The recent growth and actions of Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS) in Sri Lanka is very alarming. BBS is an extreme right-wing group headed by chauvinist Buddhist monks. Its general secretary Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thero is particularly notorious and a known extremist.
This group has been formed at precisely the moment when the dictatorship of the Rajapaksa family fears it is beginning to lose its support base. Until now the Sri Lankan government has had attempted to hide the brutal massacre that took place during the end of the decades-long war in May 2009.
In particular the reality of the war crimes committed by the government has been hidden from the Sinhala population in the south. Chauvinist forces hailed the President as a saviour of the ’Buddhist land’ and the ’king’ who united the country. These Sinhala chauvinist forces tried to create a base for unconditional support for the Rajapaksa family’s rule.
However, the impact of the victory mania was limited given the lack of accompanying economic gains for the majority of the poor masses. The government, faced with a slowdown in the economy, combined with growing international exposure of its war crimes, is attempting to strengthen its grip by other means.
The defence budget has sky-rocketed. More money is allocated to defence now than during the war period. They have introduced military control into various aspects of society, including the education sector.
Democratic rights in general are under huge attack. Freedom of speech is massively threatened. This has led to a certain backlash. The current regime is beginning to lose support among the intellectuals, journalists, etc.
At the same time the government policy of privatisation, particularly in the education sector, has also created opposition among students and workers. Price hikes, particularly the fuel price increase, adds to the frustration of working people. The era of the beginning of the end of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has opened. How rapidly it falls will be determined by how much momentum the opposition can gather. However, the government is taking decisive steps too.
The regime needs a bogus enemy in the hope that fear-mongering and scapegoating, on top of increasing military control, will keep the population in line. For the Mahinda Rajapaksa family losing their grip on state affairs is seen as fatal. For them increasingly dictatorial methods are the only way to maintain their grip. To retain support they are attempting to further strengthen the support of the Sinhala chauvinist base.
Some believe that the BBS was actually set up by the government. Whether this is true or not there are significant links with the government which became public when the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared as a chief guest to open the Buddhist leadership academy created by the BBS. Gotabaya claimed he realised BBS’s "timely importance"! In a massive rally held in Maharagama in February this year the BBS claimed: "This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist."
The BBS represents the most horrendous form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism - raising it to the level of fascism in its ideology. If it is able to develop, its growth could strengthen the Rajapaksa regime and cause splits between the various communities. Its growth could create the elements of civil war.
With state endorsement BBS has already attacked shops, journalists, and passengers on the buses. Police stood by and watched when a BBC journalist was harassed while trying to report from their rally.
Attacks on Muslims
The BBS is creating a base for organised mob attacks on the non-Sinhala population and their property. Its general secretary warned: "Don’t make us take the law into our hands." He gave a chilling call to its members at the Maharagama rally: "From today onwards, each of you must become an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism. These so-called democrats are destroying the Sinhala race." It was a blatant attempt to whip up a racist mob to attack Muslims and to build support for undemocratic regime.
A media report said: "Muslim shop owners in Narammala in the Kurunegala district received letters threatening them with death if they fail to vacate their places of business by 31 March." This is also the date the BBS gave as a deadline by which the government must ban Halal food certification. There are reports that the police are removing the Halal mark themselves as they claim it will take three years if the manufacturers have to do it themselves.
One aspect that makes this group particularly pernicious is the elements of populism in the midst of the poison - similar to far-right groups the world over. They link their attacks on Muslims to the horrendous conditions suffered by Sinhala workers, especially women, in the Middle East. They offer no solution to these workers who often endure slave-like circumstances in countries such a Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Of course poor Muslims, workers in Sri Lanka bear no responsibility for the suffering of these super-exploited workers.
Any campaign that opposes BBS must also put forward a positive programme of demands for decent jobs, no privatisation and cuts in wages and investment in public services, ie a programme that if realised would remove the factors which pressure women to travel across the world to work and suffer. That means standing for the democratic right to organise in trade unions and to strike to force employers and the government to provide decent jobs, pay and conditions.
