Sri Lanka Perspectives: Gnanasara Thero rides again
by R Hariharan on 17 Jul 2017 0 Comment
Sri Lanka’s infamous Buddhist monk Gnanasara Thero, who led his followers of the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) fringe group to attack Muslim businesses, places of worship and property in 2014, has staged a comeback to energise anti-Muslim activities once again. During the last two months, anti-Muslim hate crimes have escalated; according to Reuters 20 attacks on Muslims have been recorded since April 2017. In the Vesak period in the second half of May 2017 alone, 12 attacks have been reported. These include attack on Muslims, destruction of shops belonging to them and mosques. 


By and large the Sinhala community has cordial relations with the Muslim community. However, a small number of Buddhist fringe elements had been spreading hate campaign against Muslims for a few years now. The BBS group led by Gnanasara is perhaps the largest among the loose knit Buddhist fringe organisations; these include the Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya, Sinhale and Sinhala Jathika Balaya. 


These fringe groups accuse some Muslim organisations of radicalizing the community and forcibly converting people to Islam. Muslim leaders have strongly denied these accusations. However, Saudi-funded efforts to spread the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect in Sri Lanka coupled with the spread of Islamic terrorism in the Arab world and Gulf countries have not helped in allaying fears of jihadi terrorism spreading to Sri Lanka.


Though Gnanasara Thero had been stoking the hate campaign, the BBS had denied its involvement in hate attacks. However, many of the recent attacks have followed Gnanasara Thero’s provocative speeches made while visiting the area. He was reported present during an attack in Onagama in Polonnoruwa on May 14 and during an attack on a mosque in Kurunegala on May 21, 2017. However, the police present on the location did not arrest him. Police seem to be lethargic both in preventing such acts of violence, as well as in taking follow up action after receiving complaints. 


This has given rise to a feeling of déjà vu among minorities, particularly Muslims, at Maithripala Sirisena government’s abysmal failure to put an end to hate campaigns just as the Rajapaksa government dithered during the 2014 anti-Muslim violence. In fact, minorities voted to elect Sirisena as President after he promised to investigate anti-Muslim hate crimes and put an end to them.


Nothing illustrates the ambivalent political attitude to anti-minority campaigns better than Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s threat to debar human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias. In a TV discussion, the lawyer had alleged that over 190 incidents of violence, harassment and intimidation against Christians and churches had taken place in Sri Lanka since January 8, 2015. The minister demanded a public apology from the human rights activist within 24 hours for making the “anti-national” statement. Describing him as a traitor, the minister said the lawyer’s mission was to spoil the reconciliation process.


However, the Minister did not use such strong language to condemn Gnanasara Thero and the BBS, though they were causing more damage to ethnic harmony in the island. The human rights activist is reported to have fled the country after he received many threats to his life.


Quite a few Sri Lanka columnists have pointed out the political context for the resurgence of violence against minorities. Writing in the Colombo daily Island, columnist C.A. Chandraprema said “the latest spate of anti-Muslim violence” unleashed by the BBS was “orchestrated by elements within the Yahapalana government” to win over a section of the Sinhala Buddhist vote gravitating “heavily” to the joint opposition. He further added that the Minister for Megapolis and Western development Champika Ranawaka and President Sirisena “had an interest in using the BBS to split the Sinhala Buddhist vote” and that “the impunity enjoyed by the BBS in the past several weeks is due to patronage at highest levels of the government.”


Champika Ranawaka, leader of the right wing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, has a history of absolving BBS’ role in inciting anti-Muslim activities, including the Aluthagama riots, during the Rajapaksa rule in 2014. Gnanasara was in fact a member of JHU.  So even if media comments on Ranawaka’s role in the present situation are conjectures, minorities will always view his role with some trepidation.


Gnanasara had been taking advantage of the government’s hesitation in taking action against Buddhist monks and fringe elements for fear of political backlash among the Buddhist majority.  Moreover, the government is generally chary of offending the Mahanayakas, Buddhist prelates who oversee and regulate clergy. The Mahanayaka of Asgiriya chapter, though he does not condone the behaviour of Gnanasara Thero, has warned the government and public not to refer to the errant monk in disrespectful terms, presumably in a bid to safeguard the reputation of monkhood.


This would explain why the police pussy footed for three weeks after charging the BBS leader for blasphemy and instigating religious violence but failing to arrest him. However, Gnanasara was formally arrested when he surrendered at the Fort Magistrate’s court on May 21. He was released on bail the same day after the police recorded his statement.


The moot point is will Gnanasara Thero and the lumpen followers of BBS be brought to book to put an end to the hate campaign against minorities? It is doubtful as long as political parties continue to use fringe groups to whip up religious passions among the people. 


The inept handling of the anti-Muslim violence has shown the Sirisena government’s failure to live up to its repeated promises to bring in good governance. Western diplomats including those of the US, Canada and Australia have called upon the government to take strict action to ensure security to Muslim minority. This is likely to further tarnish of the reputation of the Yahapalana (good governance) government eroding its credibility even before it completes two years in office in August. 


The author is a retired MI officer who served as head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, July 2017 Issue,

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