Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera arriving at the Homagama Magistrate Court

Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January, last year, ultra-nationalist Sinhhala-Buddhist organizations, namely Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya, went into a dormant phase of some sort.

They were quite vociferous and had enormous influence when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power. It was widely speculated that these organizations operated under the blessings of the top-notch members of the former administration who had no qualms about using ‘racism’ as a tool to boost their political campaign. At one point, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa even took part as the chief guest of a function organized by the BBS and was seen taking photographs with the leaders of the seemingly racist organization.

It explained why incidents initiated by the BBS, such as anti-Muslim clashes in Aluthgama in the mid-2014, went uninvestigated under the previous regime. The BBS had open license to gatecrash any event that posed a threat to ultra-nationalist political campaign carried out by the previous government. They had license to storm into government ministries, disrupt press conferences and go berserk during public events, without being questioned by the Police or other law enforcement authorities. To make a long story short, they were the watch-dogs of a seemingly dictatorial regime that unabashedly pandered to the most chauvinistic sentiments of the ethnic and religious majority to perpetuate in office.

When the new government came to power, the BBS and other similar organizations realized in no time that they lost the immunity they enjoyed under the Rajapaksas. The BBS did not even hold a press conference for months. Their social media campaigns lost their steam and they were reduced to occasional squeaks about the ‘brutality of Islam extremism’ and other potential threats faced by the Sinhalese race – at large. BBS General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, who played a pivotal role to keep minorities away from former President Rajapaksa at the last Presidential election, hardly made a public appearance.

In an interesting move, the BBS decided to contest the Parliamentary election held on August 17. Some believed the organization, which often boasted about its ‘large support-base’, would manage to secure at least one seat in Parliament. However, they only managed to get 20,000 votes and it showed even the Sinhala-Buddhists did not have any faith in the sort of religious extremism they espoused. At this point, the organization probably realized that it could not go a long way with an unsuccessful brand name such as the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’.

A few months after the BBS’ debacle at the Parliamentary election, another ultra-nationalist movement was launched under the name ‘Sinhale’. It first started as an innocuous sticker campaign and it later turned into an organization that had the same name. The large majority of activists of the Sinha le movement were members of the BBS and there was hardly any difference between the two organizations.

The Sinhale movement too stressed the need for a “Sinhalese- Buddhist ruler” for the country and their obvious choice was former President Rajapaksa who fell out of power 13 months ago. The campaign, overly and covertly, supported the comeback bid of the former President and it did not require a lot of wisdom for one to understand the “inseparable” bond between the two parties.

In an interesting turn of events, members and supporters of the Sinhale movement gathered near the Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy on Saturday morning to take a special pledge to protect their race and religion. Although it was ‘designed’ as an event to take a collective oath, the true intention of the event was to send a message to the government that the ultra-nationalist forces, which went into a dormant phase after the Parliamentary election last year, are now back in the picture.

Sinhale event in Kandy

They came to Kandy in a motorcade, started near the Independence Square in Colombo. The Buddhist flag was displayed in vehicles. Participants carried Buddhist flags as well as distorted national flags which only had the lion’s symbol without orange and green colour strips representing the ethnic and religious minorities in the country.

Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, the motorcade from Colombo arrived at Mawanella where they had organized a meeting. The meeting was full of anti-Muslim rhetoric and Mawanella is a town where there is a sizable population of Muslims. To prevent a possible clash between residents and Sinhale supporters, the Mawanella Police had warned those who organized the motorcade to avoid lighting firecrackers in the town. A heated argument arose between the police and the participants regarding the warning.

As the group entered the Temple of Tooth Relic, a senior Police officer who was present at the location warmed the Sinhale supporters about the consequences of displaying ‘distorted’ national flags.

“We are carrying the original national flag. Sinhale flag is the original national flag of the country from the time immemorial. It was distorted when they made the current flag,” a Buddhist monk leading the event told the Police officer. Some of the Sinhale supporters who took part in the event attempted to hoot at senior Police officers present at the Temple of Tooth Relic. It showed the Sinhale members lacked self-restraint, an essential part of the Buddhist teachings, although they pledged to protect ‘Buddhism’ with life!

BBS General Secretary’s drama

It was against this backdrop that Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera staged a drama at the Homagama Magistrate’s Court on Monday afternoon. In a dramatic turn of events, Gnanasara Thera began to address Open Court after the court hearing pertaining to the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was over.

Addressing the Court, Gnanasara Thera praised the Army officers’ role in eradicating terrorism in the country and reprimanded the government and the Attorney General Department’s Senior State Counsel for giving instruction to arrest Army officers in connection with journalist Ekneligoda’s disappearance.

