Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka? A reappraisal of evidence and claims
Posted on July 12th, 2017

by G. H. Peiris Courtesy The Island

July 2, 2017, 9:07 pm

This article consists of two parts the first of which is intended to contextualise, in the broader setting of recent political transformations witnessed in Sri Lanka, the proliferation of information on violence targeted allegedly by Sinhalese-Buddhists on the Muslims, which those responsible for disseminating such information often portray as a trend of intensifying rivalry between the two ethnic groups.

The second part contains a critique of the thematic submissions in a similar portrayal presented by John Holt, Professor of Comparative Religion at a prestigious liberal arts college in the United States, as the ‘Keynote Address’ of a research conference on the subject of Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia: The Politics behind Religious Rivalries’ conducted three years ago by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy.

The special attention I devote to Professor Holt is due entirely to the fact that the ‘Rashomon Effect’ the same event or phenomenon being interpreted in diverse ways by different persons, impelled by their subjective interests and motivations is far less evident in his keynote address than in other scholarly works I have come across on this subject.

Aluthgama in the aftermath of riots

Part 1

At the time of the conference referred to above the prevailing political ethos in Sri Lanka was such that there was reason to believe in the government, guided as it was by the strength of its convictions and commitments to our foremost national interests, having the capacity to withstand the internal and external destabilising pressures being exerted against the country’s steady (but not entirely unblemished) ‘post-war’ recovery. Hence it was possible to regard even the blatant distortions of ground realities of ethnic relations in our country, including those that took the form of academic research, as no more than irritations of tolerable impact which small countries such as ours need to bear with fortitude while safeguarding rights as sovereign nation-states. It is now becoming increasingly evident that the ‘regime change’ of early 2015 has brought about a dire necessity to abandon that earlier attitude of laissez-faire indifference towards the spread of disinformation, subversion (including clandestine incitement to violence) and intimidatory threats based presumably on the pernicious doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, because the newly installed puppet regime, in its wayward responses to the resulting pressures, has been leading the nation relentlessly towards the same state of anarchy and chaos as those targeted in the recent decades by the so-called democratisation efforts and humanitarian interventions of the global superpowers.

Even in the course of the 30-year ‘Eelam War’ there were attempts made by the LTTE and the leaders of the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community in mainstream politics to attract at least a segment of the Muslim community into their secessionist campaign. When that proved to be futile, the Muslims living in the ‘North-East’ of the island became targets of diverse forms of terrorist brutality that included mass murder (remember Eravur and Kattankudi?) and forced displacement of entire communities (in Mannar, more excruciatingly than elsewhere). Since the Eastern Province was liberated from the clutches of the LTTE in late 2006, the government was able to embark on rehabilitation and reconstruction in that part of the ‘war zone’ well ahead of the end of its Vanni military operations in May 2009, using aid funds specifically earmarked by the donors for that purpose. This resulted in a spectacular re-development of socioeconomic infrastructure in the densely populated coastal periphery of the east where the largest Muslim settlements are located. In addition, the Muslim political alignments in the immediate aftermath of the war could also have been influenced at least marginally by the cordial relations which the Rajapaksa regime had maintained with several Islamic countries – especially Pakistan, Iran, and the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip.

These probably constituted a significant set of reasons for Mahinda Rajapaksa obtaining 57.9% of the popular vote at the euphoric presidential election of January 2010 in his contest against the other formidable ‘war hero’ of that time, General Sarath Fonseka (the candidate backed by the UNP, JVP and the disgruntled loyalists of ex-president Chandrika doing her “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” act). In fact, Rajapaksa surpassed even the support garnered by J R Jayewardene at peak popularity in 1982 (52.9%) – the only previous nationwide poll free of serious insurrectionary disruption since the inception of the ‘executive presidential system’ in 1978. Based on the fact that Muslims in all parts of the island were sharing the economic benefits of the ‘peace dividend’ – especially in trade and commerce – it could be surmised that the Rajapaksa camp continued to retain the support of the Muslim community at the parliamentary elections conducted a few months later at which the UPFA secured 60% of the overall total of votes, while the UNP share had dwindled to 29%.

Allegiance of Muslims

It is necessary to stress, however, that in the entire electoral history of independent Sri Lanka, the allegiance of the Muslims – almost 10% of the all-island vote – for one or the other of the parties commanding the bulk of the Sinhalese support has all along been ephemeral. This, in my understanding, has been a fact of vital salience to the ‘regime change’ project referred to above, given the overall electoral morphology in which: (a) the Buddhist support (70%) gets divided (both directly as well as indirectly through the JVP, the JHU and the ‘Old Left’) among the two main parties; (b) support for the Rajapaksa regime from the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community remains minute; and (c) the Hindu vote in plantation areas (about 4% of the national total) with its comparatively more distinct community cohesion, being vulnerable to en bloc external manipulation (including RAW intervention as rumoured in the local press but substantiated by Dersil Patel, in the journal Defence New issue of 29 July 2015) in favour of what Delhi preferred.

It is not possible in a dispassionate attempt to contextualise the ‘regime change’ project referred to above to discount the significance of the foregoing sketch of electoral arithmetic. Indeed, it would be downright stupid to ignore the fact that promoting estrangement of Buddhist-Muslim relations, especially through clandestine support to the rabble-rousing lunatic fringe of the Buddhist segment of the electorate, on the one hand (the well-known columnist Izeth Hussain, writing for The Island on 5 May 2017, was certain that “the Islamophobic hate campaign is obviously foreign-funded and foreign backed”) paralleled by a propaganda campaign designed to magnify the violent exemplifications of the alleged hostility of the Buddhists such as homicide and causing physical injury, desecration of mosques, arson, property damage, looting etc., which, in addition, contained the damning charge that the government remained inactive or even supportive of the violence because of its subservience to Buddhist interests. (Did Hussain himself contribute unwittingly to the propaganda campaign, as several others might have done? – that has remained enigmatic.

These modalities of destabilisation have by no means ceased with the toppling of the Rajapaksa regime. What is of direct salience to a reappraisal of evidence for the claimed intensification of Buddhist-Muslim rivalry is that the same ‘regime change’ strategies are now being pursued with enhanced vigour for protecting the tottering regime installed in 2015, with a short-term focus on averting its probable collapse at the forthcoming all-island local government elections a debacle to somehow mitigate at least in the main municipal areas such as Colombo and Kandy where there is an electorally formidable Muslim presence.

My present comments on the empirical basis of the claimed intensification of Buddhist attacks on the Muslims in Sri Lanka, I should clarify, are not based on a comprehensive study of the abundance of related reports available in published form (especially in the ‘social media’), although I have read the proceedings of the conference referred to earlier, many news reports, relevant statements by spokespersons for the government and state sector institutions such as the police; semi-official organisations like the Bar Council; certain ecclesiastical bodies and civil society outfits; and articles and comments on this subject that have appeared in two English language national newspapers and in internet blogs and other websites.

There are certain commonalities in these writings. First, the overwhelming majority of my sources refer to an increasing incidence of hostility targeted at Muslims by either unnamed mobs or cliques variously referred to as “Buddhist extremists/fanatics”, “followers of Bodu Bala S n ” (or other fringe group like R van Balak ya), “criminal elements”, “disgruntled youth”, or, as in a recent media reports, “a rampaging drug addict”. The frequency of occurrence of these events of violence is also occasionally indicated with reference to some time-frame, or is simply described as “many”, “extensive”, “widespread”, “increasing”, “escalating”, “ratcheting” etc., indicating that the impression most of the writers wish to convey is the prevalence of an ominous trend.

