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.
Accordingto 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 Afghan war brought them into the forefront.’
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 astatue 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 inSingapore 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.