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Sri Lanka’s newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena

While the international Buddhist community has spoken out against the recent anti-Muslim violence of Buddhist ultranationalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, it remains largely powerless to stanch the growth of hardliners in either country. Last November, 381 American Buddhist teachers—including notables like Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Joseph Goldstein—sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to raise the issue of Buddhist-inflicted violence in Myanmar on an impending diplomatic visit. The letter followed a few months after a public statement from the Dalai Lama in which he unequivocally condemned extremists in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, saying they should “imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such crime[s].” 

Although the monk-led violence in both countries depends on a perversion of theology, it is primarily a political matter. Non-governmental organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for the brutality to end. But it is unlikely the violent monks in either country will stand down unless their governments take action on their own accord. 

Community violence against Myanmar’s Muslim population broke out in the Rakhine region in 2012, after the country ended almost five decades of military rule in its shift toward liberalization. Rather than stop the ongoing brutality, however, police have abetted it. A prospective crackdown thus remains unthinkable under the current government.

Until recently, the chances appeared similarly slim for punitive measures to be taken against Sri Lanka’s Buddhist extremist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), translated as “Buddha Power Force.” Since its founding in 2012, BBS has had to weather only the most milquetoast public criticism, and enjoyed private acquiescence from former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa would lightly reprimand the organization in public statements, while his police force stood to the side as they carried out attacks. 

For instance, a February 4, 2013 speech delivered by Rajapaksa on the occasion of Sri Lankan Independence Day cautioned against religiously motivated violence, perhaps obliquely warning BBS. “If anyone is trying to build religious rivalry in Sri Lanka . . . they do not serve their religion,” said Rajapaksa, “but serve the interests of separatism.” Undeterred, BBS held a rally a month and a half later in the central town of Kandy, where the group’s General Secretary Gnanasara Thera falsely alleged that two Muslim-owned clothing companies—Fashion Bug and No Limit—were forcing female employees to convert to Islam. “We have all the proof and information about the Fashion Bug and No Limit outlets and what they are doing to your female [Buddhist] children,” he exclaimed. “What harm have we done to the Muslims?”  

Two weeks later in Colombo, the country’s nearby commercial capital, Buddhist monks led approximately 500 people in an attack on a warehouse belonging to Fashion Bug. The police stood by as the crowd vandalized the building, broke down the door, and harassed some Muslim workers inside. After over an hour, the police finally broke up the riot. Law enforcement officials detained 17 suspects, including three monks, but they all gained prompt release when the victims agreed to drop charges. 

That same month, President Rajapaksa’s brother and the nation’s Secretary of Defense, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, had attended the opening of a BBS training center where he spoke in glowing terms of the group’s mission, proclaiming, “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race. No one should doubt these clergy. We’re here to give [them] encouragement.” Suffice it to say, the group did not fear meaningful redress from the Rajapaksa administration. 

But on January 8, the two-term incumbent president Rajapaksa met a shocking yet decisive defeat in his reelection bid. Sri Lanka had a new president: former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, who swept into power with a huge share of the vote from Tamil and Muslim minorities. 

Sirisena has promised democratic reforms that will empower and protect those long-oppressed groups. And if he means what he says, these reforms will likely include a crackdown on BBS.

The fact that Sirisena even had a fighting chance in January’s election is testament to the preceding months-long decline of Pesident Rajapaksa’s popularity. This trend was certainly due in part to his impotent response to BBS violence, exposed most acutely last June when an attack on Muslims in the Southwestern city of Aluthgama—which left three dead and 80 injured—resulted in little more immediate response than the imposition of a temporary curfew. Eventually 41 people were arrested in the aftermath of the assault—some for taking part in the violence and others for violating the curfew.  But no BBS leadership faced prosecution, despite a viral video of a vitriolic BBS rally in the vicinity of Aluthgama directly before the attack. 

Rajapaksa’s repeated miscarriages of justice with regard to Sinhala Buddhist-inflicted violence served as symbols of his cronyism, and the violence itself rendered the president hugely unpopular among Muslims, who make up a sizable ten percent of Sri Lanka’s population. 

The primary source of Rajapaksa’s lack of popularity was not his position regarding BBS, but the broader issue of his increasingly authoritarian imposition of a narrowly consolidated power center. Coupled with the economic stagnation that left many Sri Lankans struggling to afford basic goods, Rajapaksa’s antidemocratic measures became more and more frustrating to the many outside his inner circle of family, friends, and interest groups. 

