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Meet the Violent Buddhists Starting Riots in Sri Lanka

On June 15 a violent mob ripped through three neighboring towns in southwestern Sri Lanka. The horde explicitly targeted Muslims, slinging Molotov cocktails, burning bikes, and looting homes and businesses. The instigators were members of an extremist...

Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) soldiers patrol along a road following clashes between muslims and extremist Buddhist in the town of Alutgama. Photo via Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images. June 18, 2014.

On June 15 a violent mob ripped through three neighboring towns in southwestern Sri Lanka. The horde explicitly targeted Muslims, slinging Molotov cocktails, burning bikes, and looting homes and businesses. Riots, violence, and personal threats aren’t unheard of in Sri Lanka, but this riot caught the world’s attention. It was one of the largest and most deadly in recent years, wounding over 50 and killing four Muslims. It follows a spate of anti-Muslim sentiment welling up somewhat unexpectedly in Sri Lanka and, perhaps most shockingly for Westerns who view them as the eternally chubby, cuddly, and peaceful, it was stirred up by and composed of Buddhists, acting on allegedly Buddhist sentiments.

The unrest stemmed from an unspecified “altercation” between some young Muslims and a monk (or the monk’s driver) on June 14. The next day a vitriolic, anti-Muslim rally led by the monks of Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) preceded the riots in Aluthgama, Beruwela, and Dharga Town. Founded in 2012 by two monks, Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, is based out of the Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandira, a Buddhist cultural center they operate in the capital of Colombo. The organization claims to fight for the preservation of Buddhism and the Sinhala ethnicity in Sri Lanka. They feel that their identity is being eroded by multiculturalism, liberalism, and foreign elements, and (although they deny involvement in any of the violent acts attributed to them and have yet to pick up arms themselves) claim they’re willing to do whatever it takes to resist those forces. That includes slandering and, allegedly, committing acts of violence against less militant Buddhists, like Watareka Vijitha Thero, the head of the Jathika Bala Sena Buddhist group, who spoke out against the anti-Muslim riots and BBS’s involvement before being abducted, stripped, and beaten, supposedly by BBS devotees.

Aluthgama. Photo via Wikicommons

Coverage of the BBS over the past year and a half, and especially of the recent riots, tends to rope them into what magazines like TIME last year began to identify as a transnational wave of Buddhist extremism and anti-Muslim terror. News of BBS’s violence and anti-Muslim rhetoric does often bare a passing similarity to the vitriol of Myanmar’s Ashin Wirathu Thera, known to some as “Burma’s Buddhist bin Laden.” (BBS’s Gnanasara does have ties with Wirathu Thera. According to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), he traveled to Myanmar this March to meet with him. And both Myanmar and Sri Lanka banned the TIME article on Buddhist terror.) And there’s some similarity between the religious-ethnic national identity promoted by BBS and the Buddhist anti-blasphemy laws promoted by Thailand’s Knowing Buddha Foundation.

But the BBS and the riots it inspired aren’t part of some sudden, shadowy rise of international Buddhist terror. BBS is only the latest manifestation of a longstanding tradition of Buddhist nationalism and mobilization in Sri Lanka, often tied to the Sinhala ethnic identity that dominates the country. Granted, the targets of their violence, level of their aggression, and their ties to powerful forces in the country make them a particularly worrying new development in this less than venerable tradition.

The story of Buddhist nationalism and mobilization in Sri Lanka begins, according to Roshan De Silva Wijeyeratne, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University and author of Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with the influence of Protestant missionaries in the late 19th century. Under their influence, says De Silva Wijeyeratne, the middle class, colonial Buddhist elite shook off old rites and rituals in favor of religious organizations that mirrored emerging, politically and socially active Christian groups. As these Sinhala, Buddhist subjects began to organize against the British colonial regime in the early 20th century, “the Young Men’s Buddhist Association and other very Protestant organizations were at the center of Sinhala nationalism,” says De Silva Wijeyerante.

