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The Politics of ‘Aluthgama’

| by Kalana Senaratne

“The Muhammedans, an alien people, who in the early part of the 19th century were common traders, by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews […] What the German is to the Britisher that the Muhammedan is to the Sinhalese. He is an alien to the Sinhalese by religion, race and language […] The whole nation in one day have risen against the Moor people. The causes are economic and spiritual…”
Anagarika Dharmapala
Letter of 15th June, 1915 (in A. Guruge, ed, Return to Righteousness (1991), p. 540

( June 21, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian ) The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its many monks take their ‘professional’ duty – the promotion of Sinhala Buddhism – quite seriously. And recently, they decided to spread a bit of their Sinhala Buddhism, in Aluthgama, Beruwala and a few surrounding areas in Southern Sri Lanka.

Gnanasara thera called his audience to finish off the Muslims if a single Sinhalese is touched. A singer, Madhumadawa Aravinda, invoked the lines of the late Tibetan S. Mahinda himi (“… es gedi walata hena gahalada sihalunne”). And the mobs did the rest. Around 4 people (Muslims) were killed, over 80 were injured, many houses and shops were torched, there was terror. Violent and forceful retaliation and defence came from the Muslim community. All of this occurred while the President and the Defence-Secretary were absent, away, overseas. Apparently the trend did not stop there, for reports emerged of attacks directed at a mosque in Jaffna and the ‘No Limit’ store in Panadura as well.

What ‘Aluthgama’ represented has sought to be analyzed in many ways, and if you place inordinate attention on the single speech made by Gnanasara thera before violence was unleashed, it would be difficult to forgive someone for imagining that this is largely about the BBS attempting to threaten the State, to capture the State, to promote a form of rule dominated by the monks and military. That, I believe, is a somewhat simple assessment of a very complex phenomenon; it is also not innocent, for in attempting to portray the BBS as a threat to the State, one not only misunderstands the nature of the State but also helps (quite deliberately) the political leadership to evade responsibility. Portray the BBS as the singular threat, save the leadership.

But the BBS is the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism, and the natural culmination of this project was going to be a very violent one. And ‘Aluthgama’ is a political moment which reveals many things, not only about the BBS and the Sinhala-Buddhist project, but also about the character of the State, its biases and prejudices, and alas, about ourselves.

As a preface, however, I would add that my critique is not to be read as an endorsement of everything that is done by the Muslim community. As a critic of institutionalized religion (and certain religious-customs and practices), in particular, I have absolutely no intention of taking the side of this or that religious group. But I do subscribe to certain political views, so I don’t intend to make an ‘objective’ assessment, whatever that means. My concern is largely about critiquing and/or problematizing the politics of the community and the State I belong to, a politics dominated by the Sinhala-Buddhist community; irrespective of whether or not members of the Muslim community undertake a similarly self-critical exercise concerning their own community.

To return to the topic, four inter-related dimensions of ‘Aluthgama’ are of particular concern and reveal much about the BBS, about Sinhala-Buddhist politics, the State and ourselves.

1. BBS: a threat to the State?

One of the first questions we are made to ask is: is the BBS a threat to the State? I think the answer is ‘no’ and furthermore, it is also the wrong question, for a number of reasons.

For firstly, the BBS is best conceived as being part of the State in the sense that its ideology and project are part of the dominant ideology and project of the State, which have been carried out over the years by successive governments. It is a Sinhala-Buddhist outfit promoting the project of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism; and in a State that recognizes (especially constitutionally) the prominence of Buddhism, a majority never rushes to view an entity such as the BBS as an aberration, an exception or a threat of any sort whatsoever.

Secondly, a group such as the BBS cannot exist or sustain its campaign without the support of powerful elements of the regime. But more importantly, it cannot do so with the backing of the regime alone. It has to have a strong sympathetic populace; and it has. I have been struck by the level of support and sympathy that the BBS and its broader political project have attracted, especially after the incidents in Aluthgama. And that’s reason to worry. From the legal and business professionals, right down to the students at local (especially Southern) universities, the level of sympathy that is expressed in favour of the BBS is quite staggering, even while one is willing to critique the resulting violence. And this element of the debate needs to be vitally understood and remembered before anyone attempts to critique the BBS as being a threat to the State or the government.

Additionally, of course, it is not just the power of the politicians or of the people that makes the BBS strong and sustainable. It is the power of the robe as well; as Gnanasara thera himself has stated.

Thirdly, I do not think that I heard anything new or strange or surprising from the BBS (especially Gnanasara thera) in Aluthgama. At best, what I heard was simply the express articulation of what one thought the BBS really stood for. And that’s the only difference. And that rhetoric very clearly showed how well the current structure of the dominant arms of the State – the Army and the Police – conforms to the wishes of the BBS. When Gnanasara thera screams approvingly that there is still a Sinhala Army (Sinhala hamudaawak) and a Sinhala Police force (Sinhala policiyak), he is giving expression to the idea that this is what it is, this is how it ought to be.

