The Aluthgama Violence, US Embassy, BBS and Gotabhaya in Perspective
C. A. Chandraprema,
(Courtesy of The Island)
When this writer logged onto the Colombo US Embassy website at 8.30pm on Friday June 20, we found a statement issued on 16 June 2014 which went as follows: “The U.S. Embassy condemns the violence that has spread over the weekend in Alutgama and Beruwela. We urge the government to ensure that order is preserved and the lives of all citizens, places of worship, and property are protected. We urge the authorities to investigate these attacks and bring those responsible to justice. We also urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law.”
Right below that statement on the web page was a photograph reproduced on this page, of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa with Galagodaatte Gnanasara and other BBS monks. The photograph was captioned “President Mahindha Rajapaksha’s brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksha with Sri Lankan terrorist Bodu Bala Sena” (See: srilanka.usembassy.gov)
The photograph appeared in the comments section of the page and the embassy may trot out the excuse that this photograph was a part of a comment posted by an outsider. But the administrator of the website has control over what appears in the comments. This comment and photograph had been posted days earlier and remained on the webpage prominently below the US Embassy statement up to Saturday till we went to print. This is clearly a part of the US propaganda war against Sri Lanka. It is true that Gotabhaya was photographed with these monks. But that was on one single occasion at a public function organized by Ven Kirama Wimalajothi. He has never been seen with these monks before or after that single instance. Ven Kirama Wimalajothi, a highly respected monk, had the misfortune to get entangled with the Bodu Bala Sena in the beginning. He has not been seen with the BBS for well over a year now and in the wake of the Alutgama riots, he broke his silence to tell the press that he has no control over the BBS and that he does not approve of Gnanasara’s manner of speaking or his deeds. Despite that, this photograph of Gotabhaya with the BBS monks has been posted on the American Embassy website and the administrator has not taken it down.
Before issuing statements to the world about the incidents in Alutgama and posting old photos of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa with the BBS monks taken in a public setting, the US Embassy should explain to the world how the BBS including the thug Gnanasara were given visas for a tour of the USA about a year ago, long after they had begun this anti-Muslim hate campaign. By the time they went to the USA, they had begun surrounding Muslim business houses, the attack on Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana had taken place and the BBS had declared themselves to be ‘unofficial policemen’ and had begun this process of taking the law into their own hands. Yet the US embassy gave them visas in a situation where even prominent, highly respectable Sri Lankans have difficulties in obtaining visas to go to the USA. In Gota’s case, he has no control over who he will be photographed with at a public function. However the US Embassy has control over who visits their country.
In any event, what is the connection between the government and the Bodu Bala Sena? Several weeks ago, the whole country saw over the news channels, the meeting between the Malwatte Mahanayake thera and the monkish terrors of the BBS and the Ravana Balakaya where the Mahanayake openly gave the marauding monks a carte blanche to overthrow the government. And Gnanasara said in reply that they will stop only if the Malwatte Mahanayake tells him to stop and that they will not listen to any politician or official. Gnanasara’s rhetoric last Sunday in Alutgama clearly showed that they were not doing anything for the greater glory and wellbeing of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Speaking in Alutgama on June 15, Gnanasara screamed, “The Tamils have leaders, the Muslims have leaders, but we Sinhalese have no leaders. We have to find a leader for the Sinhalese.” (This in a situation where everybody thought the leader of the Sinhalese – as well as the whole country – was Mahinda Rajapaksa.) Then again Gnanasara said: “Maha undetath gihilla kiuwa” Mahaundage parapure ayatath kiuwa, prashnayak tiyenawa oi, me rata purama prashnayak tiyenawa.” (Nobody has used a pejorative term like ‘maha-unde’ to refer to Mahinda Rajapaksa before and the rude phrase ‘oi’ to indicate the way he spoke to the president and his brothers. The way Gnanasara said that neither the president nor his brothers were listening to him was “Mung okkoma nesu kanin“. At one point he expressed doubt whether the president has a brain because if he did, why would he appoint a Muslim as the Minister of Justice? In time to come, Gnanasara will be referring to the president and his brothers in even more disparaging terms. Just months ago, he was claiming that he had ‘informed’ the defence ministry before going to Norway but today he fails to even mention Gota by name, or by title and the latter has been subsumed under the generic rubric of ‘maha-undege parapuara’.
