Chandraprema on Gnanasara Thera in 2014

C. A. Chandraprema, in …5 July 2014,  with the title “Gnanasara Thera & the UNP” — a repetition of this article from 2014 in the light of Dayan Jayatilleka’s recent intervention and the clutch of news items and articles on hate-speech and Sinhala Buddhist –Muslim tensions

Last week, the cat jumped out of the bag when the US Embassy in Colombo cancelled Galagodaatte Gnanasara thera’s US visa. When this writer asked the US embassy in Colombo in a previous column how this monk had gone to the USA after he had begun this campaign of hatred and incitement of violence, we assumed that he had entered the USA on the kind of single entry visitor’s visa that ordinary mortals like us get after answering a whole string of questions and producing copious documentation. Now it turns out that he had a five- year multiple entry visa which had been granted to him in 2011 and had not yet expired. The US authorities appear to have panicked that if this monk made another visit to the USA on this visa in the middle of all this controversy, their role in all this mayhem would be badly exposed.

 Gnanasara Thero

The question is, on what basis did Gnansara qualify for a five year multiple entry visa to the USA as far back as 2011? Before 2012, this monk was completely unknown to the public. Even this writer never knew such a monk existed. When his name came up in the public domain for the first time with the anti-Halal campaign, some journalists were sending in copy with his name confused with that of the Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara, the great social activist monk whom we all know so well – that was how unknown Gnanasara was at that time. How is it that the US embassy issued a five-year multiple entry visa to an unknown monk whose only claim to fame at that time was having pleaded guilty to a change of drunk driving and having disrupted meetings of the Anti-War Front? For a Buddhist monk to plead guilty to a charge of drunk driving was very unusual and was probably the first time that such a thing occurred in Sri Lanka’s history.

But even this very unusual happening failed to make his name known to the public. Even by disrupting meetings of the Anti-War Front he failed to make his name known because he was then just one thug among many. This writer knows people like Kumar Rupesinghe and Rajitha Senaratne very well, but they have never told me at that time that a monk by the name of Gnanasara came to disrupt their meetings. All they knew was that some thugs led by monks had invaded their meetings. It’s only after Gnanasara became infamous with his hate campaign in 2012 that these people started saying that it was Gnanasara who had come to disrupt their meetings. So, the question arises as to how Gnanasara who was a complete non-entity back in 2011 got a five year multiple entry visa? In the 1980s leaders of the Tamil Eelamist lobby like N.Satyendra had multiple entry visas to the USA, but then Satyendra was a former ministry secretary and a top professional and well known in Sri Lanka even before he got such privileges from the Americans. The natural suspicion that this writer would entertain is that this could have been an advance inducement to get Gnanasara to start something that was in the US interest and to give him the feeling that he would be looked after by the Americans if things went wrong. It should be noted that 2011 was the year in which Gnanasara got this five year multiple entry visa to the USA and also visited Norway.

Political vagrants

Before Gnanasara established these foreign contacts, he had a connection with the UNP. After the 2005 presidential elections, Gnansara and two laymen who had broken away from the JHU had gravitated towards the UNP. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe knows these people very well and he had given one of them an electoral organizer’s position in the Anuradhapura district (he contested the last NCP provincial council election and lost). Another person had been taken into the UNP media unit. Gnanasara himself had been for a while active in the UNP Bhikku Front. This was the period when he worked with Ravi Karunanayake and Shiral Laktilleke.  Last week, Minister Rajitha Senaratne told this writer in an interview that Gnanasara thera had approached Arne Fjortoft, a Norwegian national, in 2011 and wanted to meet the Tamil diaspora in Norway. That does not seem to be surprising because of Gnanasara’s association with the UNP and people like Laktilleke who always advocated negotiation with the Tamils. Furthermore, at the 2010 presidential election Gnanasara had helped General Sarath Fonseka by holding poojas and the like. The biggest party to back Fonseka other than the UNP was the Tamil National Alliance. By backing Fonseka, Gnanasara was making common cause with the TNA as well. So all these factors would have changed Gnanasara’s thinking.