He said the Senior State Counsel involved in the case should also be arrested for instructing Police to arrest the soldiers.

The Magistrate attempted to explain the situation, but the Thera continued to address Court reprimanding the government and the Attorney General’s Department.

Counsel Upul Kumarapperuma and Senior State Counsel Dileepa Peiris who were present in Court moved that legal action be taken against the Thera for creating such an unruly situation in Court. They further observed that it was an act tantamount to obstructing court proceedings and Court should not allow such action to take place.

At this point, Homagama Magistrate Ranga Dassanayake ordered the Police to arrest and produce in Court the BBS General Secretary for several offences including obstructing Court proceedings.

It is naïve to believe that Gnanasara Thera was not aware of the repercussions of his rumbustious behaviour within the court premises. Probably he staged the drama to deliberately trigger an arrest. Immediately after the Magistrate issued the order, the social media, mainly Facebook, was flooded with posts from Gnanasara supporters dubbing the monk as a “hero” and a “true protector” of Buddhists. Those social media posts also invited the BBS supporters to visit Gnanasara Thera’s temple in Rajagiriya on Tuesday morning to discuss the organization’s future course of action on the matter. It looked as if they were organizing a protest against the arrest of the monk.

On Tuesday morning, Gnanasara Thera surrendered to the Homagama Police station and he was immediately produced before the Homagama Magistrate. The Magistrate ordered Police to remand the BBS General Secretary until February 9.

These incidents sent a strong message to the government to take immediate action to curb the activities of these rabid, ultra-nationalist movements attempting to drag the country towards a possible bloodshed. However, it can be assumed that the government is treading cautiously on the matter, fearing a negative response from the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate which is, at least to some extent, sympathetic towards the activities of those ultra-nationalist organizations. Probably, those organizations and their leaders have fooled the village-level Sinhala-Buddhist community into believing that they were the real protectors of “Sinhala-Buddhism”.

Needless to say there is a strong sense of distrust among some sections of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities in the country due to multiple reasons. Those fears are largely fueled by extremist groups operating within the three communities. While Muslims are worried about potentials threats to their safety and traditions involving their practice of religion, Tamils in the North and East fear “Sinhalese colonization” in Tamil areas and military influence in areas traditionally inhabited by Tamils. And, according to Stanley J. Tambiah, a Harvard anthropologist, the Sinhalese are a ‘'majority with a minority complex,'’ fearful of dominance by the 50 million Tamils in nearby southern India and threats emanating from the growing Muslim influence in the Asian region.

That is one reason why the country needs a strong mission to strengthen national unity and take solid steps towards reconciliation, at this juncture. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, a leader who is largely trusted by ethnic and religious minorities of the country, has been entrusted with the task of the country’s mission to ensure reconciliation. The events unfolded over the past few days shows that her initiative may not be as easy as it seems.

Former President Kumaratunga too stirred the hornet’s nest last week when she made a statement over a contentious issue while addressing a public meeting.

Kumaratunga said Sinhala-Buddhist schools such as Ananda and Nalanda Colleges should open up a certain “quota” for ethnic and religious minorities when it comes to school admissions.

“Creating boundaries on ethnic and religious grounds is not in line with the Buddhist teachings. When I was the President, I asked the Principals of these schools about the minority percentage when it came to school admissions. They did not even have proper answers. When I tried to change it, teachers and old boys took to streets. I managed to send one Muslim boy to Ananda College. However, after two years, he sought a transfer saying he was subjected to ill-treatment,” the former President said, addressing a public event yesterday.

In her speech, the former President specifically referred to Ananda, Nalanda and Visakha - three prominent Buddhist schools in Colombo established over 100 years ago. Although they were initially run by Buddhist organizations, they were taken over by the government through a Parliamentary bill under the administration of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the mid 60s.

“There are some students in these schools who have never interacted with a Muslim or Tamil student. When they resort to extremism, some Tamil and Muslim schools too follow the same path. So, is it a big surprise that this country had to deal with a long-drawn war?” the former President questioned.

“When I raised this matter before, those who use racism as a tactic to regain power launched a Facebook campaign against me. They even said I suggested to close down Ananda College. I must say that a group of foolhardy Sinhalese fell prey to that. There are foolhardy groups among Tamil and Muslim communities too,” Kumaratunga asserted.

