By Rasika Jayakody
The Ven. Galagodaaththé Gnanasara Thera, a relatively unknown bhikkhu in the latter stages of the Rajapaksa administration, has now become the face of Sinhala-Buddhist ultra-nationalist ‘terror’ in the country’s political sphere.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera rose to fame in mid-2012 when he formed the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) organization, a movement whose mis-behaviour was partly responsible for former President Rajapaksa’s defeat at the last Parliamentary election.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera and the BBS contributed to Rajapaksa’s defeat not by declaring war on his government, but by unconditionally backing Rajapaksa at a crucial moment. The BBS’ affiliation with the Rajapaksa drove away ethnic and religious minorities from the former President’s campaign in January, last year, depriving him of a vote-base of at least half a million.
Although the 41-year-old Buddhist monk only rose to fame recently, his involvement in the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement of the country has a longer history. Born in a remote village named ‘Galagoda-aththa’ near Karandeniya, Elpitiya, in the Southern Province, Gnanasara Thera became a Buddhist monk at the age of 14, in 1989, when the country was experiencing a violent uprising initiated by the Desha Vimukthi Janatha Vyaparaya, a political movement led by the JVP.
Gnanasara Thera became a bhikku under the ‘Shyamopali’ sub-chapter of the Siyam Nikaya (sect) but he disrobed himself shortly after receiving ordainment. He again took robes at the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya under a different sub-chapter and this tendency to ‘crossover’ was a regular characteristic in his political career as well.
Gnanasara Thera got heavily involved in the country’s political sphere with the setting up of ‘Sinhala Urumaya’ in April, 2004. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, along with politicians such as Patali Champika Ranawaka and Thilak Karunaratne, played an important role in the Sinhala Urumaya during the initial stage and there were two other young monks who were often seen with Ven. Rathana Thera during the meetings of the Sinhala Urumaya.
They were Ven. Mawarale Baddhiya Thera and Ven. Galagoda-aththé Gnanasara Thera who formed a dynamic young duo during the nascent stages of the organization. Ven. Bhaddiya Thera’s involvement in politics was a short-lived one and a few years later, he completely distanced himself from activities in the political sphere.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera became a notable member of the Sinhala Urumaya when he was instrumental in a religious event named ‘Amaa Vessa’ organized by Sinhala Urumaya to counter Valentine’s Day celebrations in Colombo. Although Ven. Rathana Thera was the ‘face’ behind the campaign, Gnanasara Thera, a monk with some oratory skill, was its main organizer. The ‘Amaa Vessa’ campaign gained him some recognition among peers in the Sinhala Urumaya party as a good organizer and a fiery orator.
Some time later, Ven. Gnanasara Thera strengthened his links with a group of activists affiliated with the UNP. Even though he was never a member of the UNP, he had very close relations with this group of activists who supported the party in numerous ways. However, this group broke away from the UNP following the party’s leadership battles over the past several years and its members even became arch-enemies of the green camp.
During this period, Ven. Gnanasara Thera became a newsmaker of sorts when he stormed an event held at the Vihara Maha Devi Park, Colombo. During this incident, a heated argument arose between him and a group of ex-Minister Mervyn Silva’s supporters and it later ended in fisticuffs. At the time of this clash, he was resident in the Saddharmarajika Viharaya in Rajagiriya. After this incident, Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s political career entered a dormant phase and his focus shifted to religion-related activities.
His re-emergence in the political sphere occurred with the setting up of the Bodu Bala Sena organization, in 2012. The BBS was launched as a Buddhist organization to wipe out what they termed as ‘evil forces’ from within the Buddha Sasana.
One of its prime targets was Ven. Pitiduwe Siridhamma Thera who openly claimed that he had attained ‘Arahant status’ stirring what seemed to be a hornet’s nest among Buddhist devotees. The BBS surrounded Ven. Siridhamma Thera’s temple and demanded that he refrain from making statements damaging to the Buddhist teachings.