Rajitha Senaratne said that after coming back from Norway, Gnanasara thera had actually wanted to work with him to promote minority rights but that after they had agreed to work together, Gnanasara had suddenly got involved in the anti-Halal issue. By that time, Gnanasara had not yet completely stopped his association with the UNP either. Readers will remember that when it came to the Halal issue, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made a statement in Parliament in 2012 basically supporting the anti-Halal agitation – a fact that surprised everybody. What RW said was that the Jamiyathul Ulema was not the correct body to issue certificates relating to the standard of food and that this should be done by an official body like the Sri Lanka Standards Institution. According to UNP insiders, RW’s statement apparently was due to the influence that Gnanasara at that point still had with the UNP. Readers may remember that when Gnanasara appeared on a Derana talk show some months back, he said that they had ‘informed the defence ministry’ that they were going to Norway. But back in 2011, it would appear that they had ‘informed the defence ministry’ that he was going to Norway, while he was still in close association with the UNP!

In addition to Gnanasara having gravitated to the UNP after breaking away from the JHU, Dilantha Vitanage the CEO of the Bodu Bala Sena has been known to Ranil Wickremesinghe for over 25 years though we do not know what his relationship to RW is now. This writer even heard that Gnanasara had on one occasion even chanted pirith at Mrs Nalini Wickremesinghe’s (Ranil Wickremesinghe’s mother) bedside during her final illness. Horrors! Can anybody imagine this thug-monk who is destroying Buddhism from within, chanting pirith by the bedside of that most Sinhala Buddhist of Sri Lankan matriarchs, Mrs Nalini Wickremesinghe? All this is of course not to suggest that the UNP has anything to do with the Bodu Bala Sena and its doings now. But it just shows how complicated things are. The single instance that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was photographed with the monks of the Bodu Bala Sena at a function organized by Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi is being used to discredit him saying that he is behind the BBS and the UNP has been among the most vociferous critics of Gota’s supposed involvement with the BBS.

But they seem to have forgotten that they too were involved with this horror not so long ago and that just before launching the BBS, these people were associated with the UNP and not with the UPFA or with any member of the Rajapaksa family.  For the information of the government, those UNPers who know these people are laughing their heads off at how a small band of complete nonentities who were existing on the margins of the UNP, have now destabilized the entire government in a manner that the UNP itself could never dream of! Much mirth has been generated in UNP circles at the manner in which the government has been kept at bay with threats, such as by saying that if Gnanasara is arrested, that will set off a reaction throughout the country and no one knows how it will end. UNPers told this writer last week that when the BBS invaded Sirikotha while the CHOGM summit was being held in Colombo last year, Gnanasara and the other monks who invaded the UNP headquarters had been manhandled and that even though one does not see many blows being struck in the video footage, the thug-monks had been pushed and pulled and had their ding dongs squeezed and in the crush women had even pricked them with hair pins!  Yet the BBS has not been able to start any reaction against the UNP. The green types are amazed at the manner in which this motley band of itinerant opportunists has been able to destabilize a government.  “We are learning new things every day.” Said one green to this writer adding that this is the first time that a government has been destabilized by political vagrants! The UNP would have been jealous of the achievements of the BBS if this instability had not been created through an anti-Muslim hate campaign. Such things are not the stock in trade of the UNP

The bogey of Muslim radicalism

The main claim of the BBS is that extremist Islam is making inroads into Sri Lanka and the government is not doing anything about it and because the government is not doing anything about it, they have had to take the law into their own hands to deal with it. Like all claims made by organizations of this nature, there is some truth in their assertion that extremist Islamic views are spreading in Sri Lanka. The Towheed Jamath movement has been propagating their more extreme form of Islam in Sri Lanka much to the consternation of Sri Lanka’s traditional Sufi Muslims. The town of Kattankudy is now completely in the hands of these more extreme Muslims. There have been clashes between these two groups in Kattankudy and Beruwela and even after the Aluthgama incident, just last week, tension was reported from Kalmunai between these two Islamic sects. There is an ongoing battle within the Muslim community itself.

