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A Religious Police For The Rajapaksas

“The BBS will take immediate steps to form a ‘Cane Force’ against those who act in a manner insulting to Buddhism during the Wesak season”. –Rev. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero (Lankadeepa – 17.5.2013) 

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Pro-democracy demonstrators protesting against the flawed Iranian Presidential Election of 2009 feared one enemy above all other – the Basij,Iran’s religious police. As the ‘Protectors’ of the values deemed valuable by Iran’s ruling Ayatollahs, Basij is generally occupied with breaking-up parties, destroying satellite dishes, lashing bloggers and attacking women considered ‘improperly attired’. But Basij is far more than a bunch of zealots with a penchant for violence and sadism; it is also an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of Iran’s rulers, a cudgel to be used against political opponents (including dissident Ayatollahs). Basij played a brutally effective role in defeating the 2009 pro-democracy movement. The next Presidential election is scheduled for June 2013 and Basij is busy cracking down on Tehran’s coffee shops, the political-oases of Iranian intellectuals/dissidents.

Mutaween – the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Protection of Vice – is Saudi Arabia’s Basij. Its members also roam the streets searching for offenders, ranging from women ‘violating’ the dress-code and fans of Western music/films/TV shows to non-related males and females who interact with each other. In two emblematic cases, Mutaween arrested a 70 year old woman for having two unrelated men in her house (they were delivering bread; she got 70 lashes) and prevented fire fighters from rescuing female students from a burning school (15 girls died). Mutaween is also indispensable in buttressing the power of the Saudi ruling family. It cracks down on critics/dissidents; its leader recently warned that twitter users – one of the very few platforms available to the regime’s opponents in this über-despotic land – are eternally damned.

Now the Bodu Bala Sena wants to give Sri Lanka and its ruling clan their very own Sinhala-Buddhist religious police.

At a recent press conference, Ven. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero announced that the BBS plans to form a ‘Cane Force’ (Weval Balakaya) to ensure ‘proper conduct’ during the Wesak season: “The monks of Bodu Bala Sena will go from village to village carrying canes to control/punish those people who are acting indecently”[i].

It is the BBS’s intake on the Buddha’s final exhortation to monks, to travel far and wide, for the wellbeing of the masses.

Religious fanatics cause damage other religions; but their most irreparable harm is reserved for their own faith. The likes of Taliban, Saudi Wahabis and Iran’s Ayatollahs cause far more harm to the reputation of Islam with their inanely brutal conduct than all the anti-Islamic propaganda of all ages. The Inquisition and the Witch-Hunts are still bywords for violent intolerance and persecution; the midget-descendents of those Christian fanatics still oppose the teaching of evolution in schools and demand the death penalty for homosexuals. Hindu fanatics who defend such repressive practices as casteism and Jewish zealots who demand a country segregated along not just Jewish-Palestinian but also gender-lines are the worst detractors of their own faiths.

If anything would be more damaging to Buddhism than Myanmar’s rampaging monks, it will be Sri Lanka’s BBS types, on the warpath against not just the ‘religious-other’ but also against fellow Buddhists who refuse to accept ludicrously fanatical fatwas.

When Martin Wickremesinghe’s Bava Tharanaya was published in the 1970’s, a vocal-minority of monks and lay people wanted it banned (probably without reading it) as an insult to the Gautama Buddha and Buddhism. Today, the BBS would burn the book, attack the bookshops and pronounce Martin Wickremesinghe to be a traitor in the pay of foreign conspirators.

The BBS’s ruffianly conduct towards a group of Buddhist monks protesting outside its headquarters is a warning of what Lankan Buddhists – including monks – can expect in a country in thrall to fanatics. Apart from a dress-code, a code-of-conduct, an Index of Banned books/movies/plays and a socio-cultural inquisition, the BBS-types might develop their own version of Buddhism, including what monks should sermonise on and which politics are kosher.

