There has always been this uneasy feeling among the average Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala people in relation to racism and religious extremism. This embarrassment is not surprising because it reflects the teachings of the Buddha himself – metta (loving kindness). Therefore, the general assumption that anything to do with racism is confined only to an insignificant number of people is very correct. However, the havoc they can wreak can be devastating. The 1983 riots provide a good historical study.
The pogrom on the night of 24 July 1983, was not planned but spontaneous. Only small numbers, those who were related to the deceased soldiers, had gathered that day at the Kanatte. They were angry at the government’s decision to directly handle the funeral arrangements without handing over the remains to the families. Wild rumour spread fast and thousands from the nearby Wanathamulla slums kept coming. The crowd rioted with the Police. This cocktail of rumour, anger and sadness exploded into attacking some Tamil shops in the vicinity of Kanatte and Borella area. Later it spread beyond control like wild fire. Different estimates place the death toll between 400 and 3,000 and economic loss of the riots at US$ 300 million.
Ramadan And Aluthgama Riots
The build-up of acts of violence and arson against Muslim places of worship and commercial establishments in the past two months were alarming. Around 28 incidents had been recorded and several Police complaints made. Sadly, The Minister of Law and Order and his law enforcement machinery were in a deep state of coma. The month of Ramadan (the month in which Muslims devote themselves to fasting) was approaching so was the third anniversary of the Aluthgama riots in June 2014. The highly charged turn of events greatly disturbed an insecure Muslim community. They made several representations at all levels of the political spectrum having discussions with the Minister for Law and Order, the Prime Minister and even the President. There was apparently a lack of will to implement the rule of law which was the only request the Muslims were making at these meetings.
The failure both institutionally and in the due process were signs of a disaster in the offing. The writing was on the wall. If a man made planned destruction was disposed of by a vis major in the form of devastating floods and landslides that took place in May 2017, is anybody’s guess. The loss of lives, destruction of properties and the suffering of the people in the floods were of course, tragic and unbearable.
During this month, the voice of the Sinhala society was being heard. The clergy and the laymen; The intellectuals and the Artists. To be fair, it must be mentioned that among the politicians the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna also voiced their concern at the breakdown of the law and order. These developments reassured the Muslim community that there is still hope in this country. The majority which consists of respectable and right-minded Sinhala people had decided, enough is enough. They would not permit a handful of criminals and thugs to take this country down the path of death and destruction with the tacit blessings of opportunistic politicians and a section of the clergy. This signalled the rise of the silent civic minded Sinhala majority.
The Puravesi Balaya joined hands with the late Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhita thero’s Sadharana Samajayak Sandaha Vu Jatika Vyaparaya (National Movement for Social Justice) (please see this writer’s article in Colombo Telegraph of 08 -11 -2015) and entered the fray ably supported by other civil bodies. They met with the Inspector General of Police on 11th June 2017, to express their deep concern on the increasing number of attacks on Muslims. Also, to question the hide and seek game played by Ven. Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara who had appeared to have transformed himself from being a monk to a fugitive. He was wanted on a contempt of court case and has been avoiding the courts with what the pubic considers as lame excuses. Sick on one date and claiming a threat to his life on another date at the court. The Appeal Court has now given three dates for the inquiry that is 17th, 18thand 19th of July with the warning that warrant will be issued if he does not appear in court.
“Last week, the Fort Magistrate issued an arrest warrant against Gnanasara after he failed to appear before courts, despite two summons over a contempt of court charge. Incidentally, it was the second arrest warrant issued against the monk within less than a month, the first was issued on May 25, 2017 on charges of inciting racial hatred and for hate speech against the Muslim community.
The police claimed that they had deployed several units to arrest Gnanasara in May, however as he was in hiding they were unable to apprehend him”. (Colombo Telegraph: 21 – 06 – 2017)
Despite Frightening Confession
Meanwhile, the arsonist who attacked a Muslim owned leather Store in Wijerama Junction, Maharagama on 22nd May 2017 had been arrested due to mounting pressure. The IGP, Mr. Pujith Jayasundara had said in this meeting that he was horrified at a confession made by this arsonist. The suspect had said that he planned to attack two Buddhist temples in order to trigger a backlash on the Muslim community. This gives an idea as to the extent of radicalisation of the youth through misinformation and misperception about another community. The Police investigations have now established that he is a member of the Bodu Bala Sena organisation whose Secretary was the fugitive monkVen. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, who surrendered to the courts on the 21st of June.
The Word On The Streets
This monk who did not present himself at the Appeal Court claiming a threat to his life, on this day, simply walked in to the Fort Magistrate Court to surrender. As the well-choreographed drama was unfolding, people on the streets were asking, “what happened to the so called hyped up death threats of this monk”. “What happened to the so called four Police units deployed to arrest this monk”? People were also questioning, “who was harbouring this monk all these days”? “Why did the Police soft pedal the gravity of the offences of this suspect monk when questioned by the Magistrate?”
The civic minded people feel disillusioned and greatly insulted by this stage-managed saga. They asked, “do these people think we are fools? One rule for the monks and another for the lay person”. Many were also mocking at the fast track bail calling it eligible for an entry into the Guinness book of records. The public is heaping blame also on the corrupt and opportunistic politicians, the Rajapaksas, the Police, the justice system and the government.