Fourthly, as for Gnanasara thera’s critique of the Rajapaksas and in particular the President, a keen observer would have detected the subtle changes in tone and expression. In other words, Gnanasara’s critique of, say, Minister Rauf Hakeem, is far different from his critique of President Rajapaksa. And the claim that the Sinhalese have no leader is the standard Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist argument; that the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists are not entirely happy with certain post-war developments is not news. For example, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera’s interesting ‘Amathaka Wu Urumaya: Kawandayata Hisak’ (2011) is a book which is inspired by the understanding that the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist project is not being adequately realized in post-war Sri Lanka. This does not mean that they support Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa; Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is neither too simplistic to jump mindlessly from one Rajapaksa to another, nor politically too dumb to openly challenge President Rajapaksa and the State. So what we get in Gnanasara thera’s critique of the Rajapaksas is not really a challenge to the State or the government, but rather another version of that ‘course-correction’ message you get from the likes of Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka. And while openly somewhat distanced from the BBS, come Cabinet meeting time, they too will defend ‘Aluthgama’ to the hilt; as they have done, already.

Fifthly, it is necessary not to underestimate the power of the State. It is a State that has tremendous military might; a State which is powerful enough to effectively suppress any movement if it really wants to. And it has every power to do so; legally, constitutionally, militarily, judicially or in any other imaginable way. The fact that it’s not happening tells us precisely what the BBS is all about. And the BBS narrative is a narrative that the dominant part of the State wishes to agree with, and one the government endorses; for example, the recent statement (‘Right of Reply’) on the Aluthgama-violence by the government at the 26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council amounted to a classic acceptance of the BBS-version of events.

If then what is the fundamental or preliminary question that ‘Aluthgama’ should make us ask?

That question is nothing but the following: is the BBS a threat to the Sinhala-Buddhist project? That’s the preliminary question before all else. And this is where one confronts the major challenge.

For firstly, every shred of evidence tells us that the BBS is not a serious threat to the Sinhala-Buddhist project. Where and how is it a threat when the dominant majority appears to be endorsing the project and is therefore ‘silent’? Where and how is it a threat to Sinhala-Buddhism when the top leadership of the Sangha community appears to be unwilling to critique the BBS and its members so directly and openly? Where and how is it a threat when the likes of Ven. Sobitha are silent? And as I mentioned before, the level of support that the BBS garners within the majority community can be surprisingly high.

And secondly, it is challenging because this question can be answered mainly by the Sinhala-Buddhist community, given that it is the overwhelming majority. And as long as the majority community takes a lukewarm approach, it only goes to prove the obvious. [Another issue to be noted here is that in a State of this nature, what is striking is that the dominant majority gets to ask and answer such a question, while it also arrogates to itself the power to ask and answer a similar question affecting the other ethnic communities. So for example, whether a particular political party or entity is a threat to, say, Tamil nationalism is a question that the Sinhalese would rush to ask and answer even before their respective communities do so.]

So, in short, it is difficult to read the BBS as a threat to the State. And far more fundamentally, it is difficult to read it even as a threat to Sinhala-Buddhism. That the BBS is the underside of Sinhala Buddhism is best proven by the very statement of its leader, Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi who has a problem with the BBS, but largely (and perhaps only) with regard to the words its members use, with the manner of expression and articulation – and not the broader politics it stands for.

And if the BBS is not a threat, either to the State or to Sinhala-Buddhism, what it means to the Muslim people (and indeed, the Tamil people) is terribly damaging.

2. Rajapaksas: the only option!

Another dimension of the problem is that one political message that ‘Aluthgama’ seeks to popularize is perhaps that the political opposition in the country is absolutely powerless in the face of marauding monks, communal riots and violence. The Aluthgama episode did show how ineffective the opposition parties, especially the UNP was, in terms of at least getting the mainstream media to report on what was happening to Aluthgama (in fact, only a few laudable exceptions exist, such as The Daily Financial Times and Ravaya). Even some of its members were attacked by mobs. In other words, there is a famous question asked by the people in the South, even by those who are very critical of the government. It is: but then who else can govern? (‘wena kauda karanna inne?’). It is to this question that the BBS, perhaps unwittingly, provided an answer. That irrespective of the violence caused, you cannot even imagine a world without the current leadership.

And that question is almost always linked to the threat of violence, or impending violence, isn’t it? It is almost as if Sri Lankans know that violence is around the corner and will come from somewhere (internal or external), sometime, anytime. But note, the question implies that the root causes are not really the concern here; rather the concern is about how that violence can be contained, managed. In other words, what’s of concern appears to be how and who ensures that the situation is ‘under control’. And the situation will be ‘under control’, the people seem to automatically answer, if the Rajapaksas are in control. Politically and policy-wise, the Sinhala Southern political establishment is no opposition to the government; such opposition comes only from the Tamil political leadership

3. A Challenge within Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism

‘Aluthgama’ further challenges our understanding of the dynamics of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. There is a certain nebulous, post-modern, flavour to the brand of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism we are witnessing today.