Fanaticism is often inane.  During the annual Cultural Festival in Riyadh this April, Mutaween arrested and deported three male delegates from the United Arab Emirates for being ‘too good looking’! Take the artificial ho-ha about a storm named ‘Mahasen’; a BBS-type organisation stormed the Meteorological Department, demanded an immediate name-change and announced that the naming was a foreign conspiracy. This asinine conduct could have been dismissed as an antic of attention-seeking fanatics, expect that President Rajapaksa mentioned ‘the naming-of-the-storm-Mahasen issue’ in his Victory Day Speech, as proof of an anti-Lankan conspiracy.

That was silly; it was also indicative of the symbiotic relationship between the Rajapaksas and the Sinhala-Buddhist lunatic-fringe.

BBS: From Halal to the 13th Amendment

From warring against Muslims and policing Sinhala-Buddhists the BBS has waded into purely political-waters, by declaring war against the 13th Amendment.

The Rajapaksas excel at using cat’s paws. That is how they de-merged the North and the East, checkmated the IIGEP and impeached the Chief Justice (not a single Rajapaksa signed the impeachment motion).

The Siblings need a way out of the Northern PC poll. A postponement might compel Indiato put its weight behind Canada’s call to boycott the HambantotaCommonwealth. Delhihas already warned against denuding the 13th Amendment.

The Rajapaksas can hold a relatively free and fair election and allow the TNA to form a council (reserving the option of dissolving it later), but this option may not suit the Siblings’ maximalist-palate. An election suffused with violence and malpractices might ignite Tamilnadu and compel Delhi to sabotage the Hambantota Commonwealth.

So, why not get Sinhala-Buddhist maximalist organisations to launch a campaign against the Northern PC poll; and to file a case in the Supreme Court asking for a postponement? Then the Rajapaksas can escape retribution by telling Delhi that the Judiciary postponed the election. (Who can doubt Mohan Peiris’ willingness to give any order the Rajapaksas order him to give?)

The BBS, given its willingness to descend to levels even Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka are a tad reluctant to – can play a ignobly pre-eminent role in such a campaign. Since it is not a UPFA member, the Rajapaksas can disclaim all responsibility; they can have their cake and eat it.

Just as economic neo-liberalism seeks to make the world more like what it was under pre-socialist capitalism in terms of relations of production, religious-fanaticism seeks a return to pre-Enlightenment (European-Christian) values/morals. Fanatics of all religions are not just viscerally opposed to the progressive, secular and libertarian currents which led to and resulted from European Enlightenment. They are also completely antagonistic to the tolerant ethos which characterised many a non-European civilisation/ruler from the Ottoman and Mogul Empires,Baghdad and Syrian Caliphates and Al Andalus to India’s Ashoka, ancient Greece,Persia and Mesopotamia.

Historically, the religion-politics nexus played a negative role, tearing countries apart, flattening everything progressive in its path, cultivating intolerance and obscurantism and dragging societies to places they never intended to go initially.

Saudi Arabiais the perfect example of what can happen to a country, even in our own time, when a ruling clan combine religion with politics to perpetuate itself in power.

Let us beware. 


[i] Lankadeepa – 17.5.2013

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Let’s Not Do This: A Wee Note To Dr Jayatileka And Mr Seneviratne

An excellent piece in the New York Times today talks about ‘Monks Gone Bad’, describing a corrupt and violent Sangha that uses hate speech and abuse against minorities and is helmed by leaders who resemble fatuous politicians and not the ‘birds of the wing’ that the Buddha wanted his mendicant followers to be. I am not here to point out the contradictions between Buddhism as taught and Buddhism as practiced, the ingloriousness of Buddhist praxis nowadays is evident for all to see. I just wanted to point out that at every instance in that article where I saw Myanmar, I could have easily inserted Sri Lanka. For every instance where I read about 969 in the news, I can insert ‘Bodu Bala Sena’. About the only words that do not require replacing are ‘anti-Muslim’, ‘minority’ and ‘hate’.

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As we all know, the police, together with the Bodu Bala Sena soon disbursed the vigil, arresting some, manhandling others, and collecting the names and pictures of most of the attendees.

