“They hold harthals now even for small, small incidents. When the LTTE was killing all communities indiscriminately, nobody held harthals” – President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport on Sunday, 22 June
- Hardline monks did not riot or burn in Aluthgama and Beruwala last Sunday night. They just struck the match upon their platforms and watched the towns burn
As the politically-aware citizenry reels from the shock and horror of a 21st century ethno-religious riot, much of the despair stems from the knowledge that the horror of Aluthgama was a long time coming
Inside the Welipitiya mosque premises, the floors and walls of the little scripture learning room are smeared with fresh blood. Benches and desks are strewn around, chairs upturned, as villagers bore the wounded and bleeding into the small room beside the main mosque, tending to them there until the fighting subsided and they could be taken for medical treatment.
Three men – a tile layer, day labourer and shop owner – perished in what residents called face-to-face clashes on the night of 15 June in the Welipitiya village, a tiny, ethnically-mixed settlement off Dharga Town Aluthgama. All three victims were Muslims.
Standing between the mosque which was housing the women and children of the village during the Sunday night rioting, Muslim residents of Welipitiya say they fought assailants whose faces they could not see, after a peppering of bullets shortly before the fighting erupted had brought down the power lines in the area.
The morning after, the small narrow street is cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape because of the fatalities. The yellow tape ironically forms the divide between the Sinhalese and Muslim sections of the street, with four Policemen on each side stationed to ‘secure’ the two warring outposts.
Except that residents on the Sinhalese side of the village are devastated by the deaths of their Muslim neighbours and insist the mobs that bore down on the Welipitiya mosque were people they did not know. Sinhalese homes were not spared in the mob violence that raged on the street that night, making residents on both sides of the crime tape divide curse the ‘outsiders’ for the massive damage from what the entire neighbourhood calls senseless violence.
Residents described how a bullet that killed one of the victims had pierced his heart and exited through the spine. A shot to the head had killed another. The third allegedly succumbed to wounds inflicted by a bullet that pierced his stomach or hip. Bullet holes and ricochets are visible on high walls, empty bullet casings lie on roadside, some of them waiting to be marked for evidence.
Yet in a sinister twist, the medical reports record all three deaths as fatalities from slash wounds. According to Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem, who has ‘gone rogue’ over the past week, the medical reports of the three gunshot victims have been fabricated. He is also insisting that the gunshots that killed the three Welipitiya residents were not fired by civilians.
Hakeem and his ministerial colleague Rishard Bathiudeen have publicly called for the proscription of the hardline Bodu Bala Sena group and legal action against the group’s rabble-rouser-in-chief, Galagoda Aththe Gnansara Thero, the man who threatened to ‘end’ Dharga Town, Aluthgama, in one night a few hours before the riots broke out.
After the two Ministers openly criticised the Government and demanded a ban on the BBS at last week’s heated Cabinet meeting, an angry President Mahinda Rajapaksa retorted that arresting the fierce monk would ‘turn him into a hero’. Action against the BBS and its rampaging monks would worsen religious tensions in the aftermath of Aluthgama, the President countered.
But 10 days after the worst communal violence Sri Lanka has seen in decades, things look bad enough.
Hundreds of Muslim homes have been destroyed or partially damaged. Four people – the fourth victim a Tamil watchman of a farm raided by mobs in Mathugama on Tuesday (17) night whose name the authorities never revealed – are dead. Eighty-eight people, including 16 Sinhalese and at least two Buddhist monks, were injured in the violence. Hundreds of families have been displaced in the 48-hour riots that reduced some homes and home businesses to ashes that fateful Sunday night.
Intermittent clashes between religious or ethnic groups are being reported in several areas, including the capital since Sunday, 15 June. Last weekend, an abaya shop in Dehiwala was pelted with stones and on Tuesday night, a shop in Beruwala was torched by an unknown group.
On Saturday (21) morning, news that the Panadura NoLimit showroom had been completely gutted by in a pre-dawn fire shattered an uneasy calm that was settling over southern and western Sri Lanka. The Panadura showroom is the largest in the NoLimit chain. The well-patronised, Muslim-owned clothing chain has been on the hardline groups’ radar for well over a year.
