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Anti-Muslim Violence in Amparai Town and Kandy District

2018-03-10 00:03:24
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Politically astute stalwarts of the United National Party (UNP) suspect that the calculated anti-Muslim violence had a multi-pronged objective.
 

 Challenge Wickremesinghe’s capacity to discharge his duties well as a Law and Order Minister.
 

Ranil’s opponents have for long tried to depict him as a weak and ineffective leader incapable of dealing efficiently with threats to the County and/or law and order.
 

 The UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers within the Govt. perceive each other as enemies rather than cabinet colleagues bound by collective responsibility.
 

The accusation is absurd and ridiculous as scientifically or medically it is not possible to prevent babies forming in wombs through administering contraceptive drugs in food particularly in kothu roti  or meat curry
 

Intimidated and perturbed the Muslim youth got confused. He said “yes”. was to explain later that he had not understood what wanda pethi meant

 

 

By
D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Minister of Law and Order on February 25th, 2018. It was a stop-gap measure.


The Premier was only expected to be in charge of the portfolio for two weeks until a new Minister was appointed. The fortnightly stint as a “caretaker” Minister, however, proved to be a terrible ordeal amounting to a baptism of fire for the new Law and Order Minister.


A pre-planned, well-coordinated campaign of anti-Muslim violence was unleashed in two phases-first in the Amparai town and next in the Kandy district.


Politically astute stalwarts of the United National Party (UNP) suspect that the calculated anti-Muslim violence had a multi-pronged objective.


Primarily it was intended to test and challenge Wickremesinghe’s capacity to discharge his duties well as a Law and Order Minister. Ranil’s opponents have for long tried to depict him as a weak and ineffective leader incapable of dealing efficiently with threats to the County and/or law and order.
The spectre of communal violence rearing its ugly head again would provide an opportunity to demonstrate that Ranil was not a strong leader. Since Wickremesinghe is a contender for the Presidency in 2020, the portrayal of the Prime Minister as weak would certainly pay dividends to any rival contesting on a platform of “strong man as president”.


Apart from this, UNP circles suspect that the orchestrated violence was aimed at placing Wickremesinghe in a tricky situation. If he cracked down hard on the politically motivated criminal elements attacking Muslims, extensive propaganda would be conducted against Wickremesinghe that he had betrayed the Sinhalese. This could further reduce the quantum of Sinhala votes he was likely to receive at the polls.


If on the other hand Ranil did not check or contain the anti-Muslim violence effectively, he would lose the confidence and faith of the Muslim community. This could have a ripple effect on the other minority ethnicities too and thereby result in an erosion of what is considered to be a safe vote bank for the UNP leader.

 

The finest example of them all to my knowledge was the action of a young Buddhist monk and some Sinhala students. They slept in the beleaguered Muruttalawa mosque along with their Muslim brethren and turned away marauding mobs not once, not twice but thrice.

 

 


Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt
More importantly and more dangerously the violence and its consequences could have a destabilising impact on the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Govt.


The UNP-SLFP coalition government describes itself as a “national unity “ Govt. but there are deep divisions within. It does not appear to be national nor united. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are at loggerheads with each other.


The UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers within the Govt. perceive each other as enemies rather than cabinet colleagues bound by collective responsibility.


The newly formed Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPP) has got the better of both the UNP and SLFP and emerged as the leading victor at the local authorities elections. Complicating the situation further is the antipathy towards Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister among the President, most SLFP ministers, and some UNP Parliamentarians. Moves are afoot to de-throne Ranil as Prime Minister as well as party leader. In the prevailing situation, escalating communal violence under Law and Order Minister Wickremesinghe could very well turn out to be the tipping point resulting in de-stabilizing change.


Then there is also the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions are scheduled for March in Geneva.


The Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa became discredited in the eyes of the world for a number of reasons. One such reason was the encouragement received by hate mongering ethnoreligious fascist outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena and the anti -Muslim violence it fomented in places like Aluthgama and Beruwela.


The new Good Governance Govt. is much respected internationally because it has ushered in a climate of ethnic harmony and amity where the minority communities felt safe and secure.


The Gintota violence dented this image last year. Now with more large-scale and widespread anti - Muslim violence erupting that positive image could be tarnished further. People like Rear –Admiral (retd) and ex-MP Sarath Weerasekera could argue in Geneva -if they wanted to - that anti - Muslim violence can happen under any Govt. and not necessarily the Rajapaksa regime alone.


