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Militant Buddhism and Post-War Sri

Lankan Cinematic Memory Work
Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake
Department of English, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
[Abstract: Since 2009, several Sinhala films, such as Matha (2012) by
Boodee Keerthisena, and Ini Avan (2012) by Asoka Handagama, have
revisited the memory of the last phase of the thirty-year Sri Lankan
civil war. Using as a touchstone Sarath Weerasekaras Gamani (2011),
a film that claims to be based on the true story about the LTTEs
massacre of a group of Sinhalese villagers, this paper explores the
uses and abuses of memory (Jelin) in statesponsored postwar
cinema. Through an examination of the film, this paper will show how
the Buddhist discourse contributes to a hegemonic memory culture,
pushing subaltern testimonies and memories of war into the periphery.
It will examine the role of Buddhism, depicted in cinematic memory
work, in the project of post-war nation-building in Sri Lanka.]
These Buddhist clergy who are engaged in a nationally important
task should not be feared or doubted by anyone.
Secretary of Defense Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the opening of the
Buddhist Leadership Academy of the Bodu BalaSena (Jeyaraj)

n June 15, 2014, the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Power Force
or BBS) organized a rally with the motto Avadiwawu (Wake
up!) in Aluthgama, a coastal town in the western province of Sri
Lanka.2 The rally was organized in response to an alleged attack on a
Buddhist monk by a group of young Muslims in the neighboring
Dharga Town on June 11 (Athas and Hume). Speaking on the occasion,
BBS General Secretary Galadoba Aththe Gnanasara raved about a
timely-duty assigned to Sinhalese Buddhists in the country: to
South Asian Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2014


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

contain the Muslim community (Bodu Bala Sena Meeting

Aluthgama). The speech presaged a wave of anti-Muslim riots in
Aluthgama, Dharga Town, and Beruwala. After two days, the riots
culminated in four deathsthree Muslims and one Tamiland the
displacement of nearly ten thousand people (Karunarathne). As of July
4, 2014, Colombo Telegraph claims that not even the most basic
investigations have been made into the incident by the state. Among
several other chauvinist organizations such as Ravana Balaya
(Ravanas Power) and Sihala Ravaya (Sinhalese Roar), the BBS
has, in this manner, emerged as a paramilitary organization with a selfproclaimed nationally and religiously important mission in the post-war
Sri Lankan political situation.
Speaking of the Sri Lankan states three-decade long civil war
against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Ananda
Abeysekara observes, in Colors of the Robe (2002), that there exists an
authorization of a power dynamic between Buddhism, the state head,
and the nation.1 Buddhism, which is constitutionally granted a
foremost place (Chapter II: Buddhism), has percolated into the very
core of national politics in Sri Lanka. The official end of the war
between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE on May
19, 2009, has reaffirmed and heightened this religio-national power
grid, evident in the activities of the BBS. As revealed by the Secretary
of Defenses words, quoted in the epigraph, the state upholds the
nationally important task rendered by Buddhist monks, ignoring the
fact that such tasks have the capacity to ignite communal unrest and
inter-religious animosity targeting non-Buddhist communities. The
words acquire an ominous tone when they come from the Secretary, a
brother of the President Mahinda Rajpaksa.The states passive stance
on the anti-Muslim riots and several preceding incidents in which the
BBS was involved seems, for all practical purposes, a form of tacit
complicity.3 This resembles the states indirect endorsement of ethnic
violence directed against Tamils in 1983.4 The religious fervor has
significantly become an indispensable ingredient in dominant memory
work in the post-war cultural milieu of Sri Lanka.
As is common in other historical contexts in Asia, Africa, and the
West, cultural and literary texts emerging in the post-war era are loaded
with a desire to revisit the history of war and narrativize supposedly
real stories. Through an analysis of Sarath Weerasekaras film Gamani
(2011), I examine how post-war cinematic memory-work positions the
Sinhalese Buddhist identity as historically, culturally, and racially
supreme over ethnic minoritiesTamil, Muslim, and Burgher
communities. The film upholds interests of the nation state and has
become an embodiment of the zeitgeist of post-war popular culture.
Through a close reading of Gamani, I identify the role of militant

