A Study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka

Gerald H. Peiris

 Peiris addressing John Holt  

               INTRODUCTION: Muslims in the Multi-ethnic Polity of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka shares with the other nation-states of South Asia the phenomenon of complex ethnic diversities based upon distinctions of religion, language, caste and tribe. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up more than 99% of its population, with the Sinhalese accounting for 74%.  As enumerated in 2011, the Tamil segment of the population which accounts for 15.5% of the national total comprises two groups – ‘Sri Lanka Tamils’ (11.2%) and ‘Indian Tamils’ (4.3%). Moors and Malays (adherents of Islam) make up 9.6% of the population. In addition, there are the numerically small communities of Burghers (people of mixed European descent), Parsees (immigrants from western India), and Veddas (regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country).

In the country’s demographic spectrum of religion, Buddhists account for 70% – a proportion smaller than that of the majority religious group in other countries of the region. The political significance of the minorities constituting in aggregate as much as 30% of the population of Sri Lanka is enhanced by the presence of spatial agglomeration of one or another such group in certain parts of the country where traces of Buddhism have been largely obliterated and replaced by cultural elements associated with Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.1 On the basis of general impressions it is also possible to suggest an enhancement of this geographical polarisation by a tendency towards ethnic ghetto-formation, especially pronounced in, but not confined to, the larger urban areas of the country.

From historical perspectives the association of Theravada Buddhism[1] with the civilisation that evolved in the island over several millennia is comparable to the Hindu-India symbiosis witnessed in most parts of the adjacent sub-continent. Indeed, despite the highly controversial nature of the issues concerning the national identity of Sri Lanka that prevails in the context of the recently concluded secessionist war and the lingering diversities of interests and aspirations among the country’s religious groups, there has never been a serious refutation of the perception that Buddhism has provided the distinctive elements of the country’s cultural heritage from the past, despite the fact that in Buddhist-Hindu relations throughout history there were, at the plane of popular religion, close links in the form of similarities in beliefs and value paradigms, complementary rather than conflicting associations in religious ritual, and shared deities and places of worship.

In respect of both doctrinal basics as well as ritual Islam stands apart from Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, what appears prominent in the long history of relationships between these religious groups in Sri Lanka is that, especially in pre-modern times, religious distinctiveness by itself seldom acted as a barrier to peaceful coexistence.[2] There is no denial implicit in this assertion of the brief spells of violent confrontation between the Muslim community and other groups, the most thoroughly investigated among which being the ‘Riots of 1915’. It was featured mainly by attacks against the Muslims living in some of the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country for the suppression of which martial law was exercised by the colonial government with ruthless disregard of the norms of judicial procedure. In an incisive analysis of this episode of turbulences de Silva (1981:381-5)[3] has clarified that  the riots were directed specifically at the section of the Muslim community called the ‘Coast Moors’, and has explained the virulence of the outburst with reference to the “… ubiquitous activities of the Coast Moors in retail trading (that) brought them in contact with the people at their most indigent levels (which ) … earned them the hostility alike of the people at large and of their competitors among the Sinhalese traders … who had no compunctions about exploiting religious and racial sentiments to the detriment of their well-established rivals”.[4] Michael Roberts who is also an eminent Sri Lankan scholar  has refuted certain aspects of de Silva’s sketch of this conflagration, referring to it as a “pogrom”, rejecting the use of the term ‘riot’ with which it has often been referred to by many other analysts.

Ethnicity and Muslim Political Mobilisation

The emergence in the closing decades of the 19th century of a vibrant press in the two local languages – Sinhala and Thamil – with their distinctive readership orientations, on the one hand, and the confluence of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim revivalist movements with the embryonic campaign for independence from British rule, on the other, were prominent strands in the processes of Sri Lanka’s political modernisation during the early 20th century. The political significance of ethnicity in politics was enhanced when universal adult franchise was introduced to the elections to the legislature in 1931, seventeen years before the country gained independence – a quantum leap towards ‘democracy’ which only Britain had achieved up to that time. The enfranchisement of the entire population – male and female – above the age of twenty-one at a time when a political party system offering a spectrum of alternative socioeconomic policy options to the electorate was yet to be developed had the impact of bringing into the forefront of the country’s politics the conflicting interests of the different religio-linguistic and caste groups which had, in fact, been in evidence even earlier when political participation was largely confined to the educated and property-owning elite.[5] In such a context, many among those aspiring to positions of political leadership (including those seeking the consolidation of leadership positions already held) had to appeal to primordial loyalties of language, religion and caste, and to espouse related sectarian interests. Though the semblance of a modern party system did eventually develop (largely through an almost haphazard process of polarisation among leaders of existing primordial groups, except in the case of the ‘Marxist Movement’), by independence, the labels of language, religion and caste had become almost as important as party affiliation in the electoral politics of Sri Lanka.

The ‘All-Ceylon Moors’ Association’ and the ‘All-Ceylon Muslim League’ were influential organisations formed during the pre-independence era. These were dominated by the wealthy, urban-based elite of the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.  Many of the key personalities of these organisations became supporters of the UNP.  There were also a few prominent Muslims among the founder members of the SLFP in 1951.

The political alignments of the Sri Lanka Muslims have been succinctly outlined as follows (de Silva, 1986:445):

“The story of the Muslims in post-independence Sri Lanka is a story of how a small minority converted their intrinsic disadvantages (smallness of numbers and spatial scatter) into positive advantages in their struggle to strengthen their position in the Sri Lanka polity.  They were helped in this quite substantially by Sri Lanka’s political system in which from 1956 onwards the ruling party was defeated on six consecutive occasions (including 1956).  The result was that the Muslims had opportunities for political bargaining which they used to the great advantage of their community”.

Against the backdrop sketched out above, there was, for several decades after independence, no widely perceived need for political parties exclusively representing the interests of the Muslims.  In the more recent past, however, certain changes of circumstances – notably, the resentment on the part of an emerging leadership from the predominantly rural Muslim population concentrations such as that of the Eastern Province against the dominance of the urban-based elite in Muslim political affairs – led to the formation of Muslim political parties. Among these, the ‘Sri Lanka Muslim Congress’ (SLMC), inaugurated in 1988 in the context of deteriorating Tamil-Muslim relations in the Eastern Province, made rapid headway as an influential force in parliamentary politics. Several more recently formed parties such as the ‘Muslim United Liberation Front’ and the ‘Sri Lanka Muslim Katchi‘ are evidently intended to appeal to different regional and/or ‘class’ interests or personal loyalties within the Muslim community. Despite this trend, it seems likely that a large segment of the community, and even the exclusively Muslim political parties referred to above, will continue to retain links and loyalties with the UNP and the SLFP.

It should not be forgotten that at various stages of the ‘Eelam War’ (mid-1980s to 2009) certain Muslim leaders in mainstream politics (including Rauf Hakeem, the SLMC chief) were not averse to the prospect of forging a formal understanding with the LTTE leadership, independently of the stance of the Colombo government in which they held ministerial posts. Moreover, in the ‘Government-LTTE Peace Negotiations’ of 2001-2003, the principal demand of the Eastern Province Muslims, articulated mainly through the SLMC, was that any compromise worked out to meet the LTTE claim for autonomy in the ‘north-east’ should be accompanied by an arrangement facilitating self-government for those inhabiting the main Muslim areas in that part of the country.

The coastal lowlands of the Eastern Province have hardly ever been entirely free of localised friction between the Tamils and the Muslims constituting (according to the 1981 census data), 42% and 35%, respectively, of the total population of the province. These, it must be remembered, have all along been areas of excessively high population density in which residential loci of one community are juxtaposed by those of the other in an intricate and closely entwined micro-spatial mosaic. The eastern lowlands are also featured by resource scarcity, agrarian unrest and widespread poverty, and hence, frequent interpersonal disputes with communal undertones.

This was the demographic and socio-economic setting in which several Tamil militant groups began in the early 1980s to build a support-base among those of their own community. At that stage, evidently in response to harassment by the Tamil militants, the Muslims of their larger communities also attempted to form armed groups, and did achieve some success in their attempt.  Thus, for example, in the Allai area (south of Trincomalee harbour) an armed group which called itself the “Jihad Movement” is said to have gathered a small but ardent following.  Again, in coastal Ampara (southern parts of the Eastern Province), a movement referred to as “Al Fatah” mobilised some support from among Muslim youth. These, however, soon succumbed under the weight of the overwhelming might of the Tamil militants.

Following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 the SLMC decided to collaborate with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in accordance with Delhi’s pledge to restore normality in the ‘north-east’. Observers believe that it was at this point that the LTTE turned its wrath in earnest towards the Muslims in this part of the country. Thus, following the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka in the early months of 1990 and the concurrent emergence of the LTTE as the most powerful among the separatist groups, Muslim communities in the Eastern Province became the target of large-scale ‘Tiger’ attacks. These evidently represented an attempt at “ethnic cleansing” of the “Traditional Tamil Homeland”. Several gruesome massacres of Muslim civilians, each involving death-tolls exceeding one-hundred, were carried out by LTTE cadres, resulting in mass evacuation by the Muslims of certain localities. By January 1991, about 350,000 Muslims had been displaced from their villages and towns of the Eastern Province. In October 1990, the LTTE also evicted en masse all Muslims (total number estimated at about 70,000) from the Northern Province.  Thought the 1990s and well into the landmark ‘Mavil Aru-Muttur’ battle between the Sri Lanka army and the Tigers,[6] the LTTE attacks were sporadically targeted at the Muslims.

In the longer term the Muslim fears of becoming a beleaguered minority in the entire country could have been reinforced by several brief localised Sinhalese-Muslim clashes of the recent past  ̶ in the township of Mawanella in May 2001, and in northern Colombo in October 2002 (examined in detail in later stages of the present study). There is, in addition, the long-standing dispute in the interior of the Eastern Province concerning an alleged encroachment by the Muslims of land belonging to ancient Buddhist temples and archaeological sites.

Socioeconomic Perspectives

Among the other dimensions of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka that need to be highlighted as background to the present study is the declining trend of  the correspondence between socio-economic stratifications and religious differences that prevailed in the country at independence seventy years ago and, in consequence, the absence in comparable magnitude today of an “economically dominant” religious group similar to, say, that of the social privilege and relative affluence Christians (especially the Protestant segment thereof), on the one hand, contrasting with the deprivation and despair that featured the lives of the overwhelming majority of Hindus in the plantation sector, the Tamils and Muslims in the rural areas in the northwest and the eastern lowlands, and the Sinhalese peasantry in the drier parts of the island, on the other.

The declining trend referred to above is largely attributable to transformations of the ethnicity-based functional specialisation brought about by the economic transformations witnessed under colonial dominance becoming indistinct since the termination of British rule in Sri Lanka. In ‘British Ceylon’ the livelihood of the large majority in the Sinhalese segment of the population was in subsistence farming – the production of rice and a few other staples for local consumption with some among those inhabiting the maritime fringe deriving an income from fishing. The ‘Ceylon Tamil’ community, achieving greater upward social mobility through education than the other ethnic groups, acquired a proportionately large share of while-collar employment (including those in the professional fields), emerging mainly from an agrarian base oriented towards the production of “subsidiary food-crops” and tobacco for an all-island market, while harvesting the rich source of marine fish in the Mannar, Wadge and Pedro ‘banks’ in the island’s northern waters. In the case of Muslims, the semblance of a special focus of economic function could be discerned in the fact that, while participating in the entire range of economic activities, they had a share of trade transactions of the colony that was far in excess of their population ratio which was to some extent a legacy of commercial transactions of the Kandyan Kingdom. ‘Indian Tamils’, largely confined as they were to the plantation sector, constituted its poverty-stricken labour force inhabiting parts of the ‘Central Highlands.

The dissipation of this pattern of ‘specialisation’ which was associated with post- independence socioeconomic changes had significant repercussions on ethnic relations, most of it – especially those impelled by educational advances that facilitated social mobility – inevitable and salutary; but not devoid of a politically destabilising impact of intensifying inter-ethnic rivalry for space within the different fields of the economy in the context of a largely stagnant economy and a rapid expansion of population from about 7 million to 14.7 million in the first thirty years after independence, and then to  about 19 million in the next thirty years.

A socioeconomic phenomenon of utmost relevance to relations between the Sinhalese majority community and the Hindu and Muslim minorities that has not received adequate scholarly attention is that in the daily lives of the large majority of people living in most parts of the island their inter-ethnic relations are seldom interaction among equals. The exceptions to this phenomenon are found perhaps only at the apex of society and in segments of the city working-class. More specifically, the large majority of the poor of any ethnic group has hardly any direct contact with the poor of other groups, being kept apart by barriers of geography, language and culture. Thus, for example, in most of the Sinhalese-majority areas, Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims with whom the poor among the Sinhalese come into routine contact have all along been persons of higher social strata –  professionals, high and middle-level state sector employees, traders etc. With the steady post-independence increase of the Sinhalese proportion in the upper and middle grades of the state sector workforce, the mirror image of this feature came to be replicated (though somewhat less distinctly) in at least some of the main Tamil and Muslim majority areas of the northeast where, from about the mid-1980s, as the police and the armed forces gradually became almost exclusive Sinhalese domains, it assumed greater prominence. Accordingly, regardless of the fact that poverty has always been a phenomenon shared almost equally by all ethnic groups, to the poor in any one group, those of the other ethnic groups invariably appears economically “privileged” and “powerful”.

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka?

The remaining segments of this study are presented in two parts the first of which is intended to contextualise, in the broader setting of recent political transformations witnessed in Sri Lanka, the proliferation of information on violence targeted allegedly by Sinhalese-Buddhists on the Muslims, which those responsible for disseminating such information often portray as a trend of intensifying rivalry between the two ethnic groups. The second part contains a critique of the thematic submissions in a similar portrayal presented by John Holt, Professor of Comparative Religion at a prestigious liberal arts college in the United States, as the ‘Keynote Address’ of a research conference on the subject of Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia: The Politics behind Religious Rivalries’ conducted three years ago by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy.** The special attention I devote to Professor Holt is due entirely to the fact that the ‘Rashomon Effect’   ̶  the same event or phenomenon being interpreted in diverse ways by different persons, impelled by their subjective interests and motivations ̶ is far less evident in his keynote address than in other scholarly works I have come across on this subject.

        PART ONE

At the time of the conference referred to above the prevailing political ethos in Sri Lanka was such that there was reason to place trust in the government, guided as it was by the strength of its convictions and commitments to our foremost national interests, having the capacity to withstand the internal and external destabilising pressures being exerted against the country’s steady (but not entirely unblemished) ‘post-war’ recovery. Hence it was possible to regard even the blatant distortions of ground realities of ethnic relations in our country, including those that took the form of pseudo-academic research churned out mainly by a set of foreign-funded Colombo-based NGOs, as no more than irritations of tolerable impact which small countries such as ours need to bear with fortitude while safeguarding rights as sovereign nation-states. It is now becoming increasingly evident that the ‘regime change’ of early 2015 has brought about a dire necessity to abandon that earlier attitude of laissez-faire indifference towards the spread of disinformation, subversion (including clandestine incitement to violence) and intimidatory threats based presumably on the pernicious doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’,[7] because the newly installed puppet regime, in its wayward responses to the resulting pressures, has been leading the nation relentlessly towards  the same state of anarchy and chaos as those targeted in the recent decades by the so-called democratisation efforts and humanitarian interventions of the NATO superpowers.

Even in the course of the 30-year ‘Eelam War’ there were attempts made by the LTTE and the leaders of the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community in mainstream politics to attract at least a segment of the Muslim community into their secessionist campaign. When that proved to be futile, the Muslims living in the ‘North-East’ of the island became targets of diverse forms of terrorist brutality that included mass murder (remember Eravur and Kattankudi?) and forced displacement of entire communities (in Mannar, more excruciatingly than elsewhere). Since the Eastern Province was liberated from the clutches of the LTTE in late 2006, the government was able to embark on rehabilitation and reconstruction in that part of the ‘war zone’ well ahead of the end of its Vanni military operations in May 2009, using aid funds specifically earmarked by the donors for that purpose. This resulted in a spectacular re-development of socioeconomic infrastructure in the densely populated coastal periphery of the east where the largest Muslim settlements are located. In addition, the Muslim political alignments in the immediate aftermath of the war could also have been influenced at least marginally by the cordial relations which the Rajapaksa regime had maintained with several Islamic countries – especially Pakistan, Iran, and the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip.

These probably constituted a significant set of reasons for Mahinda Rajapaksa obtaining 57.9% of the popular vote at the euphoric presidential election of January 2010 in his contest against the other formidable ‘war hero’ of that time, General Sarath Fonseka (the candidate backed by the UNP, JVP and the disgruntled loyalists of ex-president Chandrika doing her “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” act). In fact, Rajapaksa surpassed even the support garnered by J R Jayewardene at peak popularity in 1982 (52.9%) – the only previous nationwide poll free of serious insurrectionary disruption since the inception of the ‘executive presidential system’ in 1978. Based on the fact that Muslims in all parts of the island were sharing the economic benefits of the ‘peace dividend’ – especially in trade and commerce – it could be surmised that the Rajapaksa camp continued to retain the support of the Muslim community at the parliamentary elections conducted a few months later at which the Rajapaksa-led UPFA secured 60% of the overall total of votes, while the UNP share dwindled to 29%.

It should, however, be stressed that in the entire electoral history of independent Sri Lanka, the allegiance of the Muslims – almost 10% of the all-island vote – for one or the other of the parties commanding the bulk of the Sinhalese support has all along been ephemeral. This, in my understanding, has been a fact of vital salience to the ‘regime change’ project referred to above, given the overall electoral morphology in which: (a) the Buddhist support (70%) gets divided (both directly as well as indirectly through the JVP, the JHU and the ‘Old Left’) among the two main parties; (b) support for the Rajapaksa regime from the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community remains minute; and (c) the Hindu vote in plantation areas (about 4% of the national total) with its comparatively more distinct community cohesion, being vulnerable to en bloc external manipulation (including RAW intervention as rumoured in the local press but substantiated by Dersil Patel, in the journal Defence New issue of 29 July 2015) in favour of what Delhi preferred.

