Economic and social tensions erupt in Kandy with a warning for the rest of the country
It all started as road rage. But as it has happened so many times in the recent past, the consequences of that one act will have major implications on the country.
Forty one year old H.G Kumarasinghe was a truck driver who fell afoul of a group of men travelling in a Three Wheeler, in Teldeniya in the Kandy area of the Central Province on February 22. An altercation over the truck not giving way to the Three Wheeler allegedly resulted in Kumarasinghe being assaulted by the occupants of the Three Wheeler. He suffered life threatening head injuries.
Given the serious injury suffered by the truck driver, the three passengers and the Three-Wheel driver were arrested forthwith and remanded. Kumarasinghe was first rushed to Teldeniya Hospital and later to the Kandy General Hospital. Similar incidents happen in the country regularly.
But here is the difference in this case. The passengers who are said to have been drunk belonged to the Muslim community while the truck driver was a Sinhalese.
Kumarasinghe succumbed to his injuries on March 3rd.
By Monday, March 5th, the town of Digana, where some of the assailants hailed from was set ablaze. As shops and homes burned and a young Muslim man, who was trapped inside his house, lost his life, a few other areas came under attack. A police curfew was imposed on Kandy that evening and Special Task Force (STF) and Army personnel sent in to keep the peace. A state of Emergency was declared on Tuesday, March 6th. Twenty four persons, who were alleged to be involved in the attacks, were taken into custody, while several of the instigators continued to remain free.
As stories and videos did the rounds on social media creating more tension, there was frustration building up amongst most citizens in the governments’ slow pace in apprehending those who were using Facebook posts to mobilize and galvanize members of the Sinhala community to attack Muslims. On the morning of March 8th, one of those who was mobilizing the attackers, Amith Weerasinghe of the Mahasona Balakaya along with 9 others were arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division.
The Digana conflagration came high on the heels of a similar anti-Muslim attack that took place in Ampara in the Eastern Province, in the last week of February. That riot was sparked off when a restaurant owner, a Muslim, was accused by a group of people of introducing “Wanda Pethi”, (sterilization pills) in the food that was served.
Anti-Muslim sentiments have been simmering just under the surface in Sri Lanka for several years, even though one would expect the thirty year conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils would have paid put to anymore clashes between the different communities that call Sri Lanka home.
But that does not seem to be the case. The idea that the Muslim population is fast increasing and that one such method of curbing growth amongst the Sinhalese was to secretly inject ‘sterilization pills” in clothes, food etc. of the Sinhalese as well as anger towards their business acumen has taken hold across all levels of society. A young Sinhala man who wished to remain anonymous insisted that the stories about the pills were true. “I have seen the videos, and the government blocked social media, because those stories are true” he said. “The government must control population growth amongst Muslims, because if they outnumber us, Sharia law, which will be more important than the law of the land, will be imposed here” he claimed.
Even while Digana was burning, a woman Sinhala shopper in the Nugegoda area was heard to agree with the attack on the Muslims, claiming “when the Sinhalese was assaulted, can we stay quiet.”
As Dr. Subhangi Herath, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo pointed out, we hear of murders taking place almost daily in the country but no one reacts to those. “A few years ago, there was a series of murders of women in the Kahawatte area. (Around 13 women were found murdered between 2008 and 2015). Women are raped, men and children murdered. However, no one protests those. Often times, the victims and the perpetrators are all Sinhalese. But, if it involves the Sinhalese and a member of another community, there are riots. Then, the entire community is blamed, instead of just the perpetrator of the crime. ”
Dr. Herath explains that this “us and them” idea is an age old problem. There has never been an attempt to build a sense of one nation, except during the colonial period. At all other times the idea of a separate identity has been promoted for each ethnic or religious group. During the conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils too, mothers were encouraged to send their children to fight the separatists, promoting the idea that it was to protect the ‘Sinhala nation”, not Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese are led to believe that everyone else has got a “hold of our nation”, she says, telling us of a meeting she had with the Vedda Chief somewhere in the 1980’s where he had been baffled that the Sinhalese and Tamils were fighting over a land, which he thought, if anyone should be claiming possession of, it should be the Veddas’.