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 81

Buddhism in post-war hegemonic memory work. I insist that dominant
post-war cinematic narrative commits epistemological violence
violence against knowledge that excludes other types of knowing
systemsby promulgating a single story of war that celebrates
sanguinary justice (Gebrewold 92). I will situate the seeds of retributive
justice evident in the film within a discourse of melancholiawhich
Sigmund Freud identifies as ones inability to mourn properlyvis-vis the failure of Sinhalese Buddhists to mourn their historical losses.
Mnemonic exigencies of war and Gamani
In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault maintains that
memory is not a tangible element, but is developed by a society through
its relations with history. History is a way in which a society
recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is
inextricably linked (7). Accordingly, the past is often reproduced and
treated in an epistemological sense in order to educate present
generations. In a similar vein, speaking of how Latin American
countries changed from dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s to
democracies in the 1990s, Elizabeth Jelin identifies a power matrix
between the past, the present, history, memory, identity, and
knowledge. For her, the past cannot be changed but its meaningis
subject to re-interpretations anchored in intentions and expectations
towards the future (26). She contends that the construction of
memory-based narratives becomes very problematic when they are
connected to social and political events, because hegemonic forces in
power decide the orientation of such work. Jelins articulation of
labors of memory and Foucaults take on history shed light on how
Weerasekaras film Gamani standardizes memory in post-war Sri
With the claim that it is based on the true story of the LTTEs
massacre of a group of civilians on August 25, 1999, in Gonagala, a
village located between a battleground and the civilian area in the
Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, Gamani revisits a melodramatic
moment in national memory. The film starts with the depiction of the
LTTEs massacre of a group of Sinhalese Buddhist villagers on their
way home from an alms-giving ceremonya Buddhist event that
invokes blessings on a dead personheld in memory of a fallen
soldier. It chronicles the ways in which the villagers and home guards
master military strategies under the leadership of the Buddhist monk of
the village temple, a Sinhalese teacher newly appointed to the village
school, and a young military officer.5 They successfully thwart a
second attack by the LTTE cadres, kill them, and celebrate over enemy
bodies on a full moon day, a day with religious significance for
Buddhists. Using this exemplary narrative, the film reiterates that all


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

Sinhalese Buddhists have a patriotic and religious duty to enact the role
of Gamani, which was the designated post of village-protectors in
ancient Sinhalese kingdoms.6 Corresponding to this, the title of the film
echoes a prevalent obsession with King Dutugemunu who is frequently
idealized in post-war rhetoric, both by the state and by groups such as
the Bodu Bala Sena, as a savior of the Buddhist nation.7
Gamani garnered state sponsorship, particularly in the postproduction stage. It received state-media publicity, was circulated
island-wide, and became a local blockbuster. The film also officially
represented Sri Lanka at the SAARC Film Festival 2013, held in
Colombo. At the launching ceremony of the films official website,
President Mahinda Rajapaksawho, incidentally, starred in
GaminiFonsekas1994 film Nomiyena Minisun (Immortals) which
narrates sacrificial roles played by ultra-patriotic soldiers in the Sri
Lanka Armyhailed it:
[A] film that refreshes our memory of a history that is being
forgotten. The film best explains to the viewer the suffering of the
people in villages targeted by terrorists, the sacrifice made by the
armed forces to protect the people, and various difficulties and
challenges encountered by government servants working in those
areas. (Gamani Refreshes Memory of a History Going into

While positioning the film as a text that serves a crucial role in

rectifying national amnesia, the President applauds its representation of
the sacrifice and humanitarian services rendered by the armed forces. In
a similar vein, responses of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist forces to the
film within Sri Lanka were very positive, and the film continues to be
revered as a cult memory work.8
It must be noted that none of these nationalist critics questioned the
obvious contradictions that exist between the films representations and
historical accounts. For instance, as far as historical records reveal,
hands-on combat training was not provided to the home guards or the
villagers of Gonagala, nor did they thwart a second attack by the LTTE.
In fact, the LTTE did not wage a second attack at all. Furthermore, the
actual event, widely known as the Gonagala Massacre, happened on
September 18, 1999, and not on August 25, 1999, as claimed by the
movie.9 As for the death toll, while the film declares it to be 57, The
Sunday Times mentions it as 54. The Official Website of the Data and
Information Unit of the Presidential Secretariat, Sri Lanka, quotes the
film as the true source and also identifies the death toll to be 57. Other
sources mention varying figures.10 These factual and historical
discrepancies were never contested by those who applauded the film,
rather preferring to echo President Rajapaksas words. Instead,
Sinhalese viewers seemed to be dazzled by its emotional appeal. For

