A reappraisal of evidence and claims

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka?


by G. H. Peiris

(Continued from yesterday)

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).

The overall impressions conveyed by that story could be summed up as follows:

(a) There is no doubt that the BBS meeting and Ven. Gnānasāra's presence and his public utterances were potentially inflammatory. (Note that the injured Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the attack by several Muslim youth on 12 June had been brought to the stage, his injuries duly bandaged).

(b) However, it should not be forgotten that prior to the riot on 15 June there was a build-up of explosive communal tensions in the Dharga Town area at least from about the second week of that month (Appendix 1) warranting police action, both when serious complaints were lodged regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader (8 June) and on the assault suffered by Ven. Samitha (12 June), as well as when representatives of the Muslim community conveyed to the police their fear about a possible outbreak of mob violence in the area. Whatever justification the police might have had for their inaction, there were undercurrents of suspicion among the Sinhalese that the police were in the pay of the Muslims business community.

(c) The large influx of people to the BBS meeting venue is likely to have been a result of malevolent rumour mongering and, of course, the undeniable entertainment value of the BBS leader (Didn't some of us in our youth go all the way to enjoy the 'May Day' performances especially by the inimitable scholar-legal luminary-pioneer Marxist, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in the Trotskyite "extra-parliamentary mode of capturing state power" in vogue at that time, roaring "gahapalla" (attack), his silhouette pointing at the old parliament complex against the crimson sunset over Galle Face green.

(d) On the 15th eve senior police officers were reluctant to exercise force to prevent signs of potential violence. There was no immediate action taken by them to stop the stoning. They preferred instead to attempt pacifying the more agitated persons in the crowds, realising no doubt that their interventions were being recorded by the media and the users of 'smart phones'.

(e) Thus, the offensives in Aluthgama were very definitely not one sided. People on both sides engaged in, and suffered from, the violence – with more Muslims than Buddhists among the victims in the post-riot stock-taking of overall damage. Although later records referred to death-counts of up to about 8 Muslims and a Buddhist monk, no such claims were made in the course of many recorded random interviews.

(f) "Burning of a section of the Aluthgama town" is a highly exaggerated and unwarranted description of this sad episode, no different from the type of hyperbole often employed by Gnānasāra Thero in his public utterances, unless one were to argue, like school boys sometimes do, that even a lamp-post could be considered a section of a town.

(g) On several occasions certain Buddhist community leaders of the area joined their Muslim counterparts in appealing for calm and peace while standing amidst fairly large gatherings that appeared to endorse what they said. This conveys an impression that goes completely against an article published by the 'Centre for Policy Alternatives' (presumably to commemorate the third anniversary of the riot) according to which there is absolutely no hope for ethnic reconciliation in Aluthgama.

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry

in Sri Lanka?

A reappraisal of

evidence and claims

Part 2

There is no dearth of writings that make the claim of Muslims in Sri Lanka being a minority that has, for long, suffered discrimination and harassment and, in the more recent past, been the target of "Islamophobic" persecution by the Buddhists. The more refined among these are some of the 'features' authored by the inimitable Izeth Hussain (ex-diplomat and regular columnist), hitting hard all round the wicket, as it were, often with easy elegance, and always, despite the pretence at intellectual detachment, with passionate commitment to his team's victory. There is, of course, nothing wrong in that, except his occasionally getting caught at silly point.

Professor John Holt's keynote address I referred to at the outset does not stand alone as an elevation of this pernicious claim to the plane of scholarly research. Among the others I have read, there are (a) the ICES and Law and Society studies (referred to earlier)iii which I think are the best of their kind, (b) Zuhair, 2016iv which, in my assessment, would have been excellent had the author matched its elegant style with prejudice-free substance; and (c) a monograph by Dr. Ameer Ali, one of my former faculty colleagues now living in Australia, titled 'Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009', published almost at the same time as Holt's study, a brief comment on which is presented below.

In Ameer Ali's analysis of the "fourth wave" (post-2009) – that of the earlier "waves" are no more than an exercise in re-inventing the wheel – lacks the sedate, persuasive approach typical of John Holt. Apart from the invective, there are several misconstrued references by Ali to several Buddhist outrages not referred to by John. These include "the destruction of a 400-years old Muslim shrine at Anuradhapura" (a mind-boggling archaeological discovery, according to a veteran historian whom I have consulted)v, prefaced by a tirade which accuses Rajapaksa of "…benevolently tolerating, if not openly supporting, … a vicious campaign to terrorise the Muslims, destroy their economy and demonize Islam through acts of intimidation, insult, incendiarism, and outright thuggery by ultranationalist organizations like the BBS, its surrogate parent JHU and the Sinhala Rāvaya", and the presidential neglect to a mindset of "triumphalism and malevolence" towards the minority communities after the victory over the LTTE in 2009. Does Ali demonstrate more than all else that the 'key' to understanding the real nature of this entire conflict is to realize that the honourable don Ali is as eloquent in his lingo as the venerable monk Gnānasāra is in his, and that such eloquence in the dissemination of half-truths and falsehood has much the same destabilising impact – that of rousing the rabble. Surely, the failure of the government at that time to curtail Buddhist megalomaniacs is, in terms of realpolitik, comparable to the failure of earlier regimes to tame the 'Tiger' megalomaniac for well over two decades; and, moreover, those holding the reins of office in Colombo have always, in both war as well as peace, been in desperate need of at least a segment of Muslim electoral support and goodwill. What is this psychoanalytical tripe about a "triumphalist mindset"? So, let's move out of the type of garbage replete with ethnic prejudices, and focus in this part of the article on the issues raised soberly by Professor Holt.