It is not possible in a dispassionate attempt to contextualise the ‘regime change’ project referred to above to discount the significance of the foregoing sketch of electoral arithmetic. It would, indeed, be downright stupid to ignore the fact that promoting estrangement of Buddhist-Muslim relations, especially through clandestine support to the rabble-rousing lunatic fringe of the Buddhist segment of the electorate, on the one hand  (the well-known columnist Izeth Hussain, writing for The Island on 5 May 2017, was certain that “the Islamophobic hate campaign is obviously foreign-funded and foreign backed”)  paralleled by a propaganda campaign designed to magnify the violent exemplifications of the alleged hostility of the Buddhists such as homicide and causing physical injury, desecration of mosques, arson, property damage, looting etc., which, in addition, contained the damning charge that the government remained inactive or even supportive of the violence because of its subservience to Buddhist interests.

These modalities of destabilisation have by no means ceased with the toppling of the Rajapaksa regime. What is of direct salience to a reappraisal of evidence for the claimed intensification of Buddhist-Muslim rivalry is that the same ‘regime change’ strategies are now being pursued with enhanced vigour for protecting  the tottering regime installed in 2015, with a short-term focus on averting its probable collapse at the forthcoming all-island local government elections   ̶ a debacle to somehow mitigate at least in the main municipal areas such as Colombo and Kandy where there is an electorally formidable Muslim presence.

My present comments on the empirical basis of the claimed intensification of Buddhist attacks on the Muslims in Sri Lanka, I should clarify, are not based on a comprehensive study of the abundance of related reports available in published form (especially in the so-called ‘social media’ – often, a camouflage of respectability to heaps of garbage). I have, however, read the proceedings of the conference referred to earlier; many news reports in the mainstream media; relevant statements by spokespersons for the government, political parties, and state sector institutions such as the police, semi-official organisations like the Bar Council; statements issued by certain ecclesiastical bodies and civil society outfits; publications in Sinhala and English by several religious organisations that have figured prominently in issues pertaining to ethnic relations, and articles and comments on this subject that have appeared in two English language national newspapers and in internet blogs and other websites. In addition, I have gathered information through ‘field investigations’ in four of the trouble spots – Mawanella, Dambulla, Mahiyangana and Aluthgama – which entailed random interviews with community leaders (clergy and lay persons, men and women) and state-sector officers very familiar with their respective areas.

There are certain commonalities in the documentations referred to above. First, the overwhelming majority of my sources refer to an increasing incidence of hostility targeted at Muslims by either unnamed mobs or cliques variously referred to as “Buddhist extremists/fanatics/racists/bigots”, “followers of Bodu Bala Sēnā” (or other fringe group like Rāvanā Balaya, Sinhala Rāvaya and Sinha Lē), “criminal elements” or, as in a recent media reports, “a rampaging drug addict”. The frequency of occurrence of these events of violence is also occasionally indicated with reference to some time-frame, or is simply described as “many”, “extensive”, “widespread”, “increasing”, “escalating”, “ratcheting” etc., indicating that the impression most of the writers wish to convey is the prevalence of an ominous trend.

What I find strange in this body of evidence is the fact that it is loaded with trivia such as those referred to in the list compiled by the Sri Lanka Muslim League (SLMC, the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka) evidently for submission to the UN High Commission for Human Rights),[8] and an overall scarcity of precise information indicating the intensity of the reported events. Barring a few exceptions (the most noteworthy exception being a report compiled by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies Colombo, that furnishes fairly detailed information on several major flashpoints such as Mawanella, Aluthgama, Dambulla and Grandpass, and has made a partially successful attempt at suppressing some of the innate anti-Buddhist prejudices),[9] the overwhelming majority of the sources do not furnish information that would facilitate a comparative assessment of the real gravity of the problem which, to my mind, is essential for us to understand the seriousness of this claimed trend in comparison to intergroup conflicts elsewhere in the world  ̶  not only in Buddhist countries of South and South East Asia, but in predominantly Hindu, Islamic or Christian countries in some of which ethnic conflict of one form or another is almost endemic. It is, indeed, unfortunate that we do not have a reputed scholar-journalist of the calibre of Asghar Ali Engineer who has monitored in detail the tragic Hindu-Muslim conflagrations in a large number of Indian cities, all of them published in the Economic and Political Weekly over several decades, apart from the reports of thorough and impartial investigations conducted by India’s presidential commissions on the more disastrous episodes of intergroup violence.

Given the lacuna of comparable in-depth analysis on Sri Lanka, it would not be possible for the world to gauge how the widely publicised Aluthgama flare-up, for instance, compares with, say, the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 or the atrocities committed by Hindu mobs in the Muslim ghettoes of Ahmedabad ten years later; or whether the role of Ven. Galagodaattē Gnānasāra of the BBS is comparable to that of the Burmese monk Ven. Ashin Wirathu and his ‘969 Movement’, or  Swami Chinmayananda Sarasvati of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, (referred to sometimes as a leader of the “militant wing” of the BJP); or the extent to which Mahinda Rajapaksa’s alleged inaction in the face of sporadic inter-ethnic clashes during his second presidential tenure could be regarded similar in its causal nexus to that of Aung San Suu Kyi since her elevation to the office of ‘State Counsellor’ in April 2016, or of Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the deadly ‘Gujarat Riots’ of 2002. In the absence of the type of specific information on the spatial and temporal perspectives and some indication of the duration and destructive impact of the alleged Buddhist violence, the related sources of information and analysis, even those produced with the noble objective of safeguarding Buddhism from bigotry, could well be part and parcel of a process of rubbishing Sri Lanka and the religion of its majority community in the arena of global politics.

I should illustrate the point being made here by referring to an article by Dr. Jehan Perera, well known for his pacifist and democratisation efforts, titled ‘Anti-Muslim Violence: The Puzzle of Continuing Impunity’, published in The Island of June 5, 2017. As a launching pad for his denunciation he has used the “grease devil” (grease yakā) reports that appeared in the press from time to time from about 2011 (the most recent one being dated May 27, 2017). Although the supposedly eye-witnessed ‘grease yakas‘ (nude men, covering themselves with grease, and raiding homes at night to terrorise the occupants, especially women; but, in most cases, getting away with plundered booty and/or perverted satisfaction) have been reported from all over the island – Battaramulla and Talangama (suburbs of Colombo), Ähäliyagoda and Pälmadulla (Ratnapura District where the ‘grease yaka’ terror was tied up with several heinous murders related to the narcotic transactions), Kalpitiya (Puttalam District), Galenbindunuweva (Anuradhapura District), Middeniya (Matara District), Kattankudi (Batticaloa District), Haputalē (Badulla District), and several rural localities in Jaffna District. These details appear to have been of utmost irrelevance to the reconciliation efforts hawked by Dr. Perera. Thus, having recast just one published version of questionable authenticity of the ‘grease devil’ exploits to a story obviously intended to be understood by those unfamiliar with conditions in Sri Lanka as a planned campaign of terrorising Tamil communities in the north, conducted from the bases of an “army of occupation” of Jaffna peninsula to harass its civilian population in a quasi-military strategy of subjugation (!), he has, through a curious verbal sleight-of hand, proceeded to link it to a supposedly escalating series of attacks by grease yakas on Muslims living in predominantly Sinhalese areas, the evidence intended to substantiate it being a Baron Munchausen-type fabrication of “burning a section of the Alutgama Town” (a fairly large urbanised area midway between Colombo and Galle). Thereafter, Dr. Perera, has drawn a parallel between the tragic fate of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees (described in several international publications as “the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia“) living in the Rakhine tribal homelands in Myanmar, with that of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, spicing his horror story with a passing reference to past attacks on the Christians, and ending with a condemnation of the government for making it possible for Buddhist miscreants to get away with impunity, but making the censure palatable to the Yahapālana regime by mentioning extenuating circumstances, as we can see in the following extract from his essay, thus killing several birds with a hail of stones.

“It may be that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act. The massive crowds bused (sic) in by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally was larger than any other. It is also indicative of the political opposition’s ability to muster people power onto the street, even if they have to be provided with a handout inclusive of transport, meals and drinks. In this context the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will go away. The government may also be trying to follow the example of Myanmar, where the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate the hardline Buddhist nationalist groups within the government in order to win their support”.

The Aluthgama riot of mid-June 2014 has, indeed, been documented in detail by the media. More than 50 of these could be easily accessed via internet as film clips and news reports. Collectively they represent no more than a patchy coverage of what really happened. Apart from the print media in Sri Lanka, some of the major news firms of the ‘West’ also covered the episode, projecting it mainly as yet another example of a rising tide of “Buddhist violence” in Asia. In addition, it received attention in several scholarly works. In my assessment, the most detailed account of the riot setting, including vitally significant disclosures not found elsewhere in published form, has been authored by the well-known free-lance journalist, Shenali D. Waduge.[10] There are, in addition, reports published by two fraternally linked Colombo-based NGOs –’International Centre for Ethnic Studies’, and ‘Law and Society Trust’.[11] The former, though described by its authors as a “research report” conveys no more than what could be described as a conventional account of the episode, its redeeming feature being that it has labelled what occurred as a ‘riot’ rather than a Buddhist attack on Muslims. The latter is very definitely a product of fairly detailed post-riot field investigations based largely, it seems, on random sources of information.

The thematic thrust of the study by Sonali Waduge (July 2014) is that biased reporting, especially in the English language press and other documentations, has conveyed a distorted version of the circumstances, especially the concealment of the responsibility of Muslims miscreants in Dharga Town that culminated in the riot that began in the late afternoon of 15 June 2014. A summary of the related facts presented by Waduge reads as follows:

“Please take note that the throwing of the carcasses, throwing of blue dye onto the Buddhist priests, the destruction of the Dharmachakra in the temple Kurunduwatte Sri Vijayarama, the humiliations that priests walking along the road to the temple passing the mosque was subject to were all done in the absence of any involvement or presence of the BBS. These were all taking place over a period of time. The Buddhists of the area had to silently suffer because neither the police nor the politicians took the issues on the merit of attempting to ensure that people lived peacefully. These grievances numbered many and included how politicians would attend birthday parties of Muslims but not attend the funeral rites of a Buddhist priest. The unheard of grievances were many.

The Buddhist priests of the temple including the chief incumbent (Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the assault on 12 June) had no history of any altercation with the Muslim community whatsoever to be subject to the abuse and humiliation that they suffered. This background information has been purposely blacked out by media”.

In contrast, Dr. Jehan Perera’s sketch referred to above and the supposedly more scholarly ICES study an extract from which is reproduced below, shares with many other accounts of the ‘Aluthgama Riot’ disseminated worldwide, attempts to trivialise the hostilities suffered by Samitha Thero and other monks of Sri Vijayārāma – a temple said to be well over one-hundred years old in a predominantly Sinhalese village into which there has been a large influx of Muslims in the recent decades and a change of name to ‘Dharga Town’, and now, one of two Buddhist shrine there in uneasy coexistence with four mosques – and thus to place the blame for the riot squarely on the BBS rally and Gnanasara Thero’s incitement.

“Ethnic riots erupted (on 15 June 2014) in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, (and the adjacent) Valipanna and Beruwela towns located in the South of Sri Lanka. The area has a large Muslim population that lived alongside a larger Sinhalese community. Amity between the two communities remained somewhat fragile, as communal violence had erupted previously, almost a decade earlier. The incident that reportedly triggered the riots in 2014 was an altercation between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims from the area. Following the incident, a large rally was organised on 15 June to condemn the alleged attack on the Buddhist monk. The BBS participated in this rally and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, the General Secretary of the BBS, made racist and inflammatory remarks against Muslims at the rally” (italics added).

The events that led to this unexpected attack by a mob of Muslim youth, and the massive conflagration it ignited to last over several days, constitute a tragic story which must be looked at in detail because it illustrates several features of thematic relevance to the main objective of the present study. My reconstruction of that story is presented in Part 2 (pp. 39-45) of this paper.

The overall impressions conveyed by that story could be summed up here as follows:

  • There is no doubt that the BBS meeting and Ven. Gnānasāra’s presence and his public utterances were potentially (Note that the injured Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the attack by several Muslim youth on 12 June was ushered on to the stage in the course of the meeting).
  • However, it should not be forgotten that prior to the riot on 15 June there was a build-up of explosive communal tensions in the Dharga Town area at least from about the first week of that month warranting police action, both when serious complaints were lodged regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader (8 June) and on the assault suffered by Ven. Samitha (12 June), as well as when representatives of the Muslim community conveyed to the police their fear about a possible outbreak of mob violence in the area. Whatever justification the police might have had for their inaction, my informants think that there were undercurrents of suspicion among the Sinhalese that the police were in the pay of the Muslims business community.
  • The large influx of people to the BBS meeting venue is likely to have been a result of malevolent rumour mongering and, of course, the undeniable entertainment value of the BBS leader (Didn’t some of us in our youth go all the way to enjoy the ‘May Day’ performances especially by the inimitable scholar, pioneer Marxist and legal luminary, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in the Trotskyite “extra-parliamentary mode of capturing state power” in vogue at that time, roaring “gahapalla” (attack), his silhouette pointing at the old parliament complex against the crimson sunset over Galle Face green.
  • On the 15th eve senior police officers were reluctant to exercise force to prevent signs of potential violence. There was no immediate action taken by them to stop the stoning. They preferred instead to attempt pacifying the more agitated persons in the crowds, realising no doubt that their interventions were being recorded by the media and the users of ‘smart phones’.
  • Thus, the offensives in Aluthgama were very definitely not one sided. People on both sides engaged in, and suffered from, the violence – with more Muslims than Buddhists among the victims in the post-riot stock-taking of overall damage. Although later records referred to death-counts of up to about 8 Muslims and a Buddhist monk, no such claims were made in the course of many recorded random interviews at that time.
  • “Burning of a section of the Aluthgama town” is a highly exaggerated and unwarranted description of this sad episode, no different from the type of hyperbole often employed by Gnānasāra Thero in his public utterances, unless one were to argue, like school boys sometimes do, that even a lamp-post could be considered a section of a town.

On several occasions certain Buddhist community leaders of the area joined their Muslim counterparts in appealing for calm and peace while standing amidst fairly large gatherings that appeared to endorse what they said. This conveys an impression that goes completely against an article published by the ‘Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (presumably to commemorate the third anniversary of the riot) according to which there is absolutely no hope for ethnic reconciliation in Aluthgama.

                   PART TWO : A Reappraisal of Evidence and Claims

A rising tide of Buddhist hostility?

There is no dearth of writings that make the claim of Muslims in Sri Lanka being a minority that has, for long, suffered discrimination and harassment and, in the more recent past, been the target of “Islamophobic” persecution by the Buddhists. The more refined among these are some of the ‘features’ authored by the inimitable Izeth Hussain (ex-diplomat  and regular columnist), hitting hard all round the wicket, as it were, often with easy elegance, and always, despite the pretence at intellectual detachment, with passionate commitment to his team’s victory. There is, of course, nothing wrong in that, except his occasionally getting caught at silly point.

Professor John Holt’s keynote address I referred to at the outset does not stand alone as an elevation of this pernicious claim to the plane of scholarly research. Among the others I have read, there are (a) the ICES and Law and Society studies (referred to earlier)[12] which I think are the best of their kind, (b) Zuhair, 2016[13] which, in my assessment, would have been excellent had the author matched its elegant style with prejudice-free substance; and (c)  a monograph by Ameer Ali,[14] one of my former faculty colleagues now living in Australia, titled ‘Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009’, published almost at the same time as Holt’s study, a brief comment on which is presented below.

In Ameer Ali’s analysis of the “fourth wave” (post-2009) – that of the earlier “waves” are no more than an exercise in re-inventing the wheel – lacks the sedate, persuasive approach typical of John Holt. Apart from the invective, there are several misconstrued references by Ali to several Buddhist outrages not referred to by John. These include “the destruction of a 400-years old Muslim shrine at Anuradhapura” (a mind-boggling archaeological discovery, according to a veteran historian whom I have consulted)[15], prefaced by a tirade which accuses President Rajapaksa of “…benevolently tolerating, if not openly supporting, … a vicious campaign to terrorise the Muslims, destroy their economy and demonize Islam through acts of intimidation, insult, incendiarism, and outright thuggery by ultranationalist organizations like the BBS, its surrogate parent JHU and the Sinhala Rāvaya”, and attributes the presidential neglect to a mindset of “triumphalism and malevolence” towards the minority communities after the victory over the LTTE in 2009. Does Ali demonstrate more than all else that the ‘key’ to understanding the real nature of this entire conflict is to realize that the honourable don Ali is as eloquent in his lingo as the venerable monk Gnānasāra is in his, and that such eloquence in the dissemination of half-truths and falsehood has much the same destabilising impact – that of rousing the rabble? Surely, the failure of the government at that time to curtail Buddhist megalomaniacs is, in terms of realpolitik, comparable to the failure of earlier regimes to tame the ‘Tiger’ megalomaniac for well over two decades; and, moreover, those holding the reins of office in Colombo have always, in both war as well as peace, been in desperate need of at least a segment of Muslim electoral support and goodwill. What is this psychoanalytical tripe about a “triumphalist mindset”?  So, let’s move out of this garbage replete as it is with ethnic prejudices, and focus in this part of the article on the issues raised soberly by Professor Holt.

In addition to stating that there were over “150 documented perpetrations by Buddhists against Muslims” from early 2013 to mid-2014,[16] Professor Holt has referred specifically to eight such hostilities (listed below), seven among which had occurred during the 18-month period preceding the ICES conference of 2014. This set of information certainly conveys the impression of an increase in the incidence and intensity of attacks on the Muslims in comparison to the previous 11-year spell between the Mawanella riot and the “demolition” of the Dambulla mosque. Yet, it is only in the light of what really happened at these flash points would it be possible to substantiate the claim of increasing hostility of Buddhists towards the Muslims. The sections of this paper that follow are devoted to such a probe, leaving the campaigns of protest and propaganda referred to by John Holt for subsequent perusal.

  • Mawanella Riot in 1999 (Sic)
  • Demolition of the mosque at Dambulla in 2012
  • BBS campaign against the production of Halal food (2013-14)
  • BBS proposal to ban the burka (2014)
  • Ravana Balaya’ (sic.) protest march (2013)
  • Desecration of a mosque in Mahiyangana (2013)
  • Grandpass mob attack on Muslims (2014)
  • Aluthgama-Dhargar Town clash (2014).

