It is a weekday afternoon at the Sadh Dharamhajika Viharaya in the Colombo suburb of Rajagiriya. Viharaya means monks’ living quarters, but these particular premises serve as offices of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its secretary general, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero. In the spacious garden, a group of youth are arranging chairs and tables, for a cooking demonstration by a young man who makes powders of grains and herbs. “These are rural Sinhalese youth who have no one to support them,” says Dr Dilanthe Withanage, CEO of the BBS, who is an IT lecturer. “We help them start their businesses and promote them the way we can.”
He says that he had initially got together with Gnanasara Thero to help Sinhala businesses. But gradually, the BBS took on a different shape to counter “many issues”, including the ‘halal controversy’, he says.
“Sinhalese businesspersons were complaining about how they had to pay the halal certification committee-appointed member in Sri Lanka to ensure that the food being produced was halal,” he says. “If they did not get the halal certificate, their products would be rejected from food markets. We checked with traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka and they informed us that all this was not needed because they knew how to differentiate between what was halal and what was not, and did not want unnecessary complications.”
“Please understand,” he adds, “we did not start BBS to create any trouble. Only to strive for the rights of the Sinhalese, who are a global minority. We are currently fighting to quell Wahhabi extremism.”
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with the controversial Gnanasara Thero:
Q/ What made you become a monk?
A/ I was born in 1975 in a hamlet called Galagodaaththa in Galle and was educated at the local village school up to grade six. Then, somewhat against my parents’ wishes, I entered priesthood. After the main training as a young monk, in 1989, I joined the Wanawasa Sanga branch of our village temple and trained in the forest tradition for monks. I also studied Pali and Sanskrit.
In 1996, I came to Colombo to continue my education at the University of Kelaniya. Around 1999, I started teaching at an education centre for Buddhist monks. In 2001, I became the principal there, and at the end of 2003 I resigned fully from teaching.
Q/ Why did you give up teaching?
A/ I wanted to dedicate myself to my country. By this time I had become involved in the anti-terrorism movement (against the Tamil Tigers). This was the time president Chandrika Kumaratunga planned to bring a federal solution to the Tamil ethnic issue. She could not proceed with this because of opposition by Buddhist monks.
In 2000, the political movement Sihala Urumaya was launched. I became its clergy representative, from the Kotte area. Though it could win one parliamentary seat, it had internal issues. Some of the monks in it then organised the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya (JSS), which became a strong national movement. I was its assistant secretary. We carried out protests against unethical conversions by Christian evangelists, which was a serious problem 15 years ago. We did not have any issues with the Catholics or Anglicans or other mainstream churches as they do not carry out unethical conversions.
In 2004, the main members of the JSS formed the political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Soon after, together with some monks and like-minded laity, I formed the BBS. Now the JSS is handled by the JHU monk Rathana Thero. I am not involved.
Q/ Are there fundamental differences between the JHU and the BBS?
A/ The JHU is now a political party. The BBS is not. It could be described as a national movement.
Q/ Did you have any non-Buddhist friends as a child or any non-Buddhist teachers?
A/ No. There was no opportunity for it as I grew up in a fully Buddhist village. There were no mosques or any Muslims around. There was a Catholic church, but I had no non-Buddhist friends as a child.
Q/ Among the Buddha’s teachings, what is the most important to you?
A/ The whole of the Buddha’s teachings is a living teaching. The Buddha said there is no sin more terrible than mythia drushtiya (mythical delusion). On April 21, in a place of worship one set of believers prayed to their God, another set killed them, again in the name of God, to please God. Nine suicide bombers carried out this barbaric act. All because they mythically believed this crime was what God wanted. Isn’t what the Buddha said correct?
In finding solutions to the religious terrorism of today, Buddhism is the only answer. We want solutions to problems through discussions, not terrorism. We are not the terrorists.
Q/ You often have said that Buddhism is threatened in Sri Lanka by the proliferation of religions such as Islam. There is the counterview that Buddhism is threatened only when Buddhists do not practise Buddhism as preached by the Buddha, as a science of the mind, self-control and compassion.
A/ Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist culture are two different things.
Q/ Of these two, which is more important?
A/ Both. Buddhist philosophy cannot be destroyed by anyone as it is a universal truth. However, Buddhist philosophy needs Buddhist culture to thrive. Forty generations or so ago, Buddhists lived in what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in Afghanistan, the offspring of Buddhist ancestors who had become Muslim destroyed the Buddha’s statues their forefathers had sculpted. In those countries there were once Buddhist monks who stood for both Buddhist culture and Buddhist philosophy. But when Buddhist culture was vanquished with the invasion of Islam, Buddhist philosophy also died. Buddhist monks who were only focused on Buddhist philosophy died with their philosophy.
In India, the land of the Buddha, Buddhism has almost vanished. If Buddhism is to be protected, one has to protect its culture. Sri Lanka has through the ages protected Buddhism; both its philosophy and its culture. Therefore, as a Buddhist country we do many things such as sculpting Buddha statues, building temples, and organising Buddhist processions, in order to keep Buddhist culture alive.
Q/ The Buddhism in Sri Lanka today is largely based on the Buddhist revival movement carried out by the Dutch colonisers who wanted to quell the rise of Catholicism propagated by the Portuguese colonisers. It was revived again, during British occupation, by foreign Buddhist enthusiasts such as Henry Olcott, an American military officer who was the first president of the Theosophical Society.
