What is this movement Sinha Le? Who is behind it? Who are the leaders? These questions had been within the society until a few weeks ago by a group of its leaders who emerged from nowhere who made a scene in front of the Dalada Maligawa in Mahanuwara.
In fact the creatively designed Sinha Le logo started appearing on vehicles since late November last year. Many started wondering about this newly emerging possibly ultra-nationalistic movement. Most importantly the minorities started worrying whether the sigh of relief they were enjoying following the end of the Rajapakse regime has come to an end.
In fact the emergence of Sinha Le (Lion Blood) was as far back as 2010 when a primarily designed web site appeared on internet, but with less or no attention. The owner-designer of the website was from Kurunegala but was trying hard to get the branding popular among the Sinhala – Buddhist populace with no success.
The competition for ultra-nationalist leadership of Sinhala Buddhist during that time was a bit high – mainly as it was just after the end of the war. The vociferous Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was gaining momentum under the ‘unsung’ state patronage, thus new movements like Sinha Le were not picking up, even within the cyber space.
Though repeatedly denied, BBS had an undeclared honeymoon with the then Rajapakse regime. At least the mere silence by the state when non-Buddhist establishments – predominantly Muslims - were attacked in several cities of the country was a clear sign of this undisclosed marriage. No arrests were made, no action taken against these unlawful acts of BBS. In contrast social media was full of pictures of the BBS leadership with the former Defence Secretary and the movement had a free hand to do anything as it wished.
Nevertheless, one could argue the fact that the movement went out of spiral and the government lost control over it. The foul-mouthed leadership started criticizing the regime in public and sometimes went on to challenge it. At the end, it boomeranged against the government. Minorities voted ‘en masse’ against Rajapakse and took a brave step in changing the regime. Even some Muslim sects those who normally did not cast their vote as a religious practice went to the polling station. Not only the minorities, majority Sinhalese who did not tolerate ethnic tension were mobilizing against the authoritarian and ultra-nationalistic regime.
The phenomenon of ultra-nationalist movements gaining political ground is nothing new in Sri Lanka. We have seen several such movements during the recent past, but they never became a major challenge to the ethnic harmony of the country to this extent, as BBS.The point of departure of these movements in recent history could be Dr. Nalin de Silva’s university centric Jathika Chinthanaya and Sinhala Bala Mandalaya of Sobhitha Thera that emerged in the 80s but never was a solid political ground as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or formerly Sihala Urumaya did. This was the ultimate result of the social mobilization by the late Gangodawila Soma Thera who was engaging in a process of converting religious mobilization into a political ideology on an ultra-nationalistic foundation. His last speech in Kandy was a classic example of his political ambitions.
It could easily be argued on the fact that Soma Thera’s untimely demise was a blessing in disguise for JHU who gained immense political momentum and paved the way for the controversial entry of Buddhist monks into Parliament in dozens. In fact JHU was not the first political party to get monks into the House, but it got big numbers of MPs in yellow robes. Apart from the politico-religious engagement, JHU was successful in convincing Rajapakse for a fully-fledged war that commenced from the Mavil-Aru conflict, as its front-liner Minister Champika Ranawaka claims.
However, JHU had been one of the most dynamic ultra-nationalistic movements that adopted to the needs of the hour, one could claim. Its contemporary policy framework is not designed based on ultra-nationalism but democracy, good governance and human rights. It is no more battling for the rights of the Sinhala – Buddhist, but against corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism. The Champika – RathanaThera duo were leading this paradigm shift for the past six years with a clear strategic direction.
BBS lacked this strategic thinking, but acted in a bull-in-a-china-shop style. Its platforms were full of hate speech and no decent and cultured behaviour was noticed at any if its events. It never correctly assessed its political base and popularity status, thus tested through contesting the previous polls. Following the shocking –electrifying results, it decided to go silent – probably for a temporary period. No wonder it understood the real meaning of the popular saying “Majority is Silent.” In other words, BBS went onto a powerful silence with the assumption of Yahapalana regime. Similar movements like Ravana Balaya (backed by a powerful former UPFA Minister), Sihala Ravaya, too went silent. Thus, the ousting of the Rajapakse regime and the silence of BBS created a vacuum within the Sinhala – Buddhist ultra-nationalist platform, at least for a year. Though the Rajapakse camp attempted to create ethno – nationalistic tension through media gimmicks it did not gain the desired momentum. In this backdrop, the Paris attack took place in November last year and there was a Facebook campaign where the French Flag was creatively used on users profile pictures of the FB in an expression of solidarity.
This unique FB profiling of the French flag provided new thoughts to the above said Sinha Le web designer from Kurunegala and his colleague from Badulla, who were inspired by this French style FB campaign. Thus, the Sinha Le brand appeared on Facebook and it received more than 25,000 hits within half-a-day. Thus, it was started just as a brand – not a political movement, said an investigating officer. “In some instances, several Muslims traders were selling Sinha Le stickers for Rs. 500,” he said. One common factor of these duos and their followers has been that they were radical followers of the Rajapakse camp, it is said. The Sinha Le brand managers were attempting to add political identity to it and they had unsuccessful discussions with BBS, according to some media reports. However, several monks got together under the brand – former Sihala Ravaya Chief Medille Pannaseeha and Yakkalamulle Pawara Theras getting leadership along with three other monks. The web-designing duos became the lay leaders. By mid-January the brand was gaining its momentum at a considerable pace. Some say Udaya Gammanpila was behind this, but as I understand he was trying to gain mileage out of it.
When BBS saw the fast-spreading momentum of the Sinha Le brand, its bull-in-a-china-shop style emerged at Homagama Magistrate Courts in a bid to get into competition with this emerging group. The entire strategy of Gnanasara Thera was a misfire as the magistrate stood firm to protect the honour of the judiciary. His fellow monks who created an ugly scene at the courts, too, are facing the heat now.
Sinha Le is still a brand without a coherent political momentum – but with a dangerous ideological setting. Nonetheless, any ultra-nationalistic movement could bring disaster to this land and destroy its ethnic harmony. We had enough bloodshed on this soil for the past 30 years – thus, no need of any Lion or any blood as a brand. In any case this is not the time to brand ourselves with blood– the priorities and challenges are different now.
As they so far are not violating any law of the country, the government is helpless, one could say. But that is why we need hate speech laws that could protect the ethnic and religious harmony of the country.