On ‘Nightclub Buddhists’: The Disrupted Vigil
It all started with a Facebook group titled ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’. A tense situation developed last Friday (19) as members of this group gathered in front of the Buddhist Cultural Centre on Sambuddatva Jayanthi Mawatha. The people planned to hold a candlelight vigil in front of the building at 7 p.m. During the vigil, the gathering planned to chant stanzas from the Subashithaya, which deal with the concept of ‘Samma Vacha’ (translating as good/beneficial words) and a section of the national anthem.
It was meant to be a peaceful event, but it quickly spiraled into chaos.
Fifteen minutes before the vigil was even scheduled to start, police descended on the crowd and began abruptly detaining the people gathered.
Roshan and Thilina (names changed to protect privacy) both attended the vigil. According to them, police arrived on the scene even before the event was scheduled to start, and told the people gathered there that they could not light candles in front of the Centre (which also happens to be where the Bodu Bala Sena headquarters are located). Some Bodu Bala Sena members, including monks, came out of the building. Around this time, police abruptly detained two of the crowd for questioning.
The police then pushed the crowd back towards Perera and Sons on Havelock Road, Roshan and Thilina said.
A policeman on the scene then said the IGP had given the order to arrest everyone if they did not disperse. There were two police vehicles on the scene – and those attending noticed that the policemen were equipped with tear gas canisters.
At the same time, one of the people attending began to explain what the purpose of the vigil was to the media assembled, and the police began threatening to arrest him as the leader of the group.
“The police were very keen to find out who the leader of the group was, and repeatedly asked the leaders to come forward,” one of the people said. The crowd said there was no ‘leader’ and that they had gathered solely based on information from the Facebook page, as they did not want one or two people to become scapegoats. “Arrest all of us,” they said.
By this time, there was a crowd of around 150 people, far too many for the police vehicles, so it was proposed that the crowd walk to the Bambalapitiya police station. At Gower Street the procession stopped as the crowd refused to walk through dark by-lanes, saying they wanted to travel to the police station on the main road. The policemen began recording statements from the crowd, some of whom began to light their candles again.
At around this time around 30 Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) supporters, including Executive Committee member Dilanthe Withanage, arrived on the scene, eye-witnesses said.
Withanage began to abuse the crowd accusing them of being, ‘NGO kaarayas’ and ‘kotiyas,’ the vigil attendees said. The BBS supporters had further said the people gathered were ‘nightclub Buddhists’ as they were not wearing white and many did not have the ‘pirith thread’ on their wrists, Thilina said, before going on to accuse that many of the gathered were not Buddhists at all, but rather Muslims and Christians. They were also brandishing pieces of paper and saying that the people gathered were trying to change the national anthem, and calling for the police to arrest those gathered.
Meanwhile, the policemen told those gathered that if they did not douse their candles they ‘could not be held responsible’ for any harm that came to them, Thilina said.
The crowd had become agitated, but realizing that Withanage was trying to incite the crowd, they had not responded to the abuse.
Once again the police asked people to disperse, but the vigil attendees began lighting candles, at which point the police began physically assaulting them. One of the witnesses who spoke to The Sunday Leader said his candle was knocked out of his hand by the police officer who was recording statements. The officer then stomped on the candle, jabbed him in the stomach and threatened to break his hand if he did not stop. The crowd walked to Vajira Road and eventually dispersed.
In all, five people were picked up by Bambalapitiya Police, and taken to a couple of police stations. However several lawyers arrived to plead their case and they were all subsequently released. Police spokesman Buddhika Siriwardena in the immediate aftermath said that no one had been detained or arrested despite several witnesses saying they had seen five people being taken away before their eyes.
The ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’ Facebook page posted a statement shortly before 7 p.m. explaining that the vigil was not an anti-Bodu Bala Sena rally but only a peaceful vigil, adding that they had informed the Cinnamon Gardens police station beforehand and had received their support.
The Bodu Bala Sena’s Response
Executive Committee member Dilanthe Withanage said the Bodu Bala Sena had known about the vigil one day in advance. They had been planning a pirith ceremony at 6.30 p.m. but postponed it for fear of clashes, Withanage said.
The Bodu Bala Sena had also closed their office early at 4.30 p.m. in readiness for the vigil, he said. “The first thing these people should have done is written to us and come and met us… the first step should have been dialogue,” Withanage said.
Withanage further added that the vigil organizers had done something illegal as they had distorted the national anthem by only singing a part of it. He added that he had requested the policemen to arrest the vigil attendees as soon as they gathered as they were violating the Constitution.
In the aftermath of the incident, Withanage circulated a text to the media with a disturbing allegation. “Arrest fake Buddhists (who supported LTTE) who distort national anthem of Sri Lanka,” the text message read. Upon being asked what evidence the Bodu Bala Sena had that the people who attended the vigil were LTTE supporters, Withanage said that he was quoting an article published on the Colombo Telegraph website.