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 83

instance, a reviewer writing in the mainstream Sri Lankan newspaper
The Island says: My critical eye was dimmed very often with tears at
the sheer pathos, deplorable difficulties faced and tragedies submerging
the poor villagers of Gonagala in Ampara (Pethiyagoda). It is clear
that the audiences perceptions of memory are more attuned to
nationalist sentiments rather than to a critical interrogation of history
(and even the historicity of history). In other words, a humanitarian
depiction of the victims of warwho are Sinhalese Buddhists as the
film and its reviews suggestcan willfully override any dissimilarity
to the events that happened in reality. As this paper seeks to explore,
the state seems to endorse this logic in composing the chemistry of
post-war memory culture, which is a post-war strategy to officialize
and legitimize a master narrative of its warthe self-proclaimed
Humanitarian Mission or the Worlds largest hostage rescue
mission against the LTTE (The Ministry of Defense website).
Officializing Memory and Master Narratives
Meaningful links between history and memory are intimate. As
Jelin asserts, memories generate meanings of the past, framed by the
power relations in which their actions are embedded in the present (xv).
Thus, memories occupy a central space in present-day power politics,
and can best serve a national imaginary. Jelin also elucidates the ways
in which the past is use[d] and abuse[d] by actors with bureaucratic
powers to officialize and institutionalize their own master
narratives of the nation (23-27; 44).These discourses of nationalism
and national identity compel master narratives to be selective and to
privilege saviors of the nation. Along these lines, Gamanis attempts to
officialize a dominant version of memory are noteworthy. Sulochana,
the ultra-patriotic Sinhala teacher in the film, levels the culpability for
the massacre at the armed forces that are officially responsible for the
protection of civilians. This is evident in her sardonic question to the
young military officer, Major Vikum: What did the army do until this
kind of predicament befell the village? (Gamani) This question would
certainly occupy a legitimate space in the nationalist mindset of the
Sinhalese viewer. Furthermore, the film repeatedly flashes back to
intense moments of the massacre in a bid to remind the audience of the
LTTEs violence. Unarmed mothers and fathers are hacked to death
while infants are smashed on the ground. The notion of culpability is
used, in this fashion, as a point of departure to legitimize the course of
militant actions taken by the Sinhalese Buddhist victims who are
seemingly driven by a search for justice.
Along these lines, the film valorizes retributive justice in the final
encounter between the villagers and the LTTE in which Sinhalese
Buddhist war heroics get the better of the LTTE cadres, reversing the


