet war machine. Before 1979, our Madrassas were quite and their actives were insignificant.
The entire decade of the 1980s saw religious extremism rise. It is undeniable that the hard-line mullahs of the Frontier province were the obvious religious partners in this jihad, because the Afghan Pukhtoons adhere to their puritanical interpretation of Islam. ‘This jihad continued for ten years, until the Soviets were defeated in 1989. They withdrew in a hurry, leaving behind an enormous arsenal of heavy weapons that included tanks, guns, and even aircraft, with abundant stocks of ammunition. The United States and Europe were also quick to abandon the area, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet threat dimmed. The sudden vacuum in Afghanistan led fist to the toppling of the puppet government that had been installed by the Soviet Union, and then to mayhem and bloodletting among the warlords, jostling for power. Afghanistan was ravaged by a twelve-year internal conflict, from 1989 to 2001.’ The irony of where the terror fed by the US finally drew them apart; such is the recorded history of religious extremism, wherever they gain life. Dealing with extremism requires prudence. It involves addressing religious and sectarian extremism. It is a battle for both hearts and minds. Mind-sets cannot be changed by force. They must be transformed through superior logic and action. We have to facilitate this transformation. It involves mobilising the silent moderate majority to rise and play a positive role. Society cannot afford to shirk its responsibility of the tragedy of Aluthgama. As a people, as a State and as a media that reported, discussed and pontificated over the growing threat of violence that the Bodu Bala Sena was ultimately proven capable of, many more than we wish to admit to are responsible for it. The threat was clear from the beginning. The tone with which its General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnasara addressed a growing number of the gullible, willing to lend an ear, should have proven a warning to the authorities. Responsibility lay with every law enforcement officer who watched as the BBS rally’s gathered strength, espoused terror and carried out its warnings, with no action. The arrests that refused to be made and the actions that refused implementation as the threat grew unchallenged, are all equally at fault. History points to the negative effects of war victories. It is difficult to contain the sense of power one community can project over the defeated, in battles dealt between ethnicities. That the Sinhalese community that had its ego tested and broken as the LTTE unleashed its terror over the majority community is a fact. Therefore although the literate majority rejoiced at the end of an era of violence as the LTTE was defeated, the petty and illiterate believed it a victory over the minority communities. It is in the vacuum of an intelligent discourse at this crucial point that the fanaticism of Sinhala Buddhism of the BBS gained strength. The country’s plans of reconstruction and resettlement should have necessarily included room for communal harmony. The country should have had a plan of action to strengthen and mobilize the moderates to overcome the ignorant. This should have been the path on which the transformation from war to peace was allowed to tread. Instead politics played its petty role, prying silently on the electoral strength leaving little for the tolerant.
A crucial area of investigation must be the funding agents behind the BBS. The planning and the organisational skills of the organisation point the finger at a heavy and consistent funding arm. Questions have earlier been raised at reported funding made available to the group by Norway. It was reported last year that the Group had initially received funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo coupled with the reported visit of the Norwegian Ambassador Ms. Grete Løchen and Mr. Arne Fjortoft to the office of the Bodu Bala Sena, in Colombo.
A visit made by five monks attached to the Group to Norway in 2010 led to serious questions on Norwegian funding behind the BBS. Its Excutive Committee Member Dilantha Withanage admitted that he in fact also took part in the visit, and that the BBS was formed two years following the visit, in May 2012. Those who made that visit to Norway included Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, Ven. Witharandeniye Nanda Thero (national organiser of Bodu Bala Sena), Ven. Aluthwewa Ananda Thero, Ven. Dapane Sumanawansa Thero, Ven. Welimada Shantha Thero, Mr. Pujitha Wijesinghe and Mr. Mark Antony Perera. “In fact we were invited by one of the organisation in Norway. In fact I have forgotten the name of the organisation. Actually we visited Norway and had discussion with some of the Tamil friends there. I don’t know whether friends we met in Norway represented actually the section of the vociferous Tamil diaspora? Some of them we met, I learnt were supporters of the LTTE. You can say they are just a very small section of the Tamil diaspora. Then we visited some social organisations including a couple of Elders Home and we visited the Norwegian Parliament. We had meeting also with former Minister Erick Solheim. We also had meetings with some Norwegian Parliamentarians. Also we visited houses of some of the Tamil friends,” admitted Withanage.