Evidence loaded with trivia

What I find strange in this body of evidence is the fact that it is loaded with trivia such as those referred to in the list compiled by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC, the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka) evidently for submission to the UN High Commission for Human Rights) and an overall scarcity of precise information indicating the intensity of the reported event. Barring a few exceptions (the most noteworthy exception being a report compiled by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies Colombo, that furnishes fairly detailed information on several major flashpoints such as Mawanella, Aluthgama, Dambulla and Grandpass, and has made a partially successful attempt at suppressing some of the innate anti-Buddhist prejudices)ii the overwhelming majority of the sources do not furnish information that would facilitate a comparative assessment of the real gravity of the problem which, to my mind, is essential for us to understand the seriousness of this claimed trend in comparison to intergroup conflicts elsewhere in the world not only in Buddhist countries of South and South East Asia, but in predominantly Hindu, Islamic or Christian countries in some of which ethnic conflict of one form or another is almost endemic. It is, indeed, unfortunate that we do not have a reputed scholar-journalist of the calibre of Asghar Ali Engineer who has monitored in detail the tragic Hindu-Muslim conflagrations in a large number of Indian cities, all of them published in the Economic and Political Weekly over several decades, apart from the reports of thorough and impartial investigations conducted by presidential commissions on the more disastrous episodes of intergroup violence.

Given the lacuna of comparable in-depth analysis on Sri Lanka, it would not be possible for the world to gauge how the widely publicised Aluthgama flare-up, for instance, compares with, say, the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1990 or the atrocities committed by Hindu mobs in the Muslim ghettoes of Ahmedabad two years later; or whether the role of Ven. Galagodaatt Gn nas ra of the BBS is comparable to that of the Burmese monk Ven. Ashin Wirathu and his ‘969 Movement’, or Swami Chinmayananda Sarasvati of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a leader of the “militant wing” of the BJP;or the extent to which Mahinda Rajapaksa’s alleged inaction in the face of sporadic inter-ethnic clashes during his second presidential tenure could be regarded similar in its causal nexus to that of Aung San Suu Kyi since her elevation to the office of ‘State Counsellor’ in April 2016, or of Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the deadly ‘Gujarat Riots’ of 1992. In the absence of the type of specific information on the spatial and temporal perspectives and some indication of the duration and destructive impact of the alleged Buddhist violence, the related sources of information and analysis, even those produced with the noble objective of safeguarding Buddhism from bigotry, could well be part and parcel of a process of rubbishing Sri Lanka and the religion of its majority community in the arena of global politics.

‘Grease Yaka’

I should illustrate the point I make here by referring to an article by Dr. Jehan Perera, well known for his pacifist and democratisation efforts, titled ‘Anti-Muslim Violence: The Puzzle of Continuing Impunity’, published in The Island of June 5, 2017. As a launching pad for his denunciation he has used the “grease devil” (grease yak ) reports that appeared in the press from time to time from about 2011 (the most recent one being dated May 27, 2017). Although the supposedly eye-witnessed ‘grease yakas’ (nude men, covering themselves with grease, and raiding homes at night to terrorise the occupants, especially women; but, in most cases, getting away with plundered booty and/or perverted satisfaction) have been reported from all over the island – Battaramulla and Talangama (suburbs of Colombo), Ehäliyagoda and Pelmadulla (Ratnapura District where the ‘grease yaka’ terror was tied up with several heinous murders related to the narcotic transactions), Kalpitiya (Puttalam District), Galenbindunuweva (Anuradhapura District), Middeniya (Matara District), Kattankudi (Batticaloa District), Haputal (Badulla District), and several rural localities in Jaffna District.

These details appear to have been of utmost irrelevance to the reconciliation efforts hawked by Dr. Perera. Thus, having recast just one published version of questionable authenticity of the ‘grease devil’ exploits to a story obviously intended to be understood by those unfamiliar with conditions in Sri Lanka as a planned campaign of terrorising Tamil communities in the north, conducted from the bases of an “army of occupation” of Jaffna peninsula to harass its civilian population in a quasi-military strategy of subjugation (!), he has, through a curious verbal sleight-of hand, proceeded to link it to a supposedly escalating series of attacks by grease yakas on Muslims living in predominantly Sinhalese areas, the evidence intended to substantiate it being a Baron Munchausen-type fabrication of “burning a section of the Alutgama Town” (a fairly large urbanised area midway between Colombo and Galle).

Thereafter, Dr. Perera, has drawn a parallel between the tragic fate of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees (described in several international publications as “the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia”) living in the Rakhine tribal homelands in Myanmar, with that of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, spicing his horror story with a passing reference to past attacks on the Christians, and ending with a condemnation of the government for making it possible for Buddhist miscreants to get away with impunity, but making the censure palatable to the Yahap lana regime by mentioning extenuating circumstances, as we can see in the following extract from his essay, thus killing several birds with a hail of stones.

“It may be that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act. The massive crowds bussed in by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally was larger than any other. It is also indicative of the political opposition’s ability to muster people power onto the street, even if they have to be provided with a handout inclusive of transport, meals and drinks. In this context the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will go away. The government may also be trying to follow the example of Myanmar, where the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate the hardline Buddhist nationalist groups within the government in order to win their support”.

The Aluthgama riot of mid-June 2014 has, indeed, been documented in detail by the media. More than 40 of these could be easily accessed via internet as film clips and news reports. Collectively they represent no more than a patchy coverage of what really happened. Apart from the print media in Sri Lanka, some of the major media firms of the ‘West’ also covered the episode, projecting it mainly as yet another example of a rising tide of “Buddhist violence” in Asia. In addition, it received attention in several scholarly works. In my assessment, the best concise accounts of this riot are found in the reports published by two fraternally linked Colombo-based NGOs –’International Centre for Ethnic Studies’, and ‘Law and Society Trust’. An extract from the report of the former organisation reads as follows:

“Ethnic riots erupted (on 15 June 2014) in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, (and the adjacent) Valipanna and Beruwela towns located in the South of Sri Lanka. The area has a large Muslim population that lived alongside a larger Sinhalese community. Amity between the two communities remained somewhat fragile, as communal violence had erupted previously, almost a decade earlier. The incident that reportedly triggered the riots in 2014 was an altercation* between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims from the area. Following the incident, a large rally was organised on 15 June to condemn the alleged attack on the Buddhist monk. The BBS participated in this rally and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, the General Secretary of the BBS, made racist (sic.) and inflammatory remarks against Muslims at the rally. … During the riots that followed, four persons including three Muslims were killed and over a hundred Muslim homes and businesses were destroyed”.*

(A careful study of many other sources suggest: (a) that the term ‘altercation’ is not an appropriate term to describe the harassment suffered by a bhikku by several ruffians (according to some reports, not of the local population), and (b) that there is an overestimation of the number of homes and shops damaged; and the Sinhalese also suffered comparable damage. (For related details, see Annexure 1)

About twenty-four film clips which I have examined for the purpose of writing the present reappraisal facilitates a rough reconstruction of the riot scenario over the next two days and its immediate aftermath. Following the harassment of the Buddhist monk on 12 June, there was a rapid spread of highly exaggerated rumour throughout Aluthgama and its hinterland conveying the impression of a severe Muslim assault. Simultaneously, there was the advent of BBS operatives, and the summoning of a mass rally to protest the alleged ‘Muslim offensive’ on 15 June in Aluthgama. Consequently, from about the early afternoon on the 15th hundreds of people were seen drifting along the main road leading towards the central commercial locality of Aluthgama past the suburb of Dharga Town (a predominantly Muslim locality within Aluthgama) in the form of a ragged walk, in order to attend a Bodu Bala S n (BBS) meeting, with hardly any indication of unusual excitement or latent violence. This inflow was watched by what appeared to be Muslim gatherings on either side of the road, showing signs of restless concern at what might have appeared to them as a ‘macho’ Sinhalese challenge, if not as a menacing Sinhalese invasion of their home ground.