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

aftermath of the former massacre. Women, who were once terrified by

the LTTEs hostility, are armed with guns to confront the LTTEs
swords and knives. Fathers, who could not hold their ground, excel in
martial arts and the use of weaponry. Children, who were once
traumatized by the LTTEs terrorism, now revel in witnessing the
Sinhalese heroism. A child who lost her voice at the trauma of
witnessing the deaths of her sibling and parents, regains her voice when
the perpetrator is strangled to death by a Sinhalese home guard.
Clearly, the film presents an alternate narrative to illustrate the
Sinhalese Buddhist national imaginarys stance on how things should
have happened. This seems to be an attempt to address Sinhalese
Buddhists melancholiatheir inability to grieve over what they once
lost in war. As Freud states, melancholia borrows some of its attributes
from mourning, which is the reaction to the loss of a loved person,
object, or ideal (243). Unlike normal mourning, melancholia is marked
by pathological mourning (Freud 250). In other words, it stems from
a situation in which the subject cannot properly manage the act of
mourning. On the other hand, Judith Butler writes that melancholia is
the repudiation of mourning (29). The rejection of mourning can
render results that are similar to those of unsuccessful mourning.
During the three-decade-long war, Sinhalese Buddhist civilians and
their state underwent woeful experiences of material and human loss.
As a result, their self-esteem was disparaged by the enemy-other in
many instances of military defeat. The end of the film rectifies the
mistake the Sinhalese Buddhist villagers make by letting the enemy
massacre their kith and kin at the beginning. This moment points to
Qadri Ismails discussion of the notion of loss that has been historically
and culturally troubling the Sinhalese Buddhist majority for several
Crushed culturally and politically for some four and a half long
centuries by three Christian Western powers (Portugal, Holland,
Britain), attacked incessantly by Tamils (Hindus from southern India)
in the even longer centuries before colonialism; in short, subjugated,
dispossessed, victimized, and wounded by history itself, the
Sinhalese Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka . . . is simply trying,
according to its autobiography, to redress the balance, heal those
injuries, correct those wrongs, attempting to finally live in peace and
security in the post-colonial period. (34)

Ismails criticism sheds light on a national state of melancholia that

dates back to the second century B.C. when Elara, a Chola invader,
seized power.11 One way of redress[ing] the balance seems to be
getting even with the enemyor more correctly, getting the better of
the enemy. The centuries-long anxiety displays a state of inability to
mourn properly, which is, in other words, a state of national

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 85

melancholia. A viable solution recommended by hegemonic memory
work is to promulgate a culturally superior narrative for Sinhalese
Buddhists and ensure that it remains the only narrative, as evidenced by
the national mission assigned to Gamani.
This single narrative presented in the film embodies the ideology
behind the Governments final offensivethe Humanitarian
Operationagainst the LTTE. As the state reiterates, its war against
the LTTE is a mission for justice on behalf of innocent civilian victims.
This official truth reverberates in Gamani in which the villagers
overpower their enemy through civilized warfare. On the contrary, the
LTTE cadres savagery and lack of humanity are displayed in their
use of basic weapons like swords and knives with which they
sadistically hack unarmed innocents to death. Their actions are placed
on par with images of tribal genocide in movies like Hotel Rwanda,
Tears of the Sun, and Blood Diamond. The tyrannical nature of African
victimizers as captured by Hollywood is well replicated in the violent
gestures and grotesque physiognomy of the LTTE soldiers. In this
manner, the film pronounces a strong adoration for the human-ness
of the state forces in tandem with its denunciation of the sub-human
nature of the LTTE. Most importantly, it recasts the death of the LTTE
leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was reportedly killed in an attempt
to use innocent unarmed civilians as a shield.12 In the movie, before his
demise, the LTTE leader keeps Sinhalese villagers as hostages and tries
to shield himself with a Sinhalese mother and her child when he is
surrounded by the government forces. The Government viewed the
killing of the LTTE leader as an ultimate moment of rendering justice
to the nation as was pronounced in a news report by the Defense
Ministry: The end of the megalomaniac killer and the megalomaniac
outfit he created finally did the justice to the 19 million Sri Lankan
citizens who suffered immensely due to the madness he unleashed (n.
pag.). In a similar vein, the elimination of the LTTE leader in Gamani
restores order and justice to the victimized as it marks the climax of the
Sinhalese Buddhist villagers victory. They jubilantly celebrate their
accomplishment in a way that suggests that the Sinhalese Buddhist
nation is invincible.
The single story of victory presented in Gamani takes place against
the backdrop of Sinhalese cultural heritage. This phenomenon is
evident in the use of the lessons on Sinhala Literature and history that
are incorporated into the home guards training sessions to give them a
good morale. This also illustrates another aspect of the officialization
of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist master narrative. Such narratives
are drafted by professional historians whose link to power is crucial to
their task (Jelin 28). In the film, the official narrative-tellersthe
monk, Sulochana, and Major Vikumhave socially hierarchical


