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A villain or saviour?

The meeting room inside his Kirulapona temple smells of salmon. The strong aroma of Thai food served in the adjacent room, by a foreign patron, pervades the air. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera has just finished his lunch at 2.30 in the afternoon, after marathon three hours of media interviews with the local press corps.

Ceylontoday, 2014-06-22 02:00:00

A villain or saviour?

Ranga Jayasuriya

The meeting room inside his Kirulapona temple smells of salmon. The strong aroma of Thai food served in the adjacent room, by a foreign patron, pervades the air. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera has just finished his lunch at 2.30 in the afternoon, after marathon three hours of media interviews with the local press corps.

He sits across the table, ready for an afternoon session of media interviews. The room looks Spartan – though, his detractors accuse the monk and his controversial Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena, of being patronized by the government. The only gear worthy of mention is a desktop computer and an advanced CD writer, which can burn a dozen CDs at one go. The monk and the BBS are media savvy. However, two days ago, facebook brought down the group's literature on the site, after a string of complaints that they constituted hate speech.


Before we begin the interview, the monk dials back a missed call. At the other end is a Minister, whom he calls, "Ape Amethithuma (Our Minister)."


He complaints that the BBS has been made the scapegoat for the violence in Aluthgama. He notes that a haul of patrol bombs had allegedly been found in the majority Muslim town.
Untouched


He suggest the unnamed Minister to call the IGP and sort out the matter, cautioning him that violence could resume and that he would not be able to restrain the mobs.


"If we have information that our people are planning an attack, we can stop them, but we don't know whether UNPers are planning to attack, or the JVPers are planning to put the government in trouble."
Then he cuts the line, and complains that all the laws in the country are only for Sinhalese.


"If we talk, it is wrong; if we raise our hand, we are wrong, if we take to the streets, that is also wrong. But none of those apply to all other kalakanniyas," he snaps.
At the age of 39, the monk is a force to reckon with. He has friends in high places and despite the outrage at the BBS's part in violence in Aluthgama, the monk, its most vocal member and the general secretary, is virtually untouched.


The monk shrugs off criticism over his role in violence. "That's what this country has become. We have lost the focus," he says. "When something happens, we have to look into the causes, not the outcome" he stresses, blaming Islamic extremism for making the Sinhalese feel vulnerable.
He says the riot in Aluthgama is the culmination of the sequence of events, which began with a scuffle between a monk and three Muslim youth on Friday.


He absolves the BBS from the responsibility of the divisive rally on Monday, which was followed by deadly clashes. The rally was organized by the local Buddhist monks, he claims.


"It was we who solved the problem, which the local political leaders could not solve. Our organizer, a monk went there and sorted out the problem. But two days later, we came to know that the people from both sides were getting ready for another show down. We rushed to Aluthgama and held a meeting with the local monks and decided to tell the public the real story. "Now, everyone would bark like mad dogs, but then, no one was willing to solve the problem. So we decided to hold a rally in order to urge the people to remain calm."
It was at that rally that Gnansara thera delivered a provocative sermon, that had all the trademarks of hate speech.
Excerpts from his speech:


"What we have here is a Sinhala Police and Sinhala Army. From today onwards, if any Marakkalaya (pejorative for Muslims) or any other pariah touched a Sinhalese, let alone a Saffron robe, that is the end of all of them...
"Some of our Sakkili Ministers call us, racists. Yes, we are racists. This is not a single incident, but it is a sequence of events. Now, a monk who helped a woman has been taken to Court. That is the Walaththa law of this country, introduced by Suddas. It breads Kalu Suddhas.
"Recently, a kid who came to a clothing shop at Aluthgama was sexually harassed. Yako! (devil), when that happened, police failed to take legal action, fearing that it would incite racism.
"I ask the police, did the Sinhalese and Buddhists ever attack the minorities. It is not because we are not capable of doing that. Therefore, we are telling you, this is the time for us to organize. If we fail to do that, the next generation would curse us".


The monk even suggested that Dharga Town, which is derived from Islamic terminology be renamed.
However, Gnanasara Thera is unapologetic about his speech, which he insists, paradoxically enough, was meant to sooth the angry crowds. The polar opposite of that happened as the angry mobs raided Muslim shops and houses.
"I have done psychology. I calibrated my speech to vent the anger on behalf of the angry crowds, who had been laughing and whistling throughout the speech.
Within two hours of the rally ending, violence flared up in Aluthgama, a predominantly Muslim town and spread into the neighbouring Beruwala. Two Muslims were killed and over 80 from both communities were injured.
The monk says he was suing for peace when the local villagers who were dispersing after the rally came under attack from youth in a neighbourhood mosque.
Official collusion


Gnanasara Thera's rabid Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has resulted in the BBS losing its founder, Kirama Vimala Jothi Thera, who has publicly disassociated himself from the nationalist group. Wimala Jothi Thera feels that general secretary Gnanasara Thera had pushed the moral boundaries further. He told this newspaper that he did not form the organization to 'spread violence, but to educate Buddhists.'


However, Gnanasara Thera has friends in high places and benefactors with deep pockets. One such relationship, which is contested by the thera himself is his perceived rapport with powerful Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The thera disavows that and says that the rumours stemmed from Gotabhaya's attendance as the chief guest of the opening of a Buddhist development centre in Galle.


He says it was the wish of the Norwegian well-wisher of Kirama Wimala Jothi Thera, who funded the centre to have Gotabhaya as the chief guest. "We were also invited and we went there. Finally, innocent Gotabhaya Mahattaya got himself labelled as a supporter of the BBS," the monk says.
However, the police inaction towards a series of violent antics blamed on the BBS has fuelled suspicion over an official collusion with the Buddhist nationalist group.


