COLOMBO: Anti-Muslim riots have been rocking several towns in Central and South Eastern Sri Lanka in the past few days. Although there is only one fatality, several Muslim owned shops and buildings have been gutted, and many mosques stoned by Sinhalese-Buddhist goons.

Observers attribute the flare up to two factors: First, a latent and entrenched anti-Muslim feeling Sinhalese Buddhists which comes to the surface whenever an emotive issue arises; and Second, the inability or unwillingness of the government and the police to act in time.

Last week, there were anti-Muslim riots in Ampara district in South Eastern Sri Lanka, following a rumor that Muslim eateries there were adding a chemical pill which will make Sinhalese Buddhist customers impotent.

The Sinhalese believe that their rate of growth is decreasing, while the Muslims’ rate of growth is increasing allegedly because the latter do not practice birth control; marry four times, and have a secret plan to make Sri Lanka a Muslim majority country.

In 2002, a supposedly statistics based story in a popular newspaper had said that at the rate at which the population of the two communities is changing, the Sinhalese would become a minority in Sri Lanka. This not only created apprehension in the Sinhalese Buddhist population but gave a fillip to radical Buddhist groups which were promoting the concept of “Sri Lanka for Sinhalese Buddhists” in which the minority Tamils and Muslims will have to be subservient to the majority.

The increasing influence of Wahabi Islam among Sri Lankan Muslims replacing Sufi Islam, with women being covered from head to foot and the men sporting beards, and the proliferation of mosques built with Saudi money, had resulted in the Muslims being seen as “not one of us” but as “the other”.

Wahabi Islam had severed the traditional cultural links between Muslims and other religious communities. In the past, Sri Lankan Muslim traders and artisans had specific roles to play in Buddhist religious festivities, but these began to be frowned upon by Wahabi purists backed by Saudi funded new Islamic institutions.

Experience of working in the Middle East under exploitative Arab bosses and the role of Saudi money in the spread of Wahabi Islam in the island had instilled among the Sinhalese Buddhists fear of a Muslim takeover.

Added to that was the pro-minority stance of the current government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in contrast to the explicitly Sinhalese-Buddhist character of the earlier regime led by Presidenrt Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“When rumors about the contraceptive pill or chemical being mixed with food served to Sinhalese customers in Muslim eateries were spreading, the government should have immediately countered them with scientific arguments. The government should be pro-active and not act after riots had taken place,” said Dilanthe Vithanage, CEO of the radical Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

“Reconciliation can be brought about only by action on the ground by tacking practical issues like this and not by making films and having seminars with funds from the West,” he added referring to the millions spent by the government on a film urging ethnic reconciliation.

Timely arrest and prosecution of the murderers of a Sinhalese lorry driver on February 22 would have prevented the on-going anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, observers say.

The death of a Sinhalese lorry driver at the hands of an unruly gang of Muslims would not have led to anti-Muslim riots in Digana and Teldeniya in the Central Sri Lankan district of Kandy if only the police had immediately taken the assailants into custody and filed cases against them, said Udaya Gammanpila, a Member of Parliament with the Joint Opposition Group.

“Instead of arresting the Muslims and filing a criminal case in court, the police were allegedly negotiating with the assailants,” he said.

Both the lure of money and the pro-minority orientation of the government were cited as reasons for inaction. Sri Lankan Muslims are basically traders with money. The offer of compensation with a cut for the local police would have been a good bargain to end the case.

“The delay in arrest and prosecution infuriated the people and they took the law into their own hands. In a situation in which people already suspect that the present government is biased towards the minorities, lack of action on the part of the police made people lose faith in the system. And they took the law into their own hands,” Gammanpila said.

“If arrests had taken place and cases were filed immediately, the Sinhalese would have felt that action had been taken as per law and would not have rioted,” he reasoned.

“Also when the government is perceived to be weak and lacking in public support (as evident in the results of the recently held Local Bodies elections) people tend to take the law into their own hands,” Gammanpila added.

Complaining of indifferences on the part of the government, the Minister of Dialogue and National Languages Mano Ganeshan ,who is a Tamil, said that he had tried to contact President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, but neither was available. Incidentally, the Prime Minister is also Law and Order Minister.

“The country is going to the dogs,” Ganeshan added.

The Trigger

On February 22, a 41-year-old Sinhalese man, M.G.Kumarasinghe, driving a truck, was set upon by a group of ten Muslims when he did not or could not, give away to the autorickshaws in which the gang was traveling. Grievously hurt, Kumarasinghe was admitted to the Kandy Teaching Hospital where he died last Saturday.

The people in Digana, Teldeniya, Udispattuwa and Medamahanuwara then launched a hartal (shut down) in protest against the attack and the alleged inaction. Angry mobs then took over, and set shops on fire in Moragahamula. Police and the Special Task Force were deployed to bring the situation under control.

Twenty-four people were arrested by the Teldeniya police. Out of the 24, ten were directly involved in the killing of the victim while 14 people had been arrested on suspicion, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said.

Current Situation

While the current situation is calm in Ampara, Digala and Teldeniya because of army deployment, rioting has spread to other towns in Kandy district and even to Kegalle district, says Shreen Saroor of Women’s Action Network (WAN). Pictures of houses and shops on fire have gone viral on the social media.

In Katugastota in Kandy district, Royal Pharmacy and two other shops were attacked. A mosque on the road from Katugastota and Kurunegala was stoned. Mawanella is calm but a small mosque was stoned in Kekirigoda. In Hewndeniya, local Sinhalese stopped the stoning of a mosque.

National Peace Council’s Plea

Commenting on the incidents, the National Peace Council (NPC) said: “Incidents of violence against the Muslim and other minority communities are both political and systemic. These are often engineered citing fear, distrust and insecurities and the building of enemy images of the victim communities.”

“Until the national political leadership takes firm and determined action at this time there is an increasing likelihood of Sri Lanka seeing a new cycle of communal violence that will become uncontrollable.”

“ A similar phenomenon was seen, with dreadful consequences, in the early 1980s when communal sentiment was directed against the Tamil which culminated in the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983,” the NPC warned in a press release.

“After enduring three decades of civil strife and internal war, and now having to answer to the international community at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Sri Lanka must not go through another cycle of violence which targets Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims.”

“In particular Sri Lankans need to remember the Muslim community has international support in many parts of the world including the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. This has been a source of strength to our country in many forms, including the provision of employment. It is the responsibility of the government and opposition to be aware of these realities and take immediate action prevent false propaganda and violence against the Muslim community spiraling out of control,” NPC said.

“We note that the leaders of the Muslim and Tamil political parties have already condemned these incidents and made calls to the government to take deterrent action. However, the paucity of government and opposition leaders making similar calls is most disturbing. We fear that unchecked this type of activity will gather momentum, and due to lack of adequate response, will become entrenched,” the peace promoter said.

Sri Lankan cabinet on Tuesday decided to declare a State of Emergency for seven to 10 days. Gazette to be issued soon. Cabinet minister for National Dialogue Mano Ganeshan said that at a Special Session of the cabinet on Tuesday it was decided to clamp an Emergency throughout the island for seven to 10 days initially. Anything beyond that will need parliamentary approval he added. Emergency allows the President to deploy the armed forces.