Mawanella Riot

The ‘Mawanella Riot’ of 2001 (no riot there in 1999), when placed in the context of the general contention of escalating Buddhist hostility towards the Muslim in Sri Lanka since the end of the ‘Eelam War’, appears to be intended to underscore the fact that, in earlier times (i.e. before the end of the ‘War’) there has been nothing comparable to a persistent trend of intensifying Buddhist violence targeted at Muslims since about 2012. Such a perspective, needless to stress, conforms to the thematic thrust identifiable in several writings including that by Professor John Holt on ‘post-war’ ethnic relations in Sri Lanka – i.e. a rising tide of Buddhist intolerance towards the other religious groups of the country.

That my interpretation of the information pertaining to this issue is entirely different has already been stated in the first part of this paper.  Briefly recapitulated, the conclusion I draw from the mass of related evidence available is that in each of the serious conflagrations that has occurred in the period leading up to the national elections of 2015, what stands out is the sinister manipulation of potentially volatile situations in different parts of the country by those who pursued the ‘regime change’ objective of destabilizing the Sri Lankan polity and installing a puppet regime that would, if desirable from geopolitical objectives, eventually bringing about the disintegration of its national territory. To me the ‘Mawanella Riot’ illustrates certain ingredients of that latent volatility more clearly than the other conflict situations probed in later sections of the paper. Yet, in its causal nexus it is different from those on which the present study if focused in the sense of the similarities it bears to the sporadic Sinhalese-Muslims flare-ups of earlier times in, say, Puttalam, Kottaramulla, Galle and several localities of Colombo North that were ignited invariably by localised altercation involving persons from the two communities often with undercurrents of rivalry in electoral politics appear more pronounced than in the post-war turbulences.

In sketching the geographical setting of this riot reference should be made to the fact that Mawanella town is located in the verdant foothills of the Central Highlands about 90 km from Colombo along the main highway to Kandy. The ‘Kandy Road’, one recollects, was one of the earliest products of the policy of “roads, roads and more roads” initiated by Governor Edwards Barnes (1824-31) soon after the consolidation of British rule over the Kandyan Kingdom. Of interest from historical perspectives is the fact that ‘Galboda Korale‘ (of which Mawanella is a part) was a major source of spices and other farm products over several centuries, and the ‘Mid-Country’[17] trade in pepper, cloves, nutmeg and arecanut was largely under the control of Muslims even in pre-British times as it is at present. Since the early 20th century natural rubber produced on peasant smallholdings of this area also emerged as an important item of Muslim intermediary transactions in which, in the more recent past, their competition with Sinhalese traders has become intense.

Recent demographic changes in this part of the country, despite the lack precision in the related data (due mainly periodic changes of their spatial frames), suggest, however, the likelihood that there has been a very rapid growth of its population in the recent decades – i.e. roughly, 60% since the Census year of 1981 when the population of the ‘Town Council’ of Mawanella was placed at 13,891, and the present population of the Grama Niladhari units that corresponds to the ‘Town Council’ area of 1981 (i.e. the urbanised parts of the Mawanella Pradesheeya Sabha area) of about 22,000. An ethnic disaggregation of this latter total is not available. But, in the ‘Town Council’ area of 1981, 61% and 36% were the population ratios, respectively, of Muslims and Buddhists (i.e. 8,438 and 5,062 in the total of 13,891 at that time). This fact – i.e. the Muslim ratio of 61% – should also be regarded as an atypical feature in the demography of the string of urban centres along the Colombo-Kandy highway.

On the socioeconomic circumstances that are of salience to an understanding of the ‘riot’ I can do no better that to site a passage for an article by three reputed scholars. It reads as follows:[18]

There are two popular and, to some extent, mutually contradictory explanations of May 2001 riot in Mawanella. One is that it was an outcome of economic and political competition among various interests groups in this booming urban center in an emerging urban corridor in Sri Lanka. The other is that it is an ethnically motivated riot reflecting increasing ethnicisation of political and social processes in the country. This paper argues that while there is an element of truth in each of these explanations, a synthesis of the two arguments is necessary in order to fully understand the nature and causes of these riots. It is true that simmering economic competition and business rivalries within the Mawanella town has been an important underlying factor in the social history of the town since 1930s. Mawanella is an important urban centre where collection and bulking of important economic produce in the surrounding countryside, including spices, has been the primary economic activity. In more recent times certain service sector activities, including employment bureaus recruiting overseas migrant workers, have been added to the spectrum of urban economic enterprises.[19] Most of these economic activities are controlled by Muslims, while the Sinhala peasants in the surrounding hinterland have encountered many difficulties due to landlessness, poverty, unemployment and lack of economic opportunities in general. While analysis of this economic backdrop is necessary for understanding the wider context of the riots, equally important are politicization of ethnicity (emergence of ethnically-oriented political parties among both Sinhalese and Muslims), manipulation and mobilization of ethnic symbols by both groups, increased pattern of ethnic segregation in spatial terms and increased tendency to attribute one’s own vulnerabilities to “the ethnic other”.

Electoral politics should also be accorded prominence in this ‘background’ sketch. A study of voting patterns in Mawanella at national elections since the early 1990s indicate that in this ‘Electoral Division’ there have been unusually pronounced fluctuations in the voter support which the two main rival camps (coalitions led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – SLFP) and the United National Party – UNP) have been able to muster. In addition, my ‘field information’ for this and an earlier study[20] also suggests that, regardless of fluctuations in the electoral fortunes of these two groups of parties in Mawanella, they have all along been able to match each other in their campaign efforts of which the exercise of muscle-power and, indeed, the entire range of malpractices in electoral politics, have been an integral part. This is of special relevance to the acts of violence in the ‘Riot’ of 2001 when contextualised in the intense turbulences that accompanied the national elections – presidential (1999) and two parliamentary elections (2000 and 2001) – of this time.

There is almost unanimity among my informants that a group of Sinhalese ruffians, henchmen of a leading political personage in Kegalle district, in the course of extracting kappan (protection payments) on the morning of 30 April 2001 from a Muslim restaurant-keeper, assaulted him in public probably in order to demonstrate the consequences of resistance.[21] Since a complaint made to the police evoked no response (widely attributed to the power of the politician who ruled the roost in this part of Kegalle district for well over two decades), a large group of people (according to media accounts, about 3,000), mostly Muslim, assembled outside the police station two days later and staged a boisterous protest which according to some, had considerable UNP backing. Although the protesters appeared to have been pacified with a pledge of immediate ‘law enforcement’, a larger crowd of gangsters armed with improvised weaponry descended on the scene and, having chased away the protesters, engaged in a rampage of assault, plunder, arson and desecration targeted at the Muslims who, in turn, engaged in futile resistance but partially effective retaliation. The lopsided riot continued, especially in the outskirts of the town, despite the imposition of a curfew over several days. As far as I could ascertain, the most blatant “religious” atrocity committed in the course of the riot was the destruction of newly installed mosque at Hingula located about a kilometre from the Mawanella town.

The assertion that “scores of Muslim businesses were burnt out” in the Mawanella riot is a gross exaggeration made in whatever source John has relied upon.[22] I had an unusual opportunity (courtesy of a senior police officer – a former student) of seeing the extent of the damage soon after the rioting had been brought under effective control, but before curfew was lifted, when I observed about twenty-five shops and houses bordering the Kandy-Colombo highway and in the bus-stand venue belonging to Muslims and Sinhalese that had suffered various extents of damage (ranging from a few shattered glass-panes to total wreckage) during the riot (it occurred in May 2001 and not in 1999 as John’s informant appears to have said).

Needless to say, the media, local and foreign, accorded the ‘Mawanella Riot’ wide and sensationalised publicity. Since the Rohingya-Rakhine was yet to appear in the forefront of global news, there was no comparison of Buddhist-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka with those in Myanmar. Since the ‘9-11’ was still to happen, and the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime was not to the liking of Western diplomatic and media personnel in Colombo, there was an abundance of well-deserved sympathy lavished on the Muslims, with the culpability for the riots promptly but undeservedly placed on the Buddhists.

Several persons with whom I have discussed the Mawanella Riot, among them my former colleague A. S. M. Naufhal whose ancestral home is in that town, have assured me that since 2001 there has been no Buddhist-Muslim friction in the area. Dr. Naufhal attributes it to the wholesome influence of the leaders of both communities. He mentioned that even the obnoxious politician referred to above has since then been instrumental in sponsoring certain government projects that are directly beneficial to Muslim communities. Kabir Hashim, an Economics graduate from Peradeniya, the scion of an affluent family in Kegalle District, a member of parliament who is said to draw support from all communities, and recently elevated to the post of Chairman of the UNP, is also said to have been instrumental in maintaining ethnic harmony in the area. This perception of continuing peaceful coexistence among the religious groups finds support in an Anthropological study led by Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva[23] the main conclusion from which, as stated in the opening paragraph of its synopsis, is reproduced below.

“Commenting on post-war politics and social dynamics in Sri Lanka some researchers have claimed that there is a shift in conflict dynamics in Sri Lanka from ethnic hostilities to largely religiously inspired hostilities (Holt 2016; Wickramasinghe 2015, Herath and Rambukwella 2015, Klem 2011). The rise of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and aggressive Muslim reform movements resulting in interreligious as well as intrareligious tension are presented in support of this argument. With a view to contributing to this debate, the present study focused on three religious sites with a multi-religious heritage in central Sri Lanka. This study, however, did not find evidence for an unambiguously ‘religious turn’ in social conflict in Sri Lanka in the post-war era. The religious sites studied with a history of multi-religious engagement between Buddhism and Islam have potential for promoting conflict as well as solidarity. The current situation in these three sites does not indicate a major rupture in terms of interreligious relations” (italics added).

“Demolition” of a Mosque in Dambulla

The urban functions in Dambulla until about the late 1970s were represented by no more than a small cluster of shops and primary-level outlets of government services traversed by the Kandy-Jaffna highway. The income of this sleepy township was derived mainly from the tertiary services the cluster provided to the thin scatter of peasant settlements in its hinterland and from pilgrims visiting the historic Rangiri cave-temple dating back to the pre-Christian era. Several changes witnessed since the 1980s – foremost among these were the opening up of ‘System H’ of the Mahaveli Programme to the northwest of Dambulla, invigoration of international tourism, and more generally, the advances in transport and travel that accompanied ‘liberalisation’ of the economy, and the rapid population growth attributable mainly to immigration   ̶  made it possible for Dambulla to become one of the largest market towns located mid-way between Sri Lanka’s central highlands and the northern plains, a pleasant stopover for visitors to the hallowed archaeological treasure troves of Sīgiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and to emerge as the foremost centre of wholesale trade in perishable farm products commanding a commercial catchment extending over a large part of the island including the Colombo metropolitan area.

At the census of 1981 Dambulla Town Council (TC) area had a population of 3,613 out of which 3,263 were Buddhists. Thus, the Hindus (193), Muslims (111) and ‘Others’ (46) constituted less than 10% of the total. The area of authority of the Assistant Government Agent of Dambulla had at that time a rural population of 35,509, the Buddhist accounting for 33,710 of that total. By the census enumeration of 2012 the TC of Dambulla which had been elevated to the status of an ‘Urban Council’ had a population of 23,814 in its area of authority.[24]

Until recent times, ‘trading’ in the vicinity of the Rangiri temple was confined to the ramshackle ‘Rest House’ (the only tavern in the town) and a few squatter stalls  vending bunis, saruvath (sherbet) and orangeanbarley to the occasional busload of local pilgrims. The numerically tiny Muslim community of Dambulla was largely confined to its small bajār (bazaar) about a kilometre to the north of the Rangiri temple, their spiritual needs being met by a small shed located almost at the doorstep of the ancient the temple. This was private property owned by a Moslem family. According to Sinhalese residents in the temple locality at present (a fact confirmed by a former Member of Parliament for Dambulla) a few Islamic devotees had used it for ‘Friday prayers’ more or less regularly “from the time we remember”.  Neither this innocuous practice nor the sundown “middle-class” boozing at the Rest House (located adjacent to the embryonic mosque) were causes for any Buddhistic concern. This “inclusivism”, it seems, lasted only until the onset of demographic transformations that accompanied the rapid commercial growth of Dambulla referred to above.

The relevance of the foregoing sketch to the political disturbances in this area stemmed mainly from the fact that the vast tracts of land which the Dambulla temple had received (pooja bhoomi, a term translated as ‘sacred land’ or ‘offered land’)[25] over the past millennia, much of it uncharted and/or uninhabited and acknowledged vaguely as Vihāragam (temple land), acquired a sharp upsurge of commercial value in the real-estate market. The first major outbreak of intense political dispute rooted in this fact was the agitation against the construction of a luxury tourist hotel overlooking the picturesque Kandalama lake – a campaign which, according to a Reuter report of that time, attracted at its zenith more than 10,000 protesters (including a few volunteers for self-immolation!), objecting to the hotel project on grounds of its adverse ecological, social and cultural impact, and because it also involved a  “land grab” of vihāragam by a consortium of large commercial firms. The protest fizzled out, and an elegant hotel pioneering eco-tourism in Sri Lanka came into being, the main reason for the former (end of the protest), and the principle beneficiaries of the latter (tourist hotel) being the coffers of the Dambulla temple and Ven. Ināmaluvē Sri Sumangala whose go-ahead for the hotel project, it was widely rumoured, was purchased by the investors for a large sum of money.

A similar windfall for the temple coffers is said to have occurred in the negotiations that led to the lease of land to the International Cricket Stadium in Dambulla. For instance, an article by D. B. S. Jeyaraj (journalist well-known as a virulent critic of many Sri Lankan affairs) refers to the Cricket Board Chairman confiding to a colleague that the Dambulla prelate is demanding a “king’s ransom” as a payment for the lease.[26] The other ‘give-and-take’ transactions also provided satisfaction to all concerned including the peasantry of the area which obtained an undertaking that their youth will be trained and recruited to the hotel workforce. Needless to stress, these also meant an enormous enhancement of Sri Sumangala thero’s status as a folk hero of the area whom many kowtowed and obeyed. The prelate, according to a highly knowledgeable informant, took steps some years ago to form a “sub-chapter” named the Dambulu Pārshavaya within the ‘Asgiriya Chapter’ (of the Siyam Nikāya) which traditionally exercises overall custodianship of many Rajamaha Vihāra of Sri Lanka.[27] My references here to Ven. Sri Sumangala as the ‘prelate’ could be an error from statutory perspectives. It has recently transpired that the real Vihārādhipathy (chief incumbent) of the Dambulla temple, as appointed by the Asgiriya Chapter, is Godagama Mangala thero. If this is judicially substantiated it would have potentially far-reaching thematic implications to the present study.[28]

A realistic understanding of this setting, instead of being led by a fixation on the image of Buddhist bigotry and Sinhalese triumphalism (which, of course, is what rings a bell in the ‘liberal’ West) is necessary to grasp the realities pertaining to the mosque dispute. There was no demolition of a mosque despite its ill-conceived location almost at the doorstep of the Rangiri Dambulla shrine complex. Since the repair of minor acts of vandalism in its precincts on 20 April 2012 within a couple of weeks, the mosque has continued to be used by the Moslems of the township uninterrupted and, according to the Secretary of its Board of Trustees interviewed by me, despite an unfulfilled government promise of a more suitable site being found for a mosque within the Dambulla town.

What provoked the ‘Prayer Room’ attack? Was it the culmination of a gathering storm produced by local ‘cultural’ transformations, or was it the outburst of an externally induced plot? Speculating on the basis of information obtained from a wide variety of sources, I am inclined towards the view that, as in the other ethnic flashpoints such as Mahi-yangana, Grandpass and Aluthgama, here was a scenario which the external destabilising forces mobilised in order to attain their larger political objectives.

To begin with, we should re-examine the core of this tragic episode – events at the venue of the disputed mosque site on Friday, 20 April 2012.  The “truth” firmly established worldwide was that a massive mob of Buddhist monks and laity led by Ven. Ināmaluwē Sri Sumangala engaged in a barbaric attack on the mosque, facing no restriction from law enforcement authorities. A BBC report filed the same day from Colombo spiced it with a passing mention of a “fire-bomb” attack on the mosque the previous night (this is denied by the mosque trustees) and “a monk was seen exposing himself against the mosque as an insult”. Almost all media reports and features since that time have also referred to the “destruction”/ “demolition”/”removal” of the mosque as an outcome of the attack, using the past tense to refer to the mosque in order to indicate that the ‘Haima Jumma Masjid’ in Dambulla is no more. This, of course, is something any scholar could have verified with a two-hour drive from Kandy along one of the best highways in the country.

Since the entire attack had been filmed from inside the Prayer Room by one of its devotees, there is adequate photographic evidence to indicate that the alleged “destruction”/”demolition” is a lie. The persistence with this falsehood cannot be attributed to sensational reporting. It is deliberate political strategy – highly successful in its objective of initiating an alienation of the Muslims throughout the island from the Rajapaksa regime.

The only segment of the foregoing body of information that could be regarded as the unadulterated truth is that a large crowd led by Ven. Sri Sumangala arrived at the premises of the disputed mosque in a display of potential for mob violence, refraining however from converting that potential to a rampage. The ‘Prayer Room’ (about 1,000 sq. feet of floor space) that had all along served as the ‘Haima Jumma Masjid’ was left untouched. A part of the mob did cause some damage to a dilapidated and abandoned structure standing adjacent to the Prayer Room.

What is perhaps more depressing than all else in this so-called “demolition of the mosque” is the statement made by Ven. Sri Sumangala (Fig. 9 D) in the presence of a gathering of police officers, bhikkus, and lay community leaders who were permitted to enter the mosque towards the end of the day’s proceed-ings, in the course of which he threatened: “What you have seen is only a peaceful demonstration, next Monday it will be quite different”.  That re-enactment of violence did not happen. What did happen three days later was an announcement by the Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne that the government has decided to re-locate the disputed mosque, probably in response to the prelate’s threat. On 25th April the Chairman of the ‘All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama’ declared that such a relocation is not an acceptable option, while the prelate Sri Sumangala maintained his insistence that the mosque must go.