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

positions as they are more informed than the villagers. At a symbolic

level, these three characters serve three aspects indispensable to
Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism: the monk represents ideological
leadership; Sulochana the need to educate citizens on history; and the
Major, the mechanism that officially implements military decisions.
Notably, the film is directed by a Former Rear Admiral in the Sri
Lankan Navy. As Jelin holds, official memory workers claim
authority in the practice of assigning meaning to historicized memories
(44). Even though the film features a displaced Tamil family that has
undoubtedly undergone similar experiences, their narratives are
positioned on the periphery, and only in service of the hegemonic
narrative. Along these lines, the film overwhelmingly depicts
Sinhalese-ness, which points to another paradigm of post-war Sri
Lankan memory workthe polarization between Sinhalese as the
insiders and other communities as outsiders or interlopers.
Brandishing Sinhalese Buddhism and Sanguinary Justice
Michel Foucault writes that history is a way in which society
recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is
inextricably linked (7). History and memory are mutually constitutive,
and documenting history becomes a concomitant process of archiving
memories. As Jelin puts it, [m]emory . . . incorporates knowledge,
beliefs, behavior patterns, feelings, and emotions conveyed and
received in social interaction, in processes of socialization, and in the
cultural practices of a group (9). This involves advancing one version
of history that, together with patriotic symbols, monuments, and
pantheons to national heroes, could serve as a central node for
identification and for anchoring national identity (Jelin 27). This
mnemonic process grants ownership of memorization to a dominant
cultural group, as in the case of Sinhalese Buddhists in Gamani.
Notably, Tamils are not given an opportunity to engage with collective
memory. Instead, their experiences are narrated for them by Sinhalese
Buddhists. The family of displaced Tamils is introduced and their
victimization is narrated in order to reiterate Sinhalese Buddhist
humanism that is collectively celebrated. The film, thus, shows that
collective memory functions in an insular way in the context of religionationalism.
Further, in line with Gamanis depiction of Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalism, the Buddhist monks preaching is used as a background
soundtrack in the opening scene. The Buddhist chant in the opening
scene that invokes samyak dushtika godsgods who have been graced
with the enlightenment of Buddhismto come and listen to the
preaching is an invitation to a Sinhalese Buddhist audience to
congregate to witness a narrative crafted for their entertainment.

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 87

Clearly, the film is not meant for a multi-cultural Sri Lankan audience
but only for a selective Sinhalese Buddhist audience. It mistakenly
conflates the Sinhalese Buddhist identity and Sri Lankan-ness while
excluding Tamils and non-Buddhists as others. In one scene, while
the village monk preaches about the woeful experience in departing
from the beloved with an emphasis on the Buduwadana (the word of
the Buddha), a home guard enters the kitchen to flirt with his fiance
who is preparing alms. He asks for food in a playful way, and she
replies in a similar manner that he has to wait until bana (Buddhist
preaching) is over. At this juncture, he retorts, [b]ana? If we are
listening to bana, whod be protecting the village? (Gamani). While
the significance of the indispensable role of the home guard in civil and
national security is pronounced in this manner, this scene also sheds
light on the need to take up arms to protect the national religion,
Buddhism. The woman changes her mind and offers food to the home
guard by subverting the religious convention, as if to acknowledge his
superior position as a jaatiye muradewathathe guardian god of
the nationa name attributed to armed forces in the nationalist
imaginary.13 This scene conflates the Sinhalese Buddhist identity and
Sri Lankanness as something indispensable to the safe upkeep of the
Sinhalese nation.
On par with the home guard, another seminal Gamani figure
emergesthe Buddhist monk who is positioned as the inspirational
live wire of the Sinhalese Buddhist military mobilization against the
enemy. In Buddhism Betrayed, S.J. Tambiah documents the
emergence of militant monks whose active involvement in Sri
Lankan politics dates back to 1935 (Jayawardena qtd. in Tambiah 18).
Influenced by Indian nationalism and left-wing politics, and armed with
an anti-British attitude, they formed various movements with political
affiliations. Tambiah illustrates how monks were drawn into political
violenceas perpetrators as well as victimsin the 1971 JVP
insurrection and in the Sri Lankan Governments war against the
LTTE. He examines how the sons of the Buddha dedicated to nonviolence have transformed themselves into a militant, violent, radical,
and political identity as sons of the soil which entails militant and
violent politics and thus defies the non-violent teachings of Buddhism
(Tambiah 95-96). With some notable exceptions, he says, the
majority of monks explicitly or privately supported and condoned the
Sinhalese armys killing of Tamil guerillas and had not felt the moral
imperative to object to the tribulations imposed on Tamil civilians
(Tambiah 95). Even though this seems to be a sweeping generalization
which is later refuted by Daniel Kents studymany monks
interviewed by Kent are of the view that Buddhist monks should never
encourage soldiers to kill enemiesthe dominant Buddhist rhetoric


