For many years Prof. Rohan Gunaratna has been advising and informing consecutive Sri Lankan governments on counter terrorism measures and existing terrorist threats in the country.
The Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University (NTU), Singapore, has been a controversial figure over the years, both lauded and criticised for his claims in the field. However, the 57 year old has been successful in weaving a web of information around him, as he sits comfortably in his position as the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in the city state.
Having worked for years understanding, studying and speaking of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Prof. Gunaratna today is concerned with another extremist group. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
In an interview at his office at NTU, he said the single-most important achievement of the yahapalana government so far has been the arrest of BBS General Secretary Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera. In August this year, the Appeal Court sentenced the controversial monk to 19 years of rigorous imprisonment to be completed within six years, on contempt of court charges.
“It sends a clear message to the nationalists that the conduct of Ven. Gnanasara is unacceptable to the people of Sri Lanka. He should have also been investigated and prosecuted for his role in the violence of Dharga Town; that was a tragedy for the country.”
“As we reach 10 years since the end of the war, the post-war years have taught us of the ever-increasing need to maintain the peace that was hard won. For this, we need to increasingly contain the emergence of new threats to the country’s peace and security,” observed Prof Gunaratna.
Extremist groups like the BBS, Mahason Balakaya, Ravana Balaya and Singha Le, he said, emerged in the backdrop of a very brutal terrorist group – the LTTE – which ravaged Sri Lanka for three decades.
“It is true that the Tamil Tigers repeatedly massacred Buddhist monks, attacked temples,, Buddhist symbols and villages that were predominantly Sinhala Buddhist, trying to provoke a reaction.”
But what motivates them now that the war has ended?
“I met Ven. Gnanasara Thera and interviewed him. When I asked him what the basis of the BBS ideology was, on the record he stated that it was modelled on the British National Party (racism), Le Pen’s National Rally party in France (anti-immigration), RSS in India (extremists) and Virathu in Myanmar (a monk whose teachings do not reflect the essence of Buddhism). The BBS ideology thus is not grounded in Buddhism and should be rejected. As such both the state and the Maha Sangha are responsible for protecting Buddhism and should not allow a great faith to be manipulated and misinterpreted.”
However, from the quiet embers of the conflict, these groups were able to grow and multiply. Spreading their reach to the grassroots and preying on prejudice and stereotypes. The war had also nurtured and promoted “religious and ethnic exclusivism,” turning communities into ethnic and religious silos, each operating without integration with the other. “The violence has been a vicious by product of that,” Prof. Gunaratna said.
“During the conflict, the Sri Lankan government focused on dismantling the Tamil Tigers, but didn’t pay attention or dedicate resources to monitor the polarisation of society into separate Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim communities or the emergence of these groups.”
Prof. Gunaratna explained that although this is quite a relevant reaction for the Sinhala community that was affected by the LTTE, after 2009, there is no excuse for the continuity of these groups. “If the rights of Sinhalese Buddhists are compromised, there are other ways to address their grievances and not through encouragement or approval of these groups. The very premise of these groups is detrimental to the long-term stability of Sri Lankan society and security of the state,” he said.
For the Professor, though the threat of terrorism has receded since 2009, the threat of ideological extremism or exclusivism neither declined nor plateaued to prevent the escalation of religious and ethnic tensions.
“Mismanaging these groups that are a persistent nuisance can be very costly to Sri Lanka; they must get their act together and act at least now, at this late stage,” he said.
A more worrying aspect of these groups, however, is their membership mostly consisting of young men who are in their late teens or early twenties, the Professor says.
A way out
If the current or next government does not address the rise of ethnic and religious groups and parties, communalism and communal violence will be an intermittent and frequent phenomenon, noted Prof. Gunaratne.
To combat the issue, he recommended both soft and hard measures. Soft measures such as the development of training programmes for leaders and public outreach campaigns to promote inclusivism where both ethnic communities and religious denominations are represented at all levels are important. Apart from that, harmony clubs at every school and harmony centres in every district to engage in interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Hard measures would be in terms of developing appropriate legislation to punish perpetrators and deter future would-be perpetrators.
“When the poison of ethnic or religious extremism and exclusivism enters the bloodstream, interfaith and intercultural dialogue won’t help; there must be a robust legal framework that is fairly functional to ensure that there is mutual respect between all religions and ethnic communities.”
Against this backdrop, he proposed the introduction of a ‘Harmony Act’ to deter communalism, prevent ethnic and religious extremism and to bring to justice those who insult other religions or ethnicity. The Act alone, however, would be of no use if violators from all religious and extremist groups are not taken to task without exception and favour.
A similar Act exists in Singapore, a country with 10 officially recognised religions and one of the most diverse places in the world. The powerful Act introduced in 1990, empowers the state to take action against any religious leader or person who attempts to cause hostility between groups, attempts to propagate their own religion, or use religion for any political purpose.
“Formulating and passing such an Act is a sign of a mature democracy. Unfortunately successive Sri Lankan governments have ignored the polarisation of Sri Lankan society into Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim groups. If Sri Lanka is to maintain peace and stability in the future, it must also do away with Sinhala-only, Tamil-only and Muslim-only parties. As a small country, we cannot afford to be like India with political parties formed along ethnic lines.”
He further stressed against having communities defined by geography,
“In the coming decade, the students from the North should study in the universities of the South, and students from the South in the North, East in the West, and vice versa.
The government should not have any public schools or universities dedicated to any ethnic or religious community. Mainstream schools should not teach any one particular religion but teach comparative religion or religion humanism where humanity is placed before individual faiths. For most Sri Lankans, such an initiative would be difficult to understand because they have been polarised by three decades of ethnic conflict.”
More importantly, he asked that the Sri Lanka clergy be at the forefront of disciplining the monks who disgrace Buddhism and take a stand without favour.
“The emergence of the BBS and the damage it has inflicted to the Sri Lankan nation and its reputation is huge. Buddhist monks who violate the basic laws of Buddhism should be punished not only by the courts of law but also by the Sangha councils. In Myanmar, there is a gag order against Virathu who has tarnished the image of the country.”
One must never forget that politics and religion should be separate at all times and the lesson we learnt from the assassination of former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike should have made that clear, he added.
For the last 30 years, Prof Gunaratna’s attention had been mainly focused on the LTTE threat in Sri Lanka, but today he is worried about the lack of ethnic cohesion in the country. “Ethnic and religious harmony is the foundation of peace and security, and peace and security is essential for the economic growth of any nation. Politicians should stop playing with fire by promoting ethnic and religious tensions, especially close to an election.”
This will be unhealthy for a country like Sri Lanka that must maintain perfect ethnic and religious harmony towards building the Sri Lankan nation which is still a work in progress. After having experienced 30 years of brutal ethnic conflict, the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan people should not play with fire once again, he added.