“We are not engaged in any activities that are harmful to society, nor are we causing religious disharmony,” claims Bodu Bala Sena strongman Dilantha Withanage.
“We do not want to get into politics,” says Withanage, Chief Executive Officer of the Bodu Bala Sena Headquarters, adding that the
movement does not want to topple
governments or form a government but needs an immediate change in the present condition in the
country. Following are excerpts of the interview:
- Denies political agenda; says objective is to establish Buddhist society; claims Muslims are not under threat
Q: How would you describe the Bodu Bala Sena?
A Bodu Bala Sena is not a political party. Some think it is a non-government organisation funded by various factors, but we are not an NGO. We are a civil society movement led by Buddhist monks. Our goal is to promote Buddhist leadership for economic development. Bodu Bala Sena was started by five members comprising four Buddhist monks and myself. Today we are a group with a large number of contributors. We don’t like to use the word members; but we have contributors which in Sinhala we describe as ‘dayakaya’.
A large number of Buddhist monks, intellectuals, professionals and especially youth debated the need for an organisation like Bodu Bala Sena. They highlighted the need of promoting Buddhism in Sri Lanka as well as protecting Buddhism in this country. This was one of the main reasons behind starting Bodu Bala Sena.
Q: But there are existing organisations that promote Buddhism and its teachings; why did you want to start a new movement?
A: According to our Constitution, Buddhism should be given foremost priority. But we believe this is not practiced in Sri Lanka at present. Buddhism is not given due recognition in this country. We may have the dharma chakra in our national emblem; there may be Buddhist statues in every corner in the country; but the question is whether Buddhism is properly practiced in this country.
During Vesak we see a large number of dansalas and pandols throughout the country. But who is funding these? The liquor shop owners and meat shop owners. I don’t blame people who consume liquor or I don’t say everyone should become vegetarians, but according to Buddhism these things are prohibited. How many rape cases are reported a day? How many cases of child abuse and killings take place in a day in our country? A trivial incident ends up as a violent act, resulting in murder. We can’t just blame society for this violent behaviour, because there is a reason why people act in such a way.
Our country was under imperialists for a long period of time. They ruined the roots of Buddhism in this country. Although they left, our leaders continued their agendas. Various leaders come into power labelling themselves as Buddhists and patriots, but they all follow what the British and others did. Then the war worsened things. Our prime objective is to put an end to this and establish a Buddhist society in our country once again.
Meanwhile, although the Constitution says foremost priority should be given to Buddhism, it doesn’t say anywhere that Buddhism is our State religion. Countries like Bangladesh clearly say that Islam is their State religion. We need to put things in the right place. That is what we want. This is a country that doesn’t even practice the five basic principles of Buddhism. We need to change this.
Q: Are you saying the leaders in this country have failed to protect Buddhism?
A: I don’t blame the leaders. I blame society.
Q: Protecting Buddhism was one of the main slogans of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government. Are you saying it has failed to fulfil its promises?
A: I can’t blame just one president or one government. All rulers should be blamed. They are all responsible for the situation in this country today. But I have to say that the present President has shown more support towards Buddhism. Unfortunately, he has no proper power to exercise his wishes
Q: How can you say the President has no power when he has a two-thirds majority in Parliament?
A: When the recent Fashion Bug attack took place, his ministers went to the President and asked him to call for a debate in Parliament on this incident. There was a lot of pressure by the ministers, requesting the President to ban the Bodu Bala Sena. So can you say the President has powers when he couldn’t safeguard an innocent Buddhist organisation like us? We are not engaged in any activities that are harmful to society.
Q: The President did not call for a Parliament debate, nor did he ban the BBS.
A: Yes, but there is lot of pressure asking the President to ban us. To develop a country we need to have intelligent politicians. Unfortunately our politicians act according to the gossip they hear. In Kalmunai they have passed a resolution to ban the Bodu Bala Sena. We don’t have any issues with that. But these are democratic rights enjoyed by everybody. This resolution was merely passed based on the gossip and rumours they heard about us. That is not acceptable. When a politician requests a ban of the Bodu Bala Sena, they should first conduct a proper investigation; there should be a charge sheet against us. They go to Geneva and say one thing and practice something totally different here in the country.
Q: What are you trying to achieve? What is your ultimate goal?