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

which is under the purview of the prominent monks is often linked to

the states interests.14 These attributes are embodied by the monk of the
village temple, who is enraged by the incapacity of villagers to hold
their ground following the massacre:
We cannot tolerate these crimes . . . .We are a nation of good blood.
You better know! Our ancestors fought the Portuguese, the Dutch,
and the English with poised swords and daggers. We are such a
nation. We must remain in these villages even if it means killing
(enemies) with suicide. If anyone wants to go, go! If home guards
cannot safeguard this village, I will disrobe and take a gun into my
hand. (Gamani)

These words remind us of Ismails aforementioned quote pertaining to

the Sinhalese nations desire to heal its historical injuries. The monk
uses address terms such as yako (hey!), thopi (you), and directives
such as denaganiyaw (know), pala (go) which are loaded with
militant rhetoric (Gamani). The monks vocabulary is notably
reminiscent of that of Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist revivalist in
colonial Sri Lanka. He initiated an island-wide campaign of national
regeneration with the motto Awake, You Sinhalese! (Jayawardene)
The revivalist rhetoric he used in mobilizing Sinhalese Buddhists to
protect Buddhism from Christian missionaries was directive and
militant. Dharmapala is considered a prototype of a nationalist hero,
who, in President Rajapaksas words, performed his duty to uplift
Sinhala Buddhist[s] during a dark era in Sri Lankan history when there
was no opportunity for the people even to think about freedom
(Anagarika Dharmapala Raised His Voice During the Darkest Era in
Sri Lankan HistoryPresident Rajapaksa). The monk in Gamani is
positioned as a reincarnation of Dharmapala. Notably, the monk is also
driven by a consuming desire to avenge the massacre of Sinhalese
Buddhists by the LTTE.
Thus the monk widens an existing gap between the two factions at
war. He further exclaims in an alarming tone:
[B]e informed. Even if we are killed in hundreds, we dont leave our
villages. Did we leave them when we were attacked by Chola, and
Pandya? Our kings organized armies for years, attacked them and
chased them away.[15] Those noble people will curse us from their
graves if we leave our villages in fear of these. (Gamani)

He mistakenly conflates the identity of South Indian Chola and Pandya

invaders with that of Sri Lankan Tamil-ness, which, in his eyes, is
embodied by the LTTE. This idea echoes the articulation of religious
nationalism by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who are of the view that
Buddhism has always been the national religion of the people of Sri
Lanka (Tambiah 102). The monk sees the seventh-century Sinhalese