BBS meeting in Aluthgama

The BBS meeting held in ‘downtown’ Aluthgama (adjacent to the railway station) began at about 2 p.m. While more and more people gathered at the venue to make it one of the largest of its kind ever held in this township, a series of leaders – addressed the gathering, all of whom contributing to the general theme of Buddhism being deprived of its due rights in Sri Lanka, and stressing the alleged Islamic aggression with reference not only to recent events in that locality, but more generally, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The star attraction was, of course, Ven. Galagodaathth Gn nas ra, whose aggressive demagoguery included a fierce attack on alleged government inaction in the face of an ominous Islamic threat to Buddhism. While appealing to the gathering to refrain from violence, he also (in disregard of irony as he often does) angrily threatened the Muslims about the disaster that would ensue: “if you even touch the Sangha once more, as you have done a few days ago”. He also made several crudely disparaging references to President Rajapaksa, and castigated the impotence of the police saying “eka neethiyak apata venath ekak unta” (one law for us, and another for them), and proclaiming that while the Tamils, Muslims and Christians have leaders committed exclusively to defending their respective interests, the Buddhists have none, implying, no doubt, that he could fill the lacuna.

The meeting ended at about 5 p.m. (probably under police instructions) and a part of the dispersing crowd began a trek (described in certain documents as a “procession”, which it was definitely not) along the Aluthgama-Matugama main road to the interior which, as mentioned above, runs through the predominantly Muslim Dharga Town. As recorded clearly in several video clips (which one could easily downloaded from internet), the passing “procession”, despite the absence of any visible violence or among its participants (verbal insults being hurled at the road-side gatherings of Muslims cannot be ruled out), was greeted in the vicinity of the ‘Grand Mosque’ of Dharga Town with a hail of stones and rubble that originated mainly from the construction site of a multi-storeyed structure (reminiscent of the momentous clash in the vicinity of the Meera Makkam Mosque in Kandy almost exactly a century earlier).

The events that led to this unexpected attack by a mob of Muslim youth, and the massive conflagration it ignited to last over several days, constitute a tragic story which must be looked at in detail because it illustrates several features of thematic relevance to the main objective of the present study. My reconstruction of this story is presented as an addendum to this essay (Annexure 1).

The events that led to this unexpected attack by a mob of Muslim youth, and the massive conflagration it ignited to last over several days, constitute a tragic story which must be looked at in detail because it illustrates several features of thematic relevance to the main objective of the present study. My reconstruction of this story is presented as an addendum to this essay (Annexure 1).

The overall impressions conveyed by that story could be summed up as follows:

(a) There is no doubt that the BBS meeting and Ven. Gn nas ra’s presence and his public utterances were potentially inflammatory. (Note that the injured Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the attack by several Muslim youth on 12 June had been brought to the stage, his injuries duly bandaged).

(b) However, it should not be forgotten that prior to the riot on 15 June there was a build-up of explosive communal tensions in the Dharga Town area at least from about the second week of that month (Appendix 1) warranting police action, both when serious complaints were lodged regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader (8 June) and on the assault suffered by Ven. Samitha (12 June), as well as when representatives of the Muslim community conveyed to the police their fear about a possible outbreak of mob violence in the area. Whatever justification the police might have had for their inaction, there were undercurrents of suspicion among the Sinhalese that the police were in the pay of the Muslims business community.

(c) The large influx of people to the BBS meeting venue is likely to have been a result of malevolent rumour mongering and, of course, the undeniable entertainment value of the BBS leader (Didn’t some of us in our youth go all the way to enjoy the ‘May Day’ performances especially by the inimitable scholar-legal luminary-pioneer Marxist, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in the Trotskyite “extra-parliamentary mode of capturing state power” in vogue at that time, roaring “gahapalla” (attack), his silhouette pointing at the old parliament complex against the crimson sunset over Galle Face green.

(d) On the 15th eve senior police officers were reluctant to exercise force to prevent signs of potential violence. There was no immediate action taken by them to stop the stoning. They preferred instead to attempt pacifying the more agitated persons in the crowds, realising no doubt that their interventions were being recorded by the media and the users of ‘smart phones’.

(e) Thus, the offensives in Aluthgama were very definitely not one sided. People on both sides engaged in, and suffered from, the violence – with more Muslims than Buddhists among the victims in the post-riot stock-taking of overall damage. Although later records referred to death-counts of up to about 8 Muslims and a Buddhist monk, no such claims were made in the course of many recorded random interviews.

(f) “Burning of a section of the Aluthgama town” is a highly exaggerated and unwarranted description of this sad episode, no different from the type of hyperbole often employed by Gn nas ra Thero in his public utterances, unless one were to argue, like school boys sometimes do, that even a lamp-post could be considered a section of a town.

(g) On several occasions certain Buddhist community leaders of the area joined their Muslim counterparts in appealing for calm and peace while standing amidst fairly large gatherings that appeared to endorse what they said. This conveys an impression that goes completely against an article published by the ‘Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (presumably to commemorate the third anniversary of the riot) according to which there is absolutely no hope for ethnic reconciliation in Aluthgama.

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka? A reappraisal of evidence and claims

Part 2

There is no dearth of writings that make the claim of Muslims in Sri Lanka being a minority that has, for long, suffered discrimination and harassment and, in the more recent past, been the target of “Islamophobic” persecution by the Buddhists. The more refined among these are some of the ‘features’ authored by the inimitable Izeth Hussain (ex-diplomat and regular columnist), hitting hard all round the wicket, as it were, often with easy elegance, and always, despite the pretence at intellectual detachment, with passionate commitment to his team’s victory. There is, of course, nothing wrong in that, except his occasionally getting caught at silly point.

Professor John Holt’s keynote address I referred to at the outset does not stand alone as an elevation of this pernicious claim to the plane of scholarly research. Among the others I have read, there are (a) the ICES and Law and Society studies (referred to earlier)iii which I think are the best of their kind, (b) Zuhair, 2016iv which, in my assessment, would have been excellent had the author matched its elegant style with prejudice-free substance; and (c) a monograph by Dr. Ameer Ali, one of my former faculty colleagues now living in Australia, titled ‘Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009’, published almost at the same time as Holt’s study, a brief comment on which is presented below.