2.1. John Holt's evidence for a rising tide of Buddhist hostilities

In addition to stating that there were over "150 documented perpetrations by Buddhists against Muslims" from early 2013 to mid-2014,vi Professor Holt has presented a short list of such episodes (reproduced below) as concrete evidence to substantiate the assertion of an intensifying trend. It seems reasonable to assume that, except for its first item, the others stand prominent among the "documented perpetrations" of the 18-month period preceding the ICES conference of 2014. Thus, going solely by this set of information, I would have no hesitation to conclude that, in comparison to the previous 12-year spell, there certainly was a calamitous 'plateau' distinct from about 2012, provided I could obtain information that helps me to understand whether "a BBS proposal" or a "Rāvanā Balakāya protest march", or the remaining 140 or so of "documented (but unspecified) perpetrations" are comparable as acts of Buddhist hostility towards the Muslims to, say, the Aluthgama conflagration or the Dambulla demolition or the Mahiyangana desecration that are in his list.

(a) riot in the township of Mawanella

(b) removal of the mosque at Dambulla in response to Sinhala-Buddhist mob demands in 2012

(c) BBS campaign against the production of Halal food (2013-14)

(d) BBS proposal to ban the burka (2014)

(e) ‘Ravana Balaya’ (sic.) protest march (2013)

(f) desecration of a mosque in Mahiyangana (2013)

(g) attack by a Buddhist mob on Muslims in prayer at a newly constructed mosque in Grandpass, Colombo (2014)

(h) Aluthgama-Dhargar Town clash (2014).

(a) Mawanella Riot

The assertion that "scores of Muslim businesses were burnt out" in the Mawanella riot is a gross exaggeration made in whatever source John has relied upon. I had an unusual opportunity (courtesy of a senior police officer - a former student) of seeing the extent of the damage soon after the rioting had been brought under effective control, but before curfew was lifted, when I observed about twenty-five shops and houses bordering the Kandy-Colombo highway and in the bus-stand venue belonging to Muslims and Sinhalese that had suffered various extents of damage during the riot (it occurred in May 2001 and not in 1999 as John's informant appears to have said). There was, at this time, a rising tide of electoral rivalry (the excessively turbulent presidential election in 1999, and the parliamentary elections that produced 'hung' legislatures in 2000 and 2001) in many parts of the country, especially in localities such as Mawanella where UNP and SLFP muscle-power was (as it still is) equally matched. In any event, the riot had hardly anything to do with Buddhist militancy. Reproduced below is a reference to an aspect of its wider context in an article I wrote at that time to the Delhi-based South Asia Intelligence Review.

"In the longer term the Muslim fears of becoming a beleaguered minority in the entire country could have been reinforced by several brief, localised Sinhalese-Muslim clashes of the recent past – in the township of Mawanella in May 2001, and in Colombo North in October 2002. There is, in addition, the long-standing dispute in the interior of the Eastern Province concerning an alleged encroachment by the Muslims of land belonging to an ancient Buddhist temple".

(b) "Removal" of a mosque in Dambulla.

Urban functions in Dambulla until about the late 1970s were represented by no more than a small cluster of shops and primary-level government service outlets traversed by the Kandy-Jaffna highway, its income dependent mainly on the tertiary services the cluster provided to the thin scatter of peasant settlements in the surrounding area and to pilgrims visiting the historic cave-temple dating back to the pre-Christian era. Several changes witnessed in the 1980s – foremost among these were the opening up of 'System H' of the Mahaveli Programme to the northwest of Dambulla, invigoration of international tourism, and more generally, the advances in transport and travel that accompanied 'liberalisation' of the economy, and rapid population growth ̶ made it possible for Dambulla to become one of the largest market towns located mid-way between Sri Lanka's central highlands and the northern plains, a pleasant stopover for visitors to the hallowed archaeological sites of Sīgiriya, Anurādhapura and Polonnaruwa, and to emerge as the foremost centre of wholesale trade in perishable farm products commanding a commercial catchment extending over a large part of the island including Greater Colombo.

The relevance of these transformations to the political disturbances in this area stemmed mainly from the fact that the vast tracts of land which the sacred 'Rangiri Dambulla' temple had received over the past millennia as donations, much of it uncharted and/or uninhabited, and acknowledged vaguely as vihāragam (temple land), acquired a sharp upsurge of commercial value in the real-estate market. The first major outbreak of intense political dispute rooted in this fact was the agitation against the construction of a luxury tourist hotel overlooking the Kandalama lake – a campaign which, according to a Reuter report, attracted at its zenith more than 10,000 protesters (including a few volunteers for self-immolation!), objecting to the hotel project on grounds of its adverse ecological, social and cultural impact also involving a "land grab" of vihāragam by a consortium of large commercial firms. The protest fizzled out, and an elegant hotel pioneering eco-tourism in Sri Lanka came into being, the main reason for the former, and one of the principle beneficiaries of the latter being the Chief Incumbent of the Dambulla temple, Ven. Ināmaluvē Sri Sumangala, whose go-ahead for the hotel project, it was widely rumoured, was purchased by the investors for an astronomical sum of money. The other 'give and take' transactions also provided satisfaction to all concerned including the peasantry of the area which obtained from the investors an undertaking that the hotel employees other than managerial cadres will be recruited from among the local youth. A similar windfall for the venerable monk was rumoured to have occurred when the Sri Lanka Cricket Board acquired a large patch of land for its international stadium constructed in the year 2000. Needless to stress, these also meant an enormous elevation of Sri Sumangala thero's status as a Buddhist leader in the country and a powerful folk hero of the area whom many kowtowed and obeyed.

To be Continued

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