Sri Lanka's BBS: an old spectre in new garb?

Though interreligious violence in Sri Lanka is not new, the emergence of the well-organized, well-connected Buddhist radical group reflects a broader problem today - the alarming shortage of critical and constructive public debate.

The latest, and perhaps most disturbing development in post-war Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations is the recent rise of a Buddhist activist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS-Buddhist power force), driven against Sri Lankan Muslims, the island’s third ethnic minority. BBS explains its mission as strengthening the Buddhist faith in the island, providing spiritual leadership and saving Sinhala Buddhism from external threats. A more vicious strategy has emerged however with Muslims as the prime target, a perceived threat to the Sinhala Buddhist community’s ethno-religious majority.

BBS has succeeded in propagating a number of myths of Islamic infringement on Sinhalese Buddhists and launched campaigns against Muslim communities, including attempts to prevent halal certifications to businesses for food items produced in Sri Lanka. However, BBS activism has surpassed mere political propaganda and has also becoming increasingly violent. On 28 March 2013, a BBS mob attacked the warehouse of Fashion Bug, a Muslim-owned department store chain situated in the outskirts of Colombo. BBS is alleged to have called for attacks on people shopping at Muslim-owned businesses, and maintains what can be described as a far-right wing, majoritarian and fundamentalist posture, which stands in complete discord with the very fundamentals of the Buddhist faith they purport to defend. BBS activism increasingly shares much in common with anti-Muslim activism in predominantly Buddhist Burma, which has also taken a highly violent turn. While there is no explicit evidence of connections between the Burmese and Sri Lankan agitations, one cannot ignore commonalities between the two situations.

But while BBS is a relatively new phenomenon in Sri Lanka’s troubled sphere of ethnic politics, their ideology is by no means a novelty. 2015 will mark the centenary of what one scholar describes as Ceylon’s Kristallnacht, a series of Sinhala-Muslim riots that have also been described as a pogrom. The 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots initially arose from a very local matter – a controversy over the passage of a Buddhist perahera (religious procession) past a mosque in the township of Gampola in central Sri Lanka. A legal battle fought by the custodians of the Buddhist temple in question ended with a court ruling that left many a Buddhist disheartened. Months later in mid-1915, a collision took place in Kandy – Sri Lanka’s second city and a centre of Buddhist worship – during yet another Buddhist procession, and rioting soon spread to the Kandy’s vicinity and to other parts of Ceylon, including Colombo. The rioters in Colombo were not only composed of an unruly mob but also of blue-collar workers in Ceylon Government Railways, who were keen to attack the trade monopoly held by Coast Moors – a community of traders who would travel extensively between Ceylon and India – who ran many local businesses in the city.

The Colonial Government responded by declaring Martial Law. Interpreting Sinhala-Muslim agitation as an anti-colonial uprising, the riots were violently suppressed. This helped further ferment Sinhala nationalism in the post-1915 years. In post-1915 Ceylon, anti-minority disturbances primarily targeted the Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic minority. Riots occurred most notably in 1958 when the Solomon Bandaranaike government sought to strike a deal with the Federal Party of Ceylon, the most prominent exponent of Tamil nationalism at the time, to address some of the Tamils’ political demands, including the official recognition of the Tamil language. The most violent anti-Tamil pogrom of the 20th century was indeed that of July 1983 (known as Black July), a ruthless populist response to Tamil secessionist militant activity in northern Sri Lanka, not unendorsed by Sinhala nationalist elements within the government in Colombo. 

Though the threat of Tamil secessionism seemingly ceased with the controversial 2007-2009 military operation and the resulting decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealm, post-bellum Sinhala nationalism has begun to rekindle anti-Muslim sentiments - a crude irony as we approach the centenary of the 1915 riots. In contrast with 1915 though, BBS-led activism is better organized, and is reportedly financed by the secret budgetary allocations of the Ministry of Defence, according to journalists in exile. The Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, presidential sibling and highest authority in control of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, personally inaugurated a newly built BBS-led Buddhist Leadership Academy in Galle, Southern Sri Lanka, on 9 March 2013. At its inception, BBS was also a recipient of Norwegian funding. BBS is currently engaged in international outreach efforts, with its leaders touring the United States.

Despite debates on the veracity of reports regarding funding and links to the government of Sri Lanka, a cursory glance at BBS activism suffices to demonstrate that BBS is an influential, considerably well-funded and well-connected organisation. Its role in driving a wedge between the majority and a not insignificant minority is a dangerous phenomenon with potentially adverse consequences for the island nation’s troubled ethnic relations. An online petition, signed by many Sri Lankans who value interethnic and interreligious coexistence, calls upon the President of Sri Lanka to take steps to avoid interreligious violence. However, this is supremely optimistic as BBS clearly receives the endorsement of the ruling family, in the absence of which it would never have been in a position to launch such staunch verbal and physical attacks, steal the limelight and position itself at the forefront of political activism. 

Though tensions between a Buddhist majority and a Muslim minority are not new, the BBS phenomenon reflects a broader problem in present-day Sri Lanka - an alarming shortage of critical and constructive public debate on issues of national concern. Increasingly, steps are been taken to reduce the younger generation’s inclination to question the establishment through growing militarisation, through compulsory military training for university entrants and public servants in the education sector. Calls for communal harmony and good governance, often raised by a critically minded, educated and well-travelled urban minority, do not trickle down to the masses of the citizenry. This reality has facilitated the continuation of a highly clientelist, oligarchic mode of governance with unmistakably chauvinistic and dictatorial undertones.