It is interesting that we migrate to other countries and just the second generation living there become fully immersed, see themselves as citizens of those countries and enjoy all the rights and privileges that country offers. However, our attitude here is that even after twenty-five generations, the Tamils, Muslims etc. are seen as aliens by the Sinhalese, points out Dr. Herath.
There has been no satisfactory mechanism to defuse tensions between communities, points out Chairman, Centre for Humanitarian Agencies, Jeevan Thiagarajah. “Post-war triumphalism and resurgent ethno nationalism, has contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for the country’s religious minorities, in particular Muslims and Christians, he says, adding that unresolved human rights abuses in the country has been socially divisive, leading to mistrust between religious and ethnic communities.
During a dinner in the late 1990’s, several of the guests, all Sinhala businessmen were heard discussing the need to stop more trade going to the Muslim community. Those ideas seem to have taken hold of society more firmly today. The “insidious introduction of hate speech targeting Muslims and perpetuation of a myth of unbridled population growth and the control of the commercial sector by Muslims is a very recent trend” says Thiagarajah.
“During the 1983 Sinhala-Tamil riots, the poorer, less educated folk protected their neighbours, because they empathise with each other as a people who are less privileged. On the other hand, the middle class, the so called better educated people find reasons to justify racist behavior” points out Dr. Herath. “You can be educated, but not rational” she says adding that recently she overheard a colleague promoting the total annihilation of the other community.
First it was the Jathika Hela Urumaya and now it is the Bodu Bala Sena, says Thiagarajah pointing out that evangelical Christians were attacked and now it’s the Muslims. According to data gathered by Thiagarajah, between 2015 November and September 2016, there had been 47 attacks on Evangelical Christians in 14 districts while 64 incidents from 13 districts had been recorded against Muslims between November 2015 and June 2016.
Veteran Journalist Victor Ivan agrees that the Digana riot was not a spontaneous attack. While the road rage incident is coincidental, “the environment to trigger a conflict with the Muslims was building up in the country prior to this.” There has been a systematic campaign to “instill fear, disgust and hatred of the Muslim community, for some time now,” he claims.
After Prabhakaran’s defeat (the late Leader of the LTTE), the Sinhala extremists needed a new enemy because the Tamils were no longer a sellable foe. So the Muslims became the new enemy, he claimed. “Sinhalese are losing the majority status in the country, Muslims are fast becoming the majority” were the stories created for this agenda. That and the sub-story that Muslim businessmen were distributing sterilization pills was also known by Leaders and Religious heads both Muslim and other faiths, intellectuals, media personnel and the Yahapalanya government. However, they did nothing to arrest this trend, not even the government, though they had the resources, he charged.
Thiagarajah points out that, promoting religious tolerance, and learning about each other’s cultural and faith practices will help dispel the mistrust. Existing laws to curb hate speech and incite violence must be applied. Public servants at the provincial administration level need training on legal provisions and protections guaranteed in Sri Lanka’s constitution and related regulations on religious freedom, he argues.
In many cases involving ethnic or religious tensions the police has been accused of not acting promptly to bring the situation under control. Even though there is provision in the law, even though they have been given the training, when it comes to ethnic or religious conflicts, the ingrained nationalist idea comes to the fore, explains Dr. Herath. “They are used to taking orders, and will not hesitate to tear- gas strikers or protestors, but when it involves minority communities they react differently; we saw that even in 1983, she points out. Such attitudes only help fuel the feeling amongst minority communities, that Sri Lanka is not their country.
She recalls a story her father related during the ethnic riots that took place in 1983, where he had encountered some Tamils being attacked in the 1958 riots. He had appealed to the attackers; reminding them of the Buddhist precepts of non-violence and persuading them to stop the attack. However, he had felt that such an approach would not have worked in 1983, as nationalist ideology had taken hold of society.
Thiagarajah, calls for national level dialogues that will help people speak openly about their fears and negative experiences. It will provide the space for counter-evidence and alternative narratives to put things into perspective. “This may help to prevent adverse experiences from hardening into fixed prejudices”, he says.
So far we have only seen the action of the “whip-crackers” warns Victor Ivan, not the “Perahera”. He advocates an in-depth, large scale study to identify why the Sinhala people readily believe all these stories, and where they get their ideas and resources from.
The false ideologies held amongst the Sinhalese must be erased, he says, or else there will be no stopping the Perahera.