Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a hardline Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist group in Sri Lanka, has come under fire in recent years. Opponents have labelled it extremist and accused the group of inciting religious hatred, particularly against Muslims. BBS was most notably accused of stoking anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014, charges the group has denied.
Dilanthe Withanage, the chief executive officer and a founding member of BBS, as well as the chair and president of the Bodu Jana Peramuna, the political party associated with the group, recently spoke with Zachary Walko about BBS, the Sinha Le movement, and ethnic issues. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity; a full transcript can be viewed here.
The Diplomat: In April 2013, you told the Financial Times, and I quote, “According to our Constitution, Buddhism should be given full-most priority. But we believe that this is not practiced in Sri Lanka at present.” Is Sinhala-Buddhism under threat in Sri Lanka?
Dilanthe Withanage: Yes, definitely. I completely agree with the statement I made in 2013. And many people, even many journalists, many academics outside Sri Lanka feel that the state religion of Sri Lanka is Buddhism because the ninth article of the Sri Lanka Constitution says that Sri Lanka’s government has the responsibility to protect and to give the foremost priority and position to Buddhism. It’s just a mere set of words. And basically, I think, it is to mislead people. There’s nothing happening practically with that constitutional clause.
Is the current government failing to protect Buddhism?
Definitely. All successive governments, I think, purposefully ignore the protection of Buddhism in this country and even the Sinhalese … But there’s no such thing as Sinhalese Buddhism. Buddhism is something generic, something common, and it is a philosophy practiced by many. But, when it comes to Sri Lanka, we have two sides. I think it’s common for anybody. We have Sinhala-Buddhist culture. And Buddhist philosophy. They are almost together. Sometimes people confuse this. Because we should understand that when it comes to, when you analyze what is happening in Sri Lanka, there are two sides to Buddhism. One is the philosophical Buddhism, the other one is a cultural Buddhism. So many understanding is Sinhala-Buddhists are a cultural group, social group, which believe in Buddhism.
And we believe that Sinhalese are the race who protected Theravada Buddhism for over 2,000 years without any interruption. So, therefore, Sinhalese have historical link to Buddhism. We don’t have ownership of Buddhism, but we have the historical link to Buddhism.
Unfortunately, if you look at the present situation there’s no foundation. There’s no background for the protection of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. And I believe that the threat, or challenge, comes from two sides. One, from us. From Sinhalese Buddhists. That’s internal threat, internal challenge. The second is external forces, external challenge.
When it comes to external forces, first take Christianity. The British used their political power, their financial powers, their military powers for conversions. And now it is happening with international funding, evangelical groups. They come, they preach, they tarnish the image of Buddhism here. And they offer jobs, they offer positions, if they convert to Christianity.
Then the second problem we face is global communist action. You might think that communism is no more there. But their remnants are still there. In ’71 we lost over 60,000 youth due to JVP [Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa, a communist party in Sri Lanka] troubles. They’re mostly Sinhalese Buddhist youth.
The JVP took arms against the government. This is in ’71. In ’89 the same people again took arms against the government and I think almost around 100,000 people were killed. So, this is a disturbance to Sinhalese Buddhists — lost lives and lost opportunities for development. And a lot of youth decided to leave this country during ’89.
The third problem is the global Tamil action. I completely understand Tamils need a homeland. Any nation, when they don’t have a mother country, they have problems. They have issues. So, fighting for a Tamil homeland is a reasonable fight.
But, why Sri Lanka? That is our concern. In Sri Lanka, there are only 4 million Tamils. But outside Sri Lanka, there are 80-plus million Tamils. So it’s obvious that Sri Lanka is not the best place to have the Tamil homeland.
The fourth problem is, with all this, very secretly, very silently, the global Islamists are also working here.
I was waiting for you to bring that in, because it seems like a lot of BBS rhetoric is toward Muslims in particular.
Yes. That is also not created by us. So, what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening in other European countries, same thing is happening in Sri Lanka in a very secret, very silent manner. And that is the next danger we are facing.
So therefore we believe that these four global actions, which are not something created by us, but something created by global forums, disturbed and destroyed and took away from us the opportunity for development.
Now, you should understand this struggle has nothing to do with racist Sinhala-Buddhist vision. That is how it is interpreted by people. What we focus on is why should we Sinhalese hate Sinhala culture?
Well, to be fair, BBS has been pretty outspoken on many, particularly Muslim, issues. So I don’t know if it’s fair to say that it’s necessarily the media’s interpretation.
Mostly media interpretation.
You would agree that BBS has taken pretty strong positions on Muslims and Muslims culture?
No, not Muslim culture. That’s completely wrong.
The problem is that, we don’t want unnecessary privileges for anybody in this country. We’re all people. We all have same rights. There’s no issue about this. But, because you are Muslim you have a different marriage law. You have different schools. So that is social division. We are against that. That is promoting extremism.
Is it fair to lump together the advent of the Sinha Le movement with, and their agenda, with that of BBS? Is it different sides of the same coin essentially?
Actually, I was behind promoting Sinhale. In 2014, I made a speech in a huge sanga conference we had in Sri Lanka. The Beratu Thera came. It was huge, almost 6,000 Buddhist monks came to Colombo. And we had a national convention.
Now this Sinha Le – it’s a sticker campaign.