Their allegations against the enterprise have bordered on the preposterous: the monks claim devious management schemes to hand out free sweets to make Sinhalese women infertile and convert Sinhalese staff members by marrying them off to Muslim employees. The authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire, but theories currently being floated are an electrical short circuit and an attack motivated by the fact that the NoLimit showroom did not participate in the Harthal to protest the Aluthgama violence that was held in Colombo last Thursday (19).
The clear assumption by the Police, even before inquiries are concluded, is that it was either an accident, or the attackers were angry Muslims. This partisan behaviour on the part of the Police has been even more apparent in its treatment of the moderate monk and sworn Bodu Bala Sena rival, Watarekke Vijitha Thero, who was found bound in a ditch in Panadura last week, with slash wounds on his body.
Two justice systems?
Minister Rauff Hakeem outside Welipitiya mosque where the injured were housed until they were transported to hospital
The Police claim the monk had confessed to staging the attack and inflicting the cuts upon himself, including partial circumcision. The Government’s law enforcement arm, which is prevented from arresting BBS monks accused of inciting communal riots on 15 June for fear of a Sinhala Buddhist backlash, took Vijitha Thero into custody straight out of his hospital bed last afternoon and produced him before the Panadura magistrate, who remanded the monk for one week.
Police claim investigations have revealed CCTV footage and telephone records that provide evidence that the attack on the monk was staged. The Judicial Medical Officer’s report also found wounds on Vijitha Thero’s body to be self-inflicted, Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana told the press last weekend. But since being discharged from hospital yesterday, Vijitha Thero has rejected the Police version of events, and insisted that his lawyers enter a not guilty plea. Confessions obtained under duress have no standing in a court of law, the monk’s lawyers said, hinting strongly that their client would reveal his version of events in Police custody through an affidavit over the next few days.
Irrespective of the merits and demerits of the investigation and its findings, the process of law initiated against Vijitha Thero for filing a false complaint reveals that the system is alive and well in specific cases of interest. Due process and punishment, it would seem, depends strongly on the type and affiliation of the perpetrator.
As the politically-aware citizenry reels from the shock and horror of a 21st century ethno-religious riot, much of the despair stems from the knowledge that the horror of Aluthgama was a long time coming.
The stage was set when wave after wave of unchecked extremist hate speech and shadowy attacks on Muslim and Christian places of worship and trade unfolded across the island. The foundation was laid in the impunity Buddhist hardliners enjoyed when they launched campaigns against the Dambulla mosque, the Kuragala Sufi Shrine, the Halal food certification and the Fashion Bug textile factory in Pepiliyana last year.
For 18 months, while liberals raged and Muslims politicians and civil society groups pleaded, President Rajapaksa and his Government airily dismissed the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya antics as ‘sulu, sulu siddheen’ (minor incidents) and buttressed it with platitudes about Sri Lankan unity.
When the attacks began to be flagged internationally, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and across the Western world, the Government hit back hard, calling the reaction ‘disproportionate’ and without basis, since the religious tensions were no more than ‘isolated incidents’ that were being dealt with through a legal process, wherever evidence was available.
Needless to say, extensive video evidence has been available in nearly every instance. But 18 months after the attacks intensified, the Government is yet to prosecute a single assailant, monk or layman. Desperate and helpless to alter the conduct of a Government in which they participate, Hakeem and other Muslim representatives are increasingly reaching out to international partners and diplomats to express their fears about the fate of Sri Lankan Muslims in an increasingly minority-unfriendly climate.
Internationalisation of Aluthgama
For a Government that resents the ‘internationalisation’ of domestic issues, as it faces censure at multilateral forums like the UNHRC, the Aluthgama violence could not have come in a worse week. Visiting Colombo last week were two senior officials – one from the UN Political Affairs Division in New York, the other from the US State Department. UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco began a four-day mission to Sri Lanka last Thursday (19), for wide-ranging discussions with Government officials and other political stakeholders in the country.
With tensions still running high, the religious violence in Aluthgama and the adjoining town of Beruwala would dominate the discussion, especially between Fernandez-Taranco and Minister Hakeem. Held at the Minister’s residence last Friday, in the presence of liaison officers from the Ministry of External Affairs, President Rajapaksa’s Justice Minister gave damning testimony about the victimisation of the Muslim community by Buddhist hardline groups over the past 18 months, culminating in last Sunday’s violence.
