By Robin Gomes
Hundreds of hardline Buddhist monks rallied in Sri Lanka on Sunday, pressing for the democratic control of the parliament to protect the nation’s majority Sinhalese community.
Police lined the streets of the highland city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka and the army was on standby, as the Buddhist monks gathered for their first big assembly since the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks by Islamist militants on churches and luxury hotels in April.
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the influential chief of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the country’s most powerful Buddhist nationalist group, addressed hundreds of monks and followers at Bogambara Stadium, calling on Sri Lanka's 10,000 Buddhist temples to help win votes for candidates from the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the upcoming presidential elections.
"We the clergies should aim to create a Sinhala government. We will create a parliament that will be accountable for the country, a parliament that will protect the Sinhalese," Gnanasara told the monks’ convention.
He pointed out that politicians should leave the fight against Islamist extremism to the monks, who can talk to Muslims without engaging in extremism.
“It's our responsibility because this is a Sinhalese country,” Gnanasara said adding, “We are the historical owners of this country."
Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the largely Buddhist country, have become fearful of a backlash, especially in recent weeks, in apparent reprisal for the April bombings that killed more than 250 people.
Several worried Muslim traders shut their establishments on Sunday in Kandy, for fear of violence. The ancient capital that houses that relic of the tooth of Buddha in a temple, was rocked by violence last year.
Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The war ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s presidential polls are set for November or December in which President Maithripala Sirisena, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are seen as possible candidates.