Several people wearing Bodu Bala Sena T-shirts took photographs of the people lighting candles, which were later circulated on Facebook. Withanage denied that the photographers were from the organization, saying that anybody could purchase a Bodu Bala Sena T- shirt. “It’s like purchasing an Adidas T-shirt,” he explained.
Vigil attendees’ photos circulated
Whoever the photographers were, pictures of the people attending the vigil soon spread to several Facebook pages, with unknown culprits revealing the identities of several of the protestors and even lifting photographs from their personal profiles. Many posted profane comments under these pictures, some even threatening to rape the women there or claiming that they were prostitutes. Others had labelled the attendees as not being Buddhist and then castigated them for attending. Even journalists covering the event were not spared; following the incident several news sites and journalists’ Twitter accounts were labeled as ‘Traitors’. One of the Facebook pages sharing these photos bore the Bodu Bala Sena name and logo, though it was not the Bodu Bala Sena’s official website – the site was later removed from Facebook.
Videographer Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai’s picture was circulated as well, although she was only covering the event in her capacity as a journalist. Kanagasabapathipillai said she was caught between the crowd and the police, and had been taking pictures. Tensions had been high and as she was one of the few women taking pictures she said it was possible the photographers mistook her for an organiser as well. Several people were videoing and photographing the attendees, including a man who was attempting to incite the police to arrest the crowd, although the crowd was remaining mostly silent.
Meanwhile, at least one of the victims said they would be submitting a report to the Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) following the incident.
Upon being asked if it was the Bodu Bala Sena who had circulated the pictures, Withanage said, “Officially, no.” The group was only responsible for the website ‘bbs.org’ he reiterated. He added that he had had several issues with people misusing the Bodu Bala Sena logo in the past, and that he had an inkling of the identity of these people. “I can guess that they belong to some of these other Sinhalese groups,’ Withanage said. ‘We completely disagree with circulating someone’s photos without their permission,’ Withanage said. He added that he himself had received threats following the incident with anonymous calls threatening to ‘destroy’ him. ‘We don’t do any harm although of course we will always fight against extremism,’ Withanage said.
Withanage on Norway funding issue
On April 7, the website Asian Tribune interviewed Executive Committee member Dilanthe Withanage and alleged that the Bodu Bala Sena had received funding from Norway. Below is an excerpt of the interview:
Asian Tribune: There are some other things I have to ask you. It is about Mr. Arne Fjortoft. Also about the TV debate you had some time ago with Mr. Azath Salley in the Max TV. I think if I remember correctly, he asked you at the course of the discussion, whether Bodu Bala Sena is receiving funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and also about the visit of the Norwegian Ambassador Ms. Grete Løchen along with Mr. Arne Fjortoft to the office of the Bodu Bala Sena, at Sri Sambuddathwa Jayanthi Mandiraya, located at Thunmulla Junction, Colombo and about five of your Buddhist monks visiting Norway.
I was told that during that debate you haven’t responded to those questions.
Mr. Dilantha Withanage: No I have replied to those issues he raised.
Asian Tribune: What did you say? Who are those five Buddhist Monks who visited Norway?
Mr. Dilantha Withanage: I can tell you. I think that was in 2010 … I think.
Asian Tribune: No, I think that was in October 2011.
Mr. Dilantha Withanage: I must check my passport, I can’t remember. May be on October 2011, but not happened in 2012. I know for sure, because after we visited Norway only we launched our Bodu Bala Sena on 07 May 2012.
Asian Tribune: You also went in that delegation to Norway.
Mr. Dilantha Withanage: Yes. I can give the names of those who were in our delegation that visited Norway. They are-
1. Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thero (Presently General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena)
2. Ven. Witharandeniye Nanda Thero (He is now the national organizer of Bodu Bala Sena)
3. Ven. Aluthwewa Ananda Thero
4. Ven. Dapane Sumanawansa Thero
5. Ven. Welimada Shantha Thero
6. Mr. Pujitha Wijesinghe and
7. Mr. Mark Antony Perera
If you say that Bodu Bala Sena members went in a delegation to visit Norway, then it will be wrong. At that time there was no organization as such. They represented different organizations.
Asian Tribune: So these were the eight people including you who visited Norway in 2011. What were you doing in Norway?
Mr. Dilantha Withanage: In fact we were invited by one of the organization in Norway. In fact I have forgotten the name of the organization. Actually we visited Norway and had discussion with some of the Tamil friends there. I don’t know whether friends we met in Norway represented actually the section of the vociferous Tamil diaspora? Some of them we met, I learnt were supporters of the LTTE. You can say they are just a very small section of the Tamil diaspora. Then we visited some social organizations including a couple of Elders Home and we visited the Norwegian Parliament. We had meeting also with former Minister Erick Solheim. We also had meetings with some Norwegian Parliamentarians. Also we visited houses of some of the Tamil friends.
Withanage in response to questions from The Sunday Leader said that he had in fact answered the allegations in an interview with former Deputy Mayor of Colombo, Azath Salley on Max TV. He confirmed that a delegation had visited Norway but said that the group had received no funding during the visit, adding that the Bodu Bala Sena had not been in existence at the time of the visit.