In June 2019, in Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka famous for its Buddhist sites, facing an audience of faithful, a monk called for support for a call launched by devotees in favor of the stoning of a Muslim doctor that rumors unfounded accused of having sterilized 4 Buddhist women. “Don't go to Muslim shops, don't eat the food they offer you, Muslims don't like us,” added the venerable in a monotone and homey tone, in a speech broadcast on a national television channel. An enlightened, an extremist loner in search of recognition like all religions secrete? Not really, because it was Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana, one of the most influential Buddhist dignitaries in the country.
This speech is only one of the countless illustrations of a radicalism firmly rooted in the heart of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority (the Sinhalese constitute 75% of a population of 21,4 million inhabitants, almost all of between them is Buddhist), which for decades has been violently manifesting itself against ethnic-religious minorities. “Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism is not a phenomenon confined to a few fringe groups, but rather a widespread ideology that enjoys popular support,” reads a 2018 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a center American research.
The “Buddhist Revival”
The development of this phenomenon goes back in large part to the attempts of the Christian colonial powers - Portugal, Holland and Great Britain, which succeeded one another between the beginning of the 1948th century and the independence of 1972 on the island of Ceylon (name of Sri Lanka until 1864) – to subjugate Buddhism. A non-violent movement called “Buddhist renewal” emerged in the 1933th century against this Christian proselytism. One of its outstanding figures was Anagarika Dharmapala (XNUMX-XNUMX), a Sri Lankan monk writer, still revered today by many Sinhalese.
As Amarnath Amarasingam, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, explains to the New Yorker (April 2019), Anagarika's anti-imperialist and nationalist views helped to forge among the most radical members of the Sinhalese community "the idea that the Buddha himself in some way gave them this country, and that it would be taken away from them by minorities. And that includes the Tamil and Muslim communities. Tamils – mostly Hindus – make up 15% of the population, Muslims 10% and Christians 7,4%.
Between 1983 and 2009, the Tamils were during a terrible civil war the priority target of the Sinhalese governments and military. The hope that the end of this conflict would put an end to ethnic-religious antagonisms was quickly dashed. “When the war was over, the Sinhalese found that while the two main communities were bumping into each other, the Muslims were at peace and had prospered”, commented in 2014 on CNN the political scientist and former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleke.
The Muslims therefore became the main threat in the eyes of the Sinhalese nationalists.
Violent provocations and incidents followed, especially since the founding in 2012 of the radical Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Senam (BBS, "Buddhist Power Force") by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, a 37-year-old monk (at the time). and a few acolytes. Gnanasara, who had taken his first steps as an activist in a hard-right nationalist political party, and the BBS embarked on tireless campaigns against religious minorities, primarily Muslims, but also moderate monks who opposed their radical designs. Justifying their actions with rumors and false information, for example on the illegal slaughter of young calves or the introduction by Muslims of contraceptive products in women's underwear intended to reduce the Sinhalese population, bands of BBS faithful sacked slaughterhouses and other businesses owned by Muslims, vandalized mosques, Christian churches and Hindu temples.
“Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism is not a phenomenon confined to a few marginal groups, but rather a widespread ideology which enjoys popular support. » Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2018 Report
Several incidents escalated, such as in 2014 in the city of Aluthgama or in 2018 in Ampara and Kandy, causing the death of at least six people and widespread destruction. Each time, the BBS was accused of having played a key role in organizing revenge mobs.
The attacks in April 2019 by Islamist suicide squads during the Easter holidays against Catholic churches and luxury hotels across the country, which killed more than 250 people, reinforced the hatred of radical Buddhists towards Muslims. The resentment was all the deeper because the sudden emergence of homegrown Islamist terrorism brought to light the worrying phenomenon of a rise in Sri Lanka of Wahhabi fundamentalism fueled by Saudi money. In a report from Le Monde in June 2019, journalist Bruno Philip went to visit Kattankudy, a town in the east of the country where one of the Easter Sunday terrorists had made himself known for the radicalism of his sermons. “Kattankudy, the city of 60 mosques, has for more than a decade become a kind of Sri Lankan “little Mecca”. (…) Students trained in the Gulf countries by Salafist preachers (…), who became ulemas on their return to Sri Lanka, have made the small coastal city a place of austerity and bigotry”, he writes.
The authorities have always opposed these violent acts with total impunity. Is this surprising when we know the close and historical links between political power and radical Buddhist movements? That one of the staunchest supporters of the BBS is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Minister of Defense and one of the main candidates in the presidential election of November 16, 2019? The bonze Gnanasara himself never ceased to benefit from this political tolerance. Sentenced in 2018 to nineteen years in prison for contempt of court, a sentence reduced to six years on appeal, he only served six months in prison and was released in May 2019 on presidential pardon.