Lessons of history
Since 2009 Tamil Solidarity has pointed out on a number of occasions that the government will go for the Tamil-speaking Muslim population as their next target. It must be remembered that the history of modern Sinhala chauvinism began with Anagarika Dharmapala leading a mob attack against Tamil-speaking Muslims. In 1915, during the 100th anniversary of the Kandyan convention of 1815, a racist mob unleashed its attack on the Muslim population. The BBS, which quotes the Kandyan convention in its material, is following the same methods. This attack was then extended against the hill country Tamils, then Tamils in the North and East. Similarly the recent attack against the Muslim population is not just against them, it will be extended to others soon.
We should also note that the majority of Muslims live in the poorest areas in the east of the island. They have been forced to rely on some corrupted Muslim leaders and politicians, even to win basic rights and somewhat improved conditions. The undefended Muslim population will be further driven into the hands of these so-called "Muslim leaders" who do not represent the genuine interest of poor Muslims. Attacks on the Muslim population will provide ample opportunity for these politicians to further their grip and negotiate their own gains with government, using the Muslim masses vote as bait. This will further alienate the Muslim population.
There is also a history of repression of Muslims by the so-called Tamil leaders, elites and politicians. Brutal treatment of Muslims at the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the 1990s has not been completely forgotten. The forceful expulsion of Muslims from the North led to the creation of refugee camps and reduced the living standards of many families who continue to suffer to this day.
The Sri Lankan government used this as part of their case for the genocidal campaign against Tamils and to justify the massacre of LTTE cadres. To this day the expulsion of the Muslims has not been taken up properly by the Tamil leadership. Despite the apology from the LTTE leadership and wider acknowledgement of the gross abuse, genuine steps were not made to fight for justice and to bridge the gap between these two communities.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) only seems to be fuelling the prejudice of the most backward layer rather than confronting it. A number of TNA leaders share the ideals of their political ancestors, such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who defended Anagarika Dharmapala and his family after they attacked Tamil-speaking Muslims and ransacked their properties!
This government-sponsored initiative to organise a racist mob - and plan to unleash racist attacks on the Muslim population - is very much linked to its aim to grab land, property and business from these communities. This is part of the government’s wider planned landgrab operation and militarisation. So the attack on the Muslim community must be understood as an attack on Tamils, and the working and poor masses as a whole.
Today we have the advantage of knowing this history and should not repeat the same mistakes. We should build a united struggle against the chauvinist force that is developing. If this force is allowed to develop it will not only destroy the lives of the minority Muslim population, but will lead to further destruction of fundamental rights and conditions for all working and poor people. This force will reduce the ability of the masses to conduct an effective fightback against the dictatorial regime. This is why we must oppose BBS vehemently and we should unite the best campaigners in all communities to oppose it.
All trade unions must immediately condemn the actions of BBS and take steps to inform its members of the dangers of BBS.
Civil societies in the south as well as in the north and east along with all the Diaspora groups should denounce the BBS publicly and camping to counter their influence.
We demand that:
1. All attacks on the Muslim community must be stopped immediately
2. We defend the right and support the building of multi-ethnic democratic defence bodies against the mob attacks provoked by the BBS and the repression of the state, especially in the areas of the Muslim communities. We fight for full democratic rights and workers’ rights including the freedom to form trade unions and parties to defend their economic and political interests.
3. Militarisation and the land grab must stop immediately with a complete cessation of any use of paramilitary forces
4. All those held in interim refugee camps should be given compensation and allowed to return to their homes. Adequate compensation, assessed by a genuinely democratic and representative committee, should be given to those affected by the expulsion from the north and those who suffered during the war
5. The poor conditions in Muslim populated parts of the east are not acceptable. Adequate investment must be made immediately to improve housing unemployment conditions
6. The right of an individual to practice any religion or none to be respected, with protection for minority rights in all areas