In Ameer Ali’s analysis of the “fourth wave” (post-2009) – that of the earlier “waves” are no more than an exercise in re-inventing the wheel – lacks the sedate, persuasive approach typical of John Holt. Apart from the invective, there are several misconstrued references by Ali to several Buddhist outrages not referred to by John. These include “the destruction of a 400-years old Muslim shrine at Anuradhapura” (a mind-boggling archaeological discovery, according to a veteran historian whom I have consulted)v, prefaced by a tirade which accuses Rajapaksa of “…benevolently tolerating, if not openly supporting, … a vicious campaign to terrorise the Muslims, destroy their economy and demonize Islam through acts of intimidation, insult, incendiarism, and outright thuggery by ultranationalist organizations like the BBS, its surrogate parent JHU and the Sinhala R vaya”, and the presidential neglect to a mindset of “triumphalism and malevolence” towards the minority communities after the victory over the LTTE in 2009. Does Ali demonstrate more than all else that the ‘key’ to understanding the real nature of this entire conflict is to realize that the honourable don Ali is as eloquent in his lingo as the venerable monk Gn nas ra is in his, and that such eloquence in the dissemination of half-truths and falsehood has much the same destabilising impact – that of rousing the rabble. Surely, the failure of the government at that time to curtail Buddhist megalomaniacs is, in terms of realpolitik, comparable to the failure of earlier regimes to tame the ‘Tiger’ megalomaniac for well over two decades; and, moreover, those holding the reins of office in Colombo have always, in both war as well as peace, been in desperate need of at least a segment of Muslim electoral support and goodwill. What is this psychoanalytical tripe about a “triumphalist mindset”? So, let’s move out of the type of garbage replete with ethnic prejudices, and focus in this part of the article on the issues raised soberly by Professor Holt.

2.1. John Holt’s evidence for a rising tide of Buddhist hostilities

In addition to stating that there were over “150 documented perpetrations by Buddhists against Muslims” from early 2013 to mid-2014,vi Professor Holt has presented a short list of such episodes (reproduced below) as concrete evidence to substantiate the assertion of an intensifying trend. It seems reasonable to assume that, except for its first item, the others stand prominent among the “documented perpetrations” of the 18-month period preceding the ICES conference of 2014. Thus, going solely by this set of information, I would have no hesitation to conclude that, in comparison to the previous 12-year spell, there certainly was a calamitous ‘plateau’ distinct from about 2012, provided I could obtain information that helps me to understand whether “a BBS proposal” or a “R van Balak ya protest march”, or the remaining 140 or so of “documented (but unspecified) perpetrations” are comparable as acts of Buddhist hostility towards the Muslims to, say, the Aluthgama conflagration or the Dambulla demolition or the Mahiyangana desecration that are in his list.

(a) riot in the township of Mawanella

(b) removal of the mosque at Dambulla in response to Sinhala-Buddhist mob demands in 2012

(c) BBS campaign against the production of Halal food (2013-14)

(d) BBS proposal to ban the burka (2014)

(e) ‘Ravana Balaya’ (sic.) protest march (2013)

(f) desecration of a mosque in Mahiyangana (2013)

(g) attack by a Buddhist mob on Muslims in prayer at a newly constructed mosque in Grandpass, Colombo (2014)

(h) Aluthgama-Dhargar Town clash (2014).

(a) Mawanella Riot

The assertion that “scores of Muslim businesses were burnt out” in the Mawanella riot is a gross exaggeration made in whatever source John has relied upon. I had an unusual opportunity (courtesy of a senior police officer – a former student) of seeing the extent of the damage soon after the rioting had been brought under effective control, but before curfew was lifted, when I observed about twenty-five shops and houses bordering the Kandy-Colombo highway and in the bus-stand venue belonging to Muslims and Sinhalese that had suffered various extents of damage during the riot (it occurred in May 2001 and not in 1999 as John’s informant appears to have said). There was, at this time, a rising tide of electoral rivalry (the excessively turbulent presidential election in 1999, and the parliamentary elections that produced ‘hung’ legislatures in 2000 and 2001) in many parts of the country, especially in localities such as Mawanella where UNP and SLFP muscle-power was (as it still is) equally matched. In any event, the riot had hardly anything to do with Buddhist militancy. Reproduced below is a reference to an aspect of its wider context in an article I wrote at that time to the Delhi-based South Asia Intelligence Review.

“In the longer term the Muslim fears of becoming a beleaguered minority in the entire country could have been reinforced by several brief, localised Sinhalese-Muslim clashes of the recent past – in the township of Mawanella in May 2001, and in Colombo North in October 2002. There is, in addition, the long-standing dispute in the interior of the Eastern Province concerning an alleged encroachment by the Muslims of land belonging to an ancient Buddhist temple”.

(b) “Removal” of a mosque in Dambulla.

Urban functions in Dambulla until about the late 1970s were represented by no more than a small cluster of shops and primary-level government service outlets traversed by the Kandy-Jaffna highway, its income dependent mainly on the tertiary services the cluster provided to the thin scatter of peasant settlements in the surrounding area and to pilgrims visiting the historic cave-temple dating back to the pre-Christian era. Several changes witnessed in the 1980s – foremost among these were the opening up of ‘System H’ of the Mahaveli Programme to the northwest of Dambulla, invigoration of international tourism, and more generally, the advances in transport and travel that accompanied ‘liberalisation’ of the economy, and rapid population growth made it possible for Dambulla to become one of the largest market towns located mid-way between Sri Lanka’s central highlands and the northern plains, a pleasant stopover for visitors to the hallowed archaeological sites of S giriya, Anur dhapura and Polonnaruwa, and to emerge as the foremost centre of wholesale trade in perishable farm products commanding a commercial catchment extending over a large part of the island including Greater Colombo.

The relevance of these transformations to the political disturbances in this area stemmed mainly from the fact that the vast tracts of land which the sacred ‘Rangiri Dambulla’ temple had received over the past millennia as donations, much of it uncharted and/or uninhabited, and acknowledged vaguely as vih ragam (temple land), acquired a sharp upsurge of commercial value in the real-estate market. The first major outbreak of intense political dispute rooted in this fact was the agitation against the construction of a luxury tourist hotel overlooking the Kandalama lake – a campaign which, according to a Reuter report, attracted at its zenith more than 10,000 protesters (including a few volunteers for self-immolation!), objecting to the hotel project on grounds of its adverse ecological, social and cultural impact also involving a “land grab” of vih ragam by a consortium of large commercial firms. The protest fizzled out, and an elegant hotel pioneering eco-tourism in Sri Lanka came into being, the main reason for the former, and one of the principle beneficiaries of the latter being the Chief Incumbent of the Dambulla temple, Ven. In maluv Sri Sumangala, whose go-ahead for the hotel project, it was widely rumoured, was purchased by the investors for an astronomical sum of money. The other ‘give and take’ transactions also provided satisfaction to all concerned including the peasantry of the area which obtained from the investors an undertaking that the hotel employees other than managerial cadres will be recruited from among the local youth. A similar windfall for the venerable monk was rumoured to have occurred when the Sri Lanka Cricket Board acquired a large patch of land for its international stadium constructed in the year 2000. Needless to stress, these also meant an enormous elevation of Sri Sumangala thero’s status as a Buddhist leader in the country and a powerful folk hero of the area whom many kowtowed and obeyed.

An understanding of this setting, instead of being led by a fixation on the image of Buddhist bigotry and Sinhalese triumphalism which, of course, is what rings a bell in the ‘liberal’ West, is necessary to grasp the realities pertaining to the mosque dispute. That a large and stately mosque stands pristine in the main commercial locality of Dambulla, a couple of hundred meters away from the entrance to the rock temple, never under threat of attack or desecration, has hardly ever been mentioned. What was demolished on 27 April 2012 by a mob guided by Ven. Sumangala and several other monks in defiance of a small contingent of ‘law enforcers’ was a low single-storeyed structure of corrugated iron sheets for walls and roofing (and thus in appearance quite unlike any other mosque we usually see) occupying a small roadside site which, according to spokesmen for the Muslim community, had nevertheless been a place of Islamic worship for over 65-years. This claim, though emphatically refuted by Sri Sumangala thero and his flock, was publicly substantiated for TV and radio broadcast by a well-known Sinhalese political leader of ministerial rank in the area. Meanwhile, what a spokesperson for local government administration insisted was that the so-called demolition was, in fact, a hasty and unlawful act that ignored a thoroughly negotiated decision to relocate at a more suitable site outside the ‘sacred area’ of an ongoing conversion of a makeshift structure owned by a Muslim to a mosque. The Muslim leaders denied this charge, but one of the more vociferous among them said (this is a transcript of the filmed original): “we build more and more mosques with our own money, you should be building more and more of your temples with your money”.