These measures—alongside a slew of nepotistic appointments—alienated members of Rajapaksa’s own political party and, maybe more importantly, members of his base: the Sinhala Buddhists that make up 70 percent of Sri Lankans. A majoritarian nationalist politician like Rajapaksa, after all, depends on a unifying brand of ethnic populism. Cracks in that formerly reliable voting bloc left the strongman vulnerable to a diverse opposition coalition.

The greatest triumph of Rajapaksa’s political career—the resolution of the nation’s 25-year civil war between its Sinhala Buddhist majority and its Tamil, mostly Hindu minority—happened five and a half years before election day—far enough in the near-distant past, perhaps, for Sri Lankans to find themselves deserving of more than merely the absence of war. 

The last, maybe most high-profile reason for Rajapaksa’s decline in popularity was his refusal to investigate potential war crimes committed during the civil war. One can imagine why Rajapaksa would rather not revisit those specifics, which could very well implicate him and his brother, the nation’s Secretary of Defense at the time. But the decision raised ire, especially among the family and friends of the estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians killed in the war’s final months. 

Their advocacy helped initiate a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation into crimes committed by both sides. But as journalist Joshua Hammer described in the New York Review of Books, Rajapaksa’s administration “refused to give visas to investigators and . . . was said to have intimidated witnesses who testified via Skype and gave depositions at the Human Rights Council’s headquarters in Geneva.” 

Such intransigence hurt Sri Lanka’s international reputation and forestalled important steps toward reconciliation with the country’s northern Tamil region: the return of government seized lands, the allowance of press freedoms, and the eventual affordance of some level of autonomy. 

All of these factors led President Rajapaksa’s longtime political ally, Maithripala Sirisena, to decide to run against him, and with only three months left before a snap election called by Rajapaksa. In doing so, Sirisena was gambling on enough support among Tamils and Muslims to overcome the losses he would surely incur among Rajapaksa’s loyal Sinhala base. 

But something remarkable happened: Tamils and Muslims, despite their justifiable distrust of Sinhala politicians, rallied behind Sirisena’s candidacy. Citing Rajapaksa’s self-serving elimination of term limits, Rauf Hakeem, the head of Sri Lanka’s largest Muslim party, resigned as Justice Minister and jumped to Sirisena’s side. Shortly thereafter, the main Tamil political party aligned with him as well. 

Sirisena had himself a coalition. 

While significant, Sirisena’s newfound Muslim and Tamil support was not altogether surprising. As the saying goes, the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend. In truly astonishing fashion, however, the nation’s relatively moderate Buddhist party, National Heritage Party (JHU), also endorsed Sirisena. While it holds only three seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member parliament, the party wields moral authority as the electoral political voice of the country’s monastic community. 

The JHU leader Omalpe Sobitha framed the party’s withdrawal of support for Rajapaksa as made out of compassion for him. “This [quitting] is not a challenge from an enemy force,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is a birthday gift to the president to correct his ways. This is the advice of a friend given according to the teachings of the Buddha.”

But Rajapaksa did retain the support of a very different Buddhist political group: Bodu Bala Sena. When BBS announced its decision to back Rajapaksa, Dr. Dilanthe Withananage, the group’s Chief Executive Officer, criticized the opposition’s platform: “So called good governance, democracy and the rule of law, all slogans of non-governmental organizations, the World Bank, and the United Nations are presently being bandied about by common candidate Maithripala Sirisena,” he told Ceylon Today. BBS’s strategy was to characterize Sirisena as an internationalist outsider who invoked reforms but secretly intended to tear at the core identity of Sri Lankan society: its Sinhala Buddhist roots. 

It is hard to imagine that Rajapaska welcomed such rhetoric even if, to some extent, he sympathized with it. After all, his hardline supporters accentuated the distinction between his dependence on a monolithic, albeit large majority, and Sirisena’s backing from a range of smaller ethno-religious groups. The election was becoming a choice between government controlled by a homogeneous few and a heterogeneous many. This didn’t play well for Rajapaksa, who tried to combat the perception in a tweet three days before the election, saying, “I will protect everyone in this country, be it Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim.” But this plea would prove too little, too late. 