It is against this backdrop therefore that the UNP led Govt. viewed the outbreak of anti - Muslim violence in Amparai town followed by Digana and other parts of the Kandy district.


There was a distinct pattern in the organized violence directed against innocent Muslim people. The attacking mobs were mainly “strangers” transported from outside places into the targeted areas.
The mobs were guided by a few locals. Causing loss of life or limb was not the priority. The primary objective was to destroy or undermine the economic power of Muslims. Hence Muslim owned businesses, shops, houses, and vehicles were targeted. The secondary objective was to deliver a symbolic message or threat to the Muslims practising the Islamic faith. Thus Mosques were attacked. The violence was accompanied by a well -organized hate campaign against Muslims via the social media justifying the attacks on the basis of canards.

 


Teldeniya -Digana
In comparative terms, the violence in Amparai is very much less than the violence perpetrated in the Kandy district. Amparai was a single “operation” restricted to the town while there have been a series of widely distributed acts of violence in Kandy.


There is reason to suspect that the original plan was to use Amparai as a launching pad for other areas too like Siyambalanduwa in Moneragala district and continue extending attacks to other areas. However, another option presented itself without any pre-planning in the Teldeniya-Digana when a Sinhala lorry driver died as a result of an assault by intoxicated Muslim youths.


This was seen as an ideal opportunity as it could be projected that enraged Sinhala people were spontaneously rising up against Muslims with “righteous anger” to retaliate for the death of an innocent Sinhala person. Two noted exponents of “Saffron Terror” paid their respects to the departed soul and “left”. Lo and Behold! The floodgates were opened for wave after wave of anti-Muslim violence.


At the outset, I would like to emphasise two points.


The first point is that most media reports particularly the foreign media outlets have been referring to the violence as race riots between Sinhalese and Muslims or religious riots between Buddhists and those professing the Islamic faith.


The prevailing reality, however, is that the current violence is not a clash between two groups. It is a case of large mobs attacking individuals and families. The violence is overwhelmingly from one side. The limited counter violence in self-defence has been only in a few instances where Muslim youths bunched together to protect their families, properties and above all their places of worship.


The second point is about the wrong impression conveyed or sought to be conveyed by certain elements that the violence is an all-out ethnic war in which the “majority” Sinhalese have totally turned against the “minority” Muslims.


Though some racists would like to project that image of the current violence, it simply is not true. Only a minority of the majority community are engaging in violence against a minority.


A greater part of the Sinhala people is against this violence and want no part of it. There may be some who sanction it by their silence even if they take no part in it. But most people keep silent not because they approve of the carnage but because they dare not speak out against it due to fear of consequences both real and imaginary. If the majority of the Sinhalese turn against the minorities on a genocidal spree, very few Muslims or Tamils would be left to tell the tale.

 


Mahason Balakaya
Initially, the Govt. seemed to have been taken by surprise and responded in a confused incoherent manner. Instead of forging an adequate response to the continuing violence the govt. ministers acted in a confused incoherent manner. Some condemned the violence and appealed for calm through facebook and twitter instead of taking concrete action.


After some initial lethargy, confusion and dilly-dallying the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt. buckled down to its imperative task of combatting communal violence. An emergency has been declared and curfews are in force in violence-prone areas. The army has been deployed and is coordinating with the Police and Special Task Force.


In an extraordinary measure, restrictions have been placed on some social media and telephone applications to prevent the spreading of hate and promotion of violence.


Police fired on rampaging mobs on one occasion to convey a strong signal. Over a 100 alleged perpetrators of violence have been arrested.


These include the Mahason Balakaya leaderAmith Weerasinghe and his deputy Sureda Suraweera. The Mahason Balakaya had been conducting a hate campaign against Muslims and inciting violence.
Amith Weerasinghe is the alleged mastermind directing and coordinating the current campaign of anti-Muslim violence. Interestingly enough, both,Weerasinghe and Suraweera -were arrested by the Police’s Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) in two separate pre-dawn raids in Digana and Poojapitiya respectively.


In a separate development, Public Administration minister and Moneragala district MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara was appointed as the new Minister of Law and Order. Ranil Wickremesinghe ceased to be Law and Order Minister after just eleven days.


The anti - Muslim violence is gradually subsiding though it had not ended at the time this column was being written.


By all accounts, however, that the shower has ended with a slight drizzle remaining.


What remains to be seen however is how the Government will deal with the arrested persons and for how long it will maintain the arrangements necessary to preserve peace and prevent the recurrence of violence.