A US visit by the group in April 2013 where the delegation received visas ‘over the counter’ without the usual hassle involved with visits to the country, especially given the reputation the BBS has gained by then, also raised controversy. The delegation which included Withanage, and several monks including Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera and National Organiser Ven. Vitharandeniye Nanda Thera, was recorded as a measure of the organisation going ‘international. ‘Bodu Bala Sena is all set to go international,’ Withanage was quoted. “There is a high demand from abroad for our organisation. It has become essential to extend our organisation and our contribution internationally so as to raise awareness among the international community about our mission,” he said. It is today too late to drive the teachings of the Dhamma out of the misinterpretation. Instead there must now be legal action against those who believed and acted themselves above the laws of the country. It is an undeniable fact that the country’s Penal Code stands violated by the actions of the BBS. They stand guilty of inciting religious and communal hatred. The group and its religious fanaticism must be stopped. If such an end lay in a legal ban on the organization, then that is where the solution obviously must be. It is imperative that the administration undo this wrong, and fast. —
Provocative actions by extremist Buddhist elements
*November 30 2012: The BBS held its first meeting at Navinna Rajamahaviharaya*
*December 9, 2012: The Rev. Omalpe Thero and several others attacked the church of Pastor Pradeep Kumara during a prayer session and damaged vehicles, equipment, furniture, and vandalized a statue of Jesus Christ in Weeraketiya. The previous day had visited and demanded that the centre be shut down. *January 19, 2013: Mob protests in front of No Limit, Maharagama, by an unknown group demanding that the shop be closed.
*January 24, 2013: Rally against halal certification in Kuliyapitiya. Protesters carried and burned effigies of the Prophet, and offensive placards. *February 11, 2013: Muslim shopowners in Kurunegala were issued death threats, that if they did not close their shops by the 31st of March they would be killed.
*February 16, 2013: Journalists Threatened, Halal Ban Deadline. BBC correspondent Charles Haviland, and a Reporter from Nawamani were threatened and not allowed to leave after covering the BBS rally.
*March 2, 2013: an Abattoir in Dematagoda was raided by the BBS claiming that it was set up illegally. However it was revealed that the CMC owned it and all documentation were in order.
*March 15, 2013: Members of the Sinhala Ravaya group stormed a house in Nawala claiming to have received reports of children being sold on the premises.
*March 12-March 16: Following the anti abaya comments made by Rev. Galaboda Aththe Gnanassara thero of the BBS, several incidents were reported where women wearing the abaya and hijab were harassed in the Dehiwala, Dickwella, Fort, Borella, Manampitiya, Tihariya, and Kotahena areas.
*March 17, 2013 The BBS Gen. Secretary urged the Sinhalese to rise against the Muslims.
*March 18, 2013: Members of the Sinhala Ravaya once again attacked Pastor Pradeep in Weeraketiya, damaged property and even threatened to kill him. They had also abused the pastor’s wife and children in foul language.
*March 24: BBS Secretary Galaboda Aththe Gnanassara Thero declared ‘war’ on Ferial Ashraff and demanded her recall from her mission in Singapore citing her as an anti Sinhala Buddhist.
*March 27-28, 2013: SMS messages were sent to journalists asking them to boycott Muslim shops during Avurudu period claiming to be from the BBS. *March 28, 2013: Monks and mobs raided Emerald Trading in Pepiliyana.
*March 28, 2013: The Pepiliyana Fashion Bug store was attacked.
*March 29, 2013: In Elpitiya following a BBS rally on March 29, Muslim shop owners were asked to vacate their lease.
*March 31 2013: Letters were Sent to the Tawhid Dematagoda mosque, and Islamic bookshop nearby on a BBS letterhead, demanding that they close down the mosque. The BBS was also cited in the assault of Watareka Wijitha Thero last year and also the attack on Sirikotha.