Author: Professor Iselin Frydenlund
Original Publisher: wrldrels.org/2016/
This content has been re-published with the consent of the original publisher and the author.
Post-independent Sri Lanka has a vibrant history of Buddhist pressure groups in public life, whose aim has been to “restore Buddhism” to its “rightful place” in society. Generally speaking, we may say that in spite of internal variation, such groups belong to a broader tradition of political Buddhism. This “political Buddhism” refers to a set of ideologies holding that Buddhism should guide social and political life, and moreover that it is a state responsibility to protect and foster Buddhism. “Political Buddhism” in Sri Lanka denotes a specifically modern ideology developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century against colonial exclusion of Buddhism from formal politics, and from the 1930s onwards, as an ideology accommodated to democratic politics. Political Buddhism is articulated and acted upon by both lay Buddhists and members of the monastic order, the sangha (Frydenlund 2016).
The most radical (and so far the most militant) group is the Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power), or BBS, formed in 2012, by a small group of Buddhist monks and lay people. The most senior monastic figure (now disaffiliated from the group) was Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi, an experienced monk who spent many years in Malaysia. [Image at right} Upon return to Sri Lanka, Wimalajothi started in 1992 the Buddhist Cultural Centre in Southern Colombo, which in the early 2000s had turned into a well-equipped Buddhist bookstore and publication center. By 2011 the Buddhist Cultural Centre had moved to the city centre and turned into a modern multi-million enterprise. The Centre was opened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 15 May 2011, and both the center and the BBS were generally regarded as operating under the protective wings of President Rajapaksa.
Wimalajothi´s main aim has long been to strengthen the position of Buddhism in society. In addition to the Buddhist Cultural Centre, he has established a center for lay activities, temporary ordination for lay men into the monastic order (which in contrast to Myanmar and Thailand is not practiced in Sri Lanka), as well as full ordination of women in to the order (bhikkhuni ordination). In addition, Wimalajothi has shown concern for the Sinhala cultural heritage, such as traditional foods and medicine, as well as the long-term consequences of labor migration to the Middle East for Sinhala families. As we shall see, these concerns reappear in BBS ideology.
While Wimalajothi was (until 2015) the senior leader and patron of the BBS, it was the more junior monk, Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara (the BBS general secretary) who became the public face and agitator in the public sphere. [Image at right] Gnanasara had become involved in Buddhist activist groups in the 2000s, and he even ran for parliament for the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a Buddhist monastic political party formed in 2004. In the aftermath of the sudden death of the charismatic Buddhist monk Ven. Soma Thero in December 2003, a group of “patriotic” monks formed in 2004 the world’s first political party comprised of Buddhist monks, called the Jathika Hela Urumaya (the National Heritage Party), of which the BBS is an offshoot.
Also central to the BBS’s founding was Dilanthe Withanage, a lay person, who assumed the title “Chief Executive Officer”. Withanage also served as the BBS spokesperson and appeared in numerous debates and interviews, including international media such as al-Jazeera where he in a stream debate in 2014 defended the need to “protect Buddhism” from “conversions to Islam”.
In May 2015, Wimalajothi publically declared his resignation from the BBS, partly due to the BBS involvement in the Aluthgama violence. In June 2015, together with the United Lanka Great Council (Eksath Lanka Maha Sabha) the BBS decided to register as a political party, the Bodu Jana Peramuna Sri Lanka (BJP), thereby increasing the contest with the JHU for the “Buddhist vote” in the general elections in Sri Lanka that year. The BJP contested in sixteen electoral districts, but obtained only 0.18 per cent of the national votes.
The overall aim of the BBS is to protect Buddhism and the Sinhalese, particularly from what they consider to be a foreign invasion. The movement combines Buddhist “fundamentalist” concerns of secularization, differentiation of society and the alleged decay of Buddhism due to globalization, with specific concerns of Sinhala nationalism like Sinhala culture and heritage. It emphasizes the dominance of Sinhala language and culture over the island’s multicultural past and present and is critical of international the international human rights paradigm, particularly minority rights. It is particularly concerned with Islam.
At its inaugural meeting in Colombo in July 2012 the BBS declared its intention to pursue five goals: 1) to work for the increased birth rate of the Sinhala Buddhist population by challenging the government’s birth control and family planning policies; 2) legal reform to better protect the rights of the island’s Buddhists, to abolish legal pluralism and implement one civil code (thus abolishing Muslim family law); 3) reform of the education system in line with Buddhist interests; 4) the formation of a government-sponsored body to ensure Buddhist “orthodoxy” in books and media; and 5) implementation of a series of recommendations for reforming Buddhism already suggested in the 1950s. This five-fold “resolution” also suggests a government ban of Sri Lankan female labor migration to the Middle East. Maltreatment of Sri Lankan laborers in the Middle East had for long been a contested issue in Sri Lanka, and it was increasingly being perceived as a religious issue by radical political Buddhist groups, including the BBS.