The ethnic -political environment in the country is quite fragile and there are a lot of vested interests waiting eagerly to exploit the situation. Eternal vigilance is needed to counter the potential threat.
As stated earlier this year’s anti-Muslim violence erupted first in Amparai town and was followed by violence in Digana.


Thereafter it spread to other areas in Kandy district like Teldeniya, Pallekalle, Katugastota, and Akurana etc.


The damage in Amparai is very much less when compared to the destruction in Kandy. In Amparai one mosque, three Muslim-owned hotels, one grocery store and eight vehicles were attacked and damaged. All this happened within a few hours on one night.


In Kandy close upon 300 Muslim owned businesses, shops, houses and vehicles were attacked and torched over a period of three days and nights. 25 Mosques in the district were attacked. The extent of damage differed from Mosque to Mosque.

 

Apart from this, UNP circles suspect that the orchestrated violence was aimed at placing Wickremesinghe in a tricky situation. If he cracked down hard on the politically motivated criminal elements attacking Muslims, extensive propaganda would be conducted against Wickremesinghe that he had betrayed the Sinhalese. This could further reduce the quantum of Sinhala 
votes he was likely to receive at the polls.

 

 


Although the quantitative nature of the anti-Muslim violence was greater in the Kandy district the Amparai violence was qualitatively more dangerous.


The scope and scale of violence in Kandy was greater, lengthier and more widespread than that of Amparai.


In Kandy, the death of the lorry driver was used as the pretext for launching violence. In Amparai the reason cited as cause for the violence was hilarious but had the potential of being very, very dangerous.


It was alleged in Amparai that a Muslim-run eatery was mixing contraceptives and sterilising drugs in food served to Sinhala customers. The implication was that a Muslim conspiracy had been hatched to reduce the birth rate of the Sinhala people and convert them into a minority by diminishing their numbers.

 


Absurd and Ridiculous
The accusation is absurd and ridiculous as scientifically or medically it is not possible to prevent babies forming in wombs through administering contraceptive drugs in food particularly in kothu roti or meat curry.


Any drug of that type would lose potency while being heated to a high level on a stove or cooker. Yet, this is what was alleged and propagated to trigger off and later justify the Amparai violence.


Sadly quite a number of people believed the blatant lie. The danger is that had this canard been believed by large numbers of Sinhalese (They did not) it would have enabled the hate mongers to target all Muslim hotels and eateries in defence of the Sinhala nation. I shall, therefore, focus on what happened in Amparai in this article.


Amparai is an eastern province town situated 360 km from Colombo. It is spelt in Sinhala as Ampara. Both spellings are used interchangeably as the pronunciation is almost the same. Ampara/Amparai is the name of the town as well as that of the administrative district.


It was re-demarcated out of the earlier Batticaloa and Moneragala districts in 1959. The electoral district is now named as Digamadulla. Ampara is also the name of an electoral division. The Muslims are the single largest ethnicity in the overall Amparai district which comprises the Ampara, Pottuvil, Sammanthurai and Kalmunai electoral divisions. The Muslims are also the largest community in the electoral divisions of Kalmunai, Sammanthurai, and Pottuvil while the Sinhalese are the majority in Amparai electoral division. Ampara/Amparai town is predominantly Sinhala with a sprinkling of Muslim and Tamil people. According to figures from the Amparai mosque only 104 Muslim families are registered with the mosque as permanent residents of the town.


The New Cassim Hotel is a Muslim owned and Muslim run eatery on DS Senanayake Street in Amparai town. The building belongs to a Sinhala person who has leased out the premises. The hotel was originally named Cassim Hotel.


After a new management hailing from Kattankudi in Batticaloa district took it over the hotel was renamed New Cassim Hotel. The hotel reputed for its Egg roti, kothu roti and parotta (Barotta)is patronised mostly by Sinhala customers, who relish the dishes cooked there.

 


New Cassim Hotel
Monday, February 26was a very busy day for the hotel as there were four funerals taking place in Amparai town. A lot of people from outstations had come to attend the funerals.


Many of them dropped in at New Cassim Hotel for a meal. Most of the food cooked on that day was consumed by a large number of customers. It was around 10 p.m. when three Sinhala youths walked in.


One of them was an Amparai resident and regular customer of the hotel. They were in a state of intoxication. They wanted kothu roti and beef curry. Since most of the cooked food was over the hotel employees were gearing up to close early. So the manager cum cashier Ahamed Lebbe Bharshith told the youths that food was over and they were about to wind up for the day. The known Sinhala youth had said he was a diabetic and that he had taken an insulin injection. Therefore he needed to eat soon and wanted beef curry.