A tense situation prevailed last Saturday when members of the 'Sinha Le' organisation gathered opposite the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy to give a special pledge. The Police tried to remove the 'Sinha Le flag', which is different from the National Flag. Picture by Asela Kuruluwansa

In fact, former President Kumaratunga, when she was in power, attempted to ensure a minority representation in Buddhist schools when it came to Grade 1 admissions. The move however was aborted by a wave of protests from students and old boys. They stressed that such a move would harm the legacy of Sinhala-Buddhist educational institutions. Embarking on a drastic reform process of that nature will risk the government’s popularity in an unprecedented manner, especially among the Sinhala-Buddhist sections.

SLFP crisis worsens

While the ultra-nationalist organizations were strongly backing Rajapaksa, the SLFP found itself in the middle of a serious crisis last week due to various attempts to split the party. The group identifying themselves as the ‘joint opposition’ initiated district level meetings with Local Government representatives of the SLFP who openly said they would breakaway from the party and align selves with Rajapaksa if the party failed to hand over leadership to the former President.

A group of over 50 former SLFP local government members including former chairmen and vice chairmen of Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Kurunegala district, speaking to local reporters on Monday, said they would contest the forthcoming local government elections under a new political front formed under the leadership of Rajapaksa.

Ibbagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabha former SLFP chairman U.K. Sumith Udukumbara addressing the press conference said all former SLFP Pradeshiya Sabha members in the Kurunegala district have decided to contest under a political front led by the former President because people supporting the SLFP at grassroots level were demanding them to do so.

“As former people's representatives we could not go against the people's wish,” he said, adding that the ‘common man’ had no faith in the SLFP.

Udukumbara said they would pressurise the government to hold the Local Government elections soon as there was no earthly reason to postpone the election. It was an indication that the group supporting Rajapaksa was trying to avoid electoral reforms. Maybe they have calculated that holding the election under the new electoral system would be disadvantageous to the Rajapaksa faction.

Polgahawela Pradeshiya Sabha former chairman Livera Gunatilleke, another Local Government representative addressing the meeting, said the SLFP, which was formed with the grouping of the five-fold forces, had today become a party torn with jealousy, hatred and enmity and revenge.

“We would definitely contest the forthcoming elections under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa notwithstanding any possible disciplinary action taken against us by the SLFP General Secretary,” he said.

Gunatilleke alleged that certain SLFPers who won the general election by riding on the back of Rajapaksa were today undermining SLFP supporters after obtaining ministerial and other posts in the government. Among others who attended the press conference were Dhammika Hettiarachchi, Ranjith Wijenayake, D.M. Sumanasiri, Raj Sisira Kumara, Thushara Sanjewa and Abdul Sattar.

Notable absentees

However, former Mayor of Kurunegala Gamini Peramunage, former chairman of Kurunegala Pradeshiya Sabha Patrick Kumarasinghe, Mawathagama Pradeshiya Sabha former chairman Upul Perera, Ridigama Pradeshiya Sabha former chairman Kumari Pallemulla, Panduwasnuwara Pradeshiya Sabha former chairman Ananda Jayalath and Alawwa Pradeshiya Sabha former chairman Bandara Wettawa were conspicuous by their absence at the press conference.

Meanwhile, the party’s Local Government representatives from Gampaha also held a similar meeting at the Sanasa centre of Gampaha on Monday. Over 150 members representing 19 Local Government bodies in the District took part in the meeting which was followed by a press conference. They demanded President Maithripala Sirisena to step down from the leadership of the party, making way for Rajapaksa.

“The SLFP has already been sold to the UNP. The SLFP is now at the Sirikotha. We are the ones doing politics at the grassroots level and our supporters demand us to contest from the former President’s party. We have no other option,” former Local Government representative Ranjith Gunawardena told reporters at the meeting.

While the majority of Local Government representatives of the party are getting out of control, the party convened its Executive Committee at the Mahaweli Centre on Tuesday. The Executive Committee, the second most-powerful decision making body of the party, had an islandwide representation and the meeting was aimed at working out a solution to the current internal power struggle. Meanwhile, there were reports that the party had appointed a committee, headed by Minister S.B. Dissanayake, to look into the matter and recommend a solution.

At this point, the biggest threat to the SLFP’s unity seems to be minor coalition partners of the UPFA who strongly push for a new political front. Speaking about the move, MP Wimal Weerawansa, a die-hard supporter of Rajapaksa, said the historic role of the UPFA was over and there was a dire need for a new political front. If, by any chance, the former President agrees to support the SLFP’s campaign led by President Sirisena, that will plunge minor coalition partners of the UPFA into a serious crisis.

If the group supporting the former President manages to form a new political party, it will cause the biggest split in the history of the SLFP. At the election, a serious split of that nature will allow the UNP to secure an easy victory, despite certain public concerns over the national unity government. 

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