ucanews.com reporter, KandyUpdated: July 08, 2019 07:40 AM GMT
Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera (center), general secretary of Bodu Bala Sena, sits among Buddhist clergy at Bogambara Stadium in Kandy on July 7. BBS was accused of instigating anti-Muslim riots in 2014 in Aluthgama, where more than 2,000 people were displaced and 17 mosques attacked. The group denied being linked to the riots. (Photo by K.W. Nissanka)
Hard-line Buddhist monks have held their first rally to form a Sinhalese government following the Easter attacks that killed 259 people and injured several hundred more.
Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, general secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Power Force, organized a rally on July 7 with hundreds of Buddhist clergy and laymen from across the country.
All Muslim-owned shops in Kandy shut in order to avoid clashes with demonstrators.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera, who has been accused of hate crimes against Muslims, was only released from prison last month after being convicted of four contempt of court charges by the Court of Appeal in 2018 and sentenced to 19 years’ rigorous imprisonment. The sentence included the prospect of parole after six years but he received a presidential pardon on May 23 after serving only a few months of his sentence.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera said Christian organizations were guilty of converting Buddhists and destroying the country.
"Buddhist monks should take a historic decision to take control of the country. We Buddhist priests should work together and set aside our differences," the monk told the rally at Bogambara Stadium in Kandy.
“The Buddhist clergy must take a leadership role against extremism and build a Sinhala parliament that helps the Sinhala people to make policies and laws.
"We have 7,000 Buddhist temples all over the country — every monk has the capacity to ensure Sinhala votes to elect a party with a clear majority in parliament. We will build a Sinhala parliament."
The monk said some Sinhala politicians were greedy for Muslim votes but added: “This is the country of the Sinhalese people.”
President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the monk on May 23, a week after Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and houses in Colombo and other cities. One person was killed and hundreds of shops damaged.
The anti-Muslim violence occurred in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings when local terrorists linked to the so-called Islamic State bombed churches and foreign-owned hotels.
Extremist Buddhist mobs have in the past damaged Muslim businesses and homes, with incidents occurring as recently as 2014, 2018 and 2019. Buddhist groups, including Mahasohon Balakaya, BBS, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya, have preached anti-Muslim hatred and issued warnings to the island state’s Muslim population.
A Muslim businessman, who did not want to be named, said extremist Buddhists had seized opportunities to again attack places of worship, Muslim-owned businesses, vehicles and homes while the government sat back and did nothing.
"[There was] no action against Buddhist extremists who attacked Muslim owned shops and houses,” he said. “We have become the most vulnerable people in this country.”
In 2014, four people were killed in clashes in the coastal town of Aluthgama, where more than 2,000 people lost their homes and 17 mosques were attacked. BBS was accused of instigating the attacks but denied being responsible in any way.
BBS was again accused of being linked to anti-Muslim riots in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, in 2018 when nearly 450 Muslim-owned homes and shops were damaged and more than 20 mosques attacked.
Despite its protestations, BBS has established an alliance with the 969 movement, a radical Buddhist group known for encouraging hatred toward Muslims in Myanmar.
Many Sinhalese and Tamils routinely boycott shops and business places run by Muslims, often as a direct result of hatred created by extremist groups through social media and other means to achieve blatantly racist goals.
The government recently banned Muslim women from covering their faces, saying it hampered the identification of individuals in a way that threatened national security.