Since the youth was a regular customer and pleaded for food on grounds of being a diabetic who had injected insulin, Bharshith took pity on him. He called the elderly cook who was called Kaakaa (elder brother) by staff and asked him what could be done. The hotel staff numbering six with the cashier had stored some parottas and beef curry for their own dinner. Kaakaa suggested that they could share it with the Sinhala customer.


So, the Parottas and beef curry were brought and the customers including the “diabetic” tucked in. As the beef curry diminished, a few puffy particles were found floating in the gravy. The diabetic blew a fuse and called the cashier and demanded to know what it was.


What happens in eateries of this sort is that they mix flour with the gravy in a meat curry to thicken it. Usually, the flour is mixed well and dissolves without a trace in the gravy. But sometimes it does not dissolve well and thick lumps of flour remain. This was what had happened. So, the Sinhala youth was told it was Paanpiti (bread flour or wheat). But he refused to believe it. Since Bharshith was not very fluent in Sinhala he asked another employee fluent in Sinhala to explain. But the Sinhala customer was not convinced. So the cook known as Kaakaa was brought to explain but still, the customer was not satisfied.

 


Wanda Pethi Dammadha?

He then began making a few calls on his mobile phone. Thereafter events took a dangerous turn. He started accusing the hotel cashier and staff of mixing “Wanda Pethi” (contraceptive drugs. sterilizing capsules) with the beef curry to prevent Sinhalese from having children. He began asking “Wanda Pethi Dammadha” (Did you put contraceptive drugs). It was denied vehemently by Bharshith, the cashier, cooks, and waiters.


When they said no, they were slapped hard. Meanwhile, two more Sinhala youths arrived with iron rods. Now the mood turned more belligerent. A waiter was once again asked whether they put “Wanda pethi” into the beef curry.


When he said “No” he was assaulted with the rods and sustained head injuries. The cashier cum manager Bharshith was approached again and asked “Wanda Pethi Dammadha?”
At the same time, the scene was being recorded by the “camera” in the telephone. Intimidated and perturbed the Muslim youth got confused. He said “yes”. was to explain later that he had not understood what wanda pethi meant. He had confused “maa” meaning flour in Tamil with the “Maa” sound in “Dammadha”. Also, he had seen the fate of the employee who said “No”. So he said “Yes” to the repeated question whether Wanda Pethi had been put in the curry.


This was seized upon by the Sinhala youth and his accomplices. By this time a large crowd had gathered and a few Policemen also arrived. They were shown the telephone confession.
After a huge commotion, the Policemen arrested the cashier and cook to be questioned about mixing sterilizing drugs with food served in the hotel. They were assaulted and locked up in the Police station and were released only on Tuesday evening due to the efforts of three young Muslim lawyers.

 

While all this was happening a large number of Sinhala youths arrived at the hotel in a mini-bus and motorcycles and scooters. Soon a mob of over 60 persons gathered on the spot. The mob then started attacking New Cassim Hotel and damaged it.


A few Policemen saw all this happening but did not do anything to restrain the mob. The cashier confession about mixing Wanda Pethi in food was now spreading like wildfire via internet.

 


Ampara Jumma Masjid
The worst was still to come. When it was close to midnight two buses with nearly a hundred Sinhala youths arrived in Amparai town. These “forces” were augmented by the youths on motorcycles. Soon the mob increased in numbers. Over 200 men moved towards the Ampara mosque “Jumma Masjid” and launched the attack.


A defender jeep was driven fast to smash the gate and break it open. The mob went on the rampage. Initially, the wall in front of the Mosque was demolished. It was rather a bizarre act. Apparently, there was a suspected motive in this act of madness. The recent Local Authority elections had seen the “Pohottu” party (SLPP) romping home as the winners in the Amparai Urban Council poll.


When the SLPP pasted “Victory and Thank you” posters all over Amparai town some were pasted on the Mosque wall too. It is widely presumed that most Muslims in Amparai town voted for the UNP and not the SLPP.


The mosque authorities had torn down all the Pohottu posters saying they were defacing the wall. A heated argument had ensued between the SLPP supporters and Mosque authorities.


It is suspected therefore that the demolition of the Mosque premises wall was motivated by the poster incident. The mob, however, did not stop after destroying the wall. They damaged eight vehicles parked inside Mosque precincts.