The BBS continues to court controversy. As the smoke faded away in Aluthgama, a monk who was an arch enemy of the Bodu Bala Sena was abducted, tortured and dumped near Hirana, Panadura by unidentified attackers. Now, the doctors confirm that the victim has been forcibly circumcised by his abductors. The victim, Watareka Vijitha Thera has previously been at the receiving end of a vicious slander campaign by the BBS and Gnanasara Thera, who has re-baptized the rival monk as Mohamed Vijitha, over his association with the Islamic clerics. Earlier, Gnanasara thera and his supporters stormed a media conference organized by an interfaith group, attended by Vijitha Thera and Muslim clerics, forcing the Muslim participants to flee in fear. Vijitha Thera was humiliated and forced to apologize for 'siding with the Muslims and defaming the Maha Sanga".


Vijitha Thera who is recuperating at the National Hospital had accused the BBS of the attack.
In the recent past, the BBS has got away scot free, raising concerns that it enjoys the covert support of the government. In the prevailing culture of impunity, acts of violence and intimidation blamed on the BBS have become more frequent. Its supporters have regularly disrupted the services held at evangelical churches and prayer houses, desecrated Muslim places of worships and hunted monks who speak up against its virulent brand of Buddhist activism.


However, the recent violence in Aluthgama has cost the BBS its ideological bed fellows. Gnanasara Thera says that the government, the Opposition and the Muslims, all have come together to bring his organization down. He feels being let down by the once amenable government. When asked whether the President did call him, the thera responds, nonchalantly, that the President may be plotting to lock him up.


However, Gnanasara Thera has groomed Bodu Bala Sena, from its infancy to become a mass group capable of acting its own. The group now rallies thousands of despondent youth, whose religiosity has been awakened by the thera's virulent sermons. In the name of combating Islamic fundamentalism, BBS is now waging a thinly veiled Buddhist Jihad. Its racism and extremism is alien to Buddhism and is fast catching up with the tempo of the Islamic fundamentalists that the group says it confronts.


Gnanasara Thera says, the government is turning a blind eye to the Islamic extremism in the country. Rabid Mullahs from the Middle East visit Sri Lanka freely and preach extremism, he complains. There are Islamic terrorist groups who are gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka, he warns. He says his organization has shared intelligence with the security agencies about Muslim extremist groups that have received armed training. Jamaat e Islami, an ultra conservative Islamic group, with a radical Islamic agenda, is active in Sri Lanka, he warns adding that another known as Thowheed Jamath has links to worldwide Islamic extremism.


The monk confides the BBS is holding out information, rather than making them public, due to the fear of a backlash. But, he says the government has been lax at tackling the Islamic extremism. Extremists have infiltrated the government, the ministries, schools and universities, he complains.
According to him, the BBS is the only group that challenges the Islamic extremism, and vows that he will expose the money trail to those organizations and how they were utilized.
Boycott threat


He warns if the Muslim leaders fail to combat extremism, he would lead a campaign to boycott Muslim businesses in the country.
At the rally in Aluthgama, I warned: "Aba saranai to Msulim shops," warning an impending boycott.
He says the local Muslims, 'who have been living with us for centuries in harmony' have been made helpless and dis-empowered by the encroachment of the imported radical Islam.
He threatens that his Buddhist nationalist group is left with only two 'democratic' options if the Muslim leadership and business community fails to combat the Islamic extremism in their localities.
"We will tell the Sinhalese people not to sell a single inch of land to the Muslims. And as the second option, we will ask the Sinhalese to boycott Muslim shops.


Gnanasara Thera echoes a distant Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu of Burma, whose campaign against "threat of Islam,' has sparked sectarian violence, leading to mass killings and exodus of Muslims in Burma's Rakhine State.
Wirathu has spearheaded a movement known as '969', – three digits which symbolizes the virtues of the Buddha - in a campaign that preaches intolerance against the Muslim minority and advocate the boycott of Muslim business in the country.


Gnanasara Thera defends his Burmese counterpart. But, he assures that the Sri Lankan situation is as not bad as Burma. "Here, Muslim extremists are not killing monks yet. We should not let this problem go that far."
The monk's virulent anti-Muslim activism has sent shock waves among the minorities and alienated Muslims. However, the monk is unapologetic for his remarks.
"That is not my fault. The Muslims should come and say we are not supporting extremism. Instead, they gang up and try to play baba hukun (child's play) with the Sinhalese,' he says.


Gnanasara Thera is feeling incensed. He vouches that he wants to foster religious cohabitation. But he cannot hide his disdain for ethnic minorities; he refers to Muslims, Tamils in pejorative.
He dismisses Sri Lanka as a multi-cultural, mult-religious place, describing such notions as nonsense. "This is a Sinhalese Buddhist country and other minorities can live freely here," he says.
Then he takes a swipe at his liberal critics.


No one needs to teach us multiculturalism. It is because there is multiculturalism in this country, that anyone can build kovils, mosques and 400 fundamentalist groups can proselytize, he insists.
"Can we open a temple in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Can one of our workers take a Buddhist statue to one of those countries? Why don't you go and teach multiculturalism in those countries?"


The monk insists that the Bodu Bala Sena is not the problem, rather it is a symptom.
"We did not create the problem. Did we bring the Halal certificate to this country? Did we beat that monk in Aluthgama? Did we bring the Sharia law here? Do we go without helmets? Do we buy over women for marriage? Are we converting people into Islam? Are we buying lands for several times the estimated value? Where does that money come from?


He goes on and on. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera has not run out of questions. But, few would agree with his kind of solution. However, until last week, few dared to challenge his writ.

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