Minister of Technology and Research Patali Champika Ranawaka slams English language media and ‘citizen’ journalists on social media for fabricating stories about the incidents in Aluthgama. Those who are eagerly bashing Sinhala Buddhists as ‘racist terrorists’ are conveniently ignoring the rise of Muslim fundamentalism within the country, Minister of Technology and Research Patali Champika Ranawaka said.
Speaking to The Nation in the aftermath of the Aluthgama and Beruwala violence, the minister, who is also the General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), said it was unfortunate that the media, particularly the English language media and citizen journalists on social media, had taken it upon themselves to provide ‘fabricated stories’ to the world regarding the violent incidents that took place recently.
“The events that led up to the violence was distorted by some Muslim politicians, religious leaders, NGOs and media institutions to make it seem as if this was a well-coordinated attack against the Muslim community, which is nothing short of a blatant lie,” he said.
He claimed The Nation itself was guilty of reporting ‘misinformation’ that made it seem as if Sinhala Buddhists were the aggressors and Muslims were innocent victims, when the opposite was true.
However, the minister admitted the unofficial ‘news blackout’ the Government had allegedly attempted to impose on mainstream media with regard to reporting the violence, had backfired spectacularly, causing enormous harm to the country’s image overseas.
“This is the age of social media, of citizen journalism. Nearly everyone has a mobile phone. Around 18 million people are on Facebook. Information gets out fast. By withholding information, the Government opened the door for so many rumors to float around and the truth got suppressed,” he said.
Ranawaka claimed the sequence of events began with the ‘assault’ on the Chief Incumbent of the Pathiragoda temple, Venerable Ayagama Samitha Thera by three Muslim youths on June 12 (Poson Poya Day).
“The Thera and his driver were assaulted by the youths. These men were still at the location when Police eventually arrived. Though the Thera pointed out the youths to Police, they were not arrested. Instead, officers took the Thera to the Aluthgama Police Station. This was at 3.00 pm. From then until 7.30 pm, he was kept at the station without recording a statement, taking him to hospital or arresting the suspects. At this point, the Thera had stated he was prepared to let the matter rest without going to court if the three youths involved apologized for their behavior. However, instead of arresting the culprits, police then started calling Muslim businessmen in the area in attempt to convince them to ‘hand over’ the suspects”.
Ranawaka said it was at this point that villagers, after hearing that the assaulted monk was being kept at the police station while the culprits were roaming free, assembled and protested. “Sadly, in Aluthgama, the law works one way for Muslims and another for the rest, and it was this frustration that boiled over.”
He claimed the situation was the same in many Muslim majority areas.
The monks at the Pathiragoda temple had faced continued harassment at the hands of Muslims for a long period, with some resorting to dumping the heads and other discarded parts of dead cattle on temple premises. Samanera monks at the temple were often subjected to verbal abuse on the roads as they made their way through Dharga Town, he alleged.
Relating to the incident that set off the violence, the JHU Parliamentarian said the local Sasanarakshaka Bala-Mandalaya had organized a welcome for Ven. Samitha Thera when he was released from hospital on June 15. The invitees at the event included members from the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and other organizations.
Ranawaka admitted there were ‘concerns’ regarding the statements made by certain individuals during their speeches at this welcome. However, while everyone was talking about this particular meeting, no one talks about an illegal meeting that was taking place at the same time at a mosque in Dharga Town where some 3,000 Muslims attended, he alleged. “The Muslims gathered there after rumors were deliberately spread that Buddhists were going to attack the area.”
Eventually, the participants at the Aluthgama rally went in procession to the temple with the monk when they were attacked near the Aluthgama Mosque and in Dharga Town, he insisted.
During the subsequent unrest in front of the Mosque, a Buddhist monk, Ven. Magalkande Sudamma was hit on the head with a pole by some Muslims, resulting in him falling unconscious on the road. Eventually, some men were able to remove the injured Thera from the scene while he was still unconscious. “Thereafter, a rumor spread that the Thera was killed. Buddhists attacked Muslim owned shops and looted them. Houses were also attacked. Muslims also did the same to Buddhist owned shops and houses.”
