The Pulse

The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka

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The Pulse

The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka must come to terms with the dangers of majoritarian violence against Muslims.

Sri Lanka has once again come under the scrutiny of the United Nations (UN), this time on the issue of violence against the Muslim minority in the country. The violence was said to be committed by a Sinhalese Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force. The BBS was reported to have indulged in violence against Muslims in the southwestern parts of Sri Lanka, leading to the destruction of property and the death of three individuals.

Soon after the violent incidents were reported, a group of UN experts asked the island nation “to adopt urgent measures to stop promotion of racial and faith-based hatred, and violence against Muslim and Christian communities” and “bring perpetrators of such violence to justice.”

The violence, which took place in mid-June, was the culmination of accumulated tension in Alutgama and Beruwala, two coastal towns frequented by tourists. The violence was triggered by a scuffle between a Buddhist monk and a Muslim trader. Subsequently, the BBS organized a rally that sparked violence against Muslims. Muslim economic interests suffered the most from this violence as many business establishments were destroyed.  However, leaders of the BBS claimed that Muslims had started the violence and that Buddhists merely retaliated.

The local media in Sri Lanka largely abstained from reporting on the violence. According to the senior editor of a local English daily, who asked to remain anonymous, the media did not carry the news because it was impossible to verify details due to the imposition of a curfew in the region. Some international observers argue that Sri Lanka’s media was complicit in the violence by taking the BBS and government’s line. However, according to Malinda Seneviratne, the editor of The Island, the mainstream media merely played down the communal violence.

Many commentators believe that the BBS has the support of the Sri Lankan government. It is widely believed that the BBS enjoys the patronage of the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The BBS’s General Secretary, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara has so far escaped any legal action for the violence committed by the BBS. Support for Buddhist nationalism could be the result of a strategy of the current government. According to The New York Times, “the Rajapaksas are hoping to consolidate the Sinhalese majority vote, which is about 75 percent of the country, by demonizing minority Muslims and Tamils.”

The rise of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka has been a pronounced trend in recent years. The BBS was established in 2012 in order to protect Sri Lankan Buddhism from all kinds of external influence and to uphold the Buddhist way of life. The group believes that Buddhism should be the dominant influence on Sri Lankan life. According to the leader of the BBS, “Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country. We want all other communities to respect Buddhist culture… If a Muslim is attacked there are many countries to defend them but no one is there to defend Buddhism except the people of Sri Lanka.”

According to a Columbo-based journalist, the BBS nurtures a majoritarian agenda and wants to subordinate other ethnicities and religious groups. BBS leader Dilanthe Withanage does not deny this. In fact, according to Withanage, the BBS has sought closer ties with other nationalist organizations in South Asia, including those in India.

Divisive politics have cost Sri Lanka dearly in the past. Sri Lanka has just emerged from a civil war that saw the ethnic majority Buddhist Sinhalese fight the minority Tamils. After three decades of war, Sri Lanka should concentrate on nation-building and reconciliation. It is time for the leadership to bridge the ethnic and religious fault lines that exist in the country. Countries that have promoted religious fanaticism for short term gains, such as Pakistan, suffered as their policies backfired. Sri Lanka risks going down a similar path. Furthermore, a sense of insecurity breeds radicalism and minority groups in the country could turn to violence if they feel threatened. This has already occurred in Sri Lanka with its Tamil minority. It is possible that Sri Lanka could become a breeding group for Islamic terrorism if it does not control the violence committed by Buddhist groups against Muslims.