Gnanasara was referring to the police as a Sinhala police and the army as a Sinhala army and appealing to them over the heads of the Rajapaksas. This is the regime change project in action.The intention appears to be to drive a wedge between the Rajapaksas and the Sinhalese by depicting the former as having sold out the Sinhalese to the Muslims in exchange for votes. Are we to believe that the government is sponsoring people who go around insulting Mahinda, Gota and Basil in front of Sinhala audiences? A lot of people seemed to have listened to the invective hurled by Gnanasara against the Muslims. Did anyone listen to the invective he hurled against the Rajapaksas in the same speech? It is not necessary to make disparaging remarks about the Rajapaksas in order to get Muslims attacked. In fact listening to Gnanasara’s speech, it is clear that the only thing that prevented him from saying even worse things about the Rajapaksas is because of the huge popularity of the president. He just said the maximum possible without losing the support of the crowd present.
What really happened in Alutgama?
While the activities of the Bodu Bala Sena over a period of time can be seen in black and white terms nothing is really black and white with regard to the Alutgama incident. This was not a case of a Buddhist mob suddenly descending on Alutgama and burning Muslim shops and houses for no reason. The incident that sparked off the riots was one where the vehicle in which a Buddhist monk was traveling was obstructed by a motorcycle parked on the road. Its owner took his time in removing the motorcycle leading to an outburst of road rage by the driver of the monk’s vehicle. An exchange of words and blows ensued. The Muslims don’t deny that the driver was assaulted but they deny that they assaulted the monk. The monk however claims that he was ‘pushed’. Be that as it may, in Sri Lanka if a physical confrontation takes place and one party wants to get the other side arrested and remanded, the next step is to get hospitalized and complain to the police and the monk had gone to the local hospital where the doctor on duty happened to be a Muslim lady doctor who had told the monk that there was nothing wrong with him. That is the last thing that an aggrieved party in such an instance wants to hear. This had led to further shouting and disagreement and the monk got himself admitted to a different hospital. The three Muslim miscreants were arrested. Rumours flew around that the monk had died as a result of the assault which is why Minister Kumara Welgama’s vehicle was attacked when he tried to pacify the Sinhala mob that Thursday. On Sunday, the aggrieved monk was brought back from hospital in a procession and Gnanasara got on the stage to make his usual hate speech. The procession was organized by the local monks and Gnanasara was an invitee.
At one point, Muslim leaders were questioning why the BBS was permitted to hold a meeting in Alutgama despite the tension that prevailed over the alleged assault of the monk but it now transpires that neither the local monks nor the BBS had sought permission to hold that meeting and to use a public address system and in fact they were speaking from the back of a truck designed to function as a stage for shows. Then the question arises, why weren’t they dispersed by the police? That however is easier said than done in a situation where the Buddhists were the aggrieved party complaining of being assaulted by Muslims. The police claim that they informally allowed the meeting and procession to take place on the pledge that there would be no breach of the peace. After the meeting, the crowd started going in a procession along the main road in Dharga Town. The Buddhist side claims that their peaceful procession was stoned by extremist Muslims near the mosque.
The Muslims for their part claim that it was those who were in the procession who threw the first stones. There is a video on you tube which shows the exact moment that the riot began. You see the Buddhist procession coming along the road. The cameraman is obviously filming from within the mosque premises. There is a lone policeman standing on the road with riot gear. Just as the first marchers in the Buddhist procession come into view, there is sudden excitement on the side of the mosque and a man in white garb who is probably a Moulavi suddenly rushes to the road shouting and gesturing for the Muslims to go back and he remains on the road restraining the crowd as the Buddhist procession moves past. Suddenly, you see a group of marchers rapidly sidestepping as if to avoid something thrown at them. Then the same group throws something towards the Muslims. Though you can see clearly that it was the marchers who threw something towards the Muslims, you can’t see why the marchers suddenly sidestepped a split second earlier. It could well have been to avoid a missile thrown at them by the Muslims in the mosque.
