A reappraisal of evidence and claims

Emerging Buddhist-MuslimRivalry in Sri Lanka?

by G. H. Peiris

(Continued from yesterday)

These modalities of destabilisation have by no means ceased with the toppling of the Rajapaksa regime. What is of direct salience to a reappraisal of evidence for the claimed intensification of Buddhist-Muslim rivalry is that the same ‘regime change’ strategies are now being pursued with enhanced vigour for protecting the tottering regime installed in 2015, with a short-term focus on averting its probable collapse at the forthcoming all-island local government elections ̶ a debacle to somehow mitigate at least in the main municipal areas such as Colombo and Kandy where there is an electorally formidable Muslim presence.

My present comments on the empirical basis of the claimed intensification of Buddhist attacks on the Muslims in Sri Lanka, I should clarify, are not based on a comprehensive study of the abundance of related reports available in published form (especially in the 'social media'), although I have read the proceedings of the conference referred to earlier, many news reports, relevant statements by spokespersons for the government and state sector institutions such as the police; semi-official organisations like the Bar Council; certain ecclesiastical bodies and civil society outfits; and articles and comments on this subject that have appeared in two English language national newspapers and in internet blogs and other websites.

There are certain commonalities in these writings. First, the overwhelming majority of my sources refer to an increasing incidence of hostility targeted at Muslims by either unnamed mobs or cliques variously referred to as "Buddhist extremists/fanatics", "followers of Bodu Bala Sēnā" (or other fringe group like Rāvanā Balakāya), "criminal elements", "disgruntled youth", or, as in a recent media reports, "a rampaging drug addict". The frequency of occurrence of these events of violence is also occasionally indicated with reference to some time-frame, or is simply described as "many", "extensive", "widespread", "increasing", "escalating", "ratcheting" etc., indicating that the impression most of the writers wish to convey is the prevalence of an ominous trend.

Evidence loaded with trivia

What I find strange in this body of evidence is the fact that it is loaded with trivia such as those referred to in the list compiled by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC, the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka) evidently for submission to the UN High Commission for Human Rights) and an overall scarcity of precise information indicating the intensity of the reported event. Barring a few exceptions (the most noteworthy exception being a report compiled by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies Colombo, that furnishes fairly detailed information on several major flashpoints such as Mawanella, Aluthgama, Dambulla and Grandpass, and has made a partially successful attempt at suppressing some of the innate anti-Buddhist prejudices)ii the overwhelming majority of the sources do not furnish information that would facilitate a comparative assessment of the real gravity of the problem which, to my mind, is essential for us to understand the seriousness of this claimed trend in comparison to intergroup conflicts elsewhere in the world ̶ not only in Buddhist countries of South and South East Asia, but in predominantly Hindu, Islamic or Christian countries in some of which ethnic conflict of one form or another is almost endemic. It is, indeed, unfortunate that we do not have a reputed scholar-journalist of the calibre of Asghar Ali Engineer who has monitored in detail the tragic Hindu-Muslim conflagrations in a large number of Indian cities, all of them published in the Economic and Political Weekly over several decades, apart from the reports of thorough and impartial investigations conducted by presidential commissions on the more disastrous episodes of intergroup violence.

Given the lacuna of comparable in-depth analysis on Sri Lanka, it would not be possible for the world to gauge how the widely publicised Aluthgama flare-up, for instance, compares with, say, the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1990 or the atrocities committed by Hindu mobs in the Muslim ghettoes of Ahmedabad two years later; or whether the role of Ven. Galagodaattē Gnānasāra of the BBS is comparable to that of the Burmese monk Ven. Ashin Wirathu and his '969 Movement', or Swami Chinmayananda Sarasvati of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a leader of the "militant wing" of the BJP;or the extent to which Mahinda Rajapaksa's alleged inaction in the face of sporadic inter-ethnic clashes during his second presidential tenure could be regarded similar in its causal nexus to that of Aung San Suu Kyi since her elevation to the office of 'State Counsellor' in April 2016, or of Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the deadly 'Gujarat Riots' of 1992. In the absence of the type of specific information on the spatial and temporal perspectives and some indication of the duration and destructive impact of the alleged Buddhist violence, the related sources of information and analysis, even those produced with the noble objective of safeguarding Buddhism from bigotry, could well be part and parcel of a process of rubbishing Sri Lanka and the religion of its majority community in the arena of global politics.