Take the BBS, for example. Its complexity arises in its ability to show that it is endorsed by the Sangha community but also critiqued by some of its members. The BBS we assume has clear support of the political leadership, but it has also bamboozled certain members of the public and political analysts by its critique of the Rajapaksas. Its rhetoric is deplored by many, its project gladly embraced by the very same people. It’s a tremendous problem for co-existence, but is also considered by many within the majority community to be a necessary element in post-war Sri Lankan politics. Opposition (Sinhala) political parties would like to hate it, but their critique is often quite vague.

More interestingly, the BBS is helpful for certain Sinhala-Buddhist national parties to raise issues that might not have been raised before, but it is also constantly raising the nationalist bar making the high jump contest a challenging one. So the BBS not only challenges our understanding of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist project, it is a challenge within the Sinhala-Buddhist domain, challenging others within that camp to show how much more Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist they are. It is a knot within a knot, a challenge within a challenge; and where parties and entities feel that they cannot meet this challenge (especially on religious issues), they would now attempt to overcome it by being ultra-nationalistic on other issues, such as accountability and political power-sharing. Furthermore, given the complex internal politics of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, the strong defence of the BBS-version of ‘Aluthgama’ by Ministers Weerawansa and Ranawaka tell that the very arrest and banning of the BBS would be politically challenging for entities such as the NFF and the JHU.

Tamil: the inconvenient ‘other’

Finally, the responses to Aluthgama and the solidarity that came to be shown by many via social media outlets reminded, I felt, the convenience with which this solidarity could be extended to the Muslim people, and not the Tamil people. It also showed how very differently we tend to address Tamil concerns about violence, atrocities, accountability.

The Tamil has for the most part been an inconvenient ‘other’ for the Sinhalese, whereas with regard to the Muslim people this has not been that explicit. Today, that the latter too is an inconvenient entity is a message that the BBS and many other entities have sought to suggest; of course, their ideological forefathers had done so many decades ago. But moments like this remind us that the underlying biases and prejudices, the structural and systematic violence that extends to the Tamils, their political aspirations, their lands, etc., ought to be seriously acknowledged, discussed and critiqued by those Sinhalese who are more comfortable standing with the Muslims. For the accusation that The Island editorial (of 21 June 2014) makes – that “[t]oday, 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” – is not just an accusation of spreading terror or conducting ethnic cleansing of the Muslims, but also one of a deeply rooted policy that couldn’t have just emerged after the war in respect to the Muslims alone.

In short, the progressive Sinhalese forces need to stand with the Tamils as well as with the Muslims, just as they stand with their own Sinhala people, while recognizing the differences in how the State and its many structural prejudices get directed at these different communities and peoples.


In a country where the arrest of Gnanasara thera, which ought to have been the most direct and simple thing to do in the presence of such glaring evidence of the said monk inciting violence and hatred, the absence of any such arrest (at least, to date) tells us what we need to know about this phenomenon.

It is not simply that some powerful official is behind the BBS. Rather, the very arrest of Gnanasara thera is problematic for the government for reasons ranging from the understanding that Gnanasara thera did nothing wrong to the Sinhala-Buddhist cause (and that it is the BBS that is playing the reactionary/defensive role in the face of an ever expanding and ever threatening Muslim population), to the fear that there will be a strong reaction from the broader Sinhala-Buddhist electorate if any serious arrests were to take place. That tells much about the BBS, the State and the government.

For the legal issues that arise due to certain actions of Sinhala and Muslim religious and/or business entities, high-level dialogue and necessary legal action should be taken. But ‘Aluthgama’ is ideally the moment which calls for a commitment to a serious and radical restructuring of the State, by questioning the role and prominence afforded to the majority religion (and of course, the broader issue of ‘religion’ itself), about the unitary character of the state and its many serious limitations, about the role and place of different ethnic and religious communities within the country, about the space that exists for the development and realization of their political, economic and cultural freedoms and autonomy. But this moment might not be grasped, for the so-called concerned and moderate political, religious and policy-making intelligentsia in the country provides no serious challenge to the present structure and ideology of the State.

Why so? Because the dominant ideology of the State with the active help of groups such as the BBS has been successful in doing two things: first, in inculcating in the minds of the ‘moderate’ community that such radical change is actually impossible; second, through years of doing so, the State has created a community which has been made to realize that the little reform that they promote – which being terribly ineffective – is actually quite revolutionary.

So what happens as a result? What happens then is that after an ‘Aluthgama’, you begin to demand the same political leadership to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable. What happens is that when you realize after sometime that that was never going to work, you find that you are now pushed to engage in that fleeting but soothing palliative, that long forgotten conference on inter-religious harmony. What happens then is that you attend it, hear what wonderful things the Buddha, Christ or Prophet Muhammad had to say, come home happy (given that it was the moderate and politically-correct enterprise) but exhausted, and go to sleep. The next day you wake up to another ‘Aluthgama’. And then? And then you find that before you could even think about it, the government had not only organized such a conference but has even been thoughtful enough to invite you to attend it.

[Note: this is a longer version of the author’s weekly Sunday column in The Nation newspaper]