Recently planted mango tree saplings were uprooted and destroyed. The mosque itself was attacked. Doors were broken down and windows smashed, Copies of the Holy Quran were defiled and burnt. The Mosque office adjoining the main mosque was also attacked and damaged. There were also small structures with rooms within the Mosque precincts where people connected to the mosque were staying. Those structures were also damaged and people assaulted.


According to the victims of the attack, people in the mob had kept shouting in Sinhala “You Muslims are trying to destroy the Sinhala race through contraceptive drugs. This is in retaliation for that. Let your God (Allaah) save you all if he can.”


The mob had then attacked two other Muslim run eateries in Amparai town and a Muslim owned grocery store New Mahajana Stores.


The Police station was less than a Kilometer away from the Mosque. The cops had been informed of the attack as the mob arrived on the scene.It would have taken the Police only three minutes to reach the Mosque. Yet they arrived leisurely after 55 minutes. The mob was still in town then but the Police made no effort to tackle the violent elements. Some cops were seen conversing with the mobsters in a jovial manner. It was as if a heroic war had been waged and a deadly enemy had been vanquished. A powerful propaganda campaign against Muslims in general and Amparai Muslims, in particular, was launched in the aftermath of the Amparai violence.


The attack was justified on the basis that the Muslims were trying to destroy the “Sinhala Jathiya” through “Wanda Pethi”.


On February 28th Muslim businesses in Siyambalanduwa in adjacent Moneragala district were the targets of a threat campaign. They were warned that what befell the Muslims of Amparai would happen to them too. Most Muslim businessmen closed their establishments early and vacated Siyambalanduwa though most have now returned.

 

Yet they arrived leisurely after 55 minutes. The mob was still in town then but the Police made no effort to tackle the violent elements. Some cops were seen conversing with the mobsters in a jovial manner. 

 


Particles of Flour
It must be noted that in spite of Muslims being targeted in Amparai on the pretext of “Wanda Pethi” most Sinhalese in Amparai did not believe the accusation.


In fact, quite a number of Sinhalese in Amparai provided refuge to the frightened Muslim families in town. Though there were few takers for the Wanda Pethi canard among the Sinhala people of Amparai there were many Sinhalese who purportedly believed it.


This includes some people living in Western countries too. However, the Government analyst A. Weliyange has nailed that canard. After examining stuff suspected of being “Wanda Pethi” the GA ruled that the alleged contraceptive drugs were merely particles of flour scientifically described as ‘Carbohydrates”.


So, all that violence including the attack on a Mosque was over flour particles! What a tragicomedy!!
As I have observed frequently those of us who love Sri Lanka and yearn for a peace and happiness in the Island need pieces of good and positive news at times to lift up our sagging morale and lift up our downcast spirits.


We need silver linings in the dark clouds; we need whiffs of sweet fragrance to eliminate the stinking odour; we need gusts of cooling breeze to reduce the effects of oppressive heat.


In the context of violence perpetrated by hate mongers against a minority community we require some positive input to show us that all is not lost and that while inhumanity is displayed by some humans to other humans, there are some humans who show love and amity to their fellow humans at great risk to their lives too.


There were many positive acts by ordinary people during the raging violence. So many people mainly Sinhala but some Tamils too gave shelter and protection to their besieged Muslim neighbours and friends. This happened in Amparai and Kandy. In most cases, they were kept hidden in their homes. There were many instances of Sinhala people standing up to the mobs and refusing to let them go on the rampage in their vicinity.


There were instances of Sinhala families keeping the vehicles belonging to Muslims in their premises and refusing to let the mobs torch them. Likewise, some people occupied houses owned by Muslims and turned the mobs away saying the house belonged to them. The finest example of them all to my knowledge was the action of a young Buddhist monk and some Sinhala students. They slept in the beleaguered Muruttalawa mosque along with their Muslim brethren and turned away marauding mobs not once, not twice but thrice.

 


May Their Tribe Increase
These instances are but a few lamps glowing in an overarching canopy of darkness. These together cannot dispel the overwhelming darkness. Yet they demonstrate that what the hate mongers and neo-fascists say is not true. It also shows that humanity has not deserted the Island lauded as the “Dhammdeepa”.


The future of this resplendent island lies not in the hands of the promoters of hate and perpetrators of violence. It lies in the hands of ordinary people such as those who rise up boldly to face up to extraordinary situations with compassion and courage. These are people who do what is right and not show fright before might.


And as the angel wrote about Abou Ben Adhem in James Henry Leigh Hunt’s poem “May their tribe increase” in Sri Lanka.


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com