Throughout that week of uncertainty and country-wide Muslim protests, the mosque was kept under formidable police protection; and a permanent Police-post manned round the clock, established at the mosque site, has been functioning up to the present. The ‘truce’ appears to have lasted, now more than 5 years. One of the cops, quite bored with his guard duty, with whom I had a chat said: “No, there is no trouble at all”.

According to the secretary of the Board of Trustees of the mosque, Mr S. H. M. Rauf, following that week, Friday devotional rituals have been conducted at the mosque regularly and undisturbed ever since, with a growing number of Islamic devotees. While reiterating that the Muslims “will never agree to shift the mosque from the present site”, he disclosed that: (a) the present 40-perch block of land is owned by the mosque trustees on the basis of a clear title deed; (b) the venue includes an allotment purchased by the trustees in 1995 for future expansion (presumably, this addition is the extent occupied by the “dilapidated structure” shown on Figure 7 C, (p. 17 above); (c) the mosque established in the 1960s, despite its inadequacy of space, fulfils an essential need of the expanding Muslim population in Dambulla;[29] and (d) the Muslims see a vicious contradiction in the objection to the mosque on the basis of the sacred ‘Pooja Bhoomi‘ claim, while disregarding the fact that land adjacent to the highway on the mosque-side has been occupied, in some cases over many decades, for profane uses such as the ‘Rest House’.

Ven. Gnānasāra did not figure prominently in the Dambulla mosque episode, his Bodu Bala Sēnā being barely two months old by April 2012. Among the most revered leaders associated with the Dambulla prelate were several others of middling Sangha status.

There is general acknowledgement among devout Buddhists in Dambulla of Ven. Sri Sumangala’s extraordinary fund-raising accomplishments. This has, in fact, found confirmation in a recent statement attributed to the present Minister of Education, Akila Kariyawasam, according to which an investigation conducted by the Commissioner of the ‘Central Cultural Fund’ has revealed the annual income of the Dambulla temple from entrance fees alone (thanks to the Makara Thorana through which the visitors need to pass) ranging between 7 billion to 15 billion rupees (roughly, US$ 50 to 100 million).[30] Despite the cynicism, many educated Buddhists agree with the prelate’s standpoint in that they endorse the notion of localities around ancient Buddhist shrines deserving to be statutorily declared ‘sacrosanct’ as integral components of the nation’s treasured heritage. They argue (quite correctly) that large extents of Vihāragam were grabbed by the colonial government from temple ownership through various land ordinances[31] and transferred to secular uses. It is of interest that the plot of land belonging to the disputed mosque was purchased from an Englishman in the 1950s by a person from Jaffna from whom a Muslim trader bought it and donated it to the mosque trustees. There is also the frequently raised rhetoric by Buddhists: “Would Islamic or Christian countries permit shrines of other faiths to be constructed adjacent to their major places of worship? I add to this my own conviction that the project which involved the conversion of the old township of Anuradhapura to a ‘Sacred Buddhist City’ (alongside the construction of a secular ‘New Town’ in its periphery) launched, it should be remembered with gratitude, during the penultimate phase of British rule over ‘Ceylon’, presents a model that should be emulated elsewhere in several other places, maybe on a smaller scale. It is an urgent ‘must’ in Kandy.

There is a tailpiece to the story of the “Dambulla Mosque Demolition” captured by the ‘Derana‘ TV crew that makes it possible for us to leave the township with a tentative sigh of relief about the fact that bigotry did not remain entirely unchallenged under the very shadow of the ancient shrine (Figure 11). At the end of the attack, after the mosque had been locked up and sealed under government orders, Ven. Sri Sumangala was escorted out to the highway on his return to the temple by a police contingent. A woman who, along with about ten others, had waited in their home garden adjacent to the mosque, stepped out boldly and confronted the monk with a respectful but firm statement that she has been living there since her childhood, and it would be unfair for those who have been in the locality all their lives to be harassed. What is distinct from the prelate’s increasingly irritated responses (TV sound track, not very clear) was, “in earlier times crows merely flew above our heads, but now they have started to build nests on our heads.” (Sinhala term for crows – kākko – is said to be a derogatory reference to Muslims). Referring to the house from which the woman had come out as a kōvil (Hindu shrine), he also said that they should all go elsewhere. The monk was saved further embarrassment by the police who ordered the woman to give way.


Mahiyangana: Sacred and Profane

Mahiyangana has an almost unique significance for Sinhalese-Buddhists. It is based partly on their belief that it has been sanctified by Buddha’s first visit to the island, and its stūpa in its original form was erected to enshrine Buddha’s collar-bone brought there within about a decade of Arahat Mahinda’s mission in Sri Lanka. It is also attributable to their treasured memory that until about the end of the 12th century Mahiyangana served as a strategic township in various military encounters between Rajarata and Ruhuna, especially those of the chronicled national heroes like Dutugæmunu, Keerthi Wijebāhu and Mahā Parākramabāhu. These, more than all else, are the reasons for Mahiyangana receiving very special attention in post-independence ‘resurgent’ endeavours of Sinhalese-Buddhists.

There was, first, the restoration of the Mahiyangana stūpa pioneered by the then Minister of Agriculture and Land, D. S. Senanayake, in 1942 probably in recompense for about 1,000 acres of viharagam he acquired from the temple for the ‘Minipé Peasant Settlement Scheme’, one of the earliest of its kind in the drier parts of the country.[32] Yet until the mid-1980s Mahiyangana remained a small market town catering to the modest needs of the peasantry of its hinterland and the trickle of pilgrims from the highlands venturing down the precipitous ‘eighteen hairpin bends’ in ramshackle buses.

The real impulse for urban development in the Mahiyangana locality  was generated by the opening up of nearly 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) for irrigated agriculture in ‘System C’ of the Mahaveli Development Programme (MDP) from about the mid-1980s to the early ’90, and the consequent migration into what had earlier been degraded forest and scrubland an estimated 28,000 family units, the large majority among them producing a surplus of paddy, but dependent on external sources for most of their other needs in goods and services. The town in Mahiyangana, located at the gateway to ‘System C’ (and, dynamic areas beyond that – the larger peasant settlements in ‘System B’ of the MDP opened up in the more recent past, and the rich farmlands of the Polonnaruwa District – thus emerged as the foremost urban centre of the plains bordering the Central Highlands to the north-east.

For well over 35 years after the Senanayakes, father and son, had completed the restoration of the historic stūpa, nothing significant occurred in Mahiyangana by way of further improvement of Buddhist shrines. Thus it was only in the late 1980s when Ranasinghe Premadasa took over the reins of government that Mahiyangana became what in retrospect could be seen as the venue of the largest ‘Sacred-City’ development project in post-independence Sri Lanka. Some of the initial components of the project were implemented in anticipation of his Gam Udāwa (“Village Awakening”) annual tamasha of 1989. These included the installation, adjacent to the western entrance to Mahiyangana, a replica of the shrine at Gayā, the birthplace of the Buddha (Figure 12 A), and a monument named Miyuguna Smārakaya in memory of past patrons of the town, beautifying several smaller Buddhist shrines such as Poorvārāmaya and Sangamitta Ārāmaya, and a face-lift of the ‘sacred area’ around the Rajamaha Vihāraya which included the renovation of the Saman Dēvālaya (shrine of Sri Lanka’s guardian deity, said to be as old as the stūpa), in addition to widening the streets, and upgrading the hospital and the secondary school.

 As a further advancement of the project an extent of about 60 hectares (150 acres) around the Rajamaha Vihāraya was demarcated to occupy almost the entire southern segment of the town as a ‘sacred city’. Within it several new religious monuments such as the ‘Dutugæmunu Pilgrims Rest’ and a statue of the monarch (Figure 12C), a ‘Relic Chamber’, a protective wall and gold-plated fence round the bō-tree, a Makara Thorana and an ornate pathway leading to the stūpa (Figure 12D), and a residential complex for monks were built – some of it with devotee donations and all in the three-year Premadasa regime. Secular tertiary functions (other than the wayside sale of artefacts by vendors from the Vedda community in Dambāna) thus came to be confined to the northern segment of Mahiyangana, designated the ‘New Town’ as a separate administrative unit (grāma niladhāri area). Not to be outdone, Mahinda Rajapaksa, early in his first term of office as president (2005-10), initiated work on a massive Samādhi statue of the Buddha at the centre of the New Town (Figure 14B), a large ‘sermon hall’, and added to these meritorious acts the conversion of a pond to an artificial lake covering an extent of about 7 hectares with a part of it bounded by a parapet of the well-known ‘valākul bæmma‘ of Kandyan temple design (Figure 14A). In addition, a shrine of great antiquity associate with occult powers (anuhas) at Rideemāliyædde a few miles southeast of Mahiyangana was renovated and made ready “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”.[33]

The ‘sacred area’ of Mahiyangana is, indeed, a surprising vista to those (like me) visiting it after a gap of several decades. While Buddhist icons and other symbols are ubiquitous in almost all parts of Mahiyangana, within its ‘sacred city’ there has been an almost total transformation of the earlier atmosphere of disrepair and disarray, due mainly to the fact that some of the former presidents have left their imprint in the form of shrines and diverse embellishments, thus creating an ambiance of sanctity and order befitting one of the most venerated temples in Sri Lanka.

In the entire town it is also possible to observe another unusual feature in comparison to other urban centres of similar size in the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country – namely, the absence of any non-Buddhist place of worship – no church, kōvil or mosque – discounting the ‘mosque’ closed down after the attack on 11 July 2013.

Over several months prior to the Prayer Room attack there had been attempts by the BBS to promote in Mahiyangana a rift between the Buddhist and Muslim segments of its population. This could well have been aimed primarily at weakening the popular support which President Rajapaksa enjoyed in this area, as evidenced by his obtaining in 2010 60.1% of the popular vote to his opponent’s 37.7%. Past electoral records show, however, of Mahiyangana being an electorate where there have been extraordinarily large shifts of support between the two main contestants – UNP- and SLFP- led coalitions comparable in magnitude to those witnessed in Mawanella. This is probably why Mahiyangana became one of the early venues of the Ven. Gnanasara campaign of destabilisation. Yet, it was here that he encountered, probably for the first time, a fairly formidable opponent in the person of Ven. Wataræka Vijitha, the Chief Incumbent of a small temple named the ‘Rothalawala Mahaveli Mahavihāraya’ (located 24 km north of Mahiyangana, but within the same parliamentary electorate and Pradēsheeya Sabha/PS area). Vijitha Thero was a member of the PS, elected as a candidate of the party headed by Rajapaksa, and an ardent advocate of inter-religious harmony – especially Buddhist-Muslim relations. Following the attack on the Mahiyangana Muslim ‘Prayer Room’ (sketched out below) it was Ven. Vijitha who disclosed in the course of an address to the ‘Up-Country Muslim Council’ (Figure 15 A) that there was a discussion of BBS operatives led by Ven. Gnānasāra at the premises of the Rajamaha Viharaya on the day before the attack .

Figure 15

This resulted in what should be described as a sustained series of rabid attacks on Ven. Vijitha by the BBS, in certain incidents, personally led by Ven. Gnanasara. There was, first, a demonstration of protest at the Rothalawala temple by a group claiming to be members of its Dāyaka Sabhā (‘devotees society’), instigated by unseen hands, demanding the eviction of Vijitha Thero from the temple on grounds of immoral conduct and inordinate links with the Muslim community. The police intervened to ensure the monk’s physical safety. This was followed by a more criminalised threat (Figure 15 B & C). In early April 2013 a large crowd assembled at the premises of the Mahiyangana PS office declaring that Ven. Vijitha has no right to participate as a representative of the people in an on-going meeting of the PS. A part of the crowd became so aggressive that a formidable police contingent that had arrived in the scene had to rescue to Thero and remove him to safety.

The follow-up of this incident is of relevance to an understanding of the political dimensions of the Mahiyangana turbulences. The scene of persecution of Vijitha Thero shifted to Colombo. A boisterous mob led by Ven. Gnānasāra forced its way one morning into the office of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Bathiyutheen (according to his detractors, a ‘land grabber’ from the ‘Wilpattu Nature Reserve’ in the northwest of the island), in pursuit of Ven. Vijitha who, they claimed, was hiding in that office. The police, exercising utmost patience, persuaded the mob to depart. A similar publicity-seeking raid was repeated by Ven. Gnānasāra gate-crashing a meeting between leaders of the Muslim community in Slave Island (a locality in Colombo) and Ven. Vijitha whose ‘reconciliation’ efforts had meanwhile gained wide publicity. Video clips of the raid (Figure 16) suggest that an outbreak of violence was averted, once again, due to police intervention.

Shortly thereafter, early one morning, Ven. Vijitha was found dumped in a roadside ditch about 5 km to the interior of Panadura (a coastal town about 20 miles south of Colombo), assaulted, wounded and stripped of his robes. There are two conflicting versions of this sordid episode. One, as alleged by the victim, that BBS operatives were responsible for the crime; and the other, that the entire scenario of assault and humiliation was stage-managed by Vijitha and his wounds were self-inflicted. The police, somewhat strangely, supported the latter version. I am inclined towards the view that these despicable events were an outcome of Ven. Gnānasāra and his followers seeing in the Jāthika Bala Sēnā (‘Army of National Power’) formed by Vijitha Thero, an emerging challenge to his ‘Army of Buddhist Power’ (Bodu Bala Sēnā), that must be nipped in the bud.[34]

The Sangha elite of Sri Lanka in general appears to have remained aloof of this BBS generated storm in Mahiyangana. But Ven. Vijitha (though not in that elite), who by this time had strengthened his Jāthika Bala Sēnā, was by no means alone in ethnic reconciliation efforts. There was, for instance, an incident in the immediate aftermath of the Pradēsheeya Sabhā offensive referred to above that involved a meeting of the Bhikku elders of the area summoned by Ven. Urulæwatte Dhammakeetti, the Chief Incumbent of the Rajamaha Vihāraya, to proclaim a prohibition of Ven. Vijitha from participating in Buddhist activities of the area on the grounds that his improper conduct has the impact of destabilising the Buddhist community. But, there was an immediate and a far more authoritative response to this decision by the exalted Kāraka Sangha Sabhā of the Asgiriya Chapter (which has overarching control of several Rajamaha Vihara including that of Mahiyangana) that the proclamation by Ven. Dhammakeetti was illegal and, hence, null and void.

The ‘reconciliation’ campaign with which Ven. Vijitha persisted, it should also be stressed, was part and parcel of far more formidable sponsorship and support for inter-ethnic harmony from Buddhist opinion leaders ̶ a feature which the entire range of forces bent on destabilising Sri Lanka and rubbishing the Rajapaksa government have preferred to ignore or conceal. In order to substantiate this with just one (of many possible) illustration, I refer to the efforts by Agga Mahā Panditha Kamburugamuwē Vajira, one of the most venerated Buddhist prelates in Sri Lanka. He commenced his efforts ethnic reconciliation efforts even before the end of the ‘Eelam War’, speaking mainly at well attended in-door meetings, sharing the platform with dignitaries of other faiths. Figure 17 provides glimpses of his participation in one such event held on 4 May 2013 (cynics should remember that this was well before the next stipulated presidential election ̶ i.e. end of 2016). Ven. Vajira delivered the main speech. Among the others who addressed this large audience were leaders of the entire spectrum of religious groups  ̶ folk priests and lay persons, men and women ̶  were President Mahinda Rajapaksa who undoubtedly made one of the most passionate appeals for peace.

The story of the threat to the Mahiyangana ‘Prayer Room’ attack is best reconstructed with information obtained in the course of a dialogue I had with the son of late Sulaiman Seini Mohammed, its founder. It is worth recounting here for several fascinating insights of vital relevance to this study. Sulaiman, a migrant from Batticaloa, made Mahiyangana his home in the mid-1960s, having set up a makeshift roadside stall close to the ancient temple where his savings became adequate for him to establish a small shop close to the centre of the town in 1973, shifting from glass and plastic trinkets to jewellery in silver and gold (there is an intriguing ‘Midas Touch’ here which I did not dare to probe). As his income increased he purchased an adjoining site where he constructed a building for use as a residence. In 1991, in the course of a visit to Batticaloa, Sulaiman was abducted and severely beaten up by LTTE cadres, and dumped what his attackers thought was his corpse on the roadside, from where he was brought by his kinsmen to the Batticaloa hospital. His son does not know why the father became a victim of such an assault; but given the turbulent state of coastal towns in the east at that time – mass extermination in Eravur and Kattankudi, ethnic cleansing and, in fact, the entire range of brutalities – the assault was probably a torture employed by the ‘Tigers’ for extortion from successful traders. Upon receiving this news his family members rushed to Batticaloa and brought him comatose to the National Hospital in Colombo where he recovered, and returned to Mahiyangana after about three months. It was as an act of gratitude for his miraculous recovery that Sulaiman converted a section of his residence into an Islamic prayer room. Since then, until 11 July 2013, according to the son, the ‘Prayer Room’ (Figure 18) continued to serve as the venue of Friday noon rituals for a gradually increasing number of Muslims in the town.

When questioned about the nature of the offensive against the ‘Prayer Room’ and what happened thereafter, Sulaiman’s son (present owner of the jewellery shop) said that the attack was a sequel to a Bodu Bala Sēnā meeting in Mahiyangana held about a week earlier; that a group of about twenty drunkards arrived late that night and, in the course of their attack, manhandled and threatened his father throwing powdered chilli on his face, and defiled the prayer room with swine offal – all of it, having disconnected electricity supply and under cover of darkness – quite a different scenario from the pre-noon Dambulla attack by a massive mob. The ‘Prayer Room’ has remained closed thereafter; and its devotees have resumed their earlier practice of proceeding for Friday rituals to the mosque in the village of Pangaragammana 9 km to the south of Mahiyangana where there is a larger community of Muslims. Responding to my questions he said that there has been no decline in his trade turnover though a poster stating “We thank you for not buying from Muslims” appeared opposite his shop (as it did elsewhere in the town) during the last ‘New Year Season’ (mid-April). He also said that there is no hostility towards him from his neighbours. In the course of our conversation he referred to an altercation between two groups of youth  ̶ Buddhist verses Muslim ̶  in Pangaragammana during the Vesak holidays (21-22 May) last year over an alleged burning of a Buddhist flag. It was amicably settled by the clergy from both sides, and did not affect Muslim traders in the town. Asked whether he is worried about the future his reply was: “Mmm…no, the people here like to live in peace, business is not very good, there are no rich people here.”