Ranawaka said even he was made to believe a monk had been killed until he visited Kalutara and saw the monk for himself. “Thereafter, we immediately held a press conference to assure everyone that no monk was killed.”
However, in the ensuing aftermath, most chose not to speak about the devastation inflicted on Buddhists in the area. “I went to Welipenna and saw with my own eyes the damage”.
Despite the situation being brought under control, Muslims then chose to hold a Hartal not on one, but two days around the country over the incident, which Ranawaka termed a ‘grave provocation’ designed to enrage Buddhists. “This was clearly a trap to provoke Buddhists. It was what Hakeem, Bathiudeen and others wanted. They wanted the entire country to burn, but it didn’t happen”.
When questioned whether Muslims did not have a right to hold Hartals the minister said while they had the right to hold peaceful protests, Muslims had no right to force a Hartal on the country. “They forced people to shut down shops. They even tried to force Tamil-owned businesses to join. They cannot do that”.
Ranawaka also termed Muslim religious organizations such as the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema (ACJU) and the Shoora Council ‘shadowy organizations’ whose motives remained suspect. “Can even Muslims name five high-ranking members of the ACJU? The rest of the country didn’t even know such an organization existed until the Halal issue surfaced.”
He said it was unfortunate that Muslim leaders had forgotten that it was the Sinhala Buddhists who fought for the rights of Muslims and protected them for centuries.
“In 1627, when the Portuguese were trying to evict Muslims from the country, it was the Sinhalese who protected them. When the LTTE evicted Muslims from the North, they came to places like Puttalam and Kantale. Did the Sinhalese tell them to get lost? It was Buddhist monks who fought for the rights of Muslim women to get the vote and for Muslim girls to be educated. Have they forgotten all this?”
Ranawaka also asked people to imagine if the situation was reversed, and the country’s population was 70 percent Muslim and 9 percent Sinhala Buddhists. “Would Buddhists be given the same freedom of religion that Muslims enjoy now?”
He claimed Muslims need to be more concerned about the ‘enemy within’. There are Muslim extremists who were trying to enforce ‘social separatism’ on the Muslims and alienate them from the rest of the country, he alleged. There is a legitimate fear that Muslims, while doing so, were taking over towns and cities. “This fear is not limited to Sri Lanka. It’s present in Russia, China, Europe and the United States. People here are mostly afraid to talk about it, but it’s there”.
Ranawaka pointed out the recent arrest of Sri Lankan-born Zakir Hussain for terrorism charges in India. “Hussain has ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and even Al Qaeda. Intelligence agencies have revealed that both these organizations and even the Taliban are active in Sri Lanka. He is one among many such extremists here”.
The Nation queried whether the minister was endorsing comments made by Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera in Aluthgama, where among other things, he called on monks to exercise ‘jungle law’.
“We do not condone any hateful statements or ones calling on people to take the law onto their own hands. This applies whether it is coming from Gnanasara Thera, or even one of our own JHU members. But people need to understand that the public tends to take the law onto their own hands when the law either chooses to standby or is lethargic in taking action”.
He called on Muslims to not be misled by rumors and said despite statements made by some individuals, there was no ‘Buddhist terrorism’ being directed at their community.
As one could not and should not negotiate with extremists who want to take the country and the world back to the 7th century, Ranawaka appealed to moderates among the Muslim community to hold ‘sincere discussions’ on how to resolve problems.
When asked if the Government was now moving in the right direction in attempting to solve these issues post-Aluthgama, Ranawaka said much more needed to be done.
“The President has promised an inquiry. We urge him to expedite it. Investigations into other related incidents, such as the Panadura Nolimit fire and the one involving Ven. Watareka Vijitha Thera also need to be expedited as delays will only give rise to wild speculations. However, the best way for any issue to be solved is through face-to-face discussions. If Muslims were able to meet Buddhists and discuss issues face-to-face and apologize for any wrongdoing on their part, and if Buddhists did the same, these matters can always be solved. We need to move in that direction,” he added.