Seeking to distinguish themselves and their nation, these Buddhist groups looked for seemingly foreign outsiders to define themselves against. “In the 1920s and 30s,” De Silva Wijeyerante tells me, “[Hindu] Tamils became a unifying source of otherness.” And in the process, certain Buddhist organizations started defining themselves in competitive terms against other faiths and ethnicities. According to TRAC increasing conflict between Buddhist Sinhala (who account for about 75 percent of the population) and Hindu Tamil identity manifested in “a civil war in the 1980s, which reinforced a Sri Lanka in which Buddhist ethnic and religious identity is constantly under threat and hence require[s] protection at all costs.” That overwhelming sense of dread that anything non-Buddhist might tear apart the core of what these groups believe to be the lynchpin of Sri Lanka’s soul and future has, for at least the last decade, increasingly been channeled against Christians (especially, according to De Silva Wijeyerante, recently arrived evangelical missionaries).

The recent riots are tied up in this history geographically. All three of the towns are located near what de Silva Wijeyerante identifies as the center of the Sinhalese Buddhist heartland. The Western Province, where Aluthgama is located, was in the late 19th century at the center of the Buddhist cultural revival. But the choice to target Muslims is historically odd. Muslims, a 9 percent minority, are mostly Tamil-speakers, but they stayed out of the bulk of the conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil groups in the 1980s and 90s. Tamil Hindus at times even expelled Muslims from their northern bastions for their quietism and loyalty to the pro-Sinhala state. Despite some harassment, compared to Hindus and Christians they were far from the key focus of riots and rhetoric.

Sri Lankan muslims at a makeshift camp in Beruwala after the anti-muslim riots in Alutgama. Photo via Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images.

BBS’s anti-Muslim vitriol is a surprising new development for the group itself, in a sense. “In the beginning,” says Bath Spa University Buddhist scholar Mahind Deegalle, “[the BBS] did not have this rhetoric on Islam.” BBS was founded on a platform calling for a united legal system, affirmative action for Buddhist studies students in universities, the use of Buddhist monks as government school teachers, and a definition of Sri Lanka as a definitively Buddhist, Sinhalese nation. But they did not mention Muslims explicitly. Back at the end of 2012, they focused their ire on Christian pastors accused of converting Buddhists. (They still have a hard-on for these folks, as this February Gnanasara himself led a crowd to the home of a pastor in the Kandy District, demanding he end his worship. The pastor and his church were later assaulted.) In 2013, they took on “blasphemers” as well, storming the Cinnamon Bay Hotel and accusing it of hosting a sacrilegious “Buddha Bar” event, and lambasting moderate Buddhist monks. (Such sacrilege is actually illegal in Sri Lanka, and the Buddha Bar got two hotel managers arrested.) BBS has less of a reputation for targeting Hindus, but other Buddhist monks have, according to TRAC, attacked Hindu temples as well as Christian churches and Muslim mosques as far back as 2009.

Islam came onto the BBS radar in early 2013, when they decided to protest Sri Lankan policies on licensing for the sale of halal food. “They say it’s OK for Muslims to have halal,” summarizes Deegalle, “but if anyone requires a Buddhist business to have a halal license, that’s a problem.” A nascent campaign to strike down halal licensing requirements took off, gaining support and winning some legislative victories. Soon enough, the BBS was accusing Muslims of taking Middle Eastern money to build new mosques, planning to out-breed and outnumber Buddhists, complicity in attempted conversions of Sinhala women working in the Middle East (they claim up to 80,000 migrants have been converted), and other mistreatments of Buddhist migrant workers in the Muslim world. They went on to call for a burqa ban as well.