The chief incumbent’s insistence that “we should never permit mosques to be constructed in this sacred area” has also been repeatedly documented in film and broadcast. Thus, what one could see in retrospect more prominently than all else is an abundance of jingoism. The Dambulla episode marks the inception of a strategy pursued by unseen forces the destabilising impact of which over the next two years depended much on the nature of the ‘manpower’ it could mobilise at the grassroots in the different flashpoints. Dambulla was certainly a avenue in which the strategy did achieve considerable success especially because it also represented the initiation of a drift of some of the most prominent Muslim leaders away from the Rajapaksa regime in which they held powerful posts.

(c) Desecration of a Mosque in Mahiyangana

The geographical setting here has some similarities to Dambulla – the venerated ‘Rajamahavih raya’ (literally, ‘great monarchic temple’) with which the name Mahiyangana has been associated from time immemorial; the enormous extent of land over which the temple could claim custodianship (but seldom does) as vih ragam, and the sharp upsurge of the township since about the late 1980s as a centre of trade, being located as it does at the gateway to ‘System C’, one of the largest Mahaveli Settlement complexes where, it so happened in its early stages, the ‘farm-gate’ (kamatha) bulk purchase of paddy was almost totally under the cartelised control of Muslim traders.

The story of the Mahiyangana clash which I construct here is based on several sources that contain heaps of mutually contradictory information – a sketch in an SLMC document; a retrospect published about a fortnight after the turbulences in a Sunday newspaper known for its intense antipathy towards the Rajapaksa regime; a media statement by Ven. Watarka Vijitha, the chief incumbent of a temple located at the market town of Girandurukotte within the Mahaveli System C’ and named ‘Mahaveli Viharaya’ (Vijitha thero was also an elected member of the local government institution of the area who had contested from the ruling party of that time, and one of the key personalities – a maverick – associated with the stormy events of July 2013); a report dated 21 May 2017 authored by Ifham Nizam titled ‘Government Silent as the BBS Holy War Continues’; a brief observation made by the Urul watte Dhammakeetti, the chief incumbent of the Rajamahaviharaya and, of course, an expression of deep concern issued by the US Embassy in Colombo that prompted bunkum Moon to shed another tear, this time on the ravaged Muslims of Sri Lanka

The Ven. Vijitha had been repeatedly harassed and, on one occasion, assaulted, by nondescript mobs opposed to him mainly on grounds of his close association with the Muslim traders of the area, his party affiliation, and allegedly, his encouragement of the construction of a Muslim prayer venue in proximity to the Rajamahaviharaya.

The sketch furnished in the SLMC report states that on the night of 11 July 2013, in a mob attack that lasted for about twenty minutes, the mosque was stoned and defiled with swine offal, and that at a meeting of the ‘Up-Country Muslim Council’ held the following day, Vijitha disclosed that Gn nas ra thero of the BBS and several others had discussions in the Rajamahavih raya premises on the day before the attack. Ven. Gn nas ra denied involvement in the alleged desecration but, having done so (according to several later press reports), assaulted Ven. Vijitha when the two met somewhere in Colombo a few days later. The sequel to this latter attack is that, its victim, according to the Judicial Medical Officer’s report, had injuries he himself had inflicted, presumably in order to enhance the gravity of the assault. Meanwhile the chief incumbent of the Rajamahavih raya has said that there never was a mosque in Mahiyangana, but that a structure used as a prayer room of the Muslims could have been an embryonic mosque. The removal of the mosque, Ifham Nizam has speculated, averted a disastrous conflict.

(d) Grandpass mob attack on Muslims

Eruptions of violence in this part of Colombo have been somewhat more frequent than elsewhere in the country. But one needs to take into account a gamut of considerations before concluding that it is an exemplification of intensifying religious tensions impelled by Buddhist bigots. Many localities in this area have for long constituted the venue of the multi-ethnic ‘underworld’ of Sri Lanka and the bailiwicks of rival gangland bosses who are known to have at least slender connections with their respective political masters among whom were/are politicians at the highest level, city fathers and business magnates. This same feature has been subject to detailed observation in other South Asian cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Karachi, Delhi and Calcutta. This is why, when gangland clashes occur, there is invariably a polarisation on ethnic/religious lines (I have written about this phenomenon in my recent book, Political Conflict in South Asia, pp. 179-183, illustrating it with Karachi experiences.).

The relevance of this to an understanding of conditions in several localities of the Colombo underworld is the emergence of a phenomenon that could be regarded as being featured by ‘narcopolitical’ violence. Even as recently as the late 1970s heroin was hardly known in Sri Lanka. Today, Greater Colombo is not only an important arena of its retail trade and consumption, but also a “conduit” in the highways of bulk transfers of heroin sourced from the ‘Golden Crescent’ on a global scale; and a disproportionate participation of the criminal fringe of the Muslim community in the related transactions (see, the annual reports of the ‘Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Bureau of Sri Lanka’, in particular, the data on the extraordinarily skewed ethnic distribution of the numbers convicted of drug-related crimes).

In order to make the background to the Grandpass conflagration more comprehensive, and since certain versions of this clash convey a false identity of the attacked shrine, it should be clarified that the ‘Grand Mosque’ of Colombo, established in the early 16th century, like several other architecturally grand mosques scattered throughout the city, stands in all its glory in a fairly affluent setting on New Moor Street, absolutely free of any external threat. The largest mosque in Grandpass is ‘Muhiyaddeen Jumma Masjid’ on St. Joseph Street which, like many other Islamic shrines that adorn the cityscape, has also never faced a challenge from Colombo’s multi-ethnic denizenry. What was attacked is a far more modest structure located in the ‘Grand Pass’ ward of the city, located along the ‘Swarna Chaitya Road’ of a densely populated working-class residential neighbourhood where the Buddhists marginally outnumber the others. This information is intended not to trivialise the outrage but to indicate that these and a few other localised mob attacks on places of worship during these months did not represent a Buddhist onslaught on the Muslims.

The narrative of a “Buddhist mob” attacking Muslims at a newly constructed mosque in Grandpass on 12 August 2013 is true but not the whole truth. What does emerge from the reports available is a rather confusing story of aggressive religiosity among both Buddhists as well as Muslims in a social ethos that facilitates instant formation of mobs invariably fuelled in late evenings by booze and drugs.

Earlier in 2013 a part of the land belonging to a mosque built in the 1960s was earmarked for acquisition by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) for a much needed widening a waste-water canal traversing the area. The related amicable agreement between the UDA and the trustees of the mosque involved the offer of an alternative site made available for re-location of the mosque, and, with the concurrence of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the setting up of a temporary structure along Swarna Chaitya Road for use by the Muslim devotees. It was the gradual refurbishing of that structure into a multi-storeyed building for permanent use as a mosque that conveyed the impression of a surreptitious addition of a permanent new mosque to this excessively overcrowded residential area, while the old mosque stands round the corner uninterrupted in its use, that led, Sinhalese residents of locality led by the monks from the local temple, to make peaceful representations (on 5 July) and a larger collective demand (17 July), the latter resulting in an intervention by the ministry of Religious Affairs in the form of sponsoring a former discussion among representatives of the different interests concerned, reaching an understanding that the mosque trustees will withdraw from the temporary premises soon after the end of the rituals connected with the Ramadan fast on 7 August 2013. It was when there were no signs of the promised vacation that there was a build-up of tensions involving, on the one hand, the intervention of rabble-rousing Buddhist extremists from outside and, on the other, what seemed a preparation on the part of the temple devotees to meet possible violence with violence to defend their right to use the new premises as a mosque.