The manner in which an avalanche of disinformation that usually follows an attack on a mosque is vividly illustrated by the records pertaining to the Mahiyangana attack. The fact that the controversy regarding the ‘Prayer Room’ has been amicably settled by Buddhist and Muslim community leaders at the local level has never found a place in these records. Likewise, the “live and let live” policy advocated by Ven, Wataræka Vijitha finding widespread acceptance by inhabitants of Mahiyangana has also been ignored.

 The post-attack propagandists focus, instead, on conveying to the world the spectre of an intensifying enmity between the two religious groups and the alleged responsibility of the government for the deepening crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the Prayer Room attack, the ‘fastest draw’, as usual, was from the embassy of the United States which expressed “grave concern”. This was followed by a chorus of criticism and condemnation from some of the other Colombo-based diplomatic missions which, in turn, resonated worldwide. The NGO hirelings were quick to jump into the fray. At the level of the United Nations, Ban-ki Moon shed yet another crocodile tear on the plight of the Muslims, this time the Muslims in Sri Lanka. At a more damaging plane, Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, said in a media statement that “the Mahiyangana Mosque has been targeted for over a week in what appears to be the latest in an organized series of attacks carried out on mosques and the hate campaigns against the Muslims in Sri Lanka by extremist Buddhist groups, for many months”. According to this statement, “the son of the founder-trustee of the Mahiyangana Mosque was threatened by the Uva Province Minister on Friday morning, warning him not to conduct the Jumma prayers scheduled for that afternoon”. (Note that the “son of the founder-trustee” is the same person who related to me the specificities of that attack documented above). The version publicised by the SLMC leader is very probably a fabrication based on hearsay reports. Yet it was repeated in an article authored by the well-known journalist D. B. S. Jeyaraj titled ‘Mosque in Mahiyangana Closed for Prayers after Uva Provincial Minister Anura Vithanagamage of UPFA Threatens Trustee’ published in his own blog on 19 July 2013 to be copied by many others.[35] Thereafter various excessively distorted version of the story began to appear all over the world. For instance, a journal named Arab News, which describes itself as “the leading English language daily in the Middle-East” said: “militant Buddhist monks are attacking, looting, plundering and killing Muslims as part of their well-planned strategy and are least bothered about its fallout on the country”. Finally what purports to be a scholarly synthesis into which the story of the Mahiyangana attack is infused was produced by Laksiri Fernando, a Professor of Political Science who, after having enjoying a range of career benefits (undeserved, according to his detractors here) under the SLFP-led governments since 1994 including that headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, has joined the band of critics of the Rajapaksas for their failure to implement constitutional reforms facilitating increased devolution of power to the ‘north-east’, overlooking the obvious fact that such a reform would have the effect of unprecedented empowerment of the forces that supported the secessionist campaign led by the late lamented LTTE leadership. With no concrete evidence whatever for his demented accusation, but ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, Fernando has declared that:[36] “He (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) and his brother President should take direct responsibility for the recent attacks on the religious and business establishments of particularly the Muslim community and there are all indications that these incidents happened with their full awareness if not approval“.

Grandpass Mob Violence  

Eruptions of inter-group clashes in this part of Colombo have been somewhat more frequent than elsewhere in the country. But one needs to take into account a gamut of considerations before concluding that they represent an exemplification of intensifying religious rivalry. Several localities in this area have for long constituted the venue of the multi-ethnic ‘underworld’ of Sri Lanka and the bailiwicks of rival gangland bosses who are known to have at least slender connections with their respective political masters among whom were/are politicians at the highest level, city fathers and business magnates. This same feature has been subject to detailed observation in other South Asian cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Karachi, Delhi and Calcutta. This is why, when gangland clashes occur, there is invariably a polarisation on ethnic/religious lines (I have written about this phenomenon in my recent book, Political Conflict in South Asia, pp. 179-183, illustrating it with Karachi experiences). 

What triggered off the ‘Grandpass riot’ of August 2013 was a localised dispute pertaining to the conversion of a building (initially constructed with UDA permission for use as a warehouse – interestingly, referred to as such by several Muslim contributors to the related documentation) to serve temporarily as an Islamic prayer-room adjacent to a predominantly Buddhist residential neighbourhood into a permanent mosque. That was an outcome of an agreement between trustees of a mosque (locally called the “Molawatta palliya“) located within about 50 meters of the temporary ‘prayer room’.


The initial disputants were the Buddhist residents of the locality including the Bhikkus of their temple, Swarna Chaitya (‘Golden Stūpa’) and the Imam serving as the spokesman for the Muslim devotees of the prayer-room located about one-hundred meters away along the road named after the temple – in short, a dispute between two groups with different religious identities. Yet, the related details indicate in no uncertain terms that the dispute was well on the way to reaching an acceptable solution with the pledge by the Muslims that their prayer-room will be shifted to an alternative site at the end of the ongoing Ramadan fasting season. But then, quite unexpectedly, there was a hardening of attitudes – a refusal to move, and a stance of: “We establish mosques anywhere we like, and that is our right”, on one side; and “This is a Buddhist country, our inalienable rights overshadow yours”, on the other. This turn of events, according to my interpretation of the related information, was due largely to external and extraneous interventions including those of Buddhist extremists led by an outfit named ‘Rāvanā Balaya‘ (Rāvanā Power) which appears to have been in mutual rivalry with the BBS for guardianship of Buddhist interests, on the one hand, and the emerging leaders of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka in competition with the older generation for political leadership of the community, on the other.

  Figure 20

Figure 20

In certain reports of the Grandpass riot that have been circulated worldwide there is a confusion about the identity of the attacked mosque. This must be cleared. The ‘Grand Mosque of Colombo’ (Figure 20), established in the early 16th century, like several other architecturally grand mosques scattered throughout the city, stands in all its glory in a moderately affluent setting on New Moor Street, absolutely free of any external threat. The largest mosque in the Grandpass ward of the Colombo municipality is ‘Muhiyaddeen Jumma Masjid’ on St. Joseph Street which, like many other Islamic shrines that adorn the cityscape, has also never faced a challenge from those of other faiths. What was attacked is a far more modest and supposedly temporary structure located at No. 156 of ‘Swarna Chaitya Road’ – a densely populated ‘lower middle-class/working class’ residential neighbourhood where the Buddhists outnumber the others.

There is another aspect relating to the disputed conversion of the temporary prayer room to a mosque in the type of setting described above which intellectuals who need star-class hotel settings for their sanctimonious deli-berations fail to appreciate. A fully fledged mosque usually attracts large numbers of devotees on a daily basis. There has also been a relatively rapid expansion of the Muslim population in the Swarna Chaitya Road locality during the recent decades – an increase from about 80 to 400 family units between 1987 and 2013.[37] There is, in addition, the electronically amplified ‘call to worship’ broadcast from mosque minarets five times a day which, for the ‘non-faithful’, is a barely tolerable source of noise-pollution – comparable practices in Buddhist temples performed once a lunar month notwithstanding. In the case of the present dispute, it is not possible to brush aside the fact that the Swarna Chaitya vihāraya (Figure 21) along with Jayanthi Vidyālaya, a well maintained school located across the road, and a welfare centre, constitute the main social nucleus for Buddhists even beyond the bounds of the Grandpass area.

The background information presented above is intended not to trivialise the outrage committed on 10 August 2013, but to indicate that these and a few other localised mob attacks on places of worship during these months did not represent a general Buddhist onslaught on the Muslims.

The narrative of a “Buddhist mob attacking a newly constructed mosque in Grandpass” on 10 August 2013 is true but not the whole truth. What does emerge from the reports available is a rather confusing story of aggressive religiosity among both Buddhists as well as Muslims in a social ethos that facilitates instant formation of mobs invariably fuelled in late evenings by booze and drugs.

Manju-GP 22

Earlier in 2013 a portion of the land belonging to a mosque built in the 1960s named the ‘Molawatta palliya‘ was earmarked for acquisition by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) for a much needed widening of St. Sebastian Canal and a ‘slum clearing’ project. The related agreement between the UDA and the trustees of the mosque involved (a) an undertaking by the UDA to offer the trustees an alternative site for re-locating the mosque and (b) the use as a temporary prayer-room a three-storey building that had been constructed close by with the stipulated UDA approval for use as a warehouse. It was the gradual refurbishing of that building for permanent use as a mosque that conveyed the impression of a surreptitious addition of a new mosque to this overcrowded residential area, while the old mosque just round the corner remained in uninterrupted use – note the location of the two Muslim shrines close to the southeast margin of Figure 19 (p. 32) – that made Sinhalese residents of the locality led by monks from the Swarna Chaitya temple to make peaceful representations (on 5 July) and a more formidable collective demand (17 July) that the prayer- room should be shifted elsewhere. Following an intervention by the Ministry of Religious Affairs there was an undertaking given by the mosque trustees to close down the temporary premises soon after the end of the rituals connected with the ‘Ramadan fast’ period on 7 August 2013, because meanwhile the UDA had rescinded its decision to acquire land from the old mosque premises. It was in the absence of any signs of the promised vacation that there was a build-up of tensions involving, on the one hand, the intervention of rabble-rousing Buddhist extremists from outside and, on the other, what seemed a preparation on the part of the mosque devotees to meet possible violence with violence in order to defend their right to use the new premises as a mosque.

Several sources of information[38] (especially the video clips produced by three popular TV channels) indicate that late evening on 10 August a mob stoned the mosque, broke into its inner sanctums, and damaged the fixtures in the ground-floor in a frenzied attack. The list of causalities of the attack indicate that the devotees had been prepared to meet violence with violence, although the Imam of the mosque emphasised in  a later media statement that the devotees did not use weapons to defend themselves. He also charged that a contingent of about 40 police personnel remained as mere spectators of the melee outside the mosque. Several other stories including a Reuter report dated 12 August and a news broadcast by the BBC on the same day stated that “…hundreds of Muslims took to the streets during the attack on the mosque two days earlier, and that the police and its ‘Special Task Force’ dispersed the crowd, imposing a curfew in the area”. There were, however, several other reports that highlighted the inadequacy of the security provided to uninvolved residents of the area, and that law enforcement efforts were administered mainly on Muslim miscreants.

Figure 23

Aljazeera (an institution that has a record of hostility towards Sri Lanka) reported on 13 August that about ten injured persons from both communities were admitted to hospital (among them, two police officers). Despite the police curfew imposed and the formidable presence of law enforcers in the area over the next two days, it did not eliminate either the sporadic incidence of rioting or the spill over of violence to surrounding localities, especially to neighbourhoods where there has been a trend towards ethnic ghetto formation. These failures and shortfalls were not unmitigated as evidenced by the effective police protection provided to the Muslim community residing in proximity to the Baptist church (Figure 19) a few hundred meters to the west of Swarna Chaitya Road. In any event, after dust had settled down, there was little evidence of looting and property damage, and of the use of excessive force in law enforcement.

In the turbulent aftermath of the riot there were interventions by a conglomerate of political bigwigs – among them, Rauf Hakeem, SLMC leader and Minister of Justice; A. H. M. Fowzie, Minister of Urban Development; Rishard Bathiyutheen, Minister of Industry and Commerce, Faizer Musthapha, Minister of Investment Promotion; Basheer Segu Dawood, Minister of Productivity Promotion; M.L.A.M. Hisbullah, Deputy Minister of Economic Development (all of the central government during the much maligned Rajapaksa regime); Alavi Maulana (Governor of the Western Province); and A.J.M. Muzammil, the Mayor of Colombo. This last set of information is especially meant for the edification of those who would follow our friend John Holt in the search for the truth about the ‘plight’ of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar from comparative perspectives.

Once again the follow-up publicity including wildly sensationalised accounts of the clash as an effort by Buddhist to subjugate Muslims were spread all over the world. It is possible to discern in it both the continuing effort at increasing the estrangement of relations between the Rajapaksa regime and the Muslim community in Sri Lanka as well as disrupting the goodwill which President Rajapaksa had nurtured in Sri Lanka’s external relations with Islamic countries. There was also the usual smug condemnation of Sri Lanka, its majority community and the Rajapaksa regime. Prof. Laksiri Fernando[39] targeted his brickbats at Champika Ranawaka for the authentic and factually rich account of the riot titled ‘True Story of Grandpass’ published by the Minister which Fernando banded as an unashamed defence of “…the acts of violence and religious-racial hatred against the Muslims,” a riot which others have described as “a despicable act of thuggery and intimidation in the name of religion in Grandpass.” Likewise, according to the usual Jeyaraj venom it was:[40]

“A well –planned dastardly attack was launched by armed Buddhist extremists against an Islamic Mosque in the Sri Lankan Capital of Colombo on Saturday August 10th 2013 while “Maghrib”(After Sunset) prayers were in progress. The attack conducted with Police connivance against the Mosque and some Muslim residences in the vicinity came just one day after adherents of the Islamic faith celebrated “Eid Ul Fitr” (feast of the breaking the fast) … The provocative attack caused a large number of Muslim youths (note the distinction between Buddhist extremists’ and ‘Muslim youth’) to rally in a defiant mood to defend the “house of God”(Allaavin Illam) resulting in the “Ethno religious Fascist” mob dispersing from the scene with the help of the Police”.

Writers of this type, I have observed, need only snippets of information picked up from here and there for their displays of disinformation and sanctimony. I spent quite a lot of effort to find the “others” referred to by Fernando, but couldn’t find them in the available records. These guys do not seem to care for facts. They already have their conclusions.

Dharga Town Detonation

The riot in the urbanised Aluthgama-Dharga Town-Beruwala area (hereafter, ‘ADB‘) detonated at Dharga Town to last over several days in mid-June 2014 penetrating sporadically into some of the adjacent townships (Wælipenna about 10 km to the interior where there is a sizeable Muslim presence being among the worst affected) should be examined in detail not only because it was referred to as the worst Buddhist-Moslem clash since 1915, but also for the reason that it illustrates several features typical of ethnic conflict at the grassroots such as the demographic and social impulses that generate inter-ethnic animosities, seemingly minor interpersonal skirmishes and imprudent exhibitions of machismo igniting major ‘civil commotions’, and the vulnerability of small, economically weak, multi-ethnic nation-states to destabilising external manipulation.

The ADB is a densely populated urbanised area located midway between the old coastal cities of Colombo and Galle. It has experienced an extraordinarily rapid pace of tertiary development during the recent decades – a process that appears to have accelerated since 2009 by the economic ‘peace dividends’ in the form of proliferation of beach and river-front tourist resorts. Accordingly, in population growth – 32% between 1981 and 2001 (more recent data on local government units are not available in published form) – it has outpaced all other towns along the west coast from Colombo to Galle. It is also of relevance that the ADB is the only urban area in this stretch of the island’s maritime fringe where the percentage of Muslims in the total population is higher than that of the Sinhalese. From a larger geographical perspective it thus appears as an urbanised ethnic enclave with a densely populated, predominantly Buddhist, rural hinterland – more significantly, a ‘paddy-rubber-commuter’ setting that has not shared in the recent economic boom of the urban ADB.

With a residential locality within the Beruwala Urban Council area that has, over centuries, been the abode of Moslem merchants associated with trade especially in spices and gems – its mosque (Kechimalai Masjid) is regarded as the oldest in the island – and with trade and commerce in the ADB also being largely in the hands of its Muslim community, there is here the semblance of a Buddhist-Moslem socioeconomic dichotomy as well.   There is, in addition, a widespread belief among the Sinhalese that the Moslems in the ADB (and probably elsewhere in several parts of the country) have been receiving an abundance of spiritual and material benefits from the affluent Islamic countries of West Asia. There are, it is also said, indications of an increasingly pronounced attitudinal contrast between educated young Muslims among whom are those who have been influenced by Wahhabist thought, and the older, more conventional, Sunni Muslims in Sri Lanka, and that it has behavioural and political repercussions, especially on ethnic relations.[41]

The widely disseminated story of the “Aluthgama Riot” of June 2014 is that, although Aluthgama has hardly ever been a hot-spot of ethnic conflict, it has also never been entirely free of localized interpersonal altercations featured by ethnic undercurrents. The brief Sinhalese-Muslim clash there in 2002 that necessitated police intervention is one such example (more violent than usual) that also had pronounced elements of political party rivalry. The complaint lodged with the police on 8 June 2014 regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader (referred to on p. 13, above) could have appeared as yet another similar occurrence rather than the commencement of a series of event leading to inter-communal tension that was to explode on the 15th of that month. Implicit in this generally accepted story is that, although Aluthgama has hardly ever been a hot-spot of ethnic conflict, it has also never been entirely free of localized interpersonal altercations featured by ethnic undercurrents. The brief Sinhalese-Muslim clash there in 2002 that necessitated police intervention is one such example that also had pronounced elements of political party rivalry. A complaint lodged with the police on 8 June 2014 regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader could have appeared as yet another similar occurrence rather than the commencement of a series of event leading to inter-communal tension that was to explode on the 15th of that month. Implicit in this generally accepted story is that it was not the seriousness of the “altercation” that ensued when Ven. Ayagama Samitha was confronted by some Moslem youth in Dharga Town attempting a macho display of ‘Hell’s Angels’ on 12th June, but the spread of  exaggerated versions of that incident, the advent of the BBS and other extremist groups into the scene, the organising of an inflammable protest rally in Aluthgama on 15th June, and the incitement to violence by those who addressed the rally – Ven. Gnanasara performing the lead role among the villains – that caused the outburst of the riot. According to this version of the story, the massive gathering went berserk at the end of the rally, engaging in violence in the form of homicide, arson, looting, and destruction of property well into the night of 15-16 June, despite the imposition of a curfew on Aluthgama at dusk. Ineffective as the curfew was in the suburban and rural localities, mob violence continued to occur at various places on the 16th and the 17th. Downtown Aluthgama itself appears to have been largely spared of violence after the initial outburst.

