The end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 might have signalled a new era of peace and reconciliation, but some nationalist Buddhist monks are actively working to turn the Sinhalese majority against a “new threat:” Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority. Most prominent among the new wave of post-war anti-Islam groups is the Bodu Bala Senā (BBS), a monk-led splinter group of the nationalist Jāthika Heḷa Urämaya (JHU). The BBS came to prominence in 2014 after a rally near Aluthgama turned violent, leaving several Muslims and Tamils dead. Although the BBS has since denied responsibility for the riot, and claimed that they were attempting to pacify the crowds, video footage of the rally, and their statements elsewhere, indicate that they are actively encouraging hostility towards Sri Lanka’s Muslims and seeking to break Sri Lanka’s fragile post-war peace.
What makes the BBS interesting is that the rhetoric that they use to construct Muslims as a threat does not rely entirely on the ideology of earlier Buddhist nationalist movements in Sri Lanka, but is highly innovative and adaptive. While the BBS does draw parallels to the earlier threat of the LTTE, far more of their rhetoric is drawn from global narratives of Muslim threat, from India, Myanmar, and even (significantly) the Western “War on Terror.” This suggests that the BBS is engaged in a deliberate, and dangerously intelligent, attempt to reconstruct the violent Buddhist nationalism of the civil war in a form suited for the post-war era, with a new credible threat: Sri Lanka’s Muslim population. If this is the case, then policymakers in Sri Lanka and globally must take steps to undermine the BBS’s construction of a Muslim threat and disassociate Sri Lanka’s Muslim population from these global threat narratives.
Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka
Buddhism has been associated with nationalism in Sri Lanka at least since the independence movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the independence movement gained momentum, the Sinhalese majority increasingly identified themselves with a Buddhist past and distanced themselves from the Tamil and Muslim minorities, creating tensions that erupted in the 1915 anti-Muslim riots. These early nationalists justified their claims to independence by turning to the Mahāvaṃsa, a monastic chronicle that was understood to depict a primordial sovereignty of Sinhala Buddhism over all of Sri Lanka in a legacy only broken by European conquest and colonialism.
This belief increasingly dominated domestic politics in Sri Lanka from the 1950s onwards, alienating and alarming Tamils. The successive governments of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by S.W.R.D. Bandaraniake, his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and then J.R. Jayewardene, changed the course of Sri Lankan politics and ultimately increased ethnic tensions to the point of outright civil war with the LTTE. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s 1956 campaign was supported by Buddhist monks, who fasted outside the House of Representatives to protest a government that they claimed refused to work for the “country, religion and its culture.” The campaign became “a fight against Mārayā” (Sanskrit Māra; the demon who sought to thwart the Buddha’s enlightenment), and Bandaranaike delivered on this by taking several significant steps to reducing the perceived dominance of Tamils in the political system before his assassination in 1959. Even this soon after independence, Buddhist imagery and authority (embodied in monks) was being mobilised in support of nationalist political ends.
One of Bandaranaike’s first acts as prime minister was the introduction of the Official Language Act. This act established Sinhalese as the sole official language of Sri Lanka, and over the following 5 years English was slowly phased out in the public sector. This act established Sinhalese as the sole official language of Sri Lanka, and over the following 5 years English was slowly phased out in the public sector. This required all public servants to be proficient in Sinhala, meaning that even in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province local government was administered by Sinhala-speakers instead of local Tamils, reinforcing Sinhalese dominance and antagonising Tamil leaders. The dominance of Sinhalese language and religion was later reinforced by the 1972 Constitution, which Wickramasinghe (2006) has called “the culmination of the ideological impetus of the 1956 movement.” The 1972 Constitution, as well as reaffirming the primacy of Sinhalese over Tamil (spoken by both Tamils and Muslims), also established Buddhism as having the “foremost place” in Sri Lanka, removed the articles in earlier constitutions protecting the rights of minorities and, perhaps most significantly, limited Tamil access to higher education on a quota system.
Growing tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils led to outbreaks of violence in 1958, 1977, and finally in July 1983, now known as “Black July” (Sinhala kaḷu jūliya). The Black July riots were sparked by a deadly LTTE attack on a Sri Lankan army patrol, and left anywhere between 500 and 3,000 Tamil dead. Sri Lanka was plunged into civil war as the LTTE sought independence for the Tamil-dominated Northern Province from a Sri Lanka that they saw as dominated by a Sinhalese Buddhism nationalism that was completely at odds with the interests of Sri Lanka’s minorities. For nationalists, this furthered the divide between Sinhalese Buddhism and Sri Lankan minorities, and as a result “with some notable exceptions, the majority of [Buddhist] monks explicitly or privately supported and condoned the Sinhalese army’s killing of Tamil guerrillas” (Tambiah, 1992). Sri Lankan Presidents, to varying degrees, began to explicitly frame the conflict in Buddhist terms. Wijetunga declared the Buddha’s support for the state army, claimed that the Buddha encouraged armies to gain courage by gazing at their flags, and asked that citizens of Sri Lanka fly the national flag to support both the Buddha and their troops. Kumaratunga, although criticised by extreme nationalists for proposing some devolution of power to the Northern Provinces, deliberately adopted a policy of establishing herself through rhetorical measures as a modern cakkavattin (one who sets rolling the Wheel [of dhamma]; a just and pious king), “just yet severe… advocating non-violence yet retaining [the] traditional right to punish – even kill – when considered necessary” (Van der Horst, 1996). Rajapaksa, Kumaratunga’s successor and the ultimate victor over the LTTE, took this a step further, referring to himself not just as cakkavattin but as a modern Duṭugämuṇu, the mythical hero of the Mahāvaṃsa who brought glory to Buddhism by conquering the impious damila (Tamil) invaders occupying the North. After his 2009 victory over the LTTE he was popularly referred to as “the King of Sri Lanka,” an image that he took pains to maintain.
