Who is behind the new BBS offensive?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Amid these heated developments, some young Buddhist monks were seen
taking group selfies to update their Facebook friends about the
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 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
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
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
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.