There were other embellishments to this “widely disseminated story”, regardless of whether such renditions were meant to contribute to the ‘Regime Change’ project or the outcome of intense personal fury at the fact that Buddhist mobs had dared to attack the Muslims an area that had for long been a bastion of Muslim economic and political power. For instance,  there was the report authored by Latheef Farook on 16 June[42] under the banner headline ‘Aluthgama Riots: Meticulously Planned And Executed to Military Precision’, which opened with the statement: “Mayhem of an unprecedented scale in and around Aluthgama which later spread to Dharga town  and Beruwala following the highly inflammatory speech by Sinhala racist outfit BBS’s General Secretary Gnanasara Thero, the Buddhist Zionist who is hell bent on shedding Muslim blood”. Surely, veteran commentators like Mr. Latheef have read about “carefully planned” offensives against Muslims in the neighbouring sub-continent to know that there was no planning and execution with “military precision” that evening in the ADB area.

Quite clearly, he had paid scant attention to whether his describing this riot as “meticulously planned and executed with military precision” was based on a reasonable analysis of facts. A scribe of his experience would undoubtedly know, on the one hand, about pre-planned, and carefully organised riots, openly patronised by those at the highest levels of government, preceded by ritualistic displays such as ‘Rath Yathras‘ or ‘Kali Poojas‘, and executed under the direction of stooges of politicians and underworld musclemen that have occurred in India such as those of, say, the Calcutta Riot of 1964, the Ayodhya and Mumbai Riots of 1992, or the Gujarat Riots of 2002, and on the other hand, of innumerable ethnic clashes that have occurred, especially in smaller urban localities of the sub-continent, that were sparked off quite unexpectedly by some relatively minor altercation such as a property dispute, an “unacceptable” romantic link, an act of “eve-baiting”, killing of a calf, or, as it happened in Kanpur in 2001, hurling brickbats at a fund-raining ‘procession’. The question is why scribes of the calibre of Latheef (and Ameer Ali to whom I have referred earlier) resort to fanciful hyperbole. Moreover, in the case of Latheef’s phrase “military precision”, one could easily detect a subtle but totally unfounded attempt to link Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the riot. The simple fact is that there was no damned “meticulous planning” or “military precision” in anything that happened in that riot. Mr. Latheef knows it as well as all others of that turbulent area. So, despite the image of suavity and graciousness these writers often try to project about themselves (going to the extent of adorning the rubbish they produce with their own photographs), I am reluctantly compelled to say that what they attempt to do is not different, overtly or covertly, and in respect of impulse and impact, from what Ven. Gnānasāra with his rustic aggression is believed to have done.

In order to understand what really happened in the ADB area in mid-June 2014 it would be useful to re-examine a series of facts on which there could hardly be any dispute. The BBS meeting held in ‘downtown’ Aluthgama began at about 2 p.m. While more and more people gathered at the venue to make it one of the largest of its kind ever held in that township, the roadside Muslim gatherings in Dharga Town witnessing the influx showed signs of anxiety at what might have appeared to them as a massive Sinhalese “invasion” of their domain. Enhancing that apprehension, those who addressed the rally almost incessantly promoted the notion of Buddhism being deprived of its due rights in Sri Lanka, stressing an emerging Muslim aggression, referring specifically not only to recent events in that locality, but more generally, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The star attraction was, of course, Ven. Gnānasāra whose aggressive demagoguery included a fierce harangue on alleged government inaction in the face of an ominous Islamic threat to Buddhism. While appealing to the gathering to refrain from violence, he also (in disregard of irony as he so often does) angrily threatened the Muslims about the disaster that would ensue “if you touch a single member of the Sangha, as you have done a few days ago”. The meeting ended at about 5 p.m., and a large part of the dispersing crowd began their trek back home as if returning  from a  bout of  entertainment, (an if the available video clips of this stage of the proceedings are to be used as evidence) with  absolutely  no sign of agitation or aggression, along the main road traversing Dharga Town, while a much smaller group formed themselves into an escort (described in certain records as a “procession”) of the injured monk, Ven. Ayagama Samitha to Sri Vijayārāma, the temple of which he is Chief Incumbent, located in the northeast periphery of Dharga Town. Then, as depicted quite distinctly in several video clips, the outflow of the rally participants was greeted in the vicinity of the ‘Grand Mosque’ of Dharga Town with a hail of stones and rubble that originated mainly from the construction site of a multi-storeyed structure (This, surely, is reminiscent of the momentous clash in the vicinity of the Meera Makkam Mosque in Kandy almost exactly a century earlier). It was at this point that the entire setting went berserk.

A corroboration of this fact is found in a statement issued by a consortium of 23 Buddhist organisations including the prestigious ‘All Ceylon Buddhist Congress’ and the ‘Colombo Young Men’s Buddhist Association’. It refers to stoning as an outrage committed by a gang, (a careful comparison of Figures 27 and 28 does indicate the attack having been organised). Ven. Māgalkandē Sudhamma Thero was among those seriously wounded. The statement recounts the targeted crowd fleeing in all directions (Fig. 28C). Some among those who fled launched an enraged counterattack with improvised weaponry, with the Aluthgama town riffraff joining in to have their ‘field day’. The riot increased in ferocity towards nightfall and mushroomed into a protracted calamity. Among the other undeniable facts are that the Buddhists of Pathirajagoda (a Sinhalese residential neighbourhood in the periphery of Dharga Town where Sri Vijayārāma and another small Buddhist temple are located), and in Wælipænna (a township about mixed ethnicity 10 km to the interior from Aluthgama) there was extensive physical injury and property damage suffered by both communities, but more seriously by Muslims who, on the night of the 16th were attacked by a rampaging mob from outside this area. This finds a measure of confirmation in a short documentary on the ‘Aluthgama Riot’ broadcast by the BBC ‘Sinhala Service’ which contained a series of random road-side interviews with Buddhists and Muslims in Dharga Town, Pathirajagoda and Wælipænna all of whom stressed that those who raided, looted and attacked shops and houses were gangs of unknown persons from outside this area. Likewise there are indications of the attacks in Beruwala being conducted by organised gangs of criminals, motivated by what they could loot and plunder. These offensive appear to have been curtailed mainly be security services provided by private firms. Some of these facts find a measure of confirmation by the ‘Law & Society Trust’ investigation referred to above.

In late June President Rajapaksa engaged in an inspection tour of the ADB to initiate a government project of repair and reconstruction, channelling Rs. 200 million for the first phase of the project, and harnessing a large contingent of otherwise idle army manpower. This had a mixed response of criticisms. There were, first, the cynics who argues that it was a blatant electoral gimmick aimed at retaining his dwindling Muslim vote-bank. The Rajapaksa detractors of the BBS and other similar outfits argued that the government response is yet another example of its favouritism towards the Muslims. They asked: “Why this karunāva compassion) towards the very people who started the riot – a karunāva never shown by this government earlier to Sinhalese victims of terrorist attacks?” There were, then, the more ardent anti-Rajapaksa propagandists (which included some prominent Tamil and Muslim politicians) who claimed that the reconstruction would (or was intended to) remove whatever evidence there could be for identifying these responsible for the violence! From what I could gather from a few informants in the field – Buddhists and Muslims – is that, in general, the victims were thankful about the government’s prompt reconstruction and compensatory measures. That these measures, however, fell short of eliminating either the occasional bouts of raids by gangs of petty criminals and drug addicts ubiquitous in the tourist resorts of the coastal southwest, or the localised brawls of the type referred to earlier in this section of my paper, is evidenced by relatively minor incidents of violence reported in the press from time to time.

Figure 30 ++

Figure 30

BBS’s anti-Halal campaign

The information furnished by Professor John Holt on protest-campaigns conducted by Buddhist extremist groups contains elements of misconception. One such campaign initiated by the BBS and like-minded outfits from about early 2013 was the so-called ‘Anti-Halal Protest’ which many writers have misrepresented as a Buddhist outcry against the Islamic insistence on animal-based foods being subject to the ‘Halal’ ritual of purification prior to consumption.

The misinterpretation I refer to is that the campaign was not against the consumption of ritually purified food, but the insistence by Islamic authorities on Halal certification being made a mandatory requirement for Muslims to consume any animal-based food, and thus prompting the large-scale producers and sellers of such foods to conform to that requirement, presumably in order to ensure that they and their retail outlets retain the Muslim segment of the consumer market (roughly 10% of the total) and possibly with the vision of finding a niche in  the Middle-East market for processed food. This certification decree did sound ominous when one of the leading Muslim clerics in Sri Lanka announced on prime-time TV (publicised further by the print media) that, since stream-water could contain microbes of animal derivation, distilled bottled-water (a rapidly popularising item of consumption) requires the Halal ritual before release to the market. This, I think, really gave the anti-Halal brigade much joy and amusement.

The ‘certification’ entailed the payment of money (large amounts, according to those who protested, a claim the validity of which I do not know) to the Muslim authorities by the producers of processed and semi-processed solid and liquid foods, and their round-the-clock employment of Muslim supervisory personnel to ensure that the stipulated Halal procedures were being followed. This, according to the information I gathered, was also readily accepted by the larger suppliers of a range of foods who are said to have passed the additional costs to the consumers (again, I don’t know whether this is true). In any case, it is unlikely that Halal certification would have resulted in a significant addition to prices in the retail market. But I do know that many Sinhalese (not only supporters of the BBS) found in this entire affair an obnoxious act of ‘economic aggression’ (completely unknown up to that time) especially when seen against the backdrop of the cartelised control which Muslim trading clans had over an overwhelmingly large share of the market in poultry products, beef, and the ‘Mid-Country’ transactions in a range of Sri Lanka’s ‘minor exports’ produced on peasant smallholdings, a near-monopoly over the wholesale market in rice in certain areas of surplus production (until it was breached in the recent past by kinsmen of the present president), and a sizeable share of the market in gemstone.

From research perspectives the timing of the advent of Halal certification is quite enigmatic. On the one hand, the aged among us were aware that from the ancient period of our own lives during which we, along with our ethnically heterogeneous buddies (there were among them, believe it or not, those who rigidly adhered to the prescribed practice of refraining from even a drink of water during long hours of the Ramadan fast), consumed all kinds of stuff in diverse states of cleanliness, with no certification whatever. We survived. But what really caused concern when the Halal confrontations were gathering momentum was the reason to wonder whether the Mullah edict was a challenge to what was perceived as an upsurge of ritual religiosity (or “triumphalism” as some of our experts tell us) in the majority community; or, more generally, was it a component of a worldwide priestly response representing the emerging “Clash of Civilisations” hypothesised by Samuel Huntington?

Regardless of the ‘why’, there has never been an objection by Buddhists to Muslims following the Islamic ritual of Halal in their food consumption. Cattle slaughter of any form is, of course, thoroughly resented by most Buddhists and Hindus. Not me.

Hijab/Burqa ban proposal

There could be no denial that public speeches, posters and pamphlets of the Buddhist fringe groups, especially the BBS, have occasionally targeted the hijab and the burqa in their anti-Islamic diatribes and proposed that these should be banned. The perfunctorily prepared list of 235 “Anti-Muslim Attacks” in an SLMC report (ibid., 2015) refers to 7 “attacks” on women – almost all, employees of schools and hospitals, in the form of requests/orders by their school-heads or hospital administrators to refrain from wearing these ‘identity-markers’ (with no information on ‘why’ and ‘how’ and the ‘outcome’); 7 items of anti-hijab/burqa statements in posters and leaflets; 5 acts of verbal harassments by males in public places (with no information on their form); and 1 item referring to a request made by a medical officer from a patient to remove her hijab in the course of a clinical examination. These must have caused embarrassment or mental pain sufficiently intense for being conveyed to the SLMC. In addition, quite a number of listed items are publicised speeches, posters and pamphlets by unidentified outfits where reference is said to have been made to these items of dress.

Could this type of information be considered as reinforcing a real fear of a rising tide of Buddhist animosity towards the Muslims? Having spent more than 70 years of my life in social settings of mixed ethnicity – school hostel, Peradeniya university (the largest ethnically heterogeneous institution in the country), and my present residential neighbourhood – there are two observations of salience to an understanding of grassroots realities that I ought to make; one, that thirty or forty years ago a hijab- or burqa-clad female was a rare sight here in the Kandyan areas where some of the largest concentrations of Muslim communities outside the coastal lowlands of the east are found (was it at least partly because they preferred to remain cloistered in their homes at that time?); and the other, there has never been a serious concern among ordinary non-Muslims about this or any other sartorial change that has occurred in this part of the country, not even about the increasing adoption of the ridiculous but supposedly “aristocratic” Thuppotti by the Pāthaya (low-country) bridegrooms.

Soma-JHU-BBS: a continuum of Buddhist militancy?

Professor Holt, at the outset of his keynote presentation, prefaced his thematic contention with the observation that the Sri Lankan norm has all along been peaceful coexistence among the nation’s ethnic/religious groups, referring specifically to the “inclusivism” that has been a hallmark of Buddhism as practiced in our country from ancient times. It was because this was the sugar-coating on his bitter thematic pill that prompted from me to draw his attention (in a personal communication) to the brevity of his reference to the excruciating grief passively endured by Sinhalese-Buddhists at, say, the massacre of 165 aged worshipers at the Sri Maha Bōdhi, the devastating attack on the Daladā Māligāwa, and the slaughter of 17 baby-monks at Arantalawa, compared to the detailed sets of largely unverified information presented by him as atrocities allegedly committed by Sinhalese-Buddhist in the more recent past. This, I insist was not a kneejerk response on my part. Though having no claim to a Buddhist identity, I find revolting irony in the fact that perpetrators of these heinous crimes are never referred to with a ‘Christian’ or ‘Hindu’ appellation despite the unconcealed association some of them had with the clergy (and vice versa), even those at the most exalted levels, of their religions, while the criminals at Alutgama, Mahiyangana or Grandpass are readily branded as ‘Buddhists’ though no Buddhist prelate ever had comparable links with extremist groups like the BBS or the Rāvanā Balaya.

According to Professor Holt the upsurge of Buddhist violence in the recent years which he has portrayed represents the culmination of an ideological process set in motion by the late Gangodawila Sōma in the early years of the present century and carried forward by groups like the Jātika Hela Urumaya and Bodu Bala Sēnā. I confine myself here to mentioning a few facts of relevance to a scrutiny of this component of John’s submissions.

Venerable Gangodawila Sōma

Looking back into the past few decades I find several Buddhist monks who, though not belonging to the Sangha elite in the mainstream, not associated with displays of ceremonial piety by political leaders, and not recipients of political patronage, nevertheless gained extraordinary popularity. This, in my view, was due to their depth of understanding of the relevance of what the Buddha taught to contemporary Sri Lanka and the unusual ways in which they often disseminated Buddha’s teachings. The prelates Madihē Pagnāseeha and Piyadassi of Vajirārama are the ones that immediately come to mind. On the more recent past I recall Ven. Kotagama Vācheeswara (the erudite author of several works among which Saranankara Sangharāja Samaya is considered a classic), who left an indelible imprint on educated lay Buddhists. Even more profound in impact was the youthful Ven. Pānadurē Ariyadhamma, adored by an amazingly large following. One of his special attractions, I have been told, was that pansil, pirith and other stanzas he chanted at rituals were his own translations of the Pāli originals to Sinhala. The outpouring of grief at his sudden death was probably as large and as spontaneous as that witnessed at the death of Ven. Sōma, except that the Ariyadhamma funeral did not get much TV coverage probably because his deviation from orthodoxy did not find favour with President Premadasa, and, of course, there were no private sector TV channels at that time. So, in this sense, Sōma, in life and in death, was not a unique phenomenon.

Ven. Sōma’s mission extended over about five years in the course of which he did make frequent references to an impending threat to the survival of Sri Lanka as, indeed, many of us believed at that time (and I believe even now). The devastating Tiger attacks in and outside the battle-field represented only one component of that threat. The others included the willingness of both President Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as her rival Ranil Wickremasingha to succumb to the pressures exerted by the LTTE and its foreign patrons purely in order to strengthen themselves in their mutual power struggle – remember Chandrika’s ISGA proposals, the P-TOMS deal, the draft ‘quasi-federal’ constitution tabled in parliament in 2000; and Ranil’s potentially disastrous ‘Oslo Accord’ of 2002? And, don’t forget that it was Prabhakaran’s intransigence that saved Sri Lanka from certain peril. In addition, there were the cultural and economic offensives (hazily referred to as ‘consumerism’) against Sri Lanka about which highly respected lay intellectuals like Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera also spoke and wrote with passion.

The vehemence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism witnessed in the late 1990s was more than all else a product of that ethos of desperation and despair. It took various parallel and not sequential forms, of which Sōma’s mission was one. Others included the rise of organisations such as the Sihala Urumaya (the original avatar of Jāthika Hela Urumaya/JHU), Dharmavijaya Foundation, Dēshaprēmi Jāthika Peramuna (National Patriotic Front), and quite a few others, paralleled by the more conspicuous resurrection of the JVP that had not lost the ardently nationalist stance it had displayed in its disastrous insurrection of the 1980s. These were, for the most part, discrete entities, operating independently of one another and, invariably, in mutual rivalry.

There could be no denial that certain Sōma assertions were detrimental to the interests of the Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Those that readily come to mind are: (a) Soma’s conviction that divine worship of any sort by Buddhists does not conform to Buddhism. This, in my understanding, is quite correct; but must have been resented by god-worshippers, and must have been seen as an attack on the presence of Hindu shrines in Buddhist temple premises and the popularity of Kataragama which receives a great deal of across-the-board devotion; (b) Sōma’s condemnation of cattle slaughter (a largely Muslim industry) and his urging a ban on the sale and consumption of beef; (c) his fervent opposition to animal sacrifices at certain Kōvil rituals like the one conducted annually at Munneswaram (in Chilaw), and his request that it should be prohibited; (d) his attack on what he referred to as ‘unethical conversion’ to Christianity practiced mainly by the so-called ‘evangelicals’ with funds from the United States which, for reasons obscure, acquired vigour in the 1990s even in Kandy, but mainly in rural areas where Buddhist temples and their devotees exist in abject poverty. Ven. Sōma had a lengthy TV debate (very cordially) with the late Mohammed Asraff, the founder-leader of the SLMC (who scored many debating points because unlike Ven. Soma, he had arrived with a lot of preparation, and matched Soma effortlessly with his credible persona). The focus of that debate was on the issue of encroachment of temple lands in the eastern lowlands. Considered collectively, however, these were peripheral to Sōma’s discourses on the decaying Buddhist culture and moral values in Sri Lanka. I have listened to him on three occasions – twice on TV, and once in the village my parents (ardent Christians) lived, where the proceedings were a dialogue led by Sōma with a fairly large gathering that focused on destabilising changes in daily life at home and work-place, illustrated at times by what the Buddha had said to his disciples or an abridged version of a Jāthaka tale. I cannot believe that these had the effect of instigating mob violence against non-Buddhist groups.