Both the Muslims and the Buddhists use this video to support their claim that it is the other side that started the violence. One thing that is clear from this video is that the Muslim side was not exactly cowering in fear at the approach of the Buddhist procession and the Moulavi had to restrain the Muslims from coming out onto the road. One Muslim politician this writer spoke to argued that this Buddhist procession should not have come down a 100% Muslim area. However, I do not subscribe to that view. There should be no exclusive ethnic enclaves anywhere in this country. There can and will always be ethnic neighbourhoods but people of other ethnicities should be able to have their processions and festivals through these neighbourhoods and there should no impediment to a Sinhalese buying or renting accommodation in a Muslim of Tamil neighbourhood and vice versa. In this case, since the Buddhists were the aggrieved party, the Muslims should have taken one step backwards. There should be no exclusive ethnic neighbourhoods into which even the police fear to go. So we reject out of hand the argument that the Buddhist procession should not have gone down a 100% Muslim area. It does not matter even if a further two million lives are lost and the country goes back to the stone ages in economic terms, but there should be no exclusive no-go zones anywhere in this country.
In order to defuse tensions, the Muslims should have withdrawn to a distance and allowed the Buddhist procession to proceed through deserted streets. If the Buddhists had gone on the rampage even then, the blame would be very clearly with the Buddhists. Several weeks earlier, there was an allegation that a Sinhala child had been ‘molested’ inside a Muslim shop. This too resulted in the Muslim owned shop concerned being torched because of the rumour that this child had been hospitalized after the molestation. Apparently the child was never hospitalized and though a complaint of molestation was made, today such accusations are made at the drop of a hat. Society does tend to overreact to accusations of molesting children and when someone is faced with such an accusation, the only thing to do is to take a step backwards and try to clear your name. What is wrong in both these instances however was to give an ethnic interpretation to a charge of molestation and to a case of road rage. In the wake of Alutgama it has perhaps dawned on all ethnic communities that individual conflicts (which occur all the time in multi-ethnic societies) should not be given an ethnic or religious interpretation.
It is because of this awareness that the riots did not spread beyond Alutgama and Beruwela. It is because of this awareness that no further incidents occurred after Friday prayers last week. Even though the No Limit store in Panadura was gutted in a fire, that was most certainly not due to mob action. When Minelle Fernandez of Al Jazeera toured Alutgama on 17 June, the vehicle they were traveling in had come under stack by a Muslim mob who had manhandled the cameraman and smashed the windows of the vehicle. Subsequently, the police arrested three Muslim youths with petrol bombs and more petrol bombs were discovered later. It is clear that these are the elements that the Moulavi who appears in the video mentioned above, were trying to restrain near the mosque.
The activities of the Bodu Bala Sena
If things were not black and white in Alutgama and the Muslims themselves contributed to the situation that unfolded, what was black and white was the role of the Bodu Bala Sena. Over the past couple of years, they have been systematically targeting the Muslim community and ratcheting up tensions in the country. It is clear that for the Bodu Bala Sena, the Alutgama incident came as manna from heaven – a chance to further their agenda without having to create a pretext to go on the rampage. In all previous operations of the BBS, they had to surround business establishments and travel long distances to start confrontations and arguments with Muslims. But here in Alutgama was an opportunity that just fell into their laps from nowhere.
In the wake of Alutgama one thing that became clear is that there is no Muslim leader who will condemn Islamic extremism whereas there are plenty of Sinhalese Buddhists who will roundly condemn the Bodu Bala Sena. The Beruwela-Alutgama area is a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Some time ago one group of Muslims burnt down a new mosque that was being built by Islamic extremists. In many Muslim neighbourhoods we see extremist groups breaking away and establishing their own mosques. The increasing trend among extremists is to emphasize their separateness even from other Muslims not to speak of the wider society. Muslim leaders should take a long hard look at what is happening within their own community. When I spoke to my Muslim friends about the religious fundamentalism in the Beruwela-Alutgama area, what they said was that those issues had nothing to do with this incident. However this writer is not at all convinced that it did not.