A: The Bodu Bala Sena does not want to get into politics. We don’t want to topple governments or form a government. But we need a change and we need to do it soon. We want to have a developed country under a Buddhist leadership. Why do you think thousands of women go to Middle East countries as domestic workers, why do we find youth struggling to find jobs in Korea? Simply because our economic conditions are not doing well.
A Sri Lankan youth has to work 25 years to earn the same income Singaporean youth will earn in a year. This is the problem of this country. Believe me, if we have correct economic management, we can even go up to US$ 10,000 per capita income.
I read the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’. It is a good document. But whether it is implemented properly is the question. We can clearly see that the benefits of the development programs carried out by the Government do not go to the grass root level.
Requesting the banning of the Halal certification was not our first activity. We had organised a couple of activities before. But no publicity was given to any of those activities. We strongly believe that Buddhists should boycott the Halal certification. That is the right of Buddhists. Anyone can make such a request. How can someone say it is a terrorist activity?
We don’t have anything against Muslims consuming Halal food. If there is a need for the business community to import Halal food, let them do that; we are not against that either. We are against the issuance of illegal Halal certificates in Sri Lanka. We exposed that Halal certification money goes to Hamas in Canada. We exposed researched documents by a Canadian research company. The very next week Gulf News published an article labelling us as a terror organisation. Gulf News also published that we have attacked Muslims in Embilipitiya and Kandy. We were not involved in such incidents. How can you justify publishing such false article without getting a comment from us? That led to many unnecessary incidents.
The Daily Financial Times is a well-recognised newspaper, mainly read by the business community and diplomatic community. After your paper published the Gulf News article, people started to believe the Bodu Bala Sena is a terrorist organisation. Today the BBS is facing a lot of difficulties because of that article.
Q: Why do you call yourself Bodu Bala Sena and act against the teachings and principles of Buddhism?
A : Let me tell you one thing, because of Bodu Bala Sena the so-called Buddhists who never talked about Buddhism now talk about ‘true Buddhism’. We are happy about this change. It is a win for us. The Buddhists who were asleep all this time have woken up today – especially the Colombo Buddhists who were afraid to tell the world that they were Buddhists are suddenly claiming to be the best Buddhists in this country. We are happy about these developments. This is what we expected; this is what we wanted.
Q: Are you saying BBS acts according to the concepts, teachings and principles of Buddhism?
A: Definitely! We are not doing anything against Buddhism. Can you prove that BBS has done anything harmful to Buddhism? Can anyone prove that BBS has promoted violence in this country? I will challenge anybody who says that we are against Buddhism. People say we attack Muslims. Bring a single Muslim who was attacked by us. Find out any Muslim shop that we have attacked. You can’t because there are no such incidents. We are not involved in any such incidents.
We never asked to ban Halal in Sri Lanka. We only asked to ban Halal certification, which is illegal in Sri Lanka. But Muslim ministers gave negative and false publicity saying that the BBS is threatening to ban Halal in Sri Lanka. That is how this all started. And today they are trying to put the blame on us.
Let me explain why we say Halal certification process in Sri Lanka is illegal. In 2006 the Consumer Protection Authority issued a gazette notification saying the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama organisation has the sole right to issue the Halal certification. According to the Consumer Protection Authority Act, no organisation should enjoy a monopoly. Therefore, in 2007 it was abolished by the Government using a similar gazette notification. But it was not published. The All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama organisation doesn’t have the right to do it. That is why the Cabinet subcommittee decided the process was illegal. This is what our fight is all about.
Q: It is clear that this is purely a legal matter. Why did you initiate public agitation when you could have easily taken legal action to stop the Halal certification process if it was illegal as you claim?
A: Public awareness is something accepted by the whole world. We made a request to the Government. We invited the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama organisation for a discussion in January this year. But they did not come. Then we started educating the public. There is no wrong in that. For the Government to change the present process, we need to have some pressure. That is what we are doing.
Thousands of people came for these meetings. When they left, they went in buses. If they wanted to harm any Muslims or attack any Muslim shops, they could have done that easily. But nothing happened. Bodu Bala Sena did not initiate this hate campaign against the Muslims. We don’t take the responsibility for that.
Q: If it is not Bodu Bala Sena, who is behind these attacks? As a responsible Buddhist movement, don’t you have a duty to find out who is promoting these acts?
