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The danger of BBS and unleashing xenophobia

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f there were nothing else for its credit, the new government can claim that at least it unshackled the judiciary that has been subjugated by its predecessor. In the normal context, there is nothing to crow about that -- anywhere in the free world, the judiciary is meant to be independent. However, since our circumstances not long ago were a major anomaly to that norm, the new found independence of our courts is no mean feat. The problem is that unlike when the President and a rubber stamp Parliament sacked the Chief Justice, or his stooges masquerading as Judges sentenced journalists for 25 years in jail, an independent judiciary does not usually make news headlines. That is because, as an old journalistic adage goes, when a dog bites a man, it is hardly news, but if a man bites a dog, it surely is. Not long ago, there were plenty of dogs eating into our freedoms, including the integrity of our courts that are  meant to hear our grievances and dispense justice. 

Another problem is that no matter how independent the judiciary is, some fringe groups, and their bedfellows, who have made a multi-national industry out of a war crime probe would not be satisfied. More than anything else, that insatiable nature is born out from the bitterness of the annihilation of their champions, the terrorists of the LTTE. 

 


However, there is another group that wants to reverse recent gains: The unabashed apologists of the excesses of the former regime for the very reason that the judiciary is investigating the past abuses. Not long ago, those were ‘simple matters’ that can be sorted out with just one phone call from the President House to the sitting judges or to the CID.  Now, those groups are out to derail the process. 

Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera and his Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) are a creation of the former regime which used it to legitimize its rule, defend its excesses and to intimidate the dissent through its xenophobic venom. Last week, the Thera fired the first salvo against the independent courts and shot himself in the foot. Attending a court hearing on the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, over which three officers of the military intelligence are now arrested, the prelate disparaged the judiciary. The following day, when he was produced before the court over the contempt of court charges, a horde of monks belonging to nationalist Buddhist groups ran havoc in the vicinity of the Homagama Court.

Throughout our recent history, this country is not short of demigods. If it were not an opportunistic Sinhala Buddhist, who would exploit largely affected sense of grievances of the Sinhalese majority, a Tamil from privileged positions would do the same in his constituency. Successive governments were reluctant to contain them,fearing that it would provoke unrest. That is the dilemma of democracy.

 

"The bigotry of the BBS ideology has its receptive audience. When its ranks and file swell, religious radicalisation leaves its effect on the public"

 

Since the British who due to the same concerns were disinclined to lock up Anagarika Darmapala, whose rants most of the time were a thinly veiled bigotry against minorities,   successive leaders of this country through their inaction let extremism and bigotry foster. Nonetheless,public unrest that they wanted to avoid, in fact, happened, at a much larger scale than any initial response would have provoked.  Both Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabhakaran are creations of that sense of complacency. And on more than one occasion in the recent past, we also went very close to the emergence of an equally nasty  Sinhala Buddhist extremism, which somehow could not sustain its xenophobic fervour in the long run. But, there is no reason to believe that it would not make a comeback. And the BBS is working overtime to make that happen.  Former President Rajapaksa and his siblings under whose watchful eyes the BBS reached its earlier momentum are now in their deeds and words fostering bigoted agenda of the BBS. (Former President Rajapaksa himself visited the detained intelligence officers who were accused of playing a role in the disappearance of Ekneligoda).

In the past, the BBS created issues out of nothing to promote its agenda. First came the rather innocuous campaign against the cattle slaughter, however, its true intent was soon revealed as the marauding thugs turned against Muslims. Those antics could have led to dangerous extremes as the Indians witnessed when the Hindu Right thought cows were more sacred than human life, and their goons killed a Muslim for allegedly having beef in the fridge.

 

"BBS poses a threat not only to the security of ethnic and religious minorities, but also to the sanity of Sinhala Buddhists"


Then the BBS concocted a campaign against Halal food, and finally ran havoc in Aluthgama which cost several lives. It fomented hatred against evangelical Christians, and attacks on those churches followed.

BBS poses a threat not only to the security of ethnic and religious minorities, but also to the sanity of Sinhala Buddhists.

Now, with its targeting of independent institutions of the State, it has taken its threat to a new dimension: the very structures of the Democratic State.

The BBS claims it is campaigning against Islamic extremism -- which though not yet a phenomenon in this country, is a fact of life in many parts of the world. Radical Islam not only kills, but it also perverts the State. It subjugates State organs and freedoms of the people, turning the State into a captive of the religion. From Iran to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, there are plenty of examples. However, it is the exact strategy that the BBS is attempting in Sri Lanka. It is intimidating the very institutions of a civilized state, in a bid to hijack the State itself. An attack on the judiciary is worrisome for the very reason that we do not need monks to dispense justice in legal matters. There are courts and judges to do that. Though the separation between the religion  and the State in Sri Lanka has been somewhat murky, there has been a clear separation between the temple and the court. That should not be encroached.

The bigotry of the BBS ideology has its receptive audience. When its ranks and file swell, religious radicalisation leaves its effect on the public. When a sizeable portion of the population is radicalised, that is reflected in the state and its discriminatory policies and laws.  That is when discrimination against minorities becomes legitimate in the eyes of the laws of the State. The recent antics of pasting Sinha Ley stickers on buses and three-wheelers should be viewed as an unholy attempt at radicalising the grassroots. Those devious attempts should be confronted through democratic means.

 No religion is immune from violence. Buddhism is no exception. Ashin Wirathu, the Burmese monk who visited Sri Lanka in 2014 on the BBS invitation is accused of instigating   Burmese Buddhists into an orgy of violence against  Rohingya Muslims.

Of course, the BBS did not reach those extremes of its counterparts. There is an explanation as to why. The BBS operated with the tacit approval of the former regime. It bit when it was told, and was brought in line whenever it overstepped its limits. However, the new government does not have that luxury. And the patrons of the BBS, including the key interlocutors of the former regime, now find the utility of the BBS more than when they were in power. The government should be discerning enough to see where this would lead, unless the BBS is contained through lawful means. It has to do that now, before the BBS and other actors of ultra-nationalism reach their unholy ends.

 

Follow RangaJayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on twitter.

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