Several sources indicate that a mob of about 50 to 60 stoned the mosque, broke into its inner sanctums, and damaged the fixtures in the ground floor in a ferocious attack that began at about 6.45 p.m. on 10 August 2013, by which time the devotees had completed their evening prayers. When the attack began, about 50 of his devotees retreated to the upper floor. The Imam of the mosque emphasised in a statement that the devotees did not use any weapons to defend themselves and that, at the time of this offensive, a contingent of about 40 police personnel remained as mere spectators outside the mosque. Several other stories including a Reuter report dated 12 August, news broadcast by the BBC on 12 August a story filed by its Colombo correspondent, “hundreds of Muslims took to the streets during the attack on the mosque, and that the police and the ‘Special Task Force’ dispersed the crowd, imposing a curfew in the area. There are, also the reports which states that these measures were selective, and that the law enforcement efforts were administered mainly on the Muslims. Aljazeera (an institution that has a record of hostility towards Sri Lanka) reported on 13 August that about 10 injured persons from both communities were admitted to hospital (among them, two police officers).

In the turbulent aftermath of the riot there were interventions by a conglomerate of political bigwigs – among them, Rauf Hakeem, SLMC leader and Minister of Justice; A. H. M. Fowzie, Minister of Urban Development; Rishard Bathiyutheen, Minister of Industry and Commerce, Faizer Musthapha, Minister of Investment Promotion; Basheer Segu Dawood, Minister of Productivity Promotion; M.L.A.M. Hisbullah, Deputy Minister of Economic Development (all of the central government during the much maligned Rajapaksa regime); Alavi Maulana (Governor of the Western Province); and A.J.M. Muzammil, the Mayor of Colombo. This last set of information is especially meant for the edification of those who would follow our friend John Holt in the search for the truth about the ‘plight’ of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar from comparative perspectives.

(e) BBS’s Anti-Halal Campaign

The information furnished by Professor Holt on this component of his evidence represents an element of misconception. What the BBS and like-minded outfits campaigned against was not the production and the consumption of Halal food, but the insistence by Islamic authorities on Halal certification being made a mandatory requirement for Muslims to consume any animal-based food, and the large-scale producers and sellers of such foods promptly conforming to that requirement, presumably in order to ensure that they and their retail outlets retain the Muslim segment of the consumer market (10% of the total?) and possibly with the vision of finding a niche in the Middle-East market of processed food. The certification entailed the payment of money (large amounts, according to those who protested, a claim the validity of which I do not know) to the Muslim authorities by the producers of processed and semi-processed foods, and their round-the-clock employment of Muslim supervisory personnel to ensure that the stipulated Halal procedures were being followed. This, according to the information I gathered, was also readily accepted by the larger suppliers of a range of foods who are said to have passed the additional costs to the consumers (again, I don’t know whether this is true). In any case, it is unlikely that Halal certification would have resulted in a significant addition to prices in the retail market. But I do know that many Sinhalese (not only supporters of the BBS) found it an unnecessary act of ‘economic aggression’, especially when seen against the backdrop of the cartelised control which Muslim trading clans had over an overwhelmingly large share of the market in poultry products and beef, a near-monopoly (until it was breached in the recent past by kinsmen of the present president) over the wholesale market in rice in certain areas of surplus production, and a sizeable share of the market in gemstone.

The timing of the advent of Halal certification is quite enigmatic from research perspectives. Accordingly, I have reason to wonder whether the mullah edict was a reaction to an upsurge of ritual religiosity in the majority community. Or, more generally, was it a component of a worldwide priestly response representing the emerging “Clash of Civilisations” hypothesised by Samuel Huntington? Regardless of the ‘why’, there has never been an objection by Buddhists to Muslims following the Islamic ritual of Halal in their food consumption. Cattle slaughter of any form is, of course, thoroughly resented by most Buddhists and Hindus.

(h) Hijab/Burqa ban proposal

There could be no denial that in public speeches, posters and pamphlets of the Buddhist fringe groups, especially the BBS, have occasionally targeted the hijab and the burqa in their anti-Islamic diatribes and proposed that these should be banned. The perfunctorily prepared list of 235 “Anti-Muslim Attacks” in an SLMC report (ibid., 2015) refers to 7 “attacks” on women employed in schools and hospitals in the form of requests/orders by their school-heads or hospital administrators to refrain from wearing these ‘identity-markers’ (with no information on ‘why’ and ‘how’ and the ‘outcome’); 7 items of anti-hijab/burqa statements in posters and leaflets; 5 acts of verbal harassments by males in public places (with no information on their form); and 1 item referring to a request made by a medical officer to a patient to remove her hijab in the course of a clinical examination. These must have caused embarrassment or mental pain sufficiently intense for being conveyed to the SLMC. In addition, quite a number of listed items are publicised speeches, posters and pamphlets by unidentified outfits and person where reference is said to have been made to these items of dress.

Could this type of information be considered as reinforcing a real fear of a rising tide of Buddhist animosity towards the Muslims? Having spent more than 70 years of my life in social settings of mixed ethnicity – school hostel, Peradeniya university (the largest ethnically heterogeneous institution in the country), and my present residential neighbourhood – there are two observations of salience to an understanding of grassroots realities that I ought to make – one, that thirty or forty years ago a hijab- or burqa-clad female was a rare sight here in the Kandyan areas where some of the largest concentrations of Muslim communities outside the coastal lowlands of the east are found (was it at least partly because they preferred to remain cloistered in their homes at that time?); and the other, there has never been a serious concern among the non-Muslims about this or any other sartorial change that has occurred in this part of the country.

3. Soma-JHU-BBS, a continuum of Buddhist militancy?

Professor Holt, at the outset of his keynote presentation, prefaced his thematic contention with the observation that the Sri Lankan norm has all along been peaceful coexistence among the nation’s ethnic/religious groups, referring to the “inclusivism” that has been a hallmark of Buddhism as practiced in our country from ancient times. It was because this was the sugar coating on his bitter thematic pill that prompted from me to draw his attention (in a personal communication) to the brevity of his reference to the excruciating grief passively endured by Sinhalese-Buddhists at, say, the massacre of 165 aged worshipers at the Sri Maha B dhi, the devastating attack on the Dalad M lig wa, and the slaughter of 17 baby-monks at Arantalawa, compared to the detailed sets of largely unverified information presented by him as atrocities allegedly committed by Sinhalese-Buddhist in the more recent past. This, I insist was not a kneejerk response on my part. Though having no claim to a Buddhist identity, I find revolting irony and deceit in the fact that perpetrators of these heinous crimes are never referred to with a ‘Christian’ or ‘Hindu’ prefix despite the unconcealed association some of them had with the clergy, even those at the most exalted levels, of their religions, while the criminals at Alutgama or Grandpass are readily branded as ‘Buddhists’ though no Buddhist prelate ever had comparable links with extremist groups like the BBS or the R van Balak ya.