Origin of the Jāthika Hela Urumaya (JHU) 

To say, as Professor Holt has done, that the JHU originated in the wake of Soma’s demise is an error of fact. The JHU, even in its recently published documents, refers to Sihala Urumaya (SU – ‘Sinhalese Heritage’) being founded in 1999 (when Ven. Soma was just entering the limelight, following his return from a prolonged stay in Australia). There was a pithy stanza with which the SU rationalised the need for their new political party, a rough translation of which could be read as follows:

“They are rogues, these are also rouges,

Only Sihala Urumaya can save the nation from its fate”.

(Note: “they” referred to the UNP, and “these” to the SLFP)

The following “non-negotiable principles” (cited below verbatim) were formally adopted at its inauguration.

  • The provisions in the present constitution relating to the National Flag, the National Anthem and the Buddha Sāsana should remain inviolate.
  • There should be no division of the country for political or administrative reasons on the basis of ethnicity.
  • Sri Lanka being the homeland of all is citizens, the claim that the North and the East as the homeland of the Tamils is rejected and it has no validity.
  • The 13th amendment to the constitution should be repealed and all legislative action taken under it should be treated as null and void. The provincial councils will be abolished.
  • Devolution of power should not be used as a means to the resolution of a non-existent ethnic problem.
  • Executive presidency should be abolished.

Interestingly, the SU had two laymen as its Chairman and Secretary – S. L. Gunasekera and Tilak Karunaratne. The other well-known lay persons in its Ex-Co included Patali Champika Ranawaka (defector from the JVP), A D V de S Indraratne (former Professor of Economics at Colombo), C. M. Madduma Bandara (former Peradeniya Vice-Chancellor) and Neville Karunatilleke (former Governor of the Central Bank). Arjuna Ranatunga, “The World Cup Winning Hero”, also had a brief tango with the SU. The Bhikku leadership included Ellawela Mēdhananda, Omalpe Sōbitha, Uduwē Dhammalōka, Athuraliyē Ratana and Kolonnawē Sumangala (& several other respected monks whose names I cannot remember) all of whom were elected MPs in 2004 when they contested under the JHU banner.

Bhikkus in Parliament: “Crossing a Line”?

What happened in the period leading up to the elections of 2004 was that a plenary meeting of the SU decided to reconstitute the party with a new name (JHS) and a new leadership, and to field Bhikku candidates (who were deemed to have popular appeal and “name recognition” among voters – vitally important under the “preferential voting” system) at the election, in alliance with the SLFP. Note also that, by 2004, the monks who contested in the elections held that year and several others of the JHU had become well known to the public because they had figured at the vanguard of the massive public protests against some of the potentially disastrous reforms mooted by Chandrika and Ranil (referred to above). It was these circumstances, and not what John has portrayed as a posthumous impact of Sōma, that prompted the JHU to become a force to be reckoned with in parliamentary politics in 2004. In any event, there was no “crossing the line” from the temple to politics of our country because throughout the ages there was no such line to cross.

Bodu Bala Sēnā (BBS): Misinterpretations

Having had the opportunity of observing the BBS in action since its ‘post-war’ advent to the political limelight of Sri Lanka and of reading some of its Sinhala publications, and having followed as closely as I could the related media coverage, my impressions and speculations on the BBS are as follows:

  • The BBS’s flock is not numerically significant though it has a spatial scatter of cells consisting of loyal youth – mostly, “rebels” in search of a cause. Some of its meetings, however, are well attended largely by curious onlookers. Preparatory work for its political rallies entails a great deal of effort and expenditure. There appears to be no shortage in the supply of the required funds. In this respect the BBS is far ahead of some of the other Buddhist extremists groups such as Rāvanā Balaya, Sinha Lē and Sinhala Rāvaya that have been resorting to public meetings and street-side demonstrations. The BBS scale of spending suggests that there is no way the resources at its disposal could be generated mainly in the form of contributions by its local followers.
  • Galabodaatte Gnānasāra was in the executive committee of the JHU in 2004. He left the JHU, claiming that it had become subservient to the interests of President Rajapaksa and his party, and hence had lost its purpose. It was probably this loudly proclaimed stance that enabled him to get external sponsorship for his foreign travels. C. A. Chandraprema with his impeccable record in investigative journalism has in fact unearthed evidence indicating that he is likely to have received sponsorship and support from the United States while having clandestine links with the UNP leadership (see, The Island of 22 June 2017). An intriguing disclosure made by Chandraprema is that the US embassy granted in 2011 (i.e. before Ven. Gnanasara acquired political fame/notoriety here) a five-year multiple-entry visa (not, by any means freely given) – for what purpose or with what objectives?). And, the Norwegian government providing funds for his trip to Europe has been an open secret. Ven. Gnānasāra denies with vehemence and anger this support from external sources, and claims that the overwhelming majority of his flock (including the Sangha) is from the rural poor who make immense material sacrifices to support the BBS cause.
  • At his public performances Ven. Gnānasāra frequently hurls insults at the Rajapaksas. Going by the dictum that “in politics nothing is what it appears to be” this could be interpreted in various ways. Whatever the interpretation, there could be no denial that in the period leading up to the national elections of 2015, he was a boon to Ranil Wickremasinghe and a bane to the Rajapaksa camp. Generosity
  • This brings me to the elusive question of whether at least some of the outbursts of violence attributed to the BBS have been stage-managed. It is known that this type of destabilization, sponsored by the CIA, did occur in Pakistan, and that it led successively to the eviction of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from office, his conviction for murder by a kangaroo court, and his being hanged. Bhutto’s real ‘offense’ was that, although he received massive US military assistance in his war against the Balochi tribes in 1974, he thereafter began to lean increasingly towards China in his foreign relations. No less a person than Ramsay Clarke (one time Attorney General of the US) has borne testimony to this fact; and taking into account several writings by Pakistani scholars on this episode as well, and the more recent global experiences with various ‘Springs’, along with the hostility of the self-proclaimed “international community” towards Sri Lanka, I cannot rule out the possibility of Sri Lanka being the victim of yet another US-led attempt at “making the world safe for democracy”. Disastrous US interventions also occurred in the period leading to the six-year ‘People’s War’ in Nepal. Certain scholars there believe that the 2001 assassination of King Birendra and nine members of the royal family in a palace carnage was a CIA plot and was not, as widely publicised in its aftermath, the product of the broken heart and demented mind of Prince Dipendra, the heir to the throne.

Within the BBS, public activities are controlled very largely by Ven. Gnānasāra, a domineering personality who could act quite frenzied when provoked. Even those who believe that his proclaimed grievances are not entirely devoid of substance are thoroughly embarrassed by his show of excessive aggression. He is so obviously a megalomaniac. He craves publicity which continues to be provided in abundance by certain private sector TV channels and newspapers that were arrayed against the Rajapaksa government. To these firms, moreover, kalā rasa of any form – even pilikul rasa – is essential for enhancing advertising revenue, which also means that the more publicity he gets the more wildly entertaining he becomes, while continuing to perform his ascribed role in current political affairs.

Figure 30  

From about early 2013 it is the BBS rather than any other such outfit that has been blamed by critics of various competence and status, here in Sri Lanka and abroad, in particular scholars, journalists, and Muslim and Tamil political leaders (including those who barely survived under the jackboot of the LTTE during the ‘Eelam War’), for the havoc caused in the major trouble-spots referred to in this study. Many of these critics have also suggested, or even explicitly stated, that the BBS is sponsored by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya. It is of relevance to my theme that Maitripala Sirisena, elected president on 8 January 2015, has contributed to the myth that the BBS operated with the connivance of the Rajapaksa brothers.

The fact that the rioting began in Dharga Town soon after the BBS meeting, taken together with Ven. Gnanasara’s aggressive personality and excessively agitated oratorical style prompted most media reporters to believe that the speech was what triggered off the riot. This type of bias has not been a cause for surprise, especially to those of us who are familiar with the type of distortion purveyed as ‘news’ on innumerable conflict situation in the poorer countries where their versions find ready endorsement by the lackey NGO newsmakers who thrive on financial support from external sources. What does cause surprise and, indeed, disgust in the present context is that even those often considered as authoritative in their analysis of political events in Sri Lanka, the authenticity of whose interpretations is enhanced by the fact that during Rajapaksa’s presidential tenure they had been elevated to prestigious posts in government presumably in recognition of their skills and expertise, have provided subtle hints of a link between the Rajapaksa regime and the BBS. In order to illustrate this, without an iota of an intention to trivialise what they had achieved in those posts, I cite the following extracts from an article by Dayan Jayatilleka published during the turbulences in ADB (emphasis added).

“So far it has been misidentified as the scarier mask of the ruling clan, the dark avatar of Sinhala Buddhism or the instrument of neoliberal capitalism. It may be all of these or some of these, but these are not the most important or dangerous aspects of its present-day manifestation, the BBS, and the Aluthgama outbreak. What is most significant about Aluthgama was the speech by the BBS’ Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, the main demagogue but not the main strategist of that formation. A careful listening tells me that the BBS project aims at nothing less than State power itself“.

Galagodaaththe Gnanasara’s speech signals the new objective of laying claim to control of the State and indeed the new self-image of being such a controlling force or a contender for State power (as distinct from electoral office). Gnanasara directly addresses and appeals to the armed forces and police over the heads of the constitutional political power. He warns the political power by reminding it that the armed forces and police are Sinhala (!). This strategy is simple: the sociological (ethno-linguistic, ethno-religious) composition of the state apparatus is sought to be used to leverage the state to act not merely in the interests of a leading role for the Sinhala Buddhists, but a more explicit role which ranges from outright domination up to (or down to) exclusive monopoly of power, economic presence and existential space.

First of all, having read Ven. Gnanasara’s (1 hour and 8 minutes) performance at Aluthgama, not once but twice, and noting down the topics he focused on (which, incidentally, had considerable overlap with the substance of several of his earlier speeches) I should say quite categorically that nothing he said (or taking everything he said) could be reasonably construed as representing a programmed pursuit of state power.

Ven. Gnasasara’s speech, as usual, was a jumble of facts, assertions, criticisms, condemnations and threats, articulated randomly, replete with repetitions, and lacking in any orderly sequence. Right at the beginning of his speech he ventured into the subject of ‘extremism’ (anthavādaya) expressing intense fury with wild gesticulations at those who refer to the BBS as anthavādī. He raised the rhetoric “who are the anthavādī, is it us or is it the Muslims? He returned to this issue several times, and at least on two occasions he appealed to the leaders of the Muslim community to control their anthavādi kalli (extremist cliques), making a brief reference on one occasion to ‘Wahhabists’ who, he said, want to make this a Muslim country (In the course of my investigations several Muslim elders also referred to this Islamic sect as a threat to Islam, one of them saying that a senior ministers (then and now) is in the pay of the Wahhabists).

Some of the Thero’s harshest condemnations were targeted at the police. He accused the police of favouritism (being swayed by bribery) and, following some prompting by one of the monks occupying a seat on the stage, asked why there is “one law for us and another for them (Muslims)”. He suggested that the people should demand the removal of the “Superintendent of Police at Aluthgama”. The specific grievances he referred to in this anti-police harangue was on the failure of the police to pursue the assault of Ven. Samitha Thero; the police ignoring a complaint made about an alleged molesting of a child inside a shop owed by a Muslim, and attributed the shop being set on fire (some weeks before the BBS meeting) to police inaction on the complaint; and the release without inquiry of 57 Muslim youth taken into custody (according to him, a gang working for a named minister) caught in possession of “petrol bombs”. The theme of his entire presentation, if it is possible at all to sieve a theme from that prolonged diatribe was that the BBS is interested solely in saving Buddhism from imminent peril.

What was of interest to me when I listened to the recording of this speech for the second time (that was after I came across Dr. Jayatilleke’s speech) was that there were no “addresses and appeals to the armed forces and police over the heads of the constitutional political power” in any form, direct or indirect, except a single brief reference to “our veerodara soldiers” rescuing Sri Lanka from the Tiger menace. What was curious (but not at all surprising when placed in the framework of my contextualisation of this entire series of riots) was that there were no reference at all to the attempts made by both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe either to offer the ‘northeast’ to the LTTE on a platter or to downgrade the status accorded to Buddhism in our constitution, no reference whatever to the sinister pressures being exerted on post-war Sri Lanka by the NATO stalwarts and the UNHCR, the Indian off-shore offensives in the north and the humiliations suffered by Buddhist pilgrims including Bhikkus in South India; and only a very brief reference to Halal or the Burqa on which the BBS made hay in the first two years of its formal existence.

In yet another scholarly analysis of the BBS, Dr Jayatilleka has informed us that the real leader of this organisation is the venerable prelate Kirama Vimalajothi. If one were to be generous about this misrepresentation it is possible to suggest that this is merely an innocuous example of carelessness with facts, especially evident in writings on Sri Lanka by certain ‘Western’ (and ‘westernised’) scholars.

Ven. Vimalajothi does occupy an exalted status in the Bhikku hierarchy in Sri Lanka. He (as a formidable source of political support for the Rajapaksa regime), it has been claimed, influenced the government to rename Havelock Road (one of Colombo’s main thoroughfares) as Sambuddhathva Jayanthi Mawatha and sponsored the construction of a multi-storeyed building on land donated by the government as an international centre of Buddhist activity. Ven. Vimalajothi who, in 2012 (i.e. at a time the main BBS concerns were the alleged encroachment of land belonging to ancient temples in the Eastern Province, and the neglect of Buddhist archaeological sites in the same area) agreed to accept the post of  ‘Chief’ (Pradhānee) of the BBS. The brief ‘Message’ written by this prelate for a lavishly produced souvenir publication at the second anniversary of the BBS,[43] was addressed exclusively to the Prelates (Mahā Nāyaka of the Malvatta and Asgiriya ‘Chapters’ and of the Siyam Nikāya, and the Rāmangna and Amarapura Nikāya. It was confined to an appeal for the replacement of the prevailing ‘sectarian’ difference with a single non-sectarian Bhikku hierarchy functioning under a ‘Council of Superiors’ headed by a  Mahā Nāyake (Great Prelate)  ̶  a post, he suggested, should be held rotationally by them. Function of this ‘Council of Superiors’, he said, should be that of advising the government on Bhikku Education, organisation of Pirivena (i.e. “temple schools”) education, and what should be done to cater to the metaphysical needs of the Sinhalese people. One searchers in vain, but fails to find, a glimpse of this grandiose pursuit of state power (a ‘Sangha Raj‘, as Jayatilleka probably wants his readership to believe).

There are other considerations of relevance to an analysis of Dr. Jayatilleka identifying Ven. Vimalajothi as the real (but behind the scene?) force of the BBS. One is that, at least from about mid-2013, Ven Wimalajothi had distanced himself from the BBS propaganda campaigns (submitting a letter of resignation from his BBS post), mainly (I have been very reliably informed) because of his disapproval of Ven. Gnanasara’s over-aggressive ‘style’ of campaigning; and his realisation that what is being done by the latter is likely to spell disaster for Sri Lanka. This is probably why Ven. Gnanasara’s brief ‘Message’ to this same publication makes an appeal to his readership to disregards his ‘methodology’ (kramavēdaya) but to look at the message he tries to convey. And, this is where we cannot overlook the well-know, close and cordial relations Ven. Vimalajothi has had all along with Mahinda Rajapaksa, and consider it against the backdrop of Dr. Jayatilleka’s assertion on the venerable prelate’s alleged position in the BBS as being intended to reinforce his vague hint in the passage I have cited above.

To generalize, this is certainly not the stuff that indicates a pursuit of state power. I think these scholars should get their fact straight before they venture into half-baked conceptualisations, and fit a selection of facts and speculations into preconceived theory and try to appear profound with a quotation from a Trotsky or a Gramsci.

Extremism, Bigotry and Incitement to Violence

I offered a preliminary draft of an article based on this study (but before completing it) to the Editor of The Island – a popular Sri Lankan daily – mainly in the hope of getting a feedback from its readers; and, thankfully, he published it in instalments in a series of issues of the newspaper from the 3rd to 8th July 2017. I have hitherto received an unusually large number of responses including several from Sri Lankans in Australia, Canada and the US. The most complimentary response has come from a Muslim reader. He has, in fact, been generous enough to ignore two factual errors in my draft which I deeply regret. The response is reproduced below.

“This is a wonderful Political Communication Research piece published for the benefit of both the Muslim and Sinhala community to help understand ‘HARMONY’. This article should be more read with a free mind by Sri Lankan Muslims, especially the educated and knowledgeable. It should, if possible be translated into Sinhala and Tamil languages to enable the ordinary Muslim “pamaramakkal” in the rural areas and the villages to be informed about the realities that so-called Muslim Civil Society groups/leaders, Muslim Ulema, Muslim politicians and Muslim party leaders and, especially the Muslim Youth will understand the ‘REALITY’ of the situation”.

Noor Nizam – “The Muslim Voice”, Posted in ‘Lankaweb‘, on 12 July 2017

While approaching the end of writing the version of my article referred to above, I came across a piece by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka titled ‘The issue is incitement: The BBS, Champika & the Gōta factor’ in the 22 June 2017 issue of The Island which begins as follows:

“The entire discussion or debate about the BBS, Gnanasara Thero and extremism is missing something. The discussion confuses ultra-nationalism, chauvinism, Islamophobia and extremism with the real issue: incitement to violence. Whether an ideology is extremist or not is one issue, but it is an issue that is difficult to resolve. What is far easier to resolve, legally and morally, is the issue of whether or not an action or statement constitutes an ‘incitement to violence’ against an individual or a collective.