It seems to be more than a sticker campaign. They had a rally in Kandy to protest a mosque. They have a website, Facebook groups…
No, no. It’s basically a small movement. Actually, in that convention in 2014, we specified that the name of the country should be Sinhale. That is initial step we have taken. So then, Sinhale became a very popular word among certain groups. Then, some people started making stickers and promoted it. Then one or two Buddhist monks who got away from some other organizations, they claimed that they’re behind Sinha Le.
And that’s not true?
I believe that these groups are manipulated by some political groups here.
What part of the government, and what would be their incentive?
I think some Rajapaksa groups are behind them.
The Joint Opposition?
Some Joint Opposition people are behind promoting the Sinha Le. Because what they want to do is they want to get certain groups away from BBS.
So, I read a recent report by the Center for Policy Alternatives on the ethno-nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist wave. In it the author states, “BBS activities have not helped the Sinhala Buddhist community in any way. The BBS only heightened ethnic consciousness and further polarized the communities.” The report even went so far as to say that BBS’ actions were, quote “extensive grounds for criminal prosecution,” that the previous government chose to ignore for political reasons. How do you respond to this?
So now, I think this CPA’s also funded by various organizations. They write to please certain agendas. Rajapaksa is gone. The new government has been in power for last 18 months. If there were criminal activities by BBS, they could have taken actions against BBS.
CPA has all all the possibilities to get into that. So let them do it. They can’t. Because our hands are very clean.
Would you argue against someone saying BBS, or even Sinha Le, has tapped into animosity, anger, so as to lead to incidents of violence?
No. For example, we had 40 odd mass rallies around the country. We had made hard speeches. In all the hard speeches we made very clearly this is not against traditional, peaceful Muslims who used to live with us for ages. This is about extremism. And people realize it. And after any of these meetings, not even a stone was thrown. Nothing happened. Only Aluthgama. Why?
We should investigate that. We want the government to investigate it.
An October 2015 survey found that 48 percent of Sinhalese–that’s almost half of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population– believe that the country’s constitution should be changed to produce a political solution to the ethnic issue. Do you agree with them, and, how do you envision such a political solution?
I don’t know who did this survey. Whether this survey was done with some integrity.
I believe that the ethnic problem we have in this country was somewhat manipulated. I don’t see big ethnic issue in this country.
You just got out of a 30-year civil war. Is it not fair to assume there are some differences?
Now, in reality it’s geopolitics. There’s a Tamil agenda, a global agenda. They have used Sri Lanka as the best place, that is, the weakest place to have a country. If they start here, then they can easily divide India.
What is the problem? People, Tamil people, think they’re not treated well.
Sinhalese aren’t treated well. Why did Sinhalese take arms against the government? Why were 60,000 youth lost? Because there was a global agenda. They promoted injustice. Similarly, the global Tamil agenda came and there were injustices in the society. And that injustice was used, and it was given a big picture, right?
Would you be willing to see greater power sharing among Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim groups? Is there a role for power sharing?
No, I don’t think so. If you try power devolution based on ethnicity or religious groups, that would mean the destruction of the country. Power should be given to people. Whether they are Tamil, Sinhala, or Muslim.
Would BBS ever cooperate with the Sinha Le movement? Could you ever see a joining of forces between the two?
Actually, I don’t see a big movement. What I see is that two or three guys used this tattoo “Sinha Le” and they created a sticker, a poster, and it became very popular. Then a number of people tapped into this and tried to take ownership of Sinha Le.
Actually, when the Sinha Le movement started, everyone wanted to have their stickers on their vehicles and everything. But after this particular monks claim it’s their group, then most of people got away from that.
What is the Sinha Le movement? Can you describe it?
We wanted to have a couple things. Because according to the Kandy convention in 1815, the name of this country was Sinhale. And that’s why British called it Ceylon, right? And we want the name of this country to be called Sinhale. And then we want to have people in this country called Sinhale people. That is not Sinhala language. We want to have Muslims living here called Sinhale Muslims. Not Arabic Muslims. We don’t want to have Indian Tamils here. Sinhale Tamils. Sinhale Buddhists.
You say American Jewish, American Chinese, same thing. So, the problem is perception. If you think Sinhale is racism, then that’s the problem.
There should not be minorities. They all belongs to Sinhale.
But, you see the issue. To say that is to wipe away a whole minority, a whole population of Sri Lankans –Muslims, Tamils.
We should not use the word minority. They are brothers and sisters of this country. So whether they are Muslim, or whether they are Sinhalese, or whether they are Tamil.
My Muslim friend, his mother used to wear a sari and hijab. That is Sinhale Muslim. Sinhale culture, Sinhala sari. There is nothing wrong with that. Now, importing Arabic costume and putting it here…. That is importing a culture. That means they’re rejecting the Sinhala culture.
They were integrated into this society very nicely, but because of this Wahhabist element, they don’t do that. They want them to have separate identity.
The Sinha Le movement in particular has targeted LGBT activities in this country. Is it appropriate in your opinion for the Sinha Le to target LGBT in particular, to the point of violence? Do you agree that, within the LGBT community, that they deserve greater protection from the government?
I think any form of violence is wrong. We don’t have the right to use violence or force by any means.
At the same time, we don’t want American funds—or Western funds—for them to promote their activities.
Now, my concern is that I know many American organizations–Western organizations–fund these groups.
I think our Sinhale movement — because we had that Sinhale movement from the beginning, during the election campaign — is not focusing on these minor issues. The Sinhale movement should focus on really creating a strong society.