According to Professor Holt the upsurge of Buddhist violence in the recent years which he has portrayed represents the culmination of an ideological process set in motion by the late Gangodawila Soma in the early years of the present century and carried forward by groups like the J tika Hela Urumaya and Bodu Bala S n . I confine myself here to mentioning a few facts of relevance to a scrutiny of this component of John’s submissions.

3.1. Venerable Gangodawila Soma

Looking back into the past few decades I find several Buddhist monks who, though not belonging to the Sangha elite in the mainstream, not associated with displays of ceremonial piety by our political leaders, and not recipients of political patronage, nevertheless gained extraordinary popularity. This, in my view, was due to their depth of understanding of the relevance of what the Buddha taught to contemporary Sri Lanka and the unusual ways in which they often disseminated Buddha’s teachings. The prelates Madihe Pagnaseeha and Piyadassi of Vajir rama are the ones that immediately come to mind. On the more recent past I recall Ven. Kotagama V cheeswara (the erudite author of several works among which Saranankara Sangharja Samaya is considered a classic), who left an indelible imprint on educated lay Buddhists. Even more profound in impact was the youthful Ven. Panadura Ariyadhamma, adored by an amazingly large following. One of his special attractions, I have been told, was that pansil, pirith and other stanzas he chanted at rituals were his own translations of the Pali originals to Sinhala. The outpouring of grief at his sudden death was probably as large and as spontaneous as that witnessed at the death of Ven. Soma, except that the Ariyadhamma funeral did not get much TV coverage probably because his deviation from orthodoxy did not find favour with President Premadasa, and, of course, there were no private sector TV channels at that time. So, in this sense, Soma, in life and in death, was not a unique phenomenon.

Soma’s mission extended over about five years in the course of which he did make frequent references to an impending threat to the survival of Sri Lanka, as indeed many of us believed at that time. The devastating Tiger attacks represented only one component of that threat. The others included the willingness of both President Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as her rival Ranil Wickremasingha to succumb to the pressures exerted by the LTTE and its foreign patrons purely in order to strengthen themselves in their mutual power struggle – remember Chandrika’s ISGA proposals, the P-TOMS deal, the draft ‘quasi-federal’ constitution tabled in parliament in 2000; and Ranil’s potentially disastrous ‘Oslo Accord’ of 2002? And, it was Prabhakaran’s intransigence that saved Sri Lanka from certain peril. In addition, there were the cultural and economic offensives (hazily referred to as ‘consumerism’) against Sri Lanka about which highly respected lay intellectuals like Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera also spoke and wrote with passion.

The vehemence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism witnessed in the late 1990s was more than all else a product of that ethos of desperation and despair. It took various parallel and not sequential forms, of which Soma’s mission was one. Others included the rise of organisations such as the Sihala Urumaya (the original avatar of the JHU), Dharmavijaya Foundation, Deshapremi Jathika Peramuna (National Patriotic Front), and quite a few others, paralleled by the more conspicuous resurrection of the JVP that had not lost the ardently nationalist stance it had displayed in the 1980s. These were, for the most part, discrete entities, operating independently of one another and, invariably, in mutual rivalry.

There could be no denial that certain Soma assertions were detrimental to the interests of the Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Those that readily come to mind are: (a) Soma’s conviction that divine worship of any sort by Buddhists does not conform to Buddhism. This, in my understanding, is quite correct; but must have been resented by god-worshippers, and must have been seen as an attack on the presence of Hindu shrines in Buddhist temple premises and the popularity of Kataragama which receives a great deal of across the board patronage; (b) Soma’s condemnation of cattle slaughter (a largely Muslim industry) and his urging a ban on the sale and consumption of beef; (c) his fervent opposition to animal sacrifices at certain Kovil rituals like the one conducted annually at Munneswaram, and his request that it should be prohibited; (d) his attack on what he referred to as ‘unethical conversion’ to Christianity practiced mainly by the so-called ‘evangelicals’ with funds from the United States which, for reasons obscure, acquired vigour in the 1990s even in Kandy but mainly in rural areas where Buddhist temples and their devotees are poverty stricken. Soma had a lengthy TV debate (very cordially) with the late Mohammed Asraff, the founder-leader of the SLMC (who scored many debating points), on the issue of encroachment of temple lands in the eastern lowlands. Considered collectively, however, these were peripheral to Soma’s discourses on the decaying Buddhist culture and moral values in Sri Lanka. I have listened to him on three occasions – twice on TV, and once in the village my parents lived where it was a dialogue led by Soma with a large gathering that focused destabilising changes in the daily life at home and work-place, illustrated at times by what the Buddha said to his disciples or an abridged version of a J thaka tale. I cannot believe that these had the effect of instigating mob violence against non-Buddhist groups.

3.2. Origin of the J thika Hela Urumaya (JHU)

To say, as Professor Holt has done, that the JHU originated in the wake of Soma’s demise is an error of fact. The JHU, even in its recently published documents, refers to Sihala Urumaya (SU – ‘Sinhalese Heritage’) being founded in 1999 (when Soma was just entering the limelight, following his return from a prolonged stay in Australia). There was a pithy stanza with which the SU rationalised the need for their new political party, a rough translation of which could be read as follows:

“They are rogues, these are also rouges,

Only Sihala Urumaya can save the nation from its fate”.

(Note: “they” referred to the UNP, and “these” to the SLFP)

The following “non-negotiable principles” (cited below verbatim) were formally adopted at its inauguration.

The provisions in the present constitution relating to the National Flag, the National Anthem and the Buddha S sana should remain inviolate.

There should be no division of the country for political or administrative reasons on the basis of ethnicity.

Sri Lanka being the homeland of all is citizens, the claim that the North and the East as the homeland of the Tamils is rejected and it has no validity.

The 13th amendment to the constitution should be repealed and all legislative action taken under it should be treated as null and void. The provincial councils will be abolished.

Devolution of power should not be used as a means to the resolution of a non-existent ethnic problem.

Executive presidency should be abolished.

Interestingly, the SU had two laymen as its Chairman and Secretary – S. L. Gunasekera and Tilak Karunaratne. The other well-known lay persons in its Ex-Co included Patali Champika Ranawaka (defector from the JVP), A D V de S Indraratne (former professor of Economics at Colombo), C. M. Madduma Bandara (former Peradeniya VC) and Neville Karunatilleke (former Governor of the Central Bank). Arjuna Ranatunga, “The World Cup Winning Hero”, also had a brief tango with the SU. The Bhikku leadership included Ellawela Medhananda, Omalpe Sobitha, Uduwe Dhammaloka, Athuraliye Ratana and Kolonnawe Sumangala (& several others whose names I cannot remember) all of whom were elected MPs in 2004 when they contested under the JHU banner.

3.3. Bhikkus in Parliament: “Crossing a Line”?

What happened in the period leading up to the elections of 2004 was that a plenary meeting of the SU decided to reconstitute the party with a new name (JHS) and a new leadership, and to field Bhikku candidates at the election in alliance with the SLFP. Who had popular appeal and “name recognition” among the ordinary folk – vitally important under the “preferential voting” system in vogue. Note also that, by 2004, the monks who contested in the elections held that year and several others of the JHU had become well known to the public because they had figured at the vanguard of the massive public protests against some of the potentially disastrous reforms mooted by Chandrika and Ranil (referred to above). It was these circumstances, and not what John has portrayed as a posthumous impact of Soma, that prompted the JHU to become a force to be reckoned with in parliamentary politics in 2004. In any event, there was no “crossing the line” from the temple to politics of our country because throughout the ages there was no such line to cross.