They also launched a similar mission against an individual named Wanduramba Siriwardena, who claimed he was on the path to achieving enlightenment. As a result of the BBS initiative, Siriwardena, a man who drew a lot of criticism from Buddhist devotees across the country, had to abandon his activities.
This was the time when the BBS decided to build a Buddhist leadership training centre under the name ‘Meth Sevana’ as a community project of the BBS. The chief guest at its opening ceremony was former Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the most powerful state official of the country at the time. The former Ministry Secretary’s participation in the event showed the close link between the BBS and the previous administration. This incident gave rise to the belief that the BBS operated with the blessings of the former Defence Ministry Secretary.
At this point, a lot of Buddhist devotees viewed the BBS as a harmless initiative protecting the interests of Buddhists and the Buddha Sasanna. The ‘official’ leader of the organization was Ven. Dr. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera, an erudite monk who wielded a lot of respect among members of the Buddhist community. Ven. Gnanasara Thera, a young and dynamic monk with a wide ‘contact-base’, was the General Secretary of the organization and its ‘public face’.
The organization’s next mission was its vociferous campaign against Muslim Halal certification, which turned out to be a racist campaign targeting the country’s Muslims and their religious faith. As a result of the BBS campaign, the government had to introduce new measures with regard to Halal accreditation and this whole exercise strained relations between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities.
After a new mechanism was set up to handle the Halal accreditation in a transparent manner, the BBS directed its campaign against what they termed as ‘Muslim colonization’ in traditionally Sinhala-Buddhist areas.
The culmination of this exercise was the anti-Muslim clashes in Beruwala and Aluthgama in June, 2014. The anti-Muslim clashes occurred following an inflammatory speech made by Ven. Gnanasara Thera in Aluthgama where he used the infamous term aba saranai to spell doom for properties belonging to the Muslims in the area. It was, needless to say, a direct invitation for violence and the incident left a lasting impact on the collective mind of Muslims across the country.
Following the incident in Aluthgama, Ven. Vimalajothi Thera stepped down from the organization’s top post and Ven. Gnanasara Thera became the ‘spiritual leader’ of the movement. The BBS had no qualms about deviating from basic teachings of Buddhist to justify its hate-campaign against Muslims and it looked as if Ven. Gnanasara Thera and his blind followers had invented a new kind of ‘militant-Buddhism’ which did not tolerate the presence of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.
Significantly, no action was taken by the previous government against Ven. Gnanasara Thera or the other leaders of the BBS in connection with anti-Muslim violence and the reasons for inaction were all too evident.
Under the previous regime, the BBS had an open licence to gatecrash any event that posed a threat to the ultra-nationalist political campaign carried out by the previous government. They had license to storm into government ministries, disrupt press conferences and go berserk during public events, without being questioned by the Police or other law enforcement authorities.
However, this phase of impunity ended for the BBS when the Rajapaksas fell from power at the Presidential election in January, last year. Knowing that they had lost their biggest shield, the BBS and Ven. Gnanasara Thera went into a dormant phase of some sort following Rajapaksa’s election defeat early last year and did not even make a public appearance for a few months.
Some supporters of the UPFA blamed the BBS for its alleged role in Rajapaksa’s defeat and even the former President himself once said that the BBS was a Norway-led conspiracy to defeat him.
However, when Rajapaksa gleefully accepted the BBS’ support in the run up to the Parliamentary election, he was not aware of this Norway-led conspiracy and was happy to have Ven. Gnanasara Thera in his election campaign.
At the Parliamentary election held in August, the BBS contested separately under the Bodu Jana Peramuna and suffered a humiliating defeat, obtaining just 20,000 votes.
It showed that the BBS, despite its Sinhala supremacist rhetoric, failed to draw any kind of solid support from the majority Sinhala population.
On the other hand, it also showed that the organization’s presence in social media did not represent its actual support base on the ground.
It was in this backdrop that the BBS staged its drama in the Homagama Magistrate Courts premises when a habeas corpus case filed by Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, was taken up for hearing.
In a dramatic turn of events, Ven. Gnanasara Thera began to address open court after the court hearing pertaining to the disappearance of journalist Ekneligoda was over.