Incumbent presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks at a campaign rally

A whopping 81.5 percent of eligible voters turned out on January 8, making it the highest voter turnout in Sri Lankan history. By comparison, the turnout in the last two United States presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 were 57 and 54 percent, respectively. Sirisena won with just over 51 percent of the vote, losing slightly among Sinhala Buddhists but making up for it with a 70-percent share of Muslims and Tamil votes. 

But big tent politics often better serves an inspiring campaign than it does unified governance. The election raised an important question: How would Sirisena’s varying constituencies rally behind a broad set of policies? And how would this interplay ultimately affect the government’s policy toward BBS? 

In less than two months since the election, Sirisena has implemented some significant reforms that hint at a willingness to take action against BBS. But it’s worth tempering expectations with the acknowledgment that Sirisena was a member of Rajapaksa’s political party for much of his career and, up until three months before the election, was Rajapaksa’s acting health minister. 

Amid the post-election euphoria, Brian Keenan, member of the International Crisis Group, reminded enthusiasts that Sirisena was a “very different kind of person” than Rajapaksa but neveretheless fell merely “on the softer side of the Sinhala nationalist spectrum.” Echoing this take on the election as more incremental shift than radical change, the Guardian editorial board argued that “[w]hat has happened in Sri Lanka was not a revolution nor, at least not yet, a restoration of the democratic checks and balances of the past. It was instead an uprising within the dominant party in government against the high-handed style of the Rajapaksas.” After all, at least according to BBS leadership, Sirisena tried to gain backing from the group. 

In his first few months in office, Sirisena has done just about all he can to dispel skepticism. On the matter of democratization, he has kept his campaign promise to uphold parliamentary elections scheduled for June, which will expose his nascent coalition to an opposition challenge. 

With respect to good governance, he announced a probe into the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime. Sirisena has also sought to pass a 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution which, if instituted, would strengthen the judiciary and allow greater latitude for independent commisions. The single reform that has had the most impact on the day-to-day lives of Sri Lankans, however, was the government’s 22-percent cut of fuel taxes, which led to an eight- to ten- percent reduction in public transportation fares. This measure has eased the economic burden felt by middle- and low-income Sri Lankans. 

And on the fraught issue of Tamil reconciliation, Sirisena agreed to release remaining political prisoners and return lands seized by the military during the civil war. 

The only cause for concern has been Sirisena’s carefully brokered six-month delay of the release of the United Nation’s report on human rights violations committed during the war. But according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, the president made “clear commitments” to investigate and prosecute war crimes over that intervening period. 

These reforms and proposals point to a good-faith effort on Sirisena’s part, but they do not guarantee concerted action against BBS. The biggest step Sirisena has taken so far in this regard has been a symbolic one: visiting a mosque and vowing that it is “the responsibility of the new government to create a country where people can live in peace, harmony and brotherhood without fear and suspicion.” Likely referencing BBS-instigated violence, he promised that the “dark shadows of the past would not be allowed to darken the future of the children.” These words represent a sharp departure from Rajapaksa’s neglect of Sri Lankan Muslims, but they remain just that. 

Following through on these assurances would entail authorizing an investigation of possible crimes committed during recent incidents of Buddhist-inflicted violence, most notably the horrific massacre that took place in Aluthgama last June. Such actions would undoubtedly rankle some rightwing members of Sirisena’s young, fragile coalition. Yet Sirisena’s victory represents a clear mandate for democratization that includes the protection of Sri Lanka’s minorities. These two go hand in hand: as Sri Lanka implements democratic reforms, minority groups will gain greater representation. And as those groups gain power, they will be more able to push for protective measures, such as an investigation of BBS. 

But Sri Lanka’s Muslims can demand an immediate crackdown on BBS. They made up a vital portion of the coalition that elected Sirisena. He, quite simply, owes them one. 

His victory also signals a new strategy for international Buddhists in their efforts to combat BBS. Rather than merely petitioning American elected officials or the United Nations, the latter of which is among the targets of an online petition drive, Buddhists can help empower the Muslim parties within his coalition. An example of this type of advocacy happened a few weeks ago, when Muslim and Buddhist leaders from 15 South and Southeast Asian countries issued a joint statement condemning violence and demanding government action to ensure the safety of minority religious groups. 

Buddhists around the world have Sri Lankans to thank for decisively rejecting the hardline Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism of Rajapaksa—and, by extension, that of BBS. The opportunity to undermine Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka is upon us. It’s not a question of whether Sirisena has the power, but whether anti-BBS allies in Sri Lanka and abroad will make him use it.