Among the Tamils, there were voices of reason like those of Lakshman Kadirgarmar, the University Teachers for Human Rights, and many others who dared defy the diktat and hegemony of the LTTE even at the risk to their lives. In contrast to that you don’t hear any Muslim leader even acknowledging that Islamic extremism exists within the Muslim community here. Even if the Muslims fail to condemn the extremism in their midst, we will still continue to condemn the Bodu Bala Sena and call for its elimination for the following reasons.
1. If the need arises, Sinhala Buddhist laymen are quite capable of handling Islamic extremism the same way that extremism within the Sinhala and Tamil communities were dealt with. Buddhist monks need not be involved in such things.
2. Muslim extremism does not pose a danger to this country the way Tamil separatism did. The Muslims never asked for a separate state and given the distribution of the population such will be impossible. Muslim extremism will mostly be a state of mind and nothing more. Even if Muslim extremists start a terror campaign in this country, what will that achieve other than getting themselves killed?
3. In any event combating Muslim extremism is a matter for the state and not monks. If the state takes on Muslim extremists, they can get the help of the Muslim nations too. Today even countries like Pakistan have come to the realization that the biggest threat to the Pakistani state is not India but the Islamic terrorism within its borders. Muslim countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco all understand the threat of Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia is openly helping Egypt to physically exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood. So combating Islamic extremism should be done clinically at the level of the state without monks getting involved and turning it into a religious conflict.
4. If the allegation is that the Muslims are trying to dominate Sri Lanka by taking over businesses and the like, all that has to be done is to organize the temples quietly and work towards a silent boycott of Muslim business establishments and over a period of time, the message will go home that one-upmanship in a multi-ethnic state is just not acceptable.
5. The work of the Bodu Bala Sena has given Buddhism a bad name and despite their claim to be combating Muslims, they are actually working against Buddhism obviously at the behest of shadowy sponsors overseas particularly in Norway and the USA.
6. The thug-monk Gnanasara lived in obscurity all his life until he started engaging in public acts of thuggery while wearing the garb of a Buddhist monk. This unusual behaviour was bound to attract attention and Gnanasara suddenly found himself on the front pages of newspapers and in TV news bulletins. Now he has got so much publicity that he feels he is ready to take on the government. The Sinhalese cannot allow such scum to become the face of Buddhism in this country.
When the Bodu Bala Sena first started off, they were timidly claiming legitimacy for their work by insinuating that they were linked with the government as for example when Gnanasara said during a Derana 360 interview that they had ‘informed the defence ministry’ before going to Norway. Why would they want to inform the defence ministry when the relationship that the defence secretary in particular had with the Norwegians was always strained at best? In fact on one occasion Gotabhaya had nearly assaulted a top Norwegian official following an argument. Unfortunately, these details are not in Gota’s War because the only official who witnessed that incident flatly refused to talk about it. Since that was Gotabhaya’s relationship with the Norwegians, why would he want to ‘approve’ a visit to Norway by a group of monks? So far as this writer knows, nobody from the defence ministry has visited Norway even to study urban development.
From indirectly claiming links to the government to bolster their legitimacy and to obtain space to operate in, the BBS graduated to publicly claiming that they can both create as well as topple governments and they even got approval from the Malwatte Mahanayake to do just that. Now at the Alutgama rally on Sunday, the president has been reduced to ‘maha-unde’ and Gota and Basil don’t even have names but go by the generic appellation of ‘maha-undege parapura’! Last week the anti-BBS monk Watareka Wijitha was abducted, assaulted and abandoned by the roadside. The BBS has silenced the Buddhist hierarchy through such physical violence and by threatening to expose the indiscretions of senior monks.
Clearly, there is a wound in the body politic and it needs to be cauterized. At the rally in Alutgama Gnansara told the crowd “If the Marakkalayas play up, and want to see what we are capable of, these shops in Beruwela and Alutgama will be finished off.” Such a statement is sufficient to arrest him for incitement, but he should not be arrested or charged in courts.