A close look at the constructions of Islam in BBS ideology reveals that the anti-Muslim discourses operate at different levels, serving various interests and concerns: some discourses relate to local business competition, while others portray Muslims and Islam as a security threat to the state. One prominent BBS discourse deals with issues of cultural diversity, citizenship, and human rights, portraying Buddhists as “hosts” and Muslims (and other religious minorities) as “guests,” accredited with limited minority rights. In public speeches in Colombo during 2013, [Image at right] the BBS argued that it was a global principle that minorities must reside in a country [in a way] that does not threaten the majority race and its identity, and, moreover, that the Muslims were ungrateful to their Sinhala Buddhist hosts. In an interview in 2014, Withanage claimed that “[I]t is the Sinhala Buddhists who are in danger. We are the ones who live in fear. Our Sinhala Buddhist leaders are helpless due to the vast powers of these so-called minorities.” Moreover, during sermons BBS monks have claimed that Muslims in Sri Lanka are like “greedy ghosts” threatening the majority race and its identity. Such rhetoric neglects Sinhala Buddhists’ thousand-year-long peaceful coexistence with the ethnically and linguistically diverse Muslim communities of Sri Lanka.
Although Buddhist-Muslim coexistence in Sri Lanka is the rule rather than the exception, BBS construct local Muslims as a threat to national security. Local Muslim associations are seen by BBS monks as representatives of international terrorist networks and local agents of Islamic global imperialism. The BBS has published posters that show Sri Lanka as a niqab -dressed woman with evil-red eyes, symbolically identifying the niqab as a direct security threat to the state and its territory. Radical political Buddhism has garnered unexpected support by successfully interweaving local concerns with international alarmism. Global discourses on terror and new forms of media communication fuel and intensify Buddhist fears of Islam.
Changing global demographics and the expected increase in the Muslim population worldwide is another issue of concern to the BBS. While the numbers of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka is disputed, the alleged growth of the Muslim population is of utmost importance to both the BBS as an increase in the Muslim population is perceived as an existential threat to Buddhism as a social and cultural phenomenon in the world. The BBS argues that Buddhist societies will eventually turn Muslim, not through external pressure but from changing ratios of Muslims and Buddhists in the population. To prevent “Buddhists from becoming minority in their own country” (as the slogan goes), radical Buddhist groups have called for family planning policies, even legal regulation of women’s reproductive health. At the BBS inaugural meeting in 2012, BBS leaders demanded the government shut down all family planning units in the country so that Sinhala women could produce more babies. Finally, the BBS expressed a concern that a decline in the Sinhala Buddhist population would imply a drop in the number of monastic recruits, as small families are less likely to donate one out of perhaps two children of a small family unit to the order.
Protection of Buddhism and the Sinhala race are familiar tropes in Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, so the novelty of the BBS lies in its strong anti-Muslim rhetoric, its militancy in public space and its pro-active international networking. The latter point is particularly remarkable. In 2014, the BBS made a formal alliance with the radical Buddhist group 969 in Myanmar in a shared attempt to rescuing Buddhism from what they perceive as the Muslim threat. To what extent the 969 and the BBS can be grouped together as “Buddhist nationalism” has been contested (Schontal and Walton 2016). However, it may well indicate a move from locally embedded ethnoreligious identities to a more clearly defined regional Buddhist political identity, which imbues their anti-Muslim message with greater importance as well as urgency (Frydenlund 2015). In many regards, the BBS and the 969 fit the classic pattern of neo-traditionalism (or fundamentalism) here defined as the wish to work against the institutional differentiation brought about by colonial rule, modernity, and secularization. According to the MoU signed in Colombo, “subtle incursions taking place under the guise of secular, multicultural, and other liberal notions. . . . funded from overseas . . . subtly spreading into local situations.”
Internal religious purification is another, but often overlooked aspect of BBS ideology (Deegalle 2016). While the enemies of Buddhism are not directly defined in the BBS anthem (but given BBS strong anti-Christian and anti-Muslim stance it was widely interpreted as being non-Buddhist minorities in Sri Lanka), the anthem also refers to false Buddhas. On June 24, 2012 the BBS in fact attacked Sirivardhana Buddha, a famous, but controversial Buddhist lay preacher in the Galle District who claimed to be a future Buddha, a Maitreya. A few days later, the BBS demanded action by the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs against Sirivardhana who, they claimed, insulted Buddhism.
