IT IS a regular humid, traffic-jampacked weekday evening in Colombo on 12 April. At one of the busiest intersections in the city, a group of people gather. They light some candles and, slowly but surely, gentle voices begin to fill the air. They are reciting, if you listen closely, a combination of excerpts from the Subhasitajaya Sutta (where the Buddha teaches the importance of âwell-spokenâ words) and a line from the Sri Lankan national anthem that, roughly translated, means âWe are all children of the same motherâ. However, this quiet little vigil doesnât last long. Soon a number of Buddhist monks, flanked by civilian supporters and policemen, emerge from the gigantic building on the opposite side of the road. They abuse, manhandle and harass the candle-lighters, demanding they end the vigil and disperse, and ask the police to arrest them, calling them âtraitorsâ. The police take some demonstrators to the nearest police station. No formal arrests are made, but they are allowed to leave only after giving statements.
The aggressors were from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) â an extremist Sinhala- Buddhist organisation that has been fuelling an anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka recently and is a neo-fascist hate-group of sorts led by some Buddhist monks. Self-proclaimed defenders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and protectors of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, they are not unlike what the Shiv Sena is for Hindus in India.
Frighteningly, they have many supporters who believe their claim that Sri Lanka is under threat, naturally, from the minorities. While hundreds of people attend their rallies, they have also acquired a significant following online â their Facebook page has over 8,000 âlikesâ and their brand-new Twitter account is gathering momentum. The BBS has gained renown for a unique brand of hate-speech, which twists âmoralityâ to suit their cause and instills in their supporters the kind of paranoia typical of racism, endowing them with a sense of moral righteousness. In short, the BBS claims that Muslims, Christians and certainly the Tamils have no real place in Sri Lanka, a âSinhala-Buddhist nationâ. They can live there if they want, but only as second-class citizens, under the rule of the âsuperiorâ Sinhala-Buddhists.
The rise in religious extremism and a renewed vigour in anti-minority sentiments come four years after the Sri Lankan government defeated the separatist Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ostensibly ending nearly 30 years of civil war. Many Sri Lankans had hoped it would mean lasting peace and stability, but that was not to be. It is in the prevailing atmosphere of despair and frustration, amid flagrant corruption and the crippling cost of living, that fundamentalism has taken root. The general feeling of anger and anxiety has been channelled by hardliners into a campaign of hatred against âthe otherâ. The Sri Lankan Muslim community has not provoked this attack in any way. Instead, it is the BBSâ cleverly timed propaganda that appeals to the Sinhala-Buddhistâs fears in a powerful way.
In fact, the trajectory of the BBS has been chillingly familiar, resonant of well-known fascist movements in history. First, they systematically demonise the minority community they wish to target. The BBS leads a campaign of vicious lies and rumours about the Muslims through their rallies, online forums and text messages. These statements are as absurd as they are untrue: there was once a text message in circulation saying that a particular brand of sanitary napkin in the local market, manufactured by a Muslim-owned company, was using a âpoisonâ that would render Sinhala-Buddhist women infertile. At their meetings, they rage about the rapid growth of the Muslim community, claiming they are âbreedingâ to âovertakeâ the Sinhalese, although the Sinhalese make up 74.9 percent of the nationâs population and the Buddhists, 65 percent â a majority of them Sinhalese. Muslims form only 9.7 percent of the population.
Second, they attack the target communityâs religious beliefs, rituals and places of worship. In April 2012, a 2,000- strong mob led by monks raided a mosque in a town in central Sri Lanka during prayers. Just a month later, another mob attacked a mosque in a Colombo suburb, throwing rocks and rotten meat. About five such incidents have been reported over the last year, while organisations like the BBS have put immense pressure on certain mosques to shut down. In some cases, they were successful. More recently, the BBS managed to halt the Halal certification on animal-based products in Sri Lanka. This campaign was carried out unabated, publicly supported by government officials at the very top, particularly Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Third, they shut down businesses owned by members of the target community. On 28 March, there was an attack on a Muslim-owned apparel business, Fashion Bug. Later, video evidence showed the mob being led by a robed monk. Chillingly, the crowd, standing among the debris, cheers as the monk flings a rock and shatters one of the windowpanes of the building. Policemen stand around, seemingly there to protect the attackers from harm, not to stop the mindless attack. That perhaps is the final step, or something all fascists do quietly along the way: they get the powerful behind them.
How and why the government sees this as being in line with its own agenda is a mystery. A common belief among moderates is that for the government, it helps to have a ânew enemyâ. After the defeat of the LTTE and suppression of the Tamils in the north, perhaps targeting a new minority secures their place as the protector of the people.