Since at least four people were killed in clashes between Muslims and hardline Buddhists in the coastal city of Aluthgama more than a week ago, violence against Muslims has continued in Sri Lanka. Many have been displaced, and homes, shops and mosques have been torched and vandalized, creating a feeling of unease among the Muslim community.
The riots began after extremist Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) held a rally in Aluthgama in response to an alleged assault against a Buddhist monk by a Muslim man. The group's anti-Muslim rhetoric, led by BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, fueled tensions.
Muslims make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka's mainly Buddhist population and for decades have lived peacefully alongside the majority Sinhalese. But the sentiment espoused by BBS that Islam is a threat has been on the rise.
BBS may be loud, but it doesn't represent all Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
One Facebook page called Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena is speaking out against the group. The page, which was created in February 2013, has more than 8,400 likes and features lengthy discussion about BBS, Buddhism and Sri Lankan society among its fans — both Buddhist and Muslim — in the comments.
When the riots first broke out, the Facebook page called for Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who has denied any responsibility, to be arrested and for BBS to be banned. “Reject all campaigns that are seeking to create terror and divisions in the country!” the page's administrators urged.
It has continued to follow the violence as it has unfolded, posting news updates and commentary. One recent photo published on the page reads, “Racists and extremists are itching for a fight. Don't give it to them. Please be patient. Together we can defeat them.” In response to a commenter, the administrators explained what they want to accomplish with the page:
[...] we the admins of this page are practicing Buddhists. We cannot solve all the world's woes, that is why we practice to let go. Let go of identities, desires and anger. Our focus by starting and managing this page is to prevent Buddhists from turning towards violence and anger as responses. The Dhamma [teachings of Buddha] has survived for many thousands of years, but this has been done not by the mere preservation of books and artifacts, but by those who truly practice the Dhamma. May you be happy.
Last year, the page organized a candlelight vigil in front of BBS headquarters to protest violence against Muslims, but was met with protests from BBS members and police.
Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena is certainly not the only Buddhists condemning BBS. Blogger Indrajit Samarajiva criticized BBS’ actions but also wrote that even though it's a “hard idea to swallow,” BBS and groups like them “deserve our compassion, understanding and love,” like Buddha taught:
As a Buddhist it makes me so very sad to see crude, vile and frankly untamed men like Gnanasara Thero in robes, practicing such harsh speech, inciting hatred against Muslims and actually being violent. It makes me sad because I do take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dhamma and the Sangha [practicing Buddhist community].
I have learnt from wonderful monks, from wonderful lay Buddhists (like my mother) and that community of practice is a refuge in a harsh and confusing world.
Mobs in robes like the BBS feel like they pollute that community, like they shame it, like they shame us in front of the world. I honestly find what they’re doing far more detrimental to Buddhism than the Buddha Bar or a tourist with a Buddha tattoo.
On citizen journalism site Groundviews, Thrishantha Nanayakkara recalled that he once helped the Facebook page Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena to compile a list of questions for BBS about their fidelity to Buddhism and Sri Lanka's constitution. He revisited those questions in light of the spate of violence, including:
Question 3) Has BBS looked at how Buddhism is practiced in Sri Lanka itself before blaming others for the deterioration of Buddhism in Sri Lanka? Why do Buddhists convert? If we worked harder to help and educate ourselves, our youth and the needy and vulnerable amongst us would we not promote our Buddhist culture and dissuade conversions. Instead don’t we spend our money on building bigger and larger temples and statues?
In a move to control the situation, the Sri Lankan authorities have banned public meetings or rallies which promote hatred towards another religion or race. Perhaps this alongside members of the Buddhist community speaking up will help put an end to the violence.