Throughout this bloody period of Sri Lanka’s modern history, Buddhism was increasingly invoked in support of the state’s civil war efforts. Buddhist nationalism, sometimes called Buddhist fundamentalism or Sinhalatva, became a significant ideology that dominated domestic politics throughout the civil war. We might have expected that with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 this ideology, having grown powerful in opposition to the threat posed by this specific group, would have become less assertive and allowed Buddhist-minority relations to improve. However, this was not the case. The BBS, and other new nationalist groups, has identified a new threat in place of the LTTE and has been reorienting the Buddhist nationalist ideology of the civil war era against this alleged threat: Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority.
Bodu Bala Senā Ideology
We might describe BBS ideology as having two main elements: their attitudes towards the state, and their attitudes towards Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority. Both of these elements are relevant to policymakers throughout the South Asian region, and further beyond, for what they reveal about the developing nature of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the post-war era. Much of the BBS’s ideology, and particularly its attitude towards the state, is drawn from the earlier nationalist movements of the civil war era from which it emerged. However, some of their ideology appears to be novel to Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, and signals a worrying turn to nationalist and anti-Muslim narratives from throughout the South Asian region and beyond.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in the twentieth century have defined the Sri Lankan state in a very particular manner. A nationalist reading of history, derived from the Mahāvaṃsa, understands Sri Lanka as a sacred island set apart for the preservation of Theravāda Buddhism, in which the Sinhalese are tasked (by no less than, according to the Mahāvaṃsa, the Buddha himself) with this preservation, and the defence of the island from any impious foreign invaders who might threaten its sanctity or wholeness. The state, in this understanding, should be primarily concerned with this preservation and protection of Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka. The state, like the historical kings of the Mahāvaṃsa that precede it, must be guided in this sacred task by the sangha (the Buddhist monastic community).
The BBS holds a similar conception of the ideal Sri Lanka state, clearly articulated in a series of statements leading up to the 2015 presidential. Ven. Gnanasara, the group’s general secretary, expressed his hope that the election might result in the installation of a “Sinhala Buddhist king.” Presumably, unless the BBS has more radically revolutionary tendencies than they have indicated elsewhere, he does not desire to literally replace the presidential system with a monarchy and is using “Sinhala Buddhist king” in a more general sense. A number of Sri Lankan presidents, including Jayewardene and then-incumbent Rajapaksa, have attempted to present themselves as cakkavattin and we might interpret Gnanasara’s comment similarly. The earlier belief that monks should play a role in state leadership is also paralleled in BBS rhetoric: in “the history,” the BBS claims that monks “guided [kings] to the throne” and that their purpose today is “to produce lay persons who can guide and provide leadership.” Monks and kings, in this conception, together have a dual role in leading the Sinhalese nation.
Although many prominent scholars, including S. J. Tambiah and H. L. Seneviratne, have considered the Sri Lankan relationship between monks and nationalist politics to be a “betrayal” of Buddhism’s supposedly apolitical values, the significance of a divine Buddhist king is present even in the early canonical texts. The Aggañña-sutta, part of the Dīghanikāya, describes the genesis of Buddhist cosmology and, crucially, includes in this narrative the creation of a social contract between early humans that appoints a king (embodied in the khattiya class, Skt. kṣatriya) to protect them from one another. Interesting, the first serious treatment of the Aggañña-sutta as a “Buddhist theory of society cum polity” was written by the same S. J. Tambiah who would later call monastic nationalism in Sri Lanka a “betrayal” of Buddhism. According to Tambiah, this text sets up a model of Buddhist kingship that gives the king certain duties towards his citizens: chiefly, upholding worldly order in accordance with divine order. It is this political model that the BBS wants to see implemented in Sri Lanka, whether the role of divine monarch is played by a king or a president.
Where the BBS, and earlier Sinhalatva movements, differ from this classical theory is their belief that the Sri Lankan state ought not only to be Buddhist, but specifically Sinhala Buddhist. This means that minorities, Tamil and Muslim alike, are at best tolerated guests on the sacred island, set apart as it is for the preservation of Theravāda Buddhism by pious Sinhala Buddhists. The state, in this understanding, is to play a central role in preserving this religion, even to the detriment of the non-Buddhist minorities.
