The Spectacle of Buddhist Political Activism in Sri Lanka

Article by Michael Hertzberg* 

Ven. Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation in Sri Lanka.  Picture via Colombo Telegraph . 

Ven. Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation in Sri Lanka. Picture via Colombo Telegraph

The anti-Muslim riots in the Kandy District, Sri Lanka have once again raised questions over the involvement of particularly Buddhist clergy in attacks, protests and campaigns against ethnic and religious minorities in South Asia. There is a lot to explore on the intersection of Buddhism with politics, nationalism and mass mobilization. This article focuses on one aspect of these, seeking to offer insights on how Buddhist-political mobilization draws upon cultural anxieties and rhetorical repertoires.

Buddhist-political groups emerge in contexts of national political instability, and beckons us to re-think the relations between Buddhism and politics. This is particularly visible in the case of Sri Lanka, which has faced tumultuous political instability the last decade, with the devastating tsunami in 2004 and the long-ranging civil war (1983 – 2009). These events have not only beckoned substantial international attention, involving both political and humanitarian interventions, but also intensified political engagement among Buddhist nationalist groups.

Buddhist marches and demonstrations are public displays of power and demonstrate how political monks are important agents in transforming local level incidents into high-profile national issues. Examples of this can be seen in the burning of Norwegian flags in opposition to the peace facilitation in 2003; the fast-unto-death campaigns to oppose the P-TOMS (a joint mechanism to disburse aid after the tsunami, but which was perceived as a peace agreement in disguise); the rallies and demonstrations in opposition to the UN-ordered Darusman report in 2011 (which demanded greater accountability of the last stages of the civil war).

Monks have also played an important role in rising anti-Muslim attitudes and incidents in the country. Bodu Bala Sena, led by the charismatic Buddhist monk Ven. Gnanasara Thero, has spearheaded the new anti-Muslim stance in Sri Lanka from 2012, which has led to violent outcomes. They have been able to garner support by tapping into a variety of cultural anxieties, such as; ‘unethical’ conversions, interfaith marriages, halal certification, and contestation over sacred sites.

The very concept ‘political monk’ in Sri Lanka can be seen as a contradiction: per definition monks should be apolitical. However, despite the fact that monks and politics in principle should be separate, political engagement among the monks have an important place in Sri Lanka’s history. On several occasions, Buddhist monks have arisen to ‘the needs of the hour’ to ‘rescue’ their country and Buddhist values from dangers they perceive. A given crisis, a potent ‘enemy’, beckons them to act.

Buddhist monks usually mobilize through temporary political formations. The official hierarchy of the monkhood, the sangha, very seldom comments on political issues directly. However, monks have involved themselves in various activist and pressure groups, staged huge demonstrations and conducted political marches. These groups are often “loosely structured, ad hoc in nature and highly personalized in character”. Buddhist monks hold a unique position in the society, their spiritual and moral capital, their social prestige and network capabilities make them ideal actors to create public spectacles.

It is, therefore, not surprising to their presence in anti-Muslim riots in the country. Muslim sites of religious worship have been increasingly contested in recent years and are often subject to both political and legal dispute in Sri Lanka. Several high-profile cases in recent years have formed around mosques in Dambulla, Dighavapi and Kuragala. The Aluthgama riots in 2014 against Muslims ended with 4 killed, 80 injured and thousands of displaced people. With the latest trouble in Kandy district, Buddhist monks once again spearhead hostilities as agitators.

The success of their political acts is clear. There are able to provide a rhetoric that both provokes but also attracts wide audiences. The religious language utilized by the monks provide a clear boundary in narratives of ‘us versus them’. Yet, the boundaries are not simply drawn by Buddhists and Muslims, but also among Buddhists themselves, effectively pitting multiple groups against each other. Their messages of Buddhist indignation draw wide public attention, but also make it hard for the public to stay indifferent to the calls to act and respond to declared threats. These point out the unparalleled political power and influence monks can exercise in transforming local incidents into nationwide issues.

The recent trouble in Kandy district follows this pattern of Buddhist political activism; they arise in the needs of the hour, where the political involvement of monks indicate that the Buddhist heritage itself is under threat,  this time allegedly from Muslims.

* Michael Hertzberg is an associate professor at University of Bergen, Norway. He defended his PhD The Anti-Conversion Bill: Political Buddhism, ‘Unethical Conversions’ and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka in 2016. He has published articles on law, religion and rhetoric, and his latest piece is “The Audience and the Spectacle: Bodu Bala Sena and the Controversy of Buddhist Political Activism in Sri Lanka” in Jens Kjeldsen (ed.) Rhetorical Audience Studies and Reception of Rhetoric: Exploring Audiences Empirically (2018).  All views expressed are that of the author, not of the CRGA.