Image via Pakistan’s Nation.
Bodu Bala Sena is scary because it’s a racist force with a fair amount of support. But purely dismissing them as racist and dumb in unhelpful. The BBS is as much a movement within Sinhala Buddhism as much as it is against minorities. As such it involves caste, class, and actually addresses some important underlying issues.
Organized Sinhala Buddhism is rife with corruption, like the Roman Catholic Church with even less daylight. There is no way to formally defrock priests and priests that abuse children or keep women or are corrupt are very difficult if not impossible to move. There is a lot of child abuse and abuse of power that goes on. On a higher level, organized Buddhism controls a vast amount of land and money with very little transparency. The traditional Buddhist orders, also, are largely caste based.
The BBS is a rebellion within Sinhala Buddhism as much as without. I’ve heard reports that, upon receiving reports of corrupt monks, they’ll go and ‘give them two slaps’ and throw them out. Which sorta should be done. At the same time the BBS chaps are thugs and corrupt themselves, but they do position themselves against a calcified and unresponsive institution.
The BBS also addresses the new middle class insecurity in Sri Lanka. There is a middle class of Sinhala speaking people who have money now but find that it still won’t buy them into urban society, such as it is. At the very top Sri Lanka is now ruled by a Sinhala elite, but the heights of business and commerce remain English speaking and disproportionately Tamil/Muslim. It is this Sinhala middle class seeking validation that drives some BBS support, IMHO, though it is of course the poor of all races that have to suffer.
Thus the BBS is more than just xenophobia. They play on valid issues of caste, religious corruption and class – albeit in divisive ways that make the problem worse. However, unless we address some of those underlying problems, the BBS – like the LTTE – will continue to find legitimacy among enough people to cause big trouble.