The BBS does not represent an alternative form of Buddhism, and its members and sympathizers belong to “mainstream” Buddhist institutions of learning and practice in Sri Lanka. The BBS organizes gatherings in public spaces, which are open for the general public. At such meetings, BBS monks raise issues of concern, such as Christian proselytism or halal certification in Sri Lanka. [Image at right] The meetings have the form of a Buddhist preaching (called bana in Sinhala) in which Buddhist monks are seated at a palladium from where they speak, while white dressed lay people are seated on the ground. Ven. Gnanasara is a recognized chanter, and the BBS distributes his chanting of protective verses from the Pali canon (for example the Jaya Piritha) through their website. From a doctrinal point of view, the BBS represents a particular strand of modernist Buddhism, which emphasizes revitalization of Buddhist practice through accommodation to the needs of contemporary society. For example, leading BBS monks support temporary ordination for lay people to enter the monastic order (which is not practiced in Sri Lanka in contrast to Thailand and Myanmar), and they support the nuns movement, which seeks to reintroduce the order of nuns (which in Theravada Buddhism is not formally recognized since its decay in the eleventh century CE). The BBS is concerned with the alleged purity of the Buddha’s teaching, and it is hostile to “popular” forms of Buddhism, deity worship and radical religious innovation, as indicated by their attack on the lay preacher Sirivardhana.
The BBS is a monastic organization, but recognizes four groups as its constituency: monks, nuns, lay men and lay women,welcoming all activists who share their political Buddhist, anti-Islamic and Sinhala nationalist agenda. [Image at right] Its headquarters is in Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandira, Colombo, owned by the Buddhist Cultural Centre.
The BBS has made extensive use of modern communication technology such as internet (see for example its webpage (Bodu Bala Sena webpage 2015) and social media such as Facebook. The BBS anthem was another important tool for the BBS to convey its message. Performed by the famous Sinhala singer Sunil Edirisinghe, the anthem calls upon the Buddhists of the island to take up forces to protect Buddhism against the “fierce forces of Mara” (i.e. forces that will destroy Buddhism) by initiating a pure “dharma war” (dharma yuddhayak). The BBS’ anthem was also made available for downloading as a ring tone in 2013 by Mobitel of Sri Lanka Telecom. According to a BBS announcement, downloading the tone would help finance the organization. After public controversy Mobitel apologized, holding that the BBS was treated like all other content providers of ring tones (based on a revenue sharing method).
While its main base is in Sri Lanka, the BBS also represents a transnational form of Buddhist activism and ethno-religious nationalism as it receives support from Sinhala Buddhists living abroad in nations such as Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.. For example, in 2013 Gnanasara lead the opening chanting of the Indiana Buddhist temple in the U.S.
Global discourses on terror and the politics of changing religious demographics are two important aspects of the rise of Buddhist fear of Islam. Another crucial, but all too often neglected aspect of the Buddhist anti-Muslim discourses, relates to the economic sphere. In Sri Lanka in 2013, the BBS called for a ban on halal slaughter. Later that year, one BBS monk even went so far as to self-immolate over the halal issue, becoming the first monk in Sri Lanka´s history to engage in self-immolation. Animal rights are certainly high on the Buddhist agenda (not only among radical political Buddhists), but a closer analysis of the halal controversy in Sri Lanka shows that protection of animals, and the cow in particular, is only part of the story. At a press conference in Colombo in 2012, Ven. Gnanissara raised the specific issue of Sinhala-Buddhist business competition, claiming that the halal-certification system implied unfair treatment of Sinhala shopkeepers as Muslims then would “boycott” shops with no halal-certification. “This is a Sinhala Buddhist country,” Ven. Gnanissara argued, “from ancient times the Sinhalese have dominated and assisted the business society to build up and carry out their business. Now these businesses are threatened by these Muslims with the Halal symbol and certification just so they could make a business out of it.” High on the Buddhist political agenda in Sri Lanka, therefore, we find Sinhala-Muslim economic competition, specifically between producers of non-halal and halal food items, product locations in the supermarket shelves, and the extent to which one could offer Buddhist monks food items with halal certification on them. In fact, the BBS explicitly address the concerns of the Sinhala business community. It should also be noted that there have been several attacks on Muslim-owned slaughterhouses, supermarkets, and shops.
