BANGALORE, India — When I met Watareka Vijitha Thero in early 2014 in a suburb of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, he had been in hiding for nearly five months. The gentle-voiced monk had spoken out against anti-Muslim fearmongering by a hard-line group called the Buddhist Power Force, known by its Sinhalese initials B.B.S.
Mr. Vijitha’s car was attacked in retaliation, and he narrowly escaped. “What does it mean for Buddhism if those that speak for communal harmony have to hide in fear?” he asked me. “What does it mean for my country that the government lets these lawless thugs have a free run?”
Six months later, Mr. Vijitha was found on a road near Colombo stripped naked and bloody, his hands and legs bound. The B.B.S. denied involvement. When the monk filed a complaint, the police threw him in jail for 12 days on charges of self- inflicted violence — a warning to others who dared to criticize hard-line Buddhists.
Now, with the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, facing a challenger in elections on Thursday, hard-line Buddhist groups have mobilized to support him. A wave of populist chauvinism has engulfed the country and sidelined the Tamil and Muslim minorities that make up over a quarter of the population. If it continues unchecked, Sri Lanka will face more instability, ethnic polarization and suppression of dissent.
Extremist Buddhist monks are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The B.B.S. and its counterparts have incited mobs to demolish mosques. A June speech by the B.B.S. chief Galagodaththe Gnanasara triggered anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s southern villages; thugs burned homes, four people were killed and at least 80 were injured. But instead of arresting Mr. Gnanasara, the president simply urged “all parties concerned to act in restraint.”
In Sri Lanka, monks have long been involved in efforts to bolster Buddhist primacy. In the 19th century, amid fears that European colonizers and Christian missionaries were diluting Sri Lankan identity, monks led a Buddhist revival, followed by a cultural movement for the dominance of the Sinhalese language over English. These efforts produced a Buddhist nationalism that persisted after independence in 1948 (Buddhism itself is accorded primacy in the Sri Lankan Constitution).
In the last decade, activism by Buddhist monks has grown more overtly political. In 2004, they founded the National Heritage Party, known by the initials J.H.U., and contested elections for the first time; nine monks won parliamentary seats. Though it never espoused violence, the J.H.U. supported the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mr. Rajapaksa. As the government intensified its battle against the separatist Tamil Tigers, the monks’ backing gave religious legitimacy to the state’s claim of protecting the island for the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The defeat of the Tamil rebels in 2009 ended the country’s nearly 30-year-long civil war. The B.B.S. emerged during this postwar high, deploying a selective reading of Sri Lanka’s origins — excluding the contributions of indigenous and non-Sinhalese communities — to fan fears of an existential threat to Buddhism and justify its acts of violence.
At a rally in 2012, the B.B.S. leader Mr. Gnanasara likened the Sri Lankan military’s victory to the ancient conquest of a Tamil chief by a beloved Sinhalese king. The spectators knew the story and cheered at the comparison. “Tamils have been taught a lesson twice,” he said; so would other minorities if they tried to “challenge Sri Lankan culture.”
In the past two years, hard-line groups have consolidated their political power. The B.B.S. has even used the state-owned cellular network to raise funds. Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, has attended some of their events. The government, meanwhile, denies any links to them.
By instruction or apathy, the police and army look away when hard-line monks incite riots, and fail to thoroughly investigate complaints. While the B.B.S. is not the sole voice of Sri Lankan Buddhists, its recourse to violence has increasingly forced secular liberals and pacifist Buddhists into silence.
More perniciously, a nostalgia for Buddhist supremacy is now widespread. Today, a revisionist version of history is celebrated in films, books, TV programs and state-run newspapers. In the Tamil-dominated north, and in the east, where most of the country’s Muslims live, national monuments have been erected to honor Buddhist kings. Government offices frequently announce “rediscoveries” of long-lost Buddhist temples and Buddha statues are placed in areas sacred to Muslims or Tamils. In the Kanniya hot springs in the east, a sign in Sinhalese and English explains that the site — considered among Tamils to be linked to a Hindu myth— had been part of an ancient Buddhist monastery. In Kuragala in the central hills, the culture ministry built a Buddhist stupa at a Sufi Muslim cave, declaring it an ancient monastery site. These claims aren’t based on new archeological findings; the Sri Lankan government is simply rewriting history with a more politically expedient narrative.
In November, Mr. Rajapaksa’s health minister, Maithripala Sirisena,unexpectedly defected and announced his candidacy for president. The B.B.S. denounced him as a Western stooge and gave its support to Mr. Rajapaksa, but the J.H.U. has said it will oppose Mr. Rajapaksa’s undemocratic ways by backing his opponent.
Mr. Sirisena is likely aware that he must play up his Buddhist allegiances if he hopes to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa — a strategy that will only strengthen chauvinist groups. He has sworn to preserve Buddhism’s constitutional prominence, and rejected Tamil demands for greater autonomy. With little choice, Tamil and Muslim parties now back Mr. Sirisena.
No matter who wins in January, the message is unmistakable: To be truly considered Sri Lankan these days, one must accept the primacy and glory of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist past. Unless it is challenged, this mindset will pose a far greater danger to Sri Lanka than the blows of hard-line thugs.
Rohini Mohan is the author of “The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.”