Minister Hakeem told the UN Assistant Secretary General that he expected justice for Sri Lankan minorities and equal protection of the law, in light of recent events. The Minister made similar interventions with US Ambassador Michele Sison, during a meeting last week.
Both meetings have incensed the regime. Minister Hakeem is being warned to watch his public remarks on the anti-Muslim violence, after he made several statements to the international press that the Government perceived as being damaging, especially originating from a Cabinet Minister. The SLMC Leader is already in hot water for taking the anti-Muslim attacks to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka last year.
With the UN investigation into alleged war crimes and major human rights violations in the last stages of the war scheduled to kick off next month, Pillay made a timely intervention – possibly the last of her tenure – by appointing Pakistani advocate and lawyer Asma Jahangir to be one of the independent experts that will be supervising the OHCHR investigators. Jahangir, who was the former UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, is a strong advocate for religious tolerance and reported on Sri Lanka’s religious issues in 2006, following a visit to the country the year before.
Chilling Govt. statements
At the UNHRC in Geneva, which is currently in session, the Sri Lankan delegation was forced to defend itself against remarks made by Germany, Norway and Canada, about the religious violence in Aluthgama. The statement delivered on Friday before the Council was the first official Sri Lankan Government statement on the riots. Its contents would bear startling testimony to the Rajapaksa administration’s handling of the issue, and its ideological positions on the violence and its instigators.
The Sri Lankan Government statement to the Council that only in March adopted a resolution including demands that Sri Lanka work towards ending attacks on religious minorities, pointed to two points of instigation in last Sunday’s clashes; and both involved a Muslim aggressor and a victimised Buddhist monk.
The Sri Lankan delegation failed to make mention, even in passing, of a rabid, anti-Muslim rally by Buddhist hardliners in the heart of the Aluthgama town, where religious tensions had threatened to erupt only 72 hours before following a roadside incident, in which a monk was allegedly assaulted by two young Muslims on Poson Poya Day. It did however refer to stones being pelted at the vehicle convoy of the same monk on Sunday night, shortly before the violence in Aluthgama broke out.
White-washing and downplaying the role of the hardline movements and dismissing their part as being unrelated in ‘isolated’ attacks on minority communities has brought a new tragedy and a new persecution to the Government’s door. Yet it persists, in undermining the pain and suffering of the Muslim community, not only over the past 18 months, but last week, when some of them lost lives, livelihoods and the roof over their heads in instigated, senseless violence. Violence a long time in the making, tensions long foretold and the kind of shame that takes decades to live down.
Gnanasara Thero’s hate speech against Muslims did not begin in Aluthgama last Sunday. It has been growing increasingly rabid, increasingly violent and inciteful for 18 long months. The Government that arrested journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, politician Azath Sally and human rights activists Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan under sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act dealing with an incitement of communal tension, has been criminally derelict in the case of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara.
No blood on BBS hands?
Privately, the Government persists with the theory that the Bodu Bala Sena cannot be directly linked to the Aluthgama riots. The railing monk, his open threats against the Muslim settlements in the area, his clarion call for the Sinhalese to “awake,” these are only auxiliary to the violence. But after months and months of similar rhetoric, wild allegations and calls to arms, why does the Government fail to connect the dots or read the writing that has been on the wall since Gnanasara Thero first began his ranting?
In besieged Dharga Town the morning after, the mood alters among residents often. They are angry or profoundly sad by spells. Sometimes, they become introspective. The attacks on their places of worship, their holy books, these seem hardest to bear.
“Do you remember, how upset they got, even the Government, when the Mahabodhi temple was attacked in India?” Mohammed Najib says, his face pale and drawn as dawn breaks over the riot-rocked town. “Can they not imagine our pain, when our neighbourhood mosque is attacked? This is the place we go to pray, where our children go to learn the Qu’ran,” he recounts, sadly. “Only animals attack places of worship.”
The Bodu Bala Sena and its fierce monks may not have marched with the mobsters last Sunday night. They may not have carried the fuel cans and petrol bombs, or pointed out the Muslim homes and businesses to the mob.
The blood and ashes, they may not be on their hands. But the words, the anger and the suspicion that wrought the attacks against Muslims in Aluthgama that day, unfolded first upon their platforms. So in the end, the Bodu Bala Sena did not need to do much. They had already struck the first match. All they had left to do was to watch it all burn down.