All consummate scoundrels have reasons to put forward to justify their villainy. Even the LTTE could cite many instances when Sinhala violence was directed at ordinary Tamils and they were all true! What was wrong was what the LTTE was trying to do by using these true or partly true stories and so it is with the BBS. It is true that radical Islam is making its way into Sri Lanka. But there is a big difference in being a Muslim with extremist views and actually taking up arms for a Jihad against the Sinhalese. The Muslims here are a small minority spread throughout the country and their demographic distribution makes a Jihad impossible. There can be no separate Muslim state with Sharia law anywhere in this Island. The extremist groups may be trying to turn Kattankudy into an extremist Muslim enclave by forcibly driving out the few moderate Muslims living there, but this has repercussions elsewhere, as can be seen in the reaction of the moderate Muslims in Beruwela and Kalmunai.

Be that as it may, even if Muslim radicalism transmogrifies into Islamic terrorism, this can be dealt with by the security forces with little effort. Even when the LTTE was massacring Muslims in the east almost as a sport, Muslim youth never took to arms in a big way. There may have been small armed groups but there was no organized Jihad against the LTTE even by way of self-defence. The Muslims were totally dependent on the armed forces for their protection. When there were no Jihadi groups worth the name even in the face of imminent death at the hands of the LTTE, it is unlikely that such groups can emerge and pose a threat to the Sri Lankan state now. The Muslim community itself will hand over these Jihadis to the security forces, because there are plenty of Muslims who realize that their community cannot afford to have such hotheads among them. Besides, there is no reason to believe that the Sri Lankan armed forces who have already dealt with Sinhala as well as Tamil terrorism will not be able to deal with Islamic terrorism.

We really don’t need any monks or organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena to do battle with any Islamic terrorists in the country. And indeed if there is Islamic terrorism in this country, the Bodu Bala Sena will not fight them. It is the armed forces who will have to deal with that problem alone as they did Tamil terrorism. People like Gnanasara did not organize people in the border villages and help defend them from the LTTE – they maintained a safe distance from where the danger was. But now after Tamil terrorism was ended by the armed forces we have various organizations of monks screaming their heads off about an Islamic threat. Their hysterical behaviour would make one think that the Jihadis were about to establish an Islamic state in Sri Lanka. Even if these monks are stopped at a police checkpoint they shout at the cops accusing them of giving their rear ends to Muslims! Even the beleaguered Iraqi government in Baghdad isn’t that hysterical about Jihadis!

When you see people trying to whip up hysteria artificially in this manner, you know that there is some villainy afoot. If some Sinhala nationalist types are unhappy about the disproportionate presence of Muslims in business, they can quietly start a social movement to channel Sinhala consumers to Sinhala owned businesses. But what we see is instead of such a social movement, is a campaign of violence against Muslim owned businesses.  The objective here clearly appears to be not doing anything to correct perceived and real imbalances between Muslims and the Sinhalese, but attracting local and international attention. One of the aims of this campaign undoubtedly is to get Sri Lanka labeled internationally as a country that routinely harasses the Muslim minority and to deprive Sri Lanka of the support of the Muslim nations which have always backed Sri Lanka in international fora.  By multiplying the frequency of attacks on Muslims, they are trying to create a situation where the whole of the Muslim world is compelled to stop actively supporting Sri Lanka. Another objective appears to be to deprive the government of even the minor share of the Muslim vote that they would have got.

