Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future

Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015, German version at Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future-Ruki-Sept2015(German+English)

One year ago, in August 2014, when I was at a discussion with about 25 Tamil families of disappeared persons in a church centre, a Buddhist Monk led group invaded the place and disrupted our meeting. We called the Police, but they appeared to be reluctant to disperse the trespassers into a private property. After we insisted, the Police did disperse the trespassers, but still refused to provide us security and compelled us to cancel the meeting. Before and after the meeting, Police and intelligence agencies have intimidated and subjected families of disappeared persons to surveillance. The next day, Buddhist Monks and the group made false allegations against me, families of disappeared persons and other human rights defenders who have been campaigning for truth and justice on disappearances.[1]


In 2013, when I was at a silent and peaceful vigil outside the headquarters of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS; loosely translated to Buddhist Power Force / Buddhist Power Army), the Monks and their affiliates tried to disperse us and threaten us together with the Police.[2] Instead of dispersing the Monk led group that was disturbing our peaceful and legitimate vigil that was not causing any obstruction, the Police joined the Monks and their affiliates and dispersed us.


Since August 2013, Watarekke Vijitha Thero, a senior Buddhist Monk known for decades for his work to promote harmony amongst different religious groups and rights of religious minorities, has been subjected to serious physical attacks, threats, discrediting and intimidation. He was forced into hiding and hospitalized several times.[3] A press conference, he organized in April 2014, was disrupted by the leader of the BBS in full presence of the Police. These are amongst many such incidents of Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka taking the law unto their own hands and allowed to unleash violence and hate with total impunity. Other manifestations of religious intolerance in 2013 and 2014 showed a British tourist who was deported and another one stopped from entering Sri Lanka for showing “disrespect” to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on arms.


In the first four months of 2015, under the newly elected President Sirisena and his Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, 37 incidents of hate speech and actions against Muslims were reported,[4] and 26 cases of violence against Christians between January and July 2015.[5] In 2014, many more incidents were reported while there is a decline in such incidents under the new government but the figures are still alarming.[6]


Riots, perpetrators, impunity


In June 2014, widespread mob violence swept through Southern towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Welipanna, and Ambepitiya in Beruwela targeting the Muslim community. Though several homes and shops of local Sinhalese were affected too, a large number of Muslim businesses and homes were targeted. Three Muslims and a Tamil were killed. The violence resulted in loss of life, injuries, destruction and damage to property – including places of worship – to the value of millions of rupees. The state tried to address the physical destruction through reconstruction led by military and there were concerns that the way it was done was aimed at erasing evidence. Scars remain, and the issues of justice, compensation and coexistence persist as on-going challenges. The nearest cause for the riots is believed to be a provocative speech by the leader of the BBS.


BBS and other such groups have been directly involved in many such incidents. In most of the incidents, Police were on the spot, being eye witnesses but reduced to mere spectators or become even complicit. Police, government officials and politicians have been directly involved in some incidents. Despite plenty of evidence, including videos, photos, Police has refused to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. Whereas on 26 May 2015, the leader of the BBS was arrested, and although he was released on bail, this was an indicator that the group and others alike may not further enjoy the immunity they enjoyed under the Rajapakses.


Why such involvement by Buddhists into public and political affairs? Without going into historical details, it may be worth to mention that since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism started as a movement to counter all kind of foreign impositions. The so called ‘Panadura-debate’ between the Monk Migettuwatte Guananda Thera and a Catholic priest met the nerve of the Sinhala majority. Buddhism became a platform for ‘national ownership’. Secondly, religious affiliation is to a large extent coincident with the ethnic background; with exceptions, of course. In our context, Sinhalese nationalist interests identify Buddhism as their basic ethic source, and given a conducive societal and political environment, they do not hesitate to turn Buddhism into a spearhead meeting Buddhist monks’ interest to maintain the religious dominance.


This complex mixture of interests is reflected in constitutional law. The Sri Lankan constitution guarantees every person the freedom to thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of the person’s choice.[7] The constitution provides freedom for every person to manifest his (or her) religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching, alone or with others.[8] However, the same constitution explicitly says that the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the ”foremost place” and that it will be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.[9] Although the constitution says this has to be done while assuring to all religions the rights granted in Articles 10 and 14 (1-e) mentioned above, Buddhism has been given priority and privileges within the state. So far, no government or politician has dared to challenge this provision or suggested to reform this.