Addressing the Court, Ven. Gnanasara Thera praised the Army officers’ role in eradicating terrorism in the country and reprimanded the government and the Attorney General’s Department’s Senior State Counsel for giving instructions to arrest Army officers in connection with journalist Ekneligoda’s disappearance.
He said the Senior State Counsel involved in the case should also be arrested for instructing Police to arrest the soldiers.
The Magistrate attempted to explain the situation, but the Thera continued to address Court reprimanding the government and the Attorney General’s Department.
Counsel Upul Kumarapperuma and Senior State Counsel Dileepa Peiris who were present in Court moved that legal action be taken against the Thera for creating such an unruly situation in Court. They further observed that it was an act tantamount to obstructing court proceedings and Court should not allow such action to take place.
Meanwhile, the missing journalist’s wife Sandya Eknaligoda also told media that the Buddhist monk insulted her in his outrageous speech in the courts premises.
“He said my husband was a terrorist and I should beg on the road,” Sandya Eknaligoda told reporters following the court’s proceedings.
After taking this unexpected development into consideration, Homagama Magistrate Ranga Dassanayake ordered the arrest for the Buddhist monk with immediate effect over multiple charges including contempt of court.
A day after the order, Ven. Gnanasara Thera surrendered to the Homagama Police station and he was remanded for 14 days. It was crystal clear that Ven. Gnanasara Thera staged that drama to trigger an arrest of that nature.
A few hours after the Magistrate issued that order, there were posters in some parts of Colombo, demanding Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s release. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, were flooded with posts urging Sinhala-Buddhists to gather at Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s temple on Tuesday morning to discuss the organization’s future course of action on the arrest. It was quite evident that the BBS supporters were preparing for a protest before the Homagama Magistrate Courts premises.
All hell literally broke loose on Tuesday morning when Ven. Ganansara Thera was produced before the Homagama Magistrate. Hundreds of Buddhist monks and their supporters gathered in front of the courts premises to stage a protest demanding Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s release.
The protesters threatened to surround the court, exerting pressure on the Magistrate to release the Buddhist monk. Some monks even attempted to force their way into the courts premises by jumping over the gates!
The Police anti-riot squad and the Special Task Force were called in to beef up security in the area and the protesting monks tried their best to provoke the security forces into a clash. They even scolded the Police officers in un-parliamentary language calling them ‘stooges’ of the Yahapalana government. However, the Police officers exercised great self-restraint and controlled the situation. If not for their patience and self-restraint, the government would have found itself in an extremely sticky situation.
When all their attempts to start a fight with the Police failed, three Bhikkus loudly declared their readiness to immolate themselves, demanding Gnanasara Thera’s release. Another monk, lay under the bus belonging to the Prisons Department, preventing the prison authorities from taking away the BBS General Secretary to the remand prison in Welikada.
Amid these heated developments, some young Buddhist monks were seen taking group selfies to update their Facebook friends about the ‘adventurous evening’.
It was at this point in the uproar that Ven. Gnanasara Thera came out of the Courts building to address the unruly Buddhist monks going on a rampage. The BBS General Secretary, while explaining the situation to his supporters, said it was just the beginning of a long struggle.
“It is important to know that there was a mistake on my part as well. On Monday, due to anger, I made some remarks during the proceedings and now there is a legal issue.
It happened due to a sudden outburst of emotions. There is no point in declaring war on Police officers as they are only doing their duty. We have a problem with the government and to resolve that we need to deal with the higher echelons. Going to prison for a few days is no big deal for me.
So I kindly request you to be patient,” Ven. Gnanasara Thera told the protesters. After his speech, the protest came to an end and the BBS Secretary was taken to the prison.
The following day, the Thera’s lawyers filed a motion before the Magistrate seeking bail for the Buddhist monk. Attorneys-at-Law Sumudu Kantha Hewage and Shantha Warnakulasuriya filed the bail application on behalf of the BBS General Secretary while the Homagama Lawyers Association opposed it.