However, the Bodu Bala Sena’s ideology is not entirely derived from that of earlier, anti-Tamil Buddhist nationalism, or from monastic chronicles like the Mahāvaṃsa. As a close reading of their rhetoric reveals, they draw as much on global anti-Muslim narratives as they do on the Sinhalatva of the civil war era.
International Influences on Bodu Bala Senā Rhetoric
BBS rhetoric draws on narratives from India, Myanmar, and the War on Terror to deliberately portray Sri Lankan Muslims as part of a much more global issues of “Muslim threat.” By associating Sri Lanka’s Muslims with these international narratives, the BBS appropriates the global legitimacy of these narratives to support its own claims that Muslims pose a particular threat to Sri Lanka.
One serious allegation that the BBS has levelled is that Muslim communities in Sri Lanka provides an “environment for al-Qaeda and jihād to thrive” and that “while the majority of Muslims are innocent… once they come under the influence of Muslim extremists, they can easily fall into smuggling, illegal weapon handling and even terrorist activities.” The ominous labels of “terrorist” and “extremist” are deliberately linked to War on Terror rhetoric through the al-Qaeda mention, and the BBS builds on this with other references to the Islamic State, as in this image posted to their Facebook page:
In this image the heads of Gnanasara and Dilantha Withanage, the group’s lay leader, are photoshopped onto the body of an Islamic State execution victim. This image presumably is intended to indicate that, because of their outspoken resistance to Islamic extremism and terrorism in Sri Lanka, the BBS’s leaders risk retaliation from the Islamic State. The image is titled “The Face Of Buddhist Terror: Sri Lanka,” presumably an ironic reference to the edition of Time magazine, banned in Sri Lanka, that gives this title to the BBS’s Myanmarese ally Ashin Wirathu.
The BBS does not limit its allegations of terrorism to parallels with the global War on Terror, but also deliberately draws links between alleged Muslim terrorism today and the Tamil insurgency of the civil war period. The label “terrorist” was frequently applied to Tamil separatists by civil war nationalists in what some have argued was a deliberate attempt to delegitimise the LTTE. Gnanasara, the BBS’s leader, has directly linked the Muslim threat to the earlier Tamil threat on at least two occasions. In a press statement warning about the supposed dangers of shari’āh law, Gnanasara claimed that “Muslim extremism could be far worse than LTTE terrorism if authorities do not take necessary measures to prevent it from spreading,” and he was reported to have said at a 2012 rally, “Tamils have been taught a lesson twice… so would other minorities if they try to challenge Sri Lankan culture.” By associating Muslims with the threat of LTTE terrorism, the BBS appears to be trying to appropriate these existing fears and mobilise them towards a new target.
The BBS also draws on threat narratives from the Hindutva movement in India and Myanmar’s 969. They claim, for example, that Muslims pose a demographic threat to Sri Lanka through their higher birth rates, unethical conversions of Sinhalese Buddhists, and the practice of polygamy (which, according to Withanage, threatens to reduce the dating pool for Sinhala men).
These factors together, according to the BBS, mean that while Muslims may currently be a minority in Sri Lanka, they are poised to overwhelm Sinhalese Buddhists in the near future. These claims are strongly paralleled by Hindutva claims about Muslim population growth in India. Hindutva nationalists have claimed that Muslims enjoy high birth rates while the Hindu race is “dying out.” The BBS has acknowledged the influence that Hindutva has had on their ideology, and it seems likely that they would be aware of these claims and their effectiveness in rallying misoislamic sentiment in India. Myanmar’s 969 movement, a public ally of the BBS, shares similar concerns about “inter-faith marriage, polygamy, religious conversion, and unequal population growth,” and again it seems likely that the BBS was inspired by the 969’s success with this rhetoric in their own country.
The BBS appears, in other words, to be very deliberately drawing on “successful” narratives of Muslim threat from around the world in order to legitimise their claims that Sri Lankan Muslims too pose a threat to Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka. While they draw links back to the earlier Tamil threat constructed and opposed by Sinhalatva movements of the civil war period, the Muslim threat constructed by BBS rhetoric contains significant innovations and adaptations that suggest a conscious and intelligent attempt at continuing this legacy of violent Buddhist nationalism.
The BBS appears to be engaging in a very deliberate attempt to “update” the violent Buddhist nationalism of the civil war era for the 21st century, in which the LTTE is no longer a credible threat but global narratives of Muslim terror dominate. For policymakers in Sri Lanka, or globally, to respond to the BBS’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and forestall more popular violence against Muslims in South Asia, they must therefore challenge the BBS in the same rhetorical arena.
The BBS draws on international, as well as historical, narratives of Muslim threat and appropriates them to legitimise their own anti-Muslim rhetoric. To counter this, policymakers must therefore undermine this legitimacy by rhetorically disassociating Sri Lankan Muslims with these more global narratives of terrorism, extremism, al-Qaeda, and unethical conversions. Only by doing so can we hope to limit the persuasiveness of the BBS’s message and prevent a return to violent Buddhist nationalism in the post-war era.