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 89

and the twentieth-century Sinhalese in the same light. This view
reinforces a notion of the Sinhalese identity as one that has remained
constant and can be traced back 1,400 years.
Furthering Sulochanas justification of retributive justice, the monk
in the film interprets violence as a Buddhist solution to war: Killing
a man is parajika . . . .But killing someone for ones own safety is not
parajika.16 Even Lord Buddha has sanctioned it (Gamani). Along
these lines, he advocates a just-war theory and interprets Buddhism
in militant terms. He even questions the non-violent position
traditionally assigned to a monk: So whats the role of the present-day
monk? Does it mean going into woods and meditating while his
devotees are being killed, or helping save those innocent people?
(Gamani). This points to Tessa J. Bartholomeusz discussion of the
prima facie just war theory, a mechanism used by Sinhalese Buddhists
since classical times, to rationalize their involvement in war despite the
non-violent teachings espoused by the Buddha. Accordingly, the
obligation to refrain from killing can be overruled by the obligation to
protect Buddhism. Bartholomeusz shows how Sri Lankan state leaders
in the recent history, while making references to the Mahavamsa
portrayals of ancient Buddhist rulers such as Dutugemunu, have
asserted [their] right to wage war against the LTTE for the greater
good of the citizens of [their] country (37). These ethical obligations
regarding war claimed by a ruler are central to Sinhalese Buddhist
nationalism (46). Similar views are expressed in Gamani, which links
the just war theory to the Sinhalese Buddhists right to restore order
and claim justice. This fits into the nationalistic agenda and justifies
the Governments use of violence and military power in resolving the
ethnic problem. The film voices the need to arm Sinhalese Buddhists
against the LTTE/Tamil invaders who have no rightful claim to the
Sri Lankan motherland which is the sole property of Sinhalese
Buddhists. Similar to the monks in Bartholomeusz study who talk
about a rulers ethical obligations regarding war (46), the monk in the
film invokes blessings on the Governments military ventures against
the LTTE. He is invested with powers that supersede even those of the
military hierarchy. He walks into the training sessions at his will and
preaches about the grandeur of the Sinhalese Buddhist ancestors.
Clearly, he is positioned as a proxy for the ruler. It must also be noted
that when he addresses the villagers, he is positioned standing against
the background of a huge Buddha statue. This example of mise-enscne contributes much to the overarching presence of Buddhism in the
monks political activism.
As Stanley JeyarajaTambiah argues, seeing the utopian past as
a beacon for the future is a prominent feature in militant Sinhalese
Buddhist rhetoric (106). Based on the success stories of ancient


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

Sinhalese Buddhist kings military ventures against terrorism, the

monk defies western political solutions to the countrys problem,
which he considers to be flawed: Giving political solutions to
terrorism is extremely dangerous. When they realize they can win their
demands by killing innocent civilians, they ask for more (Gamani).
The fact that these words are addressed to a gathering of representatives
of a non-governmental organization (NGO) is also significant. During
the time of war, the GOSL frequently accused NGOs, of being under
the auspices of western donors, and of aiming to destabilize the
countrys sovereignty and territorial integrity.17Along these lines,
Gamani writes back to the western solutions to war, while upholding
the Buddhist states decision to resort to militarism.
While Buddhism is thus used to rationalize the states military
ventures, the enemys use of religion in war is denounced. For
instance, the LTTE leader tries to console the mother of a fallen cadre
saying, [t]he son martyred himself for the Eelam. He went to heaven.
Now youre a Mahaveer family (Gamani).18 But the mother objects:
My son did not die for Eelam. He died for us, whom you kept in
custody in fear that he would shirk the assigned task in Colombo
(Gamani). She accuses the LTTE of telling lies from the outset that
the Sinhalese kill Tamils and rape Tamil women. She retorts: If
someone kills innocent people for his/her own advantage, that person
does not get to heaven, but hell, according to our religion (Gamani).
This dubious take on religious justification of war furthers the films
endorsement of Buddhisms legitimate warfare.
A close analysis of Sarath Weerasekaras Gamani shows the
emergence of several political and cultural paradigms in post-war Sri
Lanka. While post-war cinematic memory-work functions within the
political agenda of the ruling state, such work also complies with
religious and nationalist interests of the majoritarian Sinhalese
Buddhist community that is eager to establish their cultural superiority
over ethnic and religious minorities. On one hand, the desire for
superiority can be comprehended as an attempt by the Sinhalese
Buddhist nation to grapple with a state of post-war melancholia. On the
other hand, this situation shows how state-sanctioned memory work
creates a deleterious single narrative about the war. Dominant
cinematic memory that interprets justice via militant Buddhism not
only echoes but also provides an ideological nourishment to post-war
Buddhism-based violent mobilizations, such as the BBS, which target
ethnic and religious minorities. The film, in this manner, presages a
new phase in militant Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that is endorsed
by the state as something nationally important and, hence, not to be

Militant Buddhism and Post-War Cinematic Memory Work 91

doubted, as evident in the Secretary of Defenses words quoted above.
It is not an understatement to say that Gamani sets the stage for the
birth of neo-tribalism, which Hywel Williams defines as modern
governments desire to justify their existence in historical terms and to
propose tribe which is savage in instinct and ritualistic in religion as
the basis of a grunting solidarity (67), in post-war Sri Lanka. In these
terms, hegemonic memory work renders a notable service to the task of
converting the country into a military regime, which is established on
cultural supremacy and militarized Buddhism.

1. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be identified as a civil war in line
with the definition articulated by Michael W. Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis.
They identify a civil war as an armed conflict between an internationally
recognized state and one or more armed oppositional groups that wage
resistance against the state. For the definition, see page 31 of Making War and
Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations.
2. Founded in 2012, The Buddhist Power Force is a hard-line SinhaleseBuddhist organization that promises to safeguard Buddhism against threats and
to lead the nation to build up a Buddhist society in Sri Lanka (Bodu Bala
3. On April 9, 2014, the BBS sabotaged a press conference convened by
Rev. Watareka Vijitha, a staunch critic of the BBS. A few days later, on April
23, 2014, the BBS stormed the premises of the Ministry of Industry and
Commerce, which is under the purview of minister Rishad Bathiudeen, a
Muslim. In both incidents, the police did not take action against the BBS.
4. After thirteen soldiers were killed in an LTTE ambush in Jaffna on July
23, 1983, the government brought the bodies to Colombo for final rites. In
reprisal, anti-Tamil riots broke out in several parts of the capital (Ethnic
Conflict of Sri Lanka).The events of the ethnically-oriented violence are
known as Black July.
5. Home guard is the lowest-ranking post in the Sri Lankan armed forces.
Often denigrated as gam batta, a home guard occupies a peripheral space in
the military hierarchy.
6. See Perera for an analysis of the etymology of gamani.
7. King Dutugemunu (101-77 BC) is well known for unifying Sri Lanka
after defeating King Elara, a Chola invader, who seized power and ruled the
country for forty four years. See Senaveratna for a detailed account of the war
between Dutugemunu and Elara.
8. The film was positively reviewed in mainstream Sinhala newspapers
such as The Lankadeepa, The Dinamina, and The Silumina. These reviews have
not been digitally archived.
9. See Kamalendra.
10. For instance, SLNewsOnline reports 61 dead.
11. See Senaveratna.
12. Velupillai Prabhakaran (November 26, 1954 May 18, 2009) founded
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976 with the intention of


Dinidu Priyanimal Karunanayake

creating an independent, separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The war he
started against the Sri Lankan state is one of the longest civil conflicts in South
Asia. Based on the widely publicized beliefs, Jyoti Thottam reports, By the
final weeks of conflict, he [Prabhakaran] was believed to be using thousands of
Tamil civilians as human shields against the advance of the Sri Lankan
military (n. pag.).
13. As the convention goes, the alms are not supposed to be consumed
until offered to the Buddha.
14. Daniel Kents 2010 study Onward Buddhist Soldiers: Preaching to
the Sri Lankan Army recounts interviews with monks who reject the idea that
Buddhism justifies any form of violence. However, it must be noted that those
monks do not occupy any position in the dominant nationalist rhetoric, unlike
the informants in the studies by Tambiah and Bartholomeusz.
15. Cholas were South Indian Tamil rulers whose occupation of Sri Lanka
dates back to the Kingdom of Anuradhapura (377 BC1017). Pandyas were
Tamil rulers from the extreme south of India, and they invaded Sri Lanka
during the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa (10561212).
16. Parajika refers to a set of actions that result in a monks expulsion
from monkhood. There are ten such actions in the case of a novice monk, and
four with respect to a fully-ordained monk.
17. Speaking in December 2008, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select
Committee said that some of the leading INGOs and NGOs were supporting the
LTTE directly and indirectly (Sriyananda). Four years after the war ended, this
is still a popular accusation repeatedly made by the state (President Warns of
Foreign Plot to Destabilise Sri Lanka).
18. Mahaveer is a title given as a tribute to the fallen LTTE cadres in
memory of their sacrifice for the organization.

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