3.4. Bodu Bala S n (BBS): What John Holt has missed

Having had the opportunity of observing the BBS in action since its ‘post-war’ advent to the political limelight of Sri Lanka and of reading some of its Sinhala publications, and having followed as closely as I can the related media coverage, my impressions and speculations on the BBS are as follows:

The BBS’s flock is not numerically significant though it has a spatial scatter of cells consisting of loyal youth – mostly, rebels in search of a cause. Some of its meetings, however, are well attended largely by curious onlookers. Preparatory work for its political rallies entails a great deal of effort and expenditure. There appears to be no shortage in the supply of the required funds.

Ven. Galabodaatte Gn nas ra was in the executive committee of the JHU in 2004. He left the JHU, claiming that it had become subservient to the interests of President Rajapaksa and his party, and hence had lost its purpose. It was probably this loudly proclaimed stance that enabled him to get external sponsorship for his foreign travels. C. A. Chandraprema with his impeccable record in investigative journalism has in fact unearthed evidence indicating that he is likely to have received sponsorship and support from the United States while having clandestine links with the UNP leadership (see, The Island of 22 June 2017). And, the Norwegian government providing funds for his trip to Europe has since been an open secret. Ven. Gn nas ra denies with vehemence and anger this support from external sources, and claims that the overwhelming majority of his flock (including the Sangha) is from the rural poor who make immense material sacrifices to support the BBS cause.

At his public performances Ven. Gn nas ra frequently hurls insults at the Rajapaksas. Going by the dictum that “in politics nothing is what it appears to be” this could be interpreted in various ways. Whatever the interpretation, there could be no denial that in the period leading up to the national elections of 2015, he was a boon to Ranil Wickremasinghe and a bane to the Rajapaksa camp.

This brings me to the elusive question of whether at least some of the outbursts of violence attributed to the BBS have been stage-managed. It is known that this type of destabilization, sponsored by the CIA, did occur in Pakistan, and that it led successively to the eviction of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from office, his conviction for murder by a kangaroo court, and his being hanged. Bhutto’s real ‘offense’ was that, although he received massive US military assistance in his war against the Balochi tribes in 1974, he thereafter began to lean increasingly towards China in his foreign relations. No less a person than Ramsay Clarke (one time Attorney General of the US) has borne testimony to this fact; and taking into account several writings by Pakistani scholars on this episode as well, and the more recent global experiences with various ‘Springs’, and the hostility of the self-proclaimed “international community” towards Sri Lanka, one cannot rule out the possibility of Sri Lanka being the victim of yet another US-led attempt at “making the world safe for democracy”. Disastrous US interventions also occurred in the period leading to the six-year ‘People’s War’ in Nepal. Certain scholars there believe that the 2001 assassination of King Birendra and nine members of the royal family in a palace carnage was a CIA plot and was not, as widely publicised in its aftermath, the product of the broken heart and demented mind of Prince Dipendra, the heir to the throne.

Public activities of the BBS appear to be controlled very largely by Ven. Gn nas ra a domineering personality who becomes quite frenzied when provoked. Even those who believe that his proclaimed grievances are not entirely devoid of substance are thoroughly embarrassed by his excessive aggression. He is so obviously a megalomaniac. He craves publicity which continues to be provided in abundance by certain private sector TV channels and newspapers that were arrayed against the Rajapaksa government. To these firms, moreover, kal rasa of any form – even pilikulrasa – is essential for enhancing advertising revenue, which also means that the more publicity he gets the more wildly entertaining he becomes, while continuing to perform his ascribed role in current political affairs.

While approaching the end of this essay I came across the article by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka titled ‘The issue is incitement: The BBS, Champika & the Gota factor’ in The Island of 22 June 2017 which begins with the proposition that it is easier to resolve (legally and morally) whether a given statement (or action) is tantamount to incitement of violence than whether it represents ‘extremism’ (or ‘ultra-nationalism’ or ‘chauvinism’). This, as most of Dr. Jayatyilleka’s ideas, is incisive and thought-provoking, but when thought is provoked, seems tenuous either as a generalization on human experiences or in relation to a specific statement (or action) such as those by Venerable Gnaniss ra Thero.

To illustrate, let me begin with a story from the Bible. Jesus Christ after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, according to St. Matthew (21: 12-13), “went into the temple of God and cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them who sold doves, and said unto them, it is written, my house shall be called the House of Prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves”. Rome might have looked at this episode as a minor affront to its imperial might; but no doubt it infuriated the “Sadducees and Pharisees”to a pitch that found expression in the harrowing mob violence and the crucifixion inflicted on Jesus a few days later. Now, would you say that the ‘incitement’ part of this story is different from the Prelate In maluw Sumangala’s repeated assertion: “We cannot allow mosques to be built within this shuddhabhoomiya (‘sacred area’ adjacent to his temple).

To cite a few other random illustrations, was Marc Anthony as dramatized by Shakespeare bemoaning the death of his mentor or inciting violence against powerful senators of the Roman Empire? John Kennedy’s grandiloquent declaration, “Violence in pursuit of liberty is not crime”- did it inspire at least some of the ideologues of the ‘Civil rights’ mob violence like James Baldwin who wrote ‘The Fire Next Time’? What about the Bushes – father and son – and their rhetoric aimed at generating mass support for the ruthless bombardment of Iraq, or that of Obama prior to launching ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ cause an escalation of ISIS retaliatory violence? Closer home, what of the Marxist stalwarts of our own ‘Old Left’ who advocated extra-parliamentary strategies of capturing State power, and thus contributed to the homicidal and suicidal mindset of the youth who pursued that strategy two decades later. Illustrations are plentiful. You can think carefully and arrive at your own conclusions on whether “incitement” is easily definable, legally and morally, especially in relation to these ‘holy wars’ – Buddhist or Islamic or any other persuasion.

The problem about getting into the semantics of ‘incitement’ is that it diverts attention from the essence of the ‘post-war’ crisis in our country – the product of an externally sponsored, multifaceted ‘regime change’ project, a prominent facet of which was the alienation of the Muslim community from the Rajapaksa regime. The recent insidious revival of this effort is no doubt intended to protect the puppet regime installed in 2015. There are faint signs of our Muslim community gradually awakening to this fact.

The foregoing comment should not be misinterpreted as a refutation of Dr. Jayatilleka’s forthright conclusion. I fully agree that the only possibility of reversing the trend of decay and disintegration of Sri Lanka could be the re-establishment of a regime consisting of a broad coalition of forces to which Mahinda Rajapaksa would provide leadership. I do not know of any duumvirates that have been particularly successful – those I know about like the one in the immediate aftermath of former Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of Tito, or the one we have at present here have been disastrous.

One Response to “Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka? A reappraisal of evidence and claims”

  1. Noor Nizam Says:

    This is a wonderful Political Communication Research piece published for the benefit of both the Muslim and Sinhala community to help understand “HARMONY”. This article should be more read (with a free mind) by Sri Lankan Muslims, especially the educated and knowledgeable. It should, if possible be translated into Sinhala and Tamil languages to enable the ordinary Muslim “pamaramakkal” in the rural areas and the villages to be informed about the realities that so-called Muslim Civil Society groups/leaders, Muslim Ulema, Muslim politicians and Muslim party leaders and, especially the Muslim Youth will understand the “REALITY” of the situation.
    Noor Nizam – “The Muslim Voice”.

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