Colombo: H. Ahamed sits in a corner of his house in Aluthgama, Sri Lanka pondering the events of the past few days. His hometown was ravaged by a Buddhist mob resulting in four deaths as of Tuesday.
“We live in uncertainty just because we are Muslims. Most of the shops in Aluthgama are Muslim-owned so they tried to burn these to the ground. Homes were set on fire too,” Ahamed, the country manager for pharmaceutical company Acme Laboratory, said.
Five years after the war ended with the LTTE-led Tamil separatists, racial tensions are rising again on the island.
The anti-Muslim sentiment surfaced in April 2012 when a group of 2,000 Buddhists, branding themselves the Boddhu Bala Sena or Buddhist Force, attacked a mosque in Dambulla, in central Sri Lanka, claiming that the mosque had been built on a sacred Buddhist site.
A series of incidents targeting the minority Muslim population followed and culminated in a 1,000 people strong protest against the Halal logo on food products in the capital Colombo last February with Muslim authorities agreeing to remove the logo from all local products.
Tensions erupted again on Sunday.
“If one Marakkalaya (Muslim) lays a hand on a Sinhalese person that will be the end of them all,” monk Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara said to loud cheers at a BBS rally in the southern town of Aluthgama.
Following his racially-charged speech, the crowd took to attacking Muslim homes and shops. The government reacted by imposing a curfew, which did not deter the mob who continued their riot into the neighbouring Beruwala.
“Some shops were set on fire in the wee hours of the morning forcing people to take refuge in the Jamiya Naleemiya (an Arabic college),” said Niyas Mohammad, a lawyer living in Beruwala, a predominantly Muslim town south of the capital Colombo.
“A little incident can trigger their wrath. This started because of an argument on Thursday between a van driver and a Muslim motorbike driver. In the van was a Buddhist monk who tried to stop the fight,” Ahamed explained. “The monk later complained to the police that he was assaulted resulting in the arrest of the Muslim driver. Later, when he was in custody, some BBS supporters charged into the station and demanded to see the man. He was not released but some police officers allowed them to beat the man on the premises.”
Law enforcement officials and the Sri Lankan government have been accused of turning a blind eye to the violence in spite of the problem recurring for two years now.
“The Sri Lankan government had prior knowledge of the attack — tensions have been brewing since Thursday,” said Azad Salley, the leader of the National Unity Alliance and a member of the Central Provincial Council. “I personally spoke to the highest police officer in the area, Anura Senanayake to move the BBS rally from Aluthgama elsewhere. In spite of repeated assurances the attack still took place.”
Salley’s sentiments were shared by 23-year-old Sinhalese Christian Jehan Gunasekara. He was frustrated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s response to the attacks where he called for restraint and assured the public that the matter will be investigated to find the perpetrators.
“It was shocking to say the least that there was no condemnation of racial aggression and the attacks and lack of a zero-tolerance policy kind of attitude. It was merely made to look like an instance of vigilante justice gone wrong rather than the blatantly racially aggravated assault which led to people losing their lives,” the law student and journalist said. “Investigations are being conducted to find the parties responsible. One needn’t go further than a YouTube clip rant of a semi-evolved, half-witted twit (to put it nicely) to find the chief conspirator causing the unrest.”
Buddhist monk Wathehene Vijitha Thero said they had given the government prior warning but they had chosen to ignore it or did not understand the gravity of it.
“Everyone in the country, regardless of whether they are Sinhalese or Muslim, has the right to free speech. We should protect these rights.”
Hotelier Vimukthi Yapa took to Twitter to start two trending topics, #RajapaksaTakeAction and #EndBBS to urge the government to put an end to the violence.
“The BBS exists simply because the government allows it to, they are using this group as a distraction from real issues. This is a smart, powerful regime that ended a war! Do not for a moment think that there can be things that happen in this country without their supervision,” the 22-year-old, part of the Sinhalese majority, said.
For Sinhalese Buddhist Shana Tillekeratne the activities of the BBS make her hang her head in shame.
“We grew up with the teachings of Buddha, taught to us by the noble priests. It is a shame to see monks, who are supposed to lead exemplary lives behaving in such a manner. How will we ever teach our younger generation to respect the ‘sangha’ (priests)?” the doctor, living in Australia, said.
Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, general secretary of a Buddhist political party asked the public to not be instigated by the BBS.
“A very tragic incident has taken place. We urge the nation to remember that issues can only be solved through peaceful means. Buddhists should take the lead in this. Act in a manner that will allow us to resolve these issues,” he said at a media briefing on Monday.
“We’ve been asked not to speak to the press,” the office of the Minister of Justice, Rauf Hakeem, said when contacted by Gulf News to get a reaction to the current problem.
*Some names have been changed to protect their identity.
— Yusra Farzan is a journalist based in Sri Lanka