Col R Hariharan
“Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero addressing the rally in Aluthgama yesterday, referred to Muslims in derogatory terms and accused sections of the Government of being in collaboration with the Muslim Community. “They keep calling us racist and religious extremists. Yes, we are racists,” he charged as the crowd cheered him on. “This country still has a Sinhala police a Sinhala army. If a single Sinhalese is touched, that will be the end of all them,” he screamed.” – From Dharisha Bastiyan’s report in the Sri Lankan online portal Daily FT on June 16, 2014
The above media quote provides the simple answer to question “Why violent attacks continue against Muslims in Sri Lanka? The words quoted above are from the speech of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)’s founder leader Gunasara Thero at a rally organized in Aluthagama on June 15.
Sri Lanka has allowed Buddhist chauvinism to get into “direct action” against Muslim minority that is inciting the violent attacks against them. Evidently, as earlier instances have shown the government had been reluctant to take action to curb such provocative events for fear of antagonizing the Sinhala right wing which is an important segment of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “vote bank.”
The BBS had organized the rally in Aluthagama after three Muslim youth had allegedly assaulted a Buddhist monk and his driver on June 12. However, Muslim media sources said the BBS had twisted a simple altercation between a Muslim youth and the driver of a vehicle carrying a Bhikku as an attack on the monk to rouse Sinhala passions. Police arrested three Muslims suspected to be involved in the incident and they have been remanded to custody till June 25.
According to the well known expatriate analyst DBS Jeyaraj’s detailed report the BBS rally was attended by 7000 people including many brought from outside. Buddhist Followers of the Fascist organisation Ravana Balaya had also joined the rally.
At the end of the rally, 150-200 strong followers of BBS including young monks shouting anti-Muslim slogans headed towards the local mosque. It resulted in a skirmish when Muslim youth tried to head them off near the mosque. In the melee that followed Muslim houses and shops were stoned. Some Muslims are also reported to have pelted stones on vehicles in the BBS procession.
According to Jeyaraj, the police intervened to disperse the Muslim youth rather than prevent the BBS procession from going ahead. He added “the assailants were mainly outsiders and not from the neighbourhood. Bells started pealing in Buddhist temples. When people gathered at the temples they were exhorted to join the “holy war” and teach the Muslims a lesson.”
Around 6.45 pm police imposed curfew in the area. However, later the incidents continued and when the violence spread to adjacent Beruwala area, the curfew was extended there also. But apparently the action was belated as at least 20 Muslim owned businesses and several houses in the area were destroyed.
There were several incidents of arson and many buildings were set ablaze. According to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) MP Mohammed Aslam at least 25 houses were gutted completely. A very large number of buildings have suffered extensive damage. Several vehicles owned by Muslims were damaged or burnt. The Fire Brigade was called in to quell the spreading fires.
At the end of it all, yesterday three people were dead and 80 injured; 50 houses and property ((including burning down of over 10 shops ) in the predominantly Muslim area of Dharga town were damaged. According to the Daily FT report “houses in the Kotapitiya, Meeri Penna and Adhikarigoda areas in Aluthgama were also set on fire, with Muslim residents fleeing their homes to take sanctuary in several mosques in Dharga town.”
This is not the first incident in which Muslims and their property have been attacked and destroyed. This had been going on ever since BBS was founded in 2012.
Even if we make allowance for some exaggeration in the reports on the Aluthagama violence one thing is clear: the BBS is responsible for it. It was the incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric of the BBS leader Gunasara Thero that inflamed the mob that indulged in violent acts against Muslims.
Logically, action should be taken against the monk and the BBS for inciting violence. But if we go by past experience such a follow up action is unlikely. So we can expect the BBS to exploit any opportunity arising in the future also to carry out more such violent incidents.
One can discern a pattern followed by the administration in handling the growing Buddhist activism against Muslims.
a. Usually, police do not take preventive action to curb such gatherings that precipitate violence. In the Aluthagama incident also, the police permitted the BBS rally despite pleas from Muslim organizations and ministers not to do so. After the incident involving Muslim youth and the Buddhist cleric and his driver was reported, they feared BBS rally would incite violence against the community.
b. According to Jeyaraj there were over 900 policemen at the location. Apparently they were either unwilling or unable to prevent the attacks by hoodlums. This is also the usual response of the police. They generally do not act when violent incidents start; nor do they respond strongly to prevent the situation getting out of hand.
c. The Muslim ministers and community leaders usually approach the administration for help when they apprehend such violence or when violent acts are being perpetrated. But generally the administration is lukewarm in its response.
d. After such incidents, the President usually issues a statement appealing to all communities not to take law into their own hands. After the Aluthagama incident also the same pattern had been followed. President Rajapaksa, who is on a visit to Bolivia, issued a statement last night saying “the government will not allow anyone to take law into their hands.” (But the moot point is already some people had taken the law into their own hands.) According to the President’s media unit, the President urged the parties concerned to act with restraint. He ordered an investigation to bring to book those responsible for the incidents in Aluthagama.
In the follow up action, Prime Minister DM Jayaratna and senior cabinet ministers including Basil Rajapaksa, AHM Fowzie and Dallas Allaperumaha met with police officials and religious groups in Kalutara to assess the security situation. The curfew has been extended in Aluthagama and Dehiwala areas.
Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem visited Dargha town area today. Having failed to protect his people, Hakeem said he was ashamed to continue as a minister and was considering whether to be part of the government or not.
And in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaat has decided to organize a protest outside the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner’s office.
What next is the question? Is it going to be action replay? What happened to the religious police raised to look into these incidents?
One can only hope President Rajapaksa takes strong action to curb such incidents.. The country has a long term stake in maintaining communal harmony and cannot afford any action to jeopardise it. Otherwise, the future of Muslims in Sri Lanka does not look encouraging. And it could affect Sri Lanka in many ways.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group.