There is a trend among some Buddhist monks to rage against Muslims on social media
Lately, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been losing their temper a little too often. There was that incident from March this year, when a young monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans. “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go,” he exhorted. In September, when three men bared their bottoms at the sacred Buddhist site of Pidurangala Rock, had pictures taken and posted them on Facebook, the Buddhist clergy erupted. The flashers were eventually arrested. In the first case, the violent message was put out on YouTube and Whats-App. In the second, social media seethed with hate and threats.
Many violent posts by the monks have been reported in the past one year. These related to national politics, loss of Sinhalese lives in the civil war against Tamilians and anti-Muslim rants. The last category is probably the most rampant and robust. (The Sinhalese are the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka.)
One Facebook post said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A photograph of some makeshift weapons against a list of targets was circulated on WhatsApp by a monk. It read: “Thennekumbura mosque and the mosque in Muruthalawa tonight. Tomorrow, supposedly Pilimathalawa and Kandy.” Another YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray. They say this is close to their culture. They want to claim that their faith is like ours…”
Earlier this year, monks also circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilisation pills in food meant for Buddhist customers. Around the same time, a truck driver at Medamahanuwara in Kandy was beaten up over some petty traffic dispute, but monks spread the fake news that Muslims had killed him. Reason cited: apparently it was part of their larger strategy to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.
That as many as 25 Buddhist monks are in jail for committing some hate crime or the other is proof that not all is well between Sri Lanka’s communities.
Most of the radical posts have come from monks who believe in the extremist ideology of Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and Mahasohon Balakaya.
Buddhist monks have set out on a mission to “protect” the motherland and they are trying to enlist mostly uneducated and unemployed youth from the lower middle classes into their fold. A senior Sinhalese monk tells The Telegraphover phone from Colombo, “Inn ko jawani ka josh hai… These monks are young and hot-blooded.” He does not sound appreciative at all.
In March, soon after violence instigated by social media posts went out of control, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of Emergency and temporarily blocked access to social media platforms. Facebook, which has over 55,00,000 users in Sri Lanka, was also asked to introduce more filters on Sinhalese content and hire Sinhalese-speaking content screeners besides instituting a direct point of contact with local authorities.
Post crackdown, some Facebook pages have become dormant. Messages to the Facebook pages maintained under the BBS name remain unanswered. According to those in the know, BBS is one of the most violent groups.
Amalini De Saryah of the Colombo-based civil society group, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), studies these groups and their activities on social media. She says, “While we can’t be sure which of the dedicated hate pages and groups have been created by the monks themselves, we’ve seen both public profile and personal profile pages in monks’ names, sometimes sharing posts with violence or hate speech and commenting in support of other posts that do the same.”
Researchers who have been studying changes in Sri Lankan society point out that “religious confrontation” has started to supersede ethnic confrontation post-2009 — when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In fact, a paper titled “Self, Religion, Identity and Politics” by the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) states, “What was considered to be ‘radical’ in the 1980s was no longer valid twenty years later. There are also certain kinds of “radicalism”, which the Buddhist public may find acceptable… For some sections of the Buddhist polity, even the actions of the BBS were legitimate and valid, and the BBS activism was a justifiable intervention to prevent what they saw as the erosion of Buddhist values and the place of Buddhists and Buddhism in our country.”
Some regard the involvement of Buddhist monks in hate politics as a recent development and a response to Islamist fundamentalism. These people allege that Muslims are attacking pagodas, destroying Buddhist colonies, cutting their sacred peepal trees and constructing mosques everywhere.
But traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been accommodative and maintained cordial links with Sinhalese Buddhists.
From time to time, Sinhalese Buddhists have argued that they are the majority in Sri Lanka and therefore they must rule. They also say that there is no other country for Sinhalese Buddhists, and hold that they are a minority in the world and must protect their race. It seems, in this fight to protect their kind, some monks are going to extremes and are unprepared to heed saner voices even from within the community.
Social scientist Pathiraja explains, “Earlier, monks played a significant role in the village temples. They were considered leaders of villages. With time, temples have become irrelevant. But the monks wanted to get back their lost recognition in society. How else could they do it other than by using religion as a tool? And that is why they created the notion of an ‘enemy’ by showing people that the growing Muslim population is trying to eliminate the Buddhists from their own land, by extremism.”
Recalling a conversation he had had with the hardliner, Gnanasara Thero, a professor of Buddhism at Colombo’s Buddhist and Pali University, he says, “When I asked him to change his way of speaking, he used cuss words I have never heard before.” Gnanasara Thero is currently languishing in jail on charges of contempt of court. Adds the professor who does not want to be identified, “They (radical monks) are doing it in the name of nationalism.”
That’s not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, founded Buddhist schools and strengthened the Sinhala language and Buddhism. When the Sri Lankan Constitution was framed in 1972, it said Buddhism has the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. A Sinhala army song, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, goes thus: “Linked by love of the religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers, you should go hand in hand.”
Mario Gomez, executive director at the Colombo-based research group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, talks about how these violent monks enjoyed tacit support of the State under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship — especially between 2009 and 2015. Rajapaksa’s brother and former defence minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is considered close to the BBS monks. He was also the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS, in 2013.
With the political equations fast changing in Sri Lanka, the fear is that radical monks will get a new lease of life. Some reports suggest that an appeal has been submitted to the government by hardline monks to release Gnanasara Thero on bail. “It’s a lull so far as violence by monks is concerned, but it might be unleashed the moment he is out,” says the professor from Pali University.
A young monk, Ratana Nanda Bhante, who has chosen to separate himself from his violent peers, says, “BBS is bringing a bad name to the entire community. People think all Buddhist monks are violent. The problem is some monks apply their intellect to save the nation, some adopt militancy. But in Buddhism, there is no place for militancy.”