The evolution of the role of Buddhism in Sri Lankan society and politics has taken a new step with the emergence of aggressive and extremist Buddhist organisations. These entities, such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sihala Ravaya (SR), Ravana Balaya (RB), and Sinha-Le, are led by young Buddhist monks, and have managed to capture the attention of the general Sinhala-Buddhist population. Through this research project, ICES sought to examine how and why these organisations emerged, how other Sinhala-Buddhist forces have responded, and how they affect the political stability and delicate equilibrium of post-war Sri Lanka.
While efforts have been made by some factions of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement to dissociate themselves from these newly emergent organisations, this research shows that the latter have in actuality found a place within the structure of the organised Buddhist network in the state, and their creation can be attributed to the evolution of the nationalism movement. This discourse is primarily centred on the Sinhala-Buddhist South.
The project was approached from a different perspective than previous work on Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, in that it critically analysed the relevant discourse in all its variations as it relates to the new extremist organisations. It also considered the internal dynamics of the relationship between Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and its approach toward ethno-religious minorities.
The defeat of the LTTE marked two important stages in the evolution of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. First, it resulted in what was perceived as a victory for the movement and its proponents; and second, it created a vacuum where there was no longer a threat, or “otherness” to defend against, thereby questioning the need for the continued existence of the movement and its political significance. Alternative “threats” were then touted to justify Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, such as the continued existence of the LTTE through its alleged proxies the TNA and other Tamil organisations, and an an international conspiracy against the Sri Lankan state. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was then the only way to overcome and respond to these dangers.
It was in this context that the new extremist Buddhist organisations emerged, opening up a new dynamic in the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement – namely, threats from Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. These were not issues newly identified, but were instead successfully brought to the forefront of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist politics, no longer overshadowed by the issue of Tamil nationalism and the LTTE. It was especially easy for extremist Buddhist groups to turn people against the Muslim community, as the anti-Muslim component of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was always present in political and social discourse. The issue reached new heights when it was highlighted in the context of the global discourse on Islamic radicalization and fundamentalist politics, and was even compared to the Tamil secessionist movement.
The BBS, RB, and SR, led by activist monks, became known for their aggressiveness toward Muslims and Christian evangelical groups. Their violent public behaviour often went unchecked, even when carried out in the presence of the police. In addition to government protection, their behaviour was also tolerated by the mainstream Buddhist Sangha, whose events they often participated in. This lends credence to the central argument that these extremist organisations are not illegitimate offshoots of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement but are, instead, situated quite centrally within the movement’s organisation and political activities.
Some of the notable anti-Muslim issues that the new extremist groups took up include alleged hostile behaviour by Muslim communities as a group towards non-Muslims who live in the same area; the wearing of abhayas and hijabs by Muslim women; Halal certification requirements for certain goods; and most controversially, contests over sacred places. The concept of “sacred geography” connotes a strong relationship between the Sinhala-Buddhists and the land in which they live, and has resulted in the religionization of the former’s claims to land which are contested by non-Sinhala-Buddhists. Such conflicts involve issues such as Muslims practising their religion in Buddhist sacred places, as in the cases of Anuradhapura and Dambulla, and contradictory historical claims over religious sites, such as in Devanagala and Kuragala.
The conflict between Sinhala-Buddhists and the Christian community in Sri Lanka has not been as fraught with hostility as the conflict with the Muslims. Tensions certainly exist between the two communities, particularly with regard to alleged conversion efforts by evangelical groups which has been most predominant among poor Sinhala-Buddhist communities. For example, in the 2004 general election, JHU monks made this one of the central issues of their campaign, although they were later unsuccessful in their attempts to introduce anti-conversion legislation.
This mutual non-aggression is the result of a tacit agreement between the two groups to not interfere in each other’s spheres of influence. Of course, there have been times when this status quo was challenged by both parties, such as when anti-Christian discourse found a central space in the 1956 election campaign. More recently, the activities of Christian evangelical groups among non-Christian communities has been a major cause for concern among the new extremist Buddhist groups, leading to attacks against the former since 2009.
The new extremist Buddhist organisations have also taken it upon themselves to re-install “true” and “authentic” Buddhism, often resorting to violence against other Buddhists deemed as “false” and “unauthentic.” This is best exemplified by the attacks on a Mahayana centre in Colpetty, Colombo; in Wanduramba, Galle; and the attacks on Rev. Wataraka Vijitha, for his connection with Muslims.
Any examination of this new radical Buddhism would be incomplete without mention of Rev. Gangodavila Soma, or Soma Hamuduruwo, a preacher whose style of politicizing Buddhism without supporting any political party garnered wide and popular support. His teachings as well as his sudden death went a long way in changing the religio-political dimension of Buddhism, as he did not shy away from preaching on any topic, be it day-to-day or controversial, such as interventions in public affairs and political issues. His legacy is evident in the creation of the JHU and post-JHU organisations, which claim to represent his views. Fears that Sinhala-Buddhist benevolence toward other communities would be perceived as a weakness to be exploited created a space for the new extremist organisations, as they acted on the popular belief that this threat could only be countered by facing any challenges head-on, rather than remaining complacent in their foremost place in Sri Lanka.
Considering how aggressive these organisations are, both in their activities and their approach toward taking up any topic of interest to their cause, the somewhat neutral response of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is interesting. This is perhaps due to the fact that while these organisations may embarrass the mainstream Sinhala-Buddhist actors, they also engage with issues that resonate with their audience, and which have been identified as important to Sinhala-Buddhism by all players.
It will be interesting to see how these extremist organisations evolve, and the trajectory they will follow, given the current political situation.