The most severe allegation against the BBS of direct violent action against Muslims concerns a series of riots often referred to as “The Aluthgama riots.” [Image at right] On June 15-16, 2014, Muslims living in the southern towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela were attacked by mobs, resulting in three Muslim deaths, hundreds of homes and shops burnt down to the grown and several thousand displaced, principally affecting the Muslim community. Over the two years prior to the violence, hate sentiment had been cultivated by the BBS via social media and through public protests and media statements. There had been sporadic violence against Muslim communities throughout the country in the same period, but the Aluthgama riots showed an unprecedented level of organization and orchestration (Haniffa et al 2014). On June 15, 2014, the BBS held a public rally in Aluthgama after an incident between a Buddhist monk and three Muslim youths. In his speech, the BBS General Secretary Gnanasara ended by saying that “in the future if another yellow robe is even touched, no need to go to the police, let the law of the jungle take over” (quoted in Haniffa et al 2014:19). Later, the rally formed a procession through town, which ended in massive riots. While the actual chronology of events (and the role played by the BBS or Muslim youth in the area remains unclear and contested), it is clear that the riots left the local Muslim communities far more damaged than their Sinhala Buddhist neighbors.
The BBS and several smaller groups of similar kind in Sri Lanka have been given the label “militant” or “extremist,” either by international media or local opponents. The groups themselves would not agree to such labels, as they would not engage in any military activities, or form militant wings. Nonetheless, several of the contemporary Buddhist pressure groups engage in military rhetoric, using or “power” (bala) “army” (sēnā) in their organizational names, and they are accused of being involved in anti-Muslim violence. As discussed above, such violence includes attacks on Christian churches, rampage of Muslim owned shops in Colombo, and the widespread attacks on the Muslim community in Aluthgama in 2014. The authoritarian regime of President Rajapaksa (2005-2015) encouraged and protected such radical Buddhist movements through securing tacit police support (by letting them operate as vigilantes) and later through impunity. Moreover, the President’s brother, the then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at several occasions publicly declared his support for the BBS monks. [Image at right] While the BBS itself was not armed, it was widely believed that the state’s armed forces could be mobilized in their support.
With the new regime of Maithripala Sirisena (2015-) the public support and political space for such movements have diminished. It should be noted, however, that radical Buddhist pressure groups form an integral part of Sri Lanka´s political life, and so their current decreased space for operation does not preclude renewed importance in the years to come.
Image #1: Photograph of BBS founder, Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi.
Image #2: Photograph of Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the general secretary of BBS.
Image #3: Photograph of Ven. Gnanasara speaking at a BBS mass rally in Maharagama, a suburb of Colombo, in 2013.Image #4: Photograph of lay BBS sympathizers who are protesting against the halal certification system in Sri Lanka.Image #5: Reproduction of the BBS logo.
Image #6: Photograph of a crowd at the “Aluthgama riots” in 2014Image #7: Photograph of the former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at a BBS event in 2013.
Bodu Bala Sena website. 2015. Accessed from http://www.bodubalasena.org on 4 August 2016.
Degalle, Mahinda. 2016. “The ‘Army of Buddhist Power’ in Sri Lankan Politics’.” Pp. 121-44 in Buddhism and the Political Process, edited by Hiroko Kawanami. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Frydenlund, Iselin. 2016. “Particularist Goals through Universalist Means: The Political Paradoxes of Buddhist Revivalism in Sri Lanka.” Pp. 97-120 in Buddhism and the Political Process, edited by Hiroko Kawanami.. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Frydenlund, Iselin. 2015. “ The Rise of Buddhist-Muslim Conflict in Asia and Possibilities for Transformation.” NOREF (Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre): NOREF Report, December 15. Accessed from http://www.peacebuilding.no/Regions/Asia/Publications/The-rise-of-Buddhist-Muslim-conflict-in-Asia-and-possibilities-for-transformation on 4 August 2016.
Haniffa, Farzana. 2016, forthcoming. “Stories in the Aftermath of Aluthgama.” In Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities, edited by John Clifford Holt. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haniffa, Farzana et al. 2014. “Where Have All the Neighbours Gone? Aluthgama Riots and its Aftermath. A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela.” Colombo: Law and Society Trust.
Schontal, Benjamin and Matt Walton. 2016. “The (New) Buddhist Nationalisms? Symmetries and Specificities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.” Contemporary Buddhism 17:81-115.
Post Date: 5 August 2016
Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power) – BODU BALA SENA (BBS) TIMELINE