The Bodu Bala Sena and its kindred run amok in Sri Lanka, like bullies in a school playground, and with not much more in the way of finesse. They hurl offensive invective towards religious minorities, and their words have resulted in quite a few violent incidents against Muslims ,and at least one against Christians, re-opening wounds in the country that are still struggling to heal after the 30 year war. They seem to operate in a space where Sri Lanka has not just lost so many lives, its economic development, and so much of its natural beauty to a long, long war. In order, perhaps, to call their attention to this, a peaceful vigil was held outside the headquarters of the Bodu Bala Sena. As we all know, the police, together with the Bodu Bala Sena soon disbursed the vigil, arresting some, manhandling others, and collecting the names and pictures of most of the attendees. Not only this, the Facebook page of the Bodu Bala Sena decided to ‘name and shame’ these attendees, causing their supporters to enact the most disgraceful bout of name-calling, verbal harassment and racist trolling that I have ever seen on social media.

One of the ‘points of order’ from the Bodu Bala Sena, its supporters and some of the media who covered the incident, was that the legitimacy of the vigil was in question because the attendees did not represent the Buddhist population, that many Muslims, Christians and Hindus were present. On Facebook, attendees are called out as ‘demalek’ ‘muslimayek’ ‘jathiyak nathe’. Indeed, an attendee tweeted that he overheard someone saying that the vigil was convened due to a ‘conspiracy of Muslims and Catholics’. So much for a critical understanding of religious history- perhaps the speaker would be better served from devoting his time to education rather than racist troublemaking! To each his own, however.
It is altogether more worrying thing that this misrepresentation of the attendees was not only picked up by the media, but that it was also the feature of an article by Malinda Seneviratne, writing in the Colombo Telegraph. The good gentleman, from his considerable experience, no doubt, is able to discern a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist, and therefore writes an entirely unnecessary article that serves only to distance himself from standing with those who attended the vigil. In response, Dr Dayan Jayatileka – who is experiencing some changes to his tune- quite rightly pointed out the flaws in Mr Seneviratne’s argument, but did it in a manner that entirely calls attention to his own accomplishments and ‘stake’ in the manner. The riposte from Mr Seneviratne was then, to accuse the good Doctor of ‘throwing his CV’ at him. I ask you, gentlemen, is this really the response to what is happening in Sri Lanka? The actions of the Bodu Bala Sena, and the complicity of the government in them are grotesque enough without the debate being reduced to puerile attacks on each other’s logic.

If you have a voice that can be heard and that has gravitas, and you both have the great privilege of this, why not turn it more fully toward more constructive dialogue? Why not ask that the rights of those who attended the vigil be defended? Countless women- because the body of the woman is so carelessly mangled in these cases- are facing vile, misogynistic abuse via Facebook from the supporters of the Bodu Bala Sena. These men direct all their perverted, violent fantasies at these girls who really do not have much in the way of legal succour. After all, the AG has instructed victims of social media attack to file complaints with the police. Yes, the very same police who put the kybosh in the vigil. Why not direct more energy into rousing the non-English speaking Buddhists to speak out against the Bodu Bala Sena with less articles in places like the Telegraph which are read by the diaspora and the English speakers? Yes, the handicap at the vigil was that there were many who attended who were ‘English speaking’- but that does not make them any less Sri Lankan, any less Buddhist, any less angry, or any less valid in their protesting attacks on minorities. Give out your voice in solidarity with each other, with those who will question the validity of the Bodu Bala Sena, and in solidarity with what must be a better tomorrow.

*Anupama Ranawana is a wishful academic and a practicing activist. She can be reached for comment via Twitter @MsAMR25

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Bodu Bala Sena goes to Examinations Dept

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To the Politician Named ‘Gnanasara’ And His Allies

Rasika Jayakody

Rasika Jayakody

A mosque in Grandpass came under attack last night and a police curfew followed. The attacked mosque was a newly built one located next to a Buddhist temple in Grandpass. The land, apparently, belongs to the Urban Development Authority. Earlier, it had been assured that the mosque would be relocated within a period of one month but that never happened. Members of ‘Sinhala Ravaya‘ took law onto their hands and threatened to relocate the mosque all by themselves. That was the starting point of the clash.