Marginalized Buddhists

Another grievance that has been added to the anti-Muslim hysteria is the charge that while the Muslim and Christian leaders are able to get anything they want done by the government, the government pays no heed to the Buddhist leaders. The example people use is that when the fishermen from Negombo went on strike demanding the restoration of the fuel subsidy, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was able to negotiate with the president and give a pledge to the fisher folk whereas Buddhist leaders are unable to get anything like that done. The example given for the marginalization of the Buddhists is that all the Mahanayakes put together could not stop the night races being held in Kandy. This however is an unfair accusation because the Asgiriya Mahanayake and the organizers of these night races had come to a decision to allow the night races one last time and that too not anywhere near the Dalada Maligawa.

This writer had most of his schooling in Kandy and can vouch for the fact that in the early 1970s, car and motorcycle races were held in Kandy in the daytime and the starting line was somewhere near the Dalada Maligawa itself! And believe it or not, as children we would watch the races around the lake from behind the barbed wire fence of what we were told was the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera’s residence! We lived just next door at that time. This is of course not to say that night races should be allowed in Kandy. This writer also wholeheartedly agrees that holding races in Kandy around the lake in the night or day time does not suit its religious significance and world heritage status. We just mentioned the Kandy races of the 1970s only in order to put things in the correct perspective.

If we get back to the question as to whether the Buddhists don’t have a voice in this country, the first thing that we have to realize is that the Sinhala Buddhists were never riding as high as they were after winning the war against Tamil terrorism. It is the Rajapaksas who restored the self-respect of the Sinhala Buddhists. What has blackened the name of the Sinhalese in general and the Buddhists in particular are these monkish conspirators who have given the enemies of Sri Lanka an opportunity to paint the Buddhists in the blackest terms possible.  It is unfortunate to see some learned monks who should know better, asking the government to examine the ‘root causes’ for these bhikku organizations to come up. When a problem like this emerges one must never start examining the root causes. You have to deal with the problem first and then perhaps start discussing whether there were root causes. But one thing that can be said with the utmost confidence is that there can be no root causes for a monk to start talking and acting in a manner that would make even the most thuggish and boorish politician blush.

If the accusation is that Buddhist leaders have become irrelevant, their inability or unwillingness to rein in these marauding monks will only add to their irrelevance. The way the Malwatte Mahanayake thera abdicated his responsibility to control his monks when he was visited by the thug-monks of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Ravana Balakaya was shameful to say the least. When Gnanasara told the Mahanayake thera that if he (the Ven Mahanayake) tells them to stop their activities, they will stop everything, he should have made use of that opportunity and told the BBS to stop before they end up destroying Buddhism itself. Instead what he did was to give them carte blanche to overthrow the government. Even after Buddhist monks had become the main creators of mayhem in the country, the senior monks and the Mahanayakes have not spoken one word against them. This is indeed the darkest moment for Buddhism in this country.

In contrast to the conduct of the senior Buddhist monks and the Mahanayakes, look at the way Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith handled the situation created by Bidhop Rayappu Joseph. When the latter made that comment about cluster munitions being used by the armed forces in the final push against the LTTE and the army having deliberately targeted Tamil civilians, the Cardinal quickly moved to distance the Catholic church from those comments and he said that those views don’t represent the views of the Catholic church and that they are the personal views of the Bishop. If the senior monks and the Mahanayakes had moved to distance the Buddhist dispensation from these marauding monks, and said likewise that what these monks were doing was their business but that they did not represent the Buddhist dispensation, the stock of the Mahanayake theras would have gone up.

If the Mahanayakes had shown the will to control the monks under them, the clout they wield in the country in general and among politicians in particular would have increased. What was most pathetic was the sight of Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha thera in the middle of all this mayhem, talking about the abolition of the executive presidency as if that was the main problem faced by Sri Lanka. He has thus far, not said one word about the monkish destroyers of the nation and the Buddhist dispensation. Ven Sobitha appears to have been living on another planet.

 

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Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, governance, historical interpretation, Islamic fundamentalism, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, politIcal discourse, power politics, racist thinking, Rajapaksa regime, religious nationalism, security, self-reflexivity, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, world events & processes, zealotry

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