A/ Yes, I agree. Our colonial history is a long and intriguing one where we were victims of divide and rule. In the Uva Wellassa area, there was a rebellion three years after we lost the country in 1815. We were crushed in the most brutal manner imaginable. Every tree, every herb, every fruit and every animal that served and protected us as a people was destroyed in an unprecedented human, cultural and environmental genocide. Following this, there were strong campaigns to portray Buddhism as a false philosophy and [to make] Buddhists believe in Christianity.
A Christian priest, D.J. Gogerly, carried out the Christianising of Lankan Buddhists through his writings. The Buddhist monk Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera then undertook a mission from 1848 to the 1870s to revive Buddhism. Under his leadership, a series of five debates was held all over Sri Lanka between Christians and Buddhists.
It is after the victory of the Buddhists in these debates that Henry Olcott and those such as Marie Musaeus Higgins came to Sri Lanka and embraced Buddhism and dedicated themselves to the Buddhist revival movement. Therefore, in the same way that we faced Christian indoctrination through debates, we must face the threat of Islamisation today in Sri Lanka.
Q/ Is there actually such a threat? Some people accuse you of creating Islamophobia.
A/ Please note that I am not talking about the traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka. They have lived peacefully ever since their arrival as traders. They married Sinhalese women, whom they converted to Islam. They have followed their religion while respecting Buddhist customs and traditions of the land, and without carrying out the vicious agendas of the Wahhabi, Salafi, Tabliq, Deobandi, Ikhwan and Thawheed groups. For the past 40 years these groups have been growing strong with funding from Saudi Arabia. These groups systematically changed the face of Islam in Sri Lanka and started killing off the Sufis and moderate Muslims. In Kattankudy, in the eastern Batticaloa district, Sufis are insulted and killed. Everyone knows it. Is talking about it Islamophobia? Is what happened on April 21 not a result of this warped ideology of the Wahhabi mentality manifesting in action?
Q/ There are allegations that the April 21 bombings happened because the BBS antagonised the Muslims and drove them to join extreme elements such as Zahran Hashim, the ring leader of the Easter Sunday carnage. There are also assumptions that Zahran himself may have taken to terror because of incidents like the Aluthgama riots of 2014, for which you are largely blamed.
A/ Is that what is now being said? So now we are the culprits of IS (Islamic State) terror? (Laughs.)
Q/ Looking back at your public speech prior to the riots in Aluthgama, do you have any regrets about the words you used?
A/ I did not say go and create a riot. Stones were hurled at the monks and Buddhists by some Muslim youth in Aluthgama after we peacefully dispersed after my speech. It is actions like these that got the Sinhalese crowds angry.
I made that speech after one of our monks in a vehicle was attacked in Aluthgama by a few Muslim men. I did nothing more than warn against such behaviour.
Q/ There is the view among media analysts that because the BBS in 2014 portrayed this issue of Wahhabi/Salafi/Tabliq extremism as Muslim extremism, many writers and others who knew of the discovery of ammunition in some locations early this year were reluctant to write about it fearing that the BBS would create an anti-Muslim backlash.
A/ The media was preoccupied with chasing us and labelling us as extremists. We raised our voice in 2014 because we knew what was happening. Our monks faced aggression from Muslim extremists. In 2014, there was information that some local extremist Muslims had joined IS fighters in Syria. This was ignored. Now everything we have said has [happened]. Hundreds had been killed and still we are being blamed and called racists.
We have information on some Muslim activists in this country and have pictures of them with questionable global Muslim extremists. We had information of how false passports were used by Lankan Muslim youth to enter foreign countries and return to Sri Lanka with Christian names and from Sri Lanka to go to Saudi Arabia under Muslim names. I have with me a note that I prepared around 2014 for a press conference on the extremism of the National Thowheed Jama’ath and in particular about Zahran, who was the mastermind of the blasts. I then asked why this extremist was not arrested—he was openly propagating Wahhabism and IS ideology, destroying the cemeteries of Sufi saints and asking Muslims to be armed and kill non-Muslims.
Q/ Did you inform the authorities?
A/ We had by 2014 informed the highest-level personnel in governance.
Q/ You have come out strongly against the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), which is the top Islamic body of Sri Lankan Muslims. You have accused them of being carriers of the Wahhabi ideology.
A/ Over 90 per cent of the members of the ACJU hold the Wahhabi ideology. This is proven by the fact that they do not issue any message for the commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The Wahhabis/Salafis and others who practise an extreme form of Islam do not commemorate the Prophet’s birthday. The traditional Muslims of Sri Lanka do. I have cited only one small example. There are hundreds of other examples. For instance, their fatwas against the Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka.
Q/ In the Buddhist convention held in Kandy on July 7, you said your aim was a ‘Sinhala parliament’. Do you think this is practical and that Sri Lankans will support this?
A/ I did not say [we should not] have non-Sinhalese in the political structure. What I said was that there must be a parliament that does not undermine in various guises the country and the rights of the Sinhala majority.
We are lobbying for the local education system to be developed in a manner that does not propagate racism. We today have schools based on communal distinctions. This is the beginning of the problem.
Q/ It is said that you have got foreign funding.
A/ (Laughs) The only foreign funding we have comes from Sri Lankans living overseas. We do not touch one cent of money from any foreign entity.
Q/ After the blasts, there seems to be animosity towards all Muslims. The boycott on Muslim businesses is affecting them seriously.
A/ This is the sad result of Wahhabi terrorism. Ordinary people now suspect all Muslims.