Last night, when the attack was underway, allegedly by ‘Sinhala Ravaya’, a fear loomed large in the minds of people, both Sinhala and Muslim. They feared a repetition of ‘Black July’. They feared ‘mobocracy’. They feared death, incendiarism and looting. The curfew was on on time unlike in July 1983 and the situation was brought under control within a few hours. Nevertheless, several people were hospitalized due to injuries. Blood was seen.

There were some alarming signs. Grandpass is an area where Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil communities live in almost equal proportions. When the mob started pelting stones at the mosque, Muslim youth too, rallied around the religious place to counter the attack. That was a perfect recipe for a bloodbath. In the final analysis, Police and the Special Task Force succeeded in preventing butchery though there are several unanswered questions. Why weren’t any of the attackers taken into custody? Why couldn’t the Police nip it in the bud? Those are two pertinent questions. However, the STF had assured the Muslims in the area and they would ensure security for the place of worship. That assurance eased their tension.

Is this the end of the story? No. In all likelihood, there will be a similar clash again, someday somewhere, sooner rather than later. That clash, in all likelihood, will be more intense and will result in more destruction. More blood will spill. And police, in all likelihood, will not be able contain it, and certainly not within a few hours.

I am a Buddhist, by birth and by choice. Buddhism does not advocate violence, under any circumstance. Buddhism I know will not oppose having a mosque right next door to a Buddhist temple. If the mosque is being built in a land that is not legally acquired, there is a law enforcement mechanism to deal with it. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Burghers can seek refuge in the law enforcement of the country in the face of injustice. If one’s grievances do not harm the interests of those in power, justice, in all probability, will be meted out. In that context, no one can justify hooliganism by Sinhala Ravaya or Bodu Bala Sena.

There were provocations in this country since 1949. Almost every provocation was followed by retaliation. Retaliation, more often than not, outweighs provocation and that was evident in July 1983. Essence of Buddhism teaches one to handle provocation with prudence, without making it an entry-point for carnage. Sinhalese acted with great self-restraint after 1983 in the face of chillingly brutal attacks by Tigers in Colombo and its outskirts. When the ‘Dalada Maligawa’ was attacked in the Buddhist heartland of Kandy, not a single stone was pelted at Tamil Shops in Colombo, or any other place in the country. Something that we, Sinhalese, can be proud of.
I don’t see any Buddhism in the conduct of Bodu Bala Sena or any other extremist Sinhala-Buddhist movement. I don’t know whether there’s any Islam in the Muslim extremism too. In the same way, I did not see anything Hindu in the LTTE. What is going on in Sri Lanka at the moment is a political project in every sense of word. With all due respect, I must say that Gnanasara Thera and his allies are great politicians. Time, I think, will further affirm my convictions.

Yes, our fingers are free. We can point them freely at Bodu Bala Sena, Sihala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya or Muslim extremism, according to our whims, fancies and beliefs. Moreover, we can blame President Mahinda Rajapaksa or Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for treating the Bodu Bala Sena and other extremist organizations with velvet gloves.

While pointing fingers at them, did we ever look into ourselves? What have we, the citizenry, done, in our capacity, to rescue our society from the quagmire it is sinking into?

What have we done to identify the root cause behind extremism? What have we done to propagate our values – of which ‘moderation’ is an integral part – to the future generation? What have we done to create one ‘Sri Lankan Nation’ in which different nationalities and communities can safeguard their identities and uniqueness? What have we done to wrest the history of ‘Sri Lankan Nation’ from spin-doctors and manipulators who inflame religious and communal violence by perpetuating falsehood? What have we done to assimilate everyone who occupies this land, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or community, into the heritage of the ‘Sri Lankan Nation’?

We haven’t done anything. We have held candle light vigils. We have organized organizer-less rallies. We have been trying to reclaim our old arrears from the Rajapakse regime. We have been dancing to the tunes of opportunists, separatists and NGO-mongers. We have been having fun, frolicking and acting like fools. Moreover, we have acted like a 21 million tombstones, and not like the ‘Citizenry’ of this country.

*Rasika Jayakody is a Sri Lankan journalist who can be contacted at [email protected] 

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