Now, the rhetoric is explicit. TRAC quotes Gnanasara as saying, “We want to stop this extremist work of Muslims. They are not going to destroy our culture.” Somewhat confusingly and contradictorily, he ended that tirade with the assertion: “Buddhist people are very peaceful.” And it appears to have hit a vein of widespread, untapped, and consolidating anti-Muslim discomfort, earning them followers and media attention. In February of 2013, they were able to muster 16,000 supporters, 1,300 of them monks, to a rally against pluralism calling for the creation of an unofficial civilian police to patrol against Muslim extremism; soon after they met with police to inform them of Muslim groups supposedly operating armed militias. Groups of their supporters that year stormed a college in Colombo, leveling seemingly baseless accusations that exams were skewed to favor Muslims. They also raised a good deal of attention by calling for the destruction of an ancient mosque in a Buddhist monastery complex in the Ratnapura District, and stirred up controversy by accusing Muslim-owned retailers Fashion Bug and No Limit of converting their staff—in March, a mob led by monks took this to heart and attacked a Fashion Bug outlet. By the summer of 2013, monks had grown bold enough to attack a Colombo mosque during prayers.

According to Deegalle, BBS’s popularity stems in part from the fact that they’ve caught onto something that shows up in the Sri Lankan media now. “One Sri Lankan Buddhist woman was beheaded in the Middle East. Some reports have come out that Buddhists in the Middle East were blocked from putting Buddha figurines in their homes. Little bits like this make it into the media.” De Silva Wijeyerante agrees that they’ve hit a nerve. “The rise of the BBS captures the voice and concerns of the petty bourgeoisie,” he says. For TRAC, the fact that BBS has given an organized and structured forum, “where extremist Buddhist[s] can find a home and a channel to vent anger and mistrust with other ethnic and religious Sri Lankan communities” makes it a dangerous manifestation of longstanding tensions. Even if they’re not themselves taking up arms, they’ve become a lighting rod to tie violence into and refer back to—a bogeyman or a bulwark depending upon who you are. “It’s not very different from a warzone. If a bomb goes off, everybody will blame al-Qaeda,” says Deegalle. “It’s a very vulnerable situation.”

Despite the recent flare-up, Deegalle believes support for the BBS is waning, at least in part thanks to this month’s riots. “Already support has decreased. The media is interested, but the people do not support it. You can see how disapprovingly people talk about them,” he says. Beyond popular sentiment, many other Buddhist monks, who’ve held non-violent protest vigils outside the BBS headquarters, have disavowed the group. Think tanks like TRAC have moved to label them a terrorist organization, and even the pro-Sinhala, pro-Buddhist government has issued statements urging BBS to avoid conflicts. “I think this is the end,” says Deegalle. 

But even if BBS itself fades, there are signs that the state itself may condone its ideology and actions. Sri Lanka’s government, though not totally unified, largely consists of pro-Buddhist advocates and laws. In the last few months alone, the government has prevented monks from attaining driver’s licenses in a bid to control the identity and image of Buddhism and deported western tourists with “blasphemous” Buddha tattoos. More directly, the brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been sighted at BBS rallies, hinting at the implicit support of Sri Lanka’s notably pro-Buddhist, pro-Sinhala ruling family. Further confusing the government’s position is the fact that in 2013 BBS raised money by selling a ringtone on the government-owned mobile carrier, which was later removed with apologies. TRAC has recorded other rumors of governmental involvement.

Despite their protestations of BBS and its violence, says De Silva Wijeyerante, “It’s a deliberate trajectory of the Sri Lankan state—the authorities facilitate these pogroms, as they stand idly by. There’s clearly planning that goes into these riots. Indeed, the regime thrives on the cultural capital generated by Sinhalese extremist groups such as the BBS, and simultaneously it can maintain a semblance of distance from such organizations."

To Deegalle’s mind, handling inter-religious strife is a challenge the government must face and resolve. But in a Sri Lanka where the government is ruled by pro-Buddhists with sketchy ties to the BBS, it’s unlikely that violence will be sublimated and resolved. “[These recent attacks] could be a sign of things to come,” says De Silva Wijeyerante. TRAC fears that continued violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslims may invite the attention of and provide a justification for reprisals by local Muslims and international jihadists. But the real danger is that, even if anti-Muslim sentiment fades, Buddhist groups will just target another group—BBS and their ilk are already eyeing liberal Buddhists, Sinhala secularists, and feminists—in increasingly aggressive overtures. “There is no moment of closure to nationalism,” says De Silva Wijeyerante. “It always seeks new sources of difference.”