‘Grease Yaka’

I should illustrate the point I make here by referring to an article by Dr. Jehan Perera, well known for his pacifist and democratisation efforts, titled 'Anti-Muslim Violence: The Puzzle of Continuing Impunity', published in The Island of June 5, 2017. As a launching pad for his denunciation he has used the "grease devil" (grease yakā) reports that appeared in the press from time to time from about 2011 (the most recent one being dated May 27, 2017). Although the supposedly eye-witnessed 'grease yakas' (nude men, covering themselves with grease, and raiding homes at night to terrorise the occupants, especially women; but, in most cases, getting away with plundered booty and/or perverted satisfaction) have been reported from all over the island – Battaramulla and Talangama (suburbs of Colombo), Ehäliyagoda and Pelmadulla (Ratnapura District where the 'grease yaka' terror was tied up with several heinous murders related to the narcotic transactions), Kalpitiya (Puttalam District), Galenbindunuweva (Anuradhapura District), Middeniya (Matara District), Kattankudi (Batticaloa District), Haputalē (Badulla District), and several rural localities in Jaffna District.

These details appear to have been of utmost irrelevance to the reconciliation efforts hawked by Dr. Perera. Thus, having recast just one published version of questionable authenticity of the 'grease devil' exploits to a story obviously intended to be understood by those unfamiliar with conditions in Sri Lanka as a planned campaign of terrorising Tamil communities in the north, conducted from the bases of an "army of occupation" of Jaffna peninsula to harass its civilian population in a quasi-military strategy of subjugation (!), he has, through a curious verbal sleight-of hand, proceeded to link it to a supposedly escalating series of attacks by grease yakas on Muslims living in predominantly Sinhalese areas, the evidence intended to substantiate it being a Baron Munchausen-type fabrication of "burning a section of the Alutgama Town" (a fairly large urbanised area midway between Colombo and Galle).

Thereafter, Dr. Perera, has drawn a parallel between the tragic fate of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees (described in several international publications as "the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia") living in the Rakhine tribal homelands in Myanmar, with that of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, spicing his horror story with a passing reference to past attacks on the Christians, and ending with a condemnation of the government for making it possible for Buddhist miscreants to get away with impunity, but making the censure palatable to the Yahapālana regime by mentioning extenuating circumstances, as we can see in the following extract from his essay, thus killing several birds with a hail of stones.

"It may be that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act. The massive crowds bussed in by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally was larger than any other. It is also indicative of the political opposition’s ability to muster people power onto the street, even if they have to be provided with a handout inclusive of transport, meals and drinks. In this context the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will go away. The government may also be trying to follow the example of Myanmar, where the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate the hardline Buddhist nationalist groups within the government in order to win their support".

The Aluthgama riot of mid-June 2014 has, indeed, been documented in detail by the media. More than 40 of these could be easily accessed via internet as film clips and news reports. Collectively they represent no more than a patchy coverage of what really happened. Apart from the print media in Sri Lanka, some of the major media firms of the 'West' also covered the episode, projecting it mainly as yet another example of a rising tide of "Buddhist violence" in Asia. In addition, it received attention in several scholarly works. In my assessment, the best concise accounts of this riot are found in the reports published by two fraternally linked Colombo-based NGOs –'International Centre for Ethnic Studies', and 'Law and Society Trust'. An extract from the report of the former organisation reads as follows:

