Posted on July 18, 2014

‘Fascists’ in Saffron Robes? The Rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Ultra-Nationalists

Tim Hume, CNN, July 18, 2014

Shortly before Buddhist mobs made a deadly rampage through Muslim neighborhoods near the town of Aluthgama, Sri Lanka last month, a man with cropped hair and glasses stood before expectant crowds to deliver an explosive speech.

Video footage of the rally, called following a traffic altercation between Muslim youths and a Buddhist monk in the coastal town, captures the speaker in full flight.

In a pointed reference to the security forces stationed nearby, he declares that the Sri Lankan police and army are Sinhalese, the mostly Buddhist ethnic majority that accounts for three-quarters of the island’s 20 million people.

Then, his arm raised and his voice rising to a shriek, he issues an explicit threat to Muslims, using a derogatory term for the minority.

To roars of approval, he vows that if any Muslim, were to lay a hand on a Sinhalese–let alone a monk–that would “be the end” of all of them.

What is striking about the clip, aside from the viciousness of the rhetoric, is that the firebrand behind the microphone is dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.

He is Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the Buddhist holy man who is the general secretary and public face of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, also known as Buddhist Power Force).

The ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist organization has emerged as a troubling presence on the Sri Lankan political landscape in recent years, and is blamed by many for inciting the deadly violence in Aluthgama.


What happened, according to witnesses and officials, is that shortly after the speech, Buddhist mobs marched through Muslim neighborhoods, ransacking dozens of homes and shops. Three Muslim men were killed, and sixteen seriously injured in the two nights of violence that followed, police said.

One month on from the violence, described as the worst attacks on Muslims in the country in years, 135 people have been arrested, police say.

But while Gnanasara has given a statement to police about the events of the day, he has yet to face any charges. A national police spokesman said officers were still considering whether he had played a role in inciting the violence. “We need to check whether he has provoked the men by making this speech,” he said.


In an earlier statement on the BBS’s website–prompted by the cancellation of Gnanasara’s U.S. visa in the aftermath of Aluthgama–the group condemned the violence there, but acknowledged that BBS representatives had “delivered emotional speeches emphasizing the need to protect Sinhala Buddhists, who are actually a very small global minority.”


Dayan Jayatilleke, a political scientist and former Sri Lankan diplomat, referred to the group’s politics as “saffron fascism” and described it as “a wholesaler of the ideology of hate, especially Islamophobia.”

While the BBS remained a fringe movement, he said, it appeared to be gaining influence among Buddhist clergy. “(The BBS) have to be taken very seriously indeed.”


Along with their co-religionists in Myanmar–where a monk-led anti-Muslim group, the 969 Movement, has been blamed for instigating deadly clashes–Sri Lanka’s Buddhists were the subject of a recent plea from the Dalai Lama during a speech on his birthday, calling on them to desist from violence against Muslims.

How is it that Buddhist monks–exponents of a religion associated with peace and non-violence–have come to be viewed as hate merchants?

Jayatilleke said that the rise of militant Buddhism should not be surprising. There had been a “fanatical strain running through Sinhala Buddhism for years,” he said. One prime minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, was assassinated by a monk in 1959.


Formed in 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena was born as a vehicle to more stridently defend Sinhalese Buddhism, when Gnanasara and a fellow monk broke away from another monk-led Sinhalese nationalist party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Gnanasara had previously run as a political candidate for the JHU, a member of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling alliance.

Since its formation, the group has campaigned on issues including alleged poor treatment of Sri Lankan Buddhists working in the Middle East, Christian evangelization, anti-Buddhist riots in Bangladesh and hotels featuring “Buddha bars” popular with foreign tourists, often storming venues in organized “direct actions” to make its point.


But overwhelmingly its target has been Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which accounts for about 10% of the population.

Issues raising its ire have included halal certification, the burqa, mosque construction, Islamic conversion and alleged Islamic militancy–in a country with no history of domestic Islamic extremism. So why are Muslims suddenly in the cross-hairs?

Jayatilleke said that anti-Muslim sentiment within the Buddhist clergy had only arisen since 2009, when the 25-year civil war between the government and separatist Tamil rebels ended.

“When the war was over, the Sinhalese looked around and found that while the two major communities were bashing each other, the Muslims had been at peace and had prospered,” he said. “They found more mosques, stores, better educated young Muslims–a changed profile after years of war. And they lashed out.”