A : The rivalry between NoLimit and another clothing store initiated long before Bodu Bala Sena was started. Why do people want to put the blame on us? When the Welimada incident took place, we appealed to our supporters not to engage in any violent activities. In a press statement we requested them not to take law and order into their hands. We requested the Police to take measure to ensure no clashes would take place. We act responsibly, we take all necessary measures. I personally have a constant dialogue with the Ulama members. Unfortunately some of them try to teach us Buddhism.
Meanwhile, the media is also to be blamed. When a Sinhala man rapes a Muslim girl it becomes the lead news story. But when a Muslim man rapes a Sinhala girl, that news is censored. Why? To prevent clashes.
Who are these Muslims who are being harassed? Travel around Colombo and see whether any Muslim is being harassed. What is this nonsense? Other than Fashion Bug, what are the other shops that were attacked? There are over 2,000 mosques. They were not attacked or damaged by us. There was only one incident reported. That was in Beruwala. Who set fire to that mosque? Muslims. It was proved that the mosque was burnt by Muslims.
We know for a fact that in some areas Sinhala people are threatened by fundamentalists. Why don’t you talk about these things? Remember, every Buddhist monk is not linked to the BBS. We never encourage our contributors to attack Muslims.
Q : Are you trying to say Muslims are not under threat? Do you think they enjoy the same freedom they had a year ago?
A: There is no such threat. I meet Muslims, I talk to them daily. They are doing their businesses well. This so-called threat on Muslims was only created by politicians and the media. Why did we become so popular within just 11 months? Today we are known around the world. It took almost a decade for the LTTE to get into the feelings of the Tamils. But just within 11 months we have become a respected movement among the Buddhists.
Although we don’t openly talk about these things there has always been a clash between the Muslims and the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese were pressurised by the Muslims. The Sinhalese were not pleased with the manner in which Muslims constructed mosques in every corner in the country. Be thankful that a fundamentalist political party has not taken our place; then things would have been disastrous. Even the academics in this country are not responsible and reasonable people. Recently a group of academics signed a petition to Mobitel, requesting the ban of a ringing tone. I can’t understand why they behave in manner. There are other serious matters for the academics to think about rather than fighting for a ringing tone.
Why do they want to ban our ringing tone? They are violating our fundamental rights. These are the same set of academics who signed documents five years ago supporting the President. After just one year, they get into streets against the same President. What type of academics are these?
Q: You maintain that BBS is against a violent society. But you make statements on the lines of the BBS being ready to throw eggs at cricketers who participated at the IPL. Why do you make such aggressive statements? Do you believe you can achieve your goals with this kind of behaviour?
A: S ometimes BBS invites guest speakers to our discussions and conferences. They make various comments. Then when the media highlights all the unnecessary things these speakers said, the people blame the BBS.
I personally feel some of the statements made by us are not acceptable. This is an issue we need to discuss and solve internally. However, where the ILP matter is concerned, I need to clarify a few things. BBS is against cricket. Cricket has done no good for this country. No developed country encourages this sport simply because cricket is an utter waste of time. But it is sport that involves good money.
People respect and love our cricketers. They treat them as heroes. But most of our cricketers think only about the money; they never think about the country. When Gnanasara Thero made that statement, he was trying to make people aware of this situation. He didn’t mean that we are going to throw eggs; his only intention was to make cricket less popular among Sri Lankans.
But why do you only see the bad in us? Why don’t you accept the fact it is because of us there are less clashes in this country? When a Buddhist monk was attacked in India, fractions in Sri Lanka were planning to attack Tamils. But we intervened and stopped that. Nobody talks about these things.
Q: Is it true that you have the support of the Government?
A: Some say we get funds from Norway. Some thought it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who was behind the BBS. The Government thought Sarath Fonseka was funding us. Due to all this speculation, I was asked to leave my job as a ministerial advisor. We don’t have the support of the Government. Initially both the President and Defence Secretary did not have a pleasant idea about BBS. We wanted to meet the President but we never got an opportunity. We sent a letter to the Defence Secretary requesting a discussion with him, but he replied saying he was too busy to meet us. Then the ulamas went and complained about us to the President.
We were asked to meet the President and we were told that the President was going to ban our movement. However, after a nearly a two-hour discussion with the President, he understood what BBS was all about. The Defence Secretary too today has a better idea about our movement. But he has no involvement in BBS as everyone speculates. These are just rumours.