Violence, Identity, and Alterity: Post-War Rhetoric of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena
The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Army) is a Sinhalese nationalist movement led by Buddhist monks that recently came to international prominence following a 2014 anti-Muslim rally that erupted into deadly violence. The Bodu Bala Sena is set apart from earlier nationalist movements in that its hostility is primarily directed towards Sri Lankan Muslims instead of Tamil separatists. Despite this difference I argue that the Bodu Bala Sena is best considered as a new development in this existing tradition of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, and that the re-orientation of the Bodu Bala Sena’s hostility from Tamils to Muslims reveals the extent to which Sinhalese nationalist conceptions of their own identity are built around various interpretations of a particular “identity narrative.” This identity narrative, which has its genesis in anti-colonial interpretations of the Mahavamsa, casts the Sinhalese people as defenders of a sacred island (the dhammadipa) against impious foreign invaders who threaten its unity and sanctity. The case of the Bodu Bala Sena demonstrates both the ongoing relevance of this identity narrative in the post-war era and, importantly, the availability of the narrative for contextual re-interpretation. The identity narrative model, which incorporates both mythic origins and contextual interpretation, helps to bridge some of the existing debates on the nature and origins of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka which tend to favour either one or the other.