"Ethnic riots erupted (on 15 June 2014) in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, (and the adjacent) Valipanna and Beruwela towns located in the South of Sri Lanka. The area has a large Muslim population that lived alongside a larger Sinhalese community. Amity between the two communities remained somewhat fragile, as communal violence had erupted previously, almost a decade earlier. The incident that reportedly triggered the riots in 2014 was an altercation* between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims from the area. Following the incident, a large rally was organised on 15 June to condemn the alleged attack on the Buddhist monk. The BBS participated in this rally and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, the General Secretary of the BBS, made racist (sic.) and inflammatory remarks against Muslims at the rally. … During the riots that followed, four persons including three Muslims were killed and over a hundred Muslim homes and businesses were destroyed".*

(A careful study of many other sources suggest: (a) that the term 'altercation' is not an appropriate term to describe the harassment suffered by a bhikku by several ruffians (according to some reports, not of the local population), and (b) that there is an overestimation of the number of homes and shops damaged; and the Sinhalese also suffered comparable damage. (For related details, see Annexure 1)

About twenty-four film clips which I have examined for the purpose of writing the present reappraisal facilitates a rough reconstruction of the riot scenario over the next two days and its immediate aftermath. Following the harassment of the Buddhist monk on 12 June, there was a rapid spread of highly exaggerated rumour throughout Aluthgama and its hinterland conveying the impression of a severe Muslim assault. Simultaneously, there was the advent of BBS operatives, and the summoning of a mass rally to protest the alleged 'Muslim offensive' on 15 June in Aluthgama. Consequently, from about the early afternoon on the 15th hundreds of people were seen drifting along the main road leading towards the central commercial locality of Aluthgama past the suburb of Dharga Town (a predominantly Muslim locality within Aluthgama) in the form of a ragged walk, in order to attend a Bodu Bala Sēnā (BBS) meeting, with hardly any indication of unusual excitement or latent violence. This inflow was watched by what appeared to be Muslim gatherings on either side of the road, showing signs of restless concern at what might have appeared to them as a 'macho' Sinhalese challenge, if not as a menacing Sinhalese invasion of their home ground.

BBS meeting in Aluthgama

The BBS meeting held in 'downtown' Aluthgama (adjacent to the railway station) began at about 2 p.m. While more and more people gathered at the venue to make it one of the largest of its kind ever held in this township, a series of leaders – addressed the gathering, all of whom contributing to the general theme of Buddhism being deprived of its due rights in Sri Lanka, and stressing the alleged Islamic aggression with reference not only to recent events in that locality, but more generally, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The star attraction was, of course, Ven. Galagodaaththē Gnānasāra, whose aggressive demagoguery included a fierce attack on alleged government inaction in the face of an ominous Islamic threat to Buddhism. While appealing to the gathering to refrain from violence, he also (in disregard of irony as he often does) angrily threatened the Muslims about the disaster that would ensue: "if you even touch the Sangha once more, as you have done a few days ago". He also made several crudely disparaging references to President Rajapaksa, and castigated the impotence of the police saying "eka neethiyak apata venath ekak unta" (one law for us, and another for them), and proclaiming that while the Tamils, Muslims and Christians have leaders committed exclusively to defending their respective interests, the Buddhists have none, implying, no doubt, that he could fill the lacuna.

The meeting ended at about 5 p.m. (probably under police instructions) and a part of the dispersing crowd began a trek (described in certain documents as a "procession", which it was definitely not) along the Aluthgama-Matugama main road to the interior which, as mentioned above, runs through the predominantly Muslim Dharga Town. As recorded clearly in several video clips (which one could easily downloaded from internet), the passing "procession", despite the absence of any visible violence or among its participants (verbal insults being hurled at the road-side gatherings of Muslims cannot be ruled out), was greeted in the vicinity of the 'Grand Mosque' of Dharga Town with a hail of stones and rubble that originated mainly from the construction site of a multi-storeyed structure (reminiscent of the momentous clash in the vicinity of the Meera Makkam Mosque in Kandy almost exactly a century earlier).

The events that led to this unexpected attack by a mob of Muslim youth, and the massive conflagration it ignited to last over several days, constitute a tragic story which must be looked at in detail because it illustrates several features of thematic relevance to the main objective of the present study. My reconstruction of this story is presented as an addendum to this essay (Annexure 1).

To be Continued

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