The bail application was rejected by Magistrate Dassanayake who took a strong and uncompromising stand on the matter. While declaring his position, the Magistrate said he would not alter his orders, which were given in compliance with the law, even if he is threatened at gun point.
The magistrate stressed that he would not be fit for the post of a judge if he alters his own orders. “There is no reason why an order, given by me, should be changed within a short time of two days,” the magistrate remarked in open court.
The magistrate, while rejecting the bail application, noted that orders given by court couldn’t be changed by threats or intimidation. It was clear that the Magistrate was highly perturbed by the events unfolded on Tuesday
Attorney-at-Law Sudath Wickremaratne representing the lawyers of Homagama Court told court that that the incident that took place at the Homagama court premises on Monday, was well planned.
He said that suspect Ven. Gnanasara Thera, by threatening government servants, had cast aspersions on the entire public service. Wickremaratne said the Thera undermined the law by using words such as napunsaka (eunuchs) and demanded that he be jailed.
Attorney at Law Sumudu Kantha Hewage, speaking on behalf of the monk, admitted to court that the suspect had committed an offence.
He said that his client has not committed this offence with the object of dishonouring the judiciary.
The lawyer appearing for the Thera said that his client had a great admiration and love for the country and he was not a person who indulged in anti social activities.
Meanwhile, in another important development, Magistrate Dissanayake, addressing open court after the ruling, opted to withdraw from hearing the case.
The Magistrate said in open court that he had sought the Attorney General’s advice and expected the AG’s advice to be forthcoming at the next hearing date.
Dassanayake is known in the legal fraternity as a straight-forward and an independent judge who doesn’t bow down to political pressures and other external forces.
Therefore, his withdrawal from the case could imply a severe threat to the independence of the judiciary.
Over the past 10 years, the judiciary’s independence came under threat from a seemingly dictatorial regime that did not tolerate dissenting views even from the judges. Today, It has come under threat from unruly protestors who have political motives, surrounding courts and demanding decisions in their favour.
Special jail privileges
Meanwhile, in a separate turn of events, senior prison officials attached to the Welikada Remand Jail came under severe criticism from various quarters for giving ‘special privileges’ to Gnanasara Thera, violating the department’s regulations.
Apparently, there were two other inmates in the Thera’s cell. One was a school principal currently in remand over a bribery offence and, the second, a school teacher facing a court case.
Many other prisoners came to see the Thera and the latter politely spoke with every ’in-house visitor’. Among them was an underworld leader named Dematagoda Chaminda who even offered to wash the monk’s robes.
However, the prison officers found themselves in hot water as they failed to control the number of prisoners hobnobbing with the Thera on the first two days.
According to prison regulations, only three visitors are allowed to visit a suspect in custody, on a daily basis. In addition, any Parliamentarian can visit the prison at any time of the day without prior approval.
It was alleged that nearly 50 visitors who came from outside met the Thera on the first day. The next day, the number of visitors reached almost 100 and most of them were Buddhist monks affiliated with the BBS organization.
Immediately after this development, the government took quick measures to transfer two senior-most officers from the Welikada prison complex and speculation was rife that their transfers were linked to ‘special privileges’ given to the Thera. However, the Prison Department dismissed those claims, saying they were routine transfers.
Why Ekneligoda hearing?
However, the most pertinent question at this juncture is the reason why the BBS and Ven. Gnanasara Thera have got involved in the murky Eknaligoda case.
Authoritative sources from the Police Department disclosed that two suspects who had already been arrested in connection with the case – a Sergeant and a Corporal attached to the Army’s intelligence wing – gave statements a few weeks ago, revealing the name of an all-powerful official of the previous administration. It looks as if suspicions are now turning towards this official over the abduction and the disappearance of the journalist who went missing just two days before the Presidential election in 2010.
One may speculate that the BBS’ attempts to disrupt the Ekneligoda hearings, could be due to their concern that the once-powerful ex-official may find himself in an extremely tough position if the case proceeds with the current momentum. Probably it is one way they can pay back the former official who allegedly helped the BBS immensely when he was in power.