Buddhists in politics


Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is predominantly Hindu (more than 74%), with a significant amount of Christians (19%), according to official statistics in 2012.[10] The number of Muslims would have gone down, after the eviction of all Muslims in the North by the LTTE in 1990. But even according to the 1981 statistics, Muslims were less than 5% of the Northern population. The number of Buddhists in the North was less than 3% in 1981 and also 2012. There has been few Buddhist temples and places of worship, including some significant ones such as the ”Nagadeepa”. But the end of the war had seen a resurgence of Buddhist domination in the North, with new temples, statues and other erections and structures. Most of this has been done hand in hand with large scale militarization, with the military being directly involved and supporting the erection and maintenance of such structures, and Buddhist Monks who had come to stay in the North. Even under the new government, there were reports of attempts to establish Buddhist structures with help of the military.[11]


Buddhist Monks serving as elected political representatives has been a phenomenon that has caused controversy in Sri Lanka for the last couple of decades. The first Buddhist Monk in parliament, Ven. Baddegama Samitha Thero, came from a leftist tradition, and is known to be a strong advocate of religious harmony and rights of religious minorities.[12] Buddhist politics came to be identified with racism and extremism with the rise of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU; National Heritage Party), which 2004 won 9 seats in the parliament with 5.97% of votes[13], a significant number for a new party. What may have been its predecessor, the Sihala Urumaya (Sinhala Nationalists), had won just one seat for 1.47% of votes in 2000.[14] After 2004, JHU representation in parliament gradually declined, with some defections and splits. In the recent election on 17th August, the different factions of the JHU contested as part of alliances of the two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).


The BBS and its leader also contested the August 17th parliamentary elections under the banner of Bodu Jana Peramuna (Buddhist People’s Front) but was routed, winning only 0.18% of the votes and not being able to win a single seat[15]. This was considered a decisive defeat and rejection of the BBS as well as Buddhist extremism. In the January 2015 presidential elections, President Sirisena won large majority of the non Buddhist votes, receiving massive percentages of 87% and 89.8% in Muslim dominated areas in Mutur and Kalmunai in the Eastern Province.


Challenge to Buddhists in Sri Lanka and abroad


Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka may not agree with the violence and dominance espoused by some Monks, Buddhist groups, or political parties. Nevertheless, there has been a resounding silence in the context of such violence and domination. The few exceptions, such as my friend Vijitha Thero mentioned above, had to face serious physical attacks, threats, intimidation and discrediting, with very little support from within the Buddhist community. Last year, I was invited by a British friend, a Buddhist, to give two talks to British Buddhists. Both groups were quite shocked to know about this dimension of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Buddhists outside Sri Lanka, some of whom come to Sri Lanka to learn and experience Buddhism, do not appear to be keen to address the violent and dominant aspects of the Sri Lankan Buddhism.


If Buddhism is to return to its values of ”Metha, Karuna, Muditha” [loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy], its genuine adherents will have to stand up and counter the aggressive and dominant aspects of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, even if it is practiced by few. The routing of the BBS in the August elections and defeat of Rajapakse in the January elections was a beginning, but much needs to be done to consolidate that and prevent the ugly rearing of Buddhist extremism again.


Ruki Fernando




(Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015)

[1]              http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/

[2]              http://groundviews.org/2013/04/14/protecting-violent-protesters-and-dispersing-peaceful-protesters-new-role-for-police-and-some-buddhists-in-sri-lanka/

[3]              http://groundviews.org/2014/06/20/did-the-bbs-attack-vijitha-thero-again/

[4]              http://nceasl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Incidents_Jan-April_Final.pdf

[5]              http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[6]              For example, 214 incidents against Muslims were reported in 2014 (Source: Secretariat for Muslims)

[7]              Article 10 of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[8]              Article 14 (1-e) of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[9]              Article 9 of the constitution (Chapter ii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_02_Amd.html

[10]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Province,_Sri_Lanka#Religion

[11]           http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14956

[12]           See for example http://www.newmuthur.com/2013/11/a-rally-for-unity-led-by-ven-baddegama.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPbQpUDmUN0&feature=youtube_gdata_player (in Sinhalese)

[13]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2004.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2004.html

[14]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2000.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2000.html

[15]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/2015GE/AIVOT.html


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