It is on the basis of the contention regarding the relative ease with which acts of incitement to violence could be “resolved” (presumably, placed under judicial scrutiny, and those found guilty appropriately punished) that Dr. Jayatilleke proceeded to draw a distinction between Tamil and Muslim chauvinists (those named by him were Hakeem, Wigneswaran, Rishard Badiuddin and Azad Ali) on the one hand, and Ven. Gnānasāra on the other. In order to reinforce this distinction, Jayatillela had stated: “After the war, some politicians representing the minorities (specific reference was made to the ‘genocide resolution’, and to Sivajilingam, Sritharan, Gajan and Suresh) have resorted to sectarian ultra-nationalism, chauvinism, covert and latent separatism, borderline threats and even provocation” (but) “unlike Ven. Gnānasāra, refrained from incitement to violence”, an offence that could be easily proved with “stacks of video footage”! Incredibly, he has not seen the irony here that the distinction he has drawn between Ven. Gnānasāra and the others names above has, in fact, already been made by the Yahapālana duumvirate in the guise of Sanhidiyāva (peaceful coexistence)  ̶ in short, what Dr. Jayatilleka advocates is the suppression of Buddhist chauvinism while disregarding the ongoing resurgence of secessionism. This, of course, is exactly what the NATO powers desire, and why they initiated the ‘regime change’ project. While the ‘Eelam War’ was heading towards its end, attempts were made to drive a wedge between the Buddhists and the Christians. I vividly recollect Dayan Jayatilleke telling me at that time about a list containing records of more than 300 (or was it 400?) Buddhist attacks on Christian churches. After the war, the focus turned on an electorally more productive Buddhist-Muslim breach.

Having listened to reams of video footage pertaining to the subject of Buddhist-Muslim Relations, I have been struck by the fact that Ven. Gnānasāra, in his public pronouncements, has always stopped short of incitement to violence. I have also seen the same precaution in the Sinhala publications of the BBS. Indeed, on several of his platform performances the BBS leader has said that, contrary to various pāpishta (sinful) accusations, the BBS does not indulge in or advocate violence. This, as some would say, could well be bluff. But, he has persistently re-iterated that his struggle is to restore Buddhism to its rightful place in Sri Lanka, and is not against the Muslims or the other minority communities. And, to put the record straight, almost all video clips available are brief extracts of speeches (the exceptions being those documented by the BBS itself), which, according to a forensic expert here, are unlikely to be accepted as admissible evidence.

Not surprisingly, the only obnoxious response to the preliminary version of my article was from Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke who took issue with me evidently because of my disagreement with the proposition cited above. I find the response being of sufficient relevance to the subject of the present study for it to be contextualised in the form of a media dialogue, commercial ads and the glut of other rubbish permitting.

In order to substantiate my view that ‘incitement to violence’ is conceptually complex and elusive of definition I referred to a few randomly selected and mutually contrasting scenarios such as Jesus Christ evicting traders from the ‘Temple’, Mark Antony’s lamentations to the Romans, John Kennedy’s pretence at liberalism in the early 1960s, and Colvin R. de Silva’s revolutionary platform rhetoric, all of which had, in diverse ways, incited diverse forms of violence. Dr. Jayatilleke’s response was as follows:

“In an attempt to dismiss my view, Prof Peiris argues that the same charge may be levelled against Jesus Christ’s denunciation in the Temple, Mark Antony’s oration, John F Kennedy, et al. In effect, Prof. Peiris does not see a qualitative difference between the discourse of Jesus Christ and that of Ven. Gnanasara. Prof Peiris probably sees a congruency between Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto, not to mention Hitler’s torchlight Nuremburg speeches and Fidel’s address to the courts, ‘History Will Absolve Me!”

“Prof Peiris’ problem”, according to Jayatilleke, “seems to be that of a classic “category error” (how amazingly profound!): the inability to distinguish between an exhortation to resistance and rebellion against injustice, and a fascist or neo-fascist exhortation to violence against a community.

Since this, in several ways, is similar in substance and ‘methodology’ to some of Ven. Gnanasara’s efforts at preserving the sanctity of Buddhism, I found it necessary to clarify that while I made no “charge” against Jesus, I also made no comparison of his teachings to those of anyone else in history including Hitler, Castro or whoever, and submitted the following note to The Island which, for reasons I could only guess, has been censored.

“Dr. Jayatileke’s idea, though thought-provoking, seemed tenuous either as a generalisation on human experiences or in relation to a specific statement (or action) such as those by Venerable Gnānasāra Thero.

To illustrate, Jesus Christ, according to St. Matthew (21: 12-13), after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “went into the temple of God and cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them who sold doves, and said unto them, it is written, my house shall be called the House of Prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves”. Rome might have looked at this episode as a minor affront to its imperial might; but it no doubt infuriated the “Sadducees and Pharisees” to a pitch that found expression in the harrowing mob violence and the crucifixion inflicted on Jesus a few days later. Now, would you say that the ‘incitement’ part of this story is different from the Prelate Ināmaluwē Sumangala’s repeated assertion: “We cannot allow mosques to be built within this pooja bhoomiya (‘sacred area’ adjacent to his temple).

To cite a few other random examples, was Marc Anthony, as dramatized by Shakespeare, bemoaning the death of his mentor or inciting violence against powerful senators of the Roman Empire? John Kennedy’s grandiloquent declaration, “Violence in pursuit of liberty is not crime”  ̶  did it inspire at least some of the ideologues and actors of the ‘Civil rights’ mobs of the 1960s? What about the Bushes, Snr. and Jnr., and their rhetoric aimed at generating mass support for their ruthless bombardment of Iraqi civilians, and that of Barak Obama prior to launching ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ causing an escalation of ISIS retaliatory violence? Closer home, what of the Marxist stalwarts of our own ‘Old Left’ who advocated extra-parliamentary strategies of capturing State power, and thus contribute to the homicidal and suicidal mindset of the youth who pursued that strategy two decades later. Illustrations are plentiful. You, the readers, can think carefully and arrive at your own conclusions on whether “incitement” is easily definable, legally and morally, especially in relation to these ‘holy wars’ – Buddhist or Islamic or of any other persuasion.

Dr. Jayatilleke appears to have been outraged by my mention of Jesus Christ in the same breath, as it were, with several others (including Ven. Gnānasāra); and thought it necessary to display his erudition in ‘Theology’ and ‘Political Science’, if not his commitment to fundamental Christian dogma. I should return compliments by mentioning that even in the records we have on the life of Jesus there are a few enigmatic bits and pieces, one of which relate to what he is reported to have done in the Jerusalem Temple – discussed down the ages by theologians – which I had mentioned as an illustration of the ambiguity of ‘incitement to violence’. The anger supposedly displayed by Christ, as visualised by those who have actually read the bible contradicts the dictum, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, and several other pronouncements made in the course of that glorious ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which Jayatilleka appears to have heard about.

The problem about getting into the semantics of ‘incitement’ is that it diverts attention from the essence of the ‘post-war’ crisis in our country   ̶ the product of an externally sponsored, multifaceted ‘regime change’ project, a prominent facet of which was the alienation of the Muslim community from the Rajapaksa regime. The recent insidious revival of this effort is no doubt intended to protect the puppet regime installed in 2015. There are signs of the Muslim community awakening to this fact.

***   ****

Figure 34 SL Map -Ethnicity – distrib.

Text Box – p.51


** John Holt, 2015, “Militant Buddhists and Minority Others: Ethnic Conflict in Theravada Buddhist South and Southeast Asia” in K. M. de Silva (ed.) Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia: The Politics behind Religious Rivalries’ , pp. 1-24.

[1]. Theravada refers to the orthodox school of Buddhism that has its literary traditions in the Pali language. It is the main form of Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that Theravada adheres closely to the original teachings of the Buddha and that, historically, their country has been the citadel of Buddhism in its pristine form. This belief is regarded by scholars as a major ideological ingredient of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.

[2].  In the coastal lowlands of the east where Tamil and Muslim settlements are often located side-by-side, there have been many local-level clashes between the two communities. These, as McGilvray (1997, ‘Tamils and Muslims in the Shadow of War: Schism or Continuity’, South Asia: 20) has pointed out, have rarely been triggered off by religious issues. Several detailed studies have also shown that during the ‘Kandyan Period’ (c. 16 to 18 century), land grants were donated to Muslim communities in proximity to the core of the highland kingdom and, even in its peripheral areas of the kingdom, Muslims were fully integrated into the tenurial system and arrangements of trade and taxation. See, for example Devaraja, Lorna S (2008) The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, 1708-1782, Stanford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya: 187-188 & 231-232.

[3].   De Silva, K. M. de S (1981), A History of Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press: 381-5.

[4]. Roberts, Michael (2009), ‘Marakkala Kolahalaya: Mentalities Directing the Pogrom of 1915’, in Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo: Chapter 5.

[5]. Roberts, Michael (1982) Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1505-1931, Cambridge University Press.

[6]. Peiris G. H. (2006) The Muttur Tragedy: A Re-examination’, The Island of 22 November 2006,  and (2009) Twilight of the Tigers: Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press: 217-218

[7] .  Peiris, G. H. (2008) ‘The “responsibility to Protect” and External Intervention in the Sri Lankan Conflict’, Proceedings of the Jagran Forum, New Delhi.

[8].   SLMC (2015) Report intended to be submitted to the UN High-Commission on Human Rights, titled Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, January 2013 – December 3013. See, imrad.org/wordpress/wp_content/uploads/2016/07/IMARD_SriLanka_CERD90_July2016

[9] .  ICES/International Centre for Ethnic Studies (2015) The Chronic and the Acute: Post-War Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, http:equitas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/ICES-Equitas-Research _Report _Final

[10] . Waduge, Shenali D. (2014) ‘Sinhala-Muslim “Riots”: Sri Lanka Local Media Blackout on Version of Ayagama Samitha Thero’, http://www.onlanka.com/news/sinhala-muslim-riots-sri-lankan-local-media-blackout-on-version-of-ayagama-samitha-thero.html

[11]    ICES, 2015, op. cit.; Law & Society Trust (2015) Where have all the neighbours gone? Aluthgama Riots and its aftermath, A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela, http://lawandsocietytrust.org/content_images/publications/documents/aluthgama%20report%20final.pdf

[12].  ICES (2015), op. cit.; Law & Society Trust (2015), op. cit.

[13] . Zuhair, Ayesha (2016) Dynamics of Sinhalese Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Post-War Sri Lanka, http://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Dynamics-of-Sinhala-Buddhist-Ethno-Nationalism-in-Post-War-Sri-Lanka.pdf

[14] . Ali, Ameer (2015) ‘Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 35: 486-502

[15] . This is not intended to deny the well-known fact that Muslim presence in Sri Lanka date back at least into early medieval times, and that they did establish a string of port settlements in the Island during the heyday of Arab maritime trade in the Arabian Sea.

[16] . SLMC (2015): op. cit.

[17] . ‘Mid-Country’ is a conventional designation for the hilly areas of moderate elevation along the   periphery of the Central highlands to the west and northwest.

[18]. Gunasekera, Suranjith, Silva, Kalinga Tudor & Saifdeen, N. T. F. (undated) Interplay between competition for scarce resources and identity issues in the May 2001 Riots of Mawanella  http://www.slageconr.net/slsnet/9thicsls/individual/abs044.pdf

[19]. Statistical data published by the Bureau of Foreign Employment indicate that the Administrative Division of Galboda Koralē has been a source of an unusually high rate of emigration for temporary employment in West Asia. (www.statistics.gov.lk/NCMS/RepNTab/Tables/SLBFE.pdf

[20]Electoral Malpractices in Sri Lanka: Interim Report of a study of the Presidential Elections of 1999, authored by G. H. Peiris based on a study conducted collectively by K. M. de Silva, S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe and G. H. Peiris (2000). This report has been deposited in the ICES library in Kandy.

[21]. Kappan, though selectively operated in a given venue, is a phenomenon of the “informal economy” in many towns of Sri Lanka.

[22]. Sunil, W. A. (2001) ‘Sri Lankan Muslims protest violent attacks by racist thugs’ http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2001/05/sri-m10.html

[23].  Silva, Kalinga Tudor, Niwas, Afrah & Wickramasinghe, W.M.K.B. (2016) Religious Interface and Contestations between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka: A Study of Recent Developments in Selected Multi-Religious and Cross-Cultural Sites, ICES, Colombo


[24].  Since the area of authority of the former Dambulla TC was enlarged with its elevation to the status of an Urban Council, the 1981 population estimate is not strictly comparable to that of 2012.  On census enumerations after 1981 no ethnic disaggregations on sub-district spatial frameworks have been made available in published form by our moronic Department of Census & Statistics. Moreover, even the 2012 population totals of towns such as Dambulla and Mahiyangana in 2012 cannot be ascertained from the post-1981 census records. Yet the ‘townscape’ of Dambulla conveys the impression of a massive population growth, rapid commercialisation and a disproportionately large increase in its Moslem population since the early 1980s.

[25] . A report compiled by G. M. Abeysekera, Senior Superintendent of Surveys, Sri Lanka show that the Commission appointed to implement the ‘Temple Lands Registration Ordinance of 1856’, settled a total extent of 23,044 acres in 17 blocks ranging in size from less than an acre to 12,636 acres (venue of 11 villages) were “settled” in favour of the Dambulla Temple.

[26] . Jeyaraj, D B S (undated) ‘Rangiri Cricket Stadium and Its Tempestuous History’, inDbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/6004

[27] . See also, http://www.goldentemple.lk/Backup/2016-10-01/development_foundation, for a further reference to this new “Chapter”.

[28] . See also, http://www.goldentemple.lk/Backup/2016-10-01/development_foundation, for a further reference to this new “Chapter”.

[29] . Yusuf, Javid (2012) ‘Immediate investigation needed for Dambulla Mosque incident’, It has been posted in the blog dbsjeyaraj.com/dbs/archives/5906 on 28 April 2012 – i.e. eight days after the  mosque attack.

[30] . See the full-page record of an interview with the minister by Piyasena Dissanayake & Nilantha Madurawala in Irida Divayina (Sunday issue of a national newspaper) of 9 July, 2017, page 13.

[31] . Peiris G. H. (1981) ‘Agrarian Transformations in British Sri Lanka’, Sri Lanka Journal of Agrarian Studies, 2(2): 1-26.

[32] . Peiris G. H. (1987) Irrigation and Water Management in a Peasant Settlement Scheme of Sri Lanka, Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Colombo: 18-24.

[33] . The complex of ancient ruins at Rideemahaliædda, especially the ancient temple in the hamlet of Uraniya (locate 17 km to the south-east of Mahiyangana) became a venue of archaeological restorations during the Premadasa presidency. The related efforts were resumed early in the presidential tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa when, in 2007, he offered a gilded silver image of the Buddha to the temple (in acknowledgement of its mystic powers) and made a vow to defeat the LTTE, thus authenticating a folk belief that King Dutugemunu at the vanguard of his army on its way towards Rajarata more than two millennia ago to establish his rule over the entire island performed a similar ritual. The Rajapaksa, offering, like his suzerainty, has since then been stolen!

[34].    For a far more detailed account of the persecution suffered by Ven. Vijitha  allegedly in the hands of BBS operatives, see a paper titled ‘Buddhist Monk Attacked by Bodu Bala Sena and Police Inaction’ …  http://groundviews.org/2013/10

[35] . As a further illustration of the ‘wildfire’ spread of false information, I refer to the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) story, published on 20 July, (telo.org/?p=17442#prettyphoto), identical to the DBS Jeyaraj version,  but illustrated with a photograph taken at Dambulla with the caption ‘Destroyed Mahiyangana Mosque’. This photograph is reproduced below.

[36] . Fernando, Laksiri (2013) ‘Defence Secretary Defends Majority Domination: …’, Colombo Telegraph, July 5, 2013.

[37].   This estimate is furnished in  Ranawaka, Champika (2013) ‘Grandpass – The True Story’ in Colombo Telegraph, 14 August, 2013.

[38]. The sources of information for my sketch here could be easily downloaded by any other researcher with the required patience via an internet search under the title ‘Attack on the Grand Pass Mosque, Sri Lanka’, especially the following for a cross-sections of observations:







Special mention must be made of a fairly detailed, but not entirely unbiased, piece by Latheef Farook published in the August 14, 2013 issue of the Colombo Telegraph which, despite its hyperbolic title (‘Latest step in the build up to commemorate anniversary of 1915 Sinhala Muslim Riots with July 83 type attacks on Muslims?’) contains a sedate ‘Muslim perspective’. Minister Champika Ranawaka has also made a very useful contribution to our understanding of the circumstances that culminated in the Riot in an article titled ‘Grandpass: The True Story’, Colombo Telegraph, August 14, 2013.


[39] . Fernando, Laksiri (2013) ‘True Story of Grandpass of True face of Champika Ranawawa’, Sri Lanka Guardian, August 15, 2013.

[40].  Jeyaraj, D. B. S. (2013) ‘Against Molawatte Mosque in Grandpass During Maghrib Prayers’, Posted in his blog on 11 August 2013.

[41] . My informant, a Peradeniya graduate, well informed in Islamic affairs, wishes to remain unnamed here. To me, his orally conveyed information is far more authentic than some of the documented sources of information.

[42]. Foothills of the Central highlands to its west, northwest and north.

[43].  This BBS publication in Sinhala (author and publisher not mentioned), is a 39-page booklet, printed on heavy, gloss paper. It is, in fact, an album of colour photographs (interspersed with brief notes), 41 of which contain images in various sizes of Ven. Gnanasara (alone, at discussions with several participants, on BBS ceremonial occasions, or in a variety of other campaign activities) including an image of his confronting Ven. Watareka Vijitha (intended to illustrate Ven. Gnanasara’s “cleansing the Sangha fraternity of about heretics, drug-addicts, drunkards, and other evil doers in saffron robes”. The publication is titled Jathika Adhyāthmika Kāhala Nādayē Devasaraka Abhimānaya, 2012-2014 (could be translated as ‘The proud two-years of the Nation’s spiritual trumpet’). BBS insiders know that at the time this document was published Ven. Vimalajothi had already distanced himself from BBS activities, having formally resigned from his post.


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