Featured image courtesy IBC Tamil
Iqram Siyadhu works at a store selling rexine carpeting in Wijerama. A fire broke out on May 22 under suspicious circumstances.
“The police came and made an entry about the incident,” Iqram said. They were also investigating the possibility that the fire might have been caused by faulty wiring. However, the shop-owners are certain this cannot be true.
“The fire happened late at night. However, before we left we turned the main switch off. Of that I am 100% certain,” Iqram said. He added that although none of the workers were present at the time of the fire, eyewitnesses who were nearby had seen “something falling or burning.”
The Muslim shopowner added that they had been operating the shop at Wijerama for 14 years and had no arguments with anyone.
Police are reportedly trying to collect CCTV footage from surrounding shops.
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) May 22, 2017
Two days later, on May 24, petrol bombs were thrown at an outlet of Harcourts pharmacy in Nawinna.
— Vidiyal.lk (@Vidiyallk) May 24, 2017
“There’s not a lot of damage, apart from to the outside,” President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council N M Ameen said. He added that the owners had told him that the owners of another Harcourts in Boralesgamuwa had also received a threatening phone call last Friday, demanding that they close.
On the same day, a four storey hardware store in Kahawatte owned by a Tamil called Vadivel was completely gutted, while another shop close by owned by a Muslim was also damaged by fire, although not as badly as Vadivel’s shop, Ameen added.
President has blamed Police in last night SLFP meeting for not taking action over racism violence,another shop reportedly burnt in Kahawatta pic.twitter.com/U0KKtXlm4F
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) May 23, 2017
These are the latest in a spate of incidents involving mosques and Muslim owned shops – apart from Vadivel’s store in Kahawatte. “There have been at least 20 incidents in a month,” Ameen said.
The unspoken accusation is that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), alongside other groups such as the Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya, are behind some of these attacks. The BBS has been more vociferous of late. Most recently, Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero stormed into Minister for Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan’s office, demanding a meeting.
— Mano Ganesan (@ManoGanesan) May 17, 2017
In at least two of the recent incidents, Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero has been directly implicated. For instance, on May 14, a group led by Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero made inflammatory comments and also caused property damage in Onegama in Polonnaruwa.
Withanage said he was not present at the time of the incident, but said the comment made by Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero had been taken out of context. “The phrase he used with regards to Allah is used often in Sinhalese. The children who go to international schools and speak English don’t understand the context. He only meant there was nothing related to Islam and Allah there,” he said.
Withanage also confirmed that the BBS Secretary had resisted arrest during a rally in Ibbegamuwa. “I call it an abduction. While we were traveling around 200 policemen in uniform said they wanted to arrest Thero. When he inquired what the reason was for the arrest, they failed to produce a reason or any documents,” Withanage said.
Upon being asked about the BBS’ alleged involvement in an estimated 20 incidents of violence against minorities over the past month, Withanage said, “During President Trump’s candidacy, many people said that he was anti Muslim. Following his election, there were several extremist attacks on mosques. Can you attribute any of those attacks to Trump?” Similarly, he said, the BBS’ aim was only to combat Muslim extremism. He categorically denied the BBS’ involvement in any of the reported incidents in the past month.
Yet Withanage’s smooth denials do not hold up with Gnanasara’s violent rhetoric. In 2013, he exhorted BBS supporters at a rally in Maharagama to become a ‘civilian police force’ standing up to extremism. Over the years, he has continued to make inflammatory comments, not just at religious groups but also at political figures. In the video resisting arrest he also clearly insults the Prime Minister saying, “We have no connection with him.”
Social media reported that secretary Ven Gnanasara Thero was in hiding, fearing a threat to his life on May 25.
— Vidiyal.lk (@Vidiyallk) May 25, 2017
Spokesman for the BBS, Dilanthe Withanage told Groundviews he had heard nothing about an arrest warrant. “However he has complained to the IGP that there is a threat to his life.”
The State’s slow response to the attacks have been received with anger and consternation.
— Mohamed Hisham (@mhmhisham) May 23, 2017
— Gehan Gunatilleke (@GehanDG) May 22, 2017
Reports of the incidents also drew condemnation from the international community.
— Una McCauley (@unamccauley) May 22, 2017
Any attack on a house of worship is reprehensible; this is the third in a week. I hope authorities arrest and try the perpetrators soonest https://t.co/F4KIOAxBmQ
— Atul Keshap?? (@USAmbKeshap) May 21, 2017
— EU in Sri Lanka (@EU_in_Sri_Lanka) May 22, 2017
Recent attacks on places of worship & business, & incitement of religious hatred are counter to rule of law, peace & reconciliation in #lka.
— Shelley Whiting (@shelley_whiting) May 24, 2017
Important that the strong words of condemnation by the #lka Cabinet & in Parliament be heeded, rule of law applied, & minority rights upheld
— Shelley Whiting (@shelley_whiting) May 24, 2017
The state scrambled to respond to the incidents when it was brought to their notice, with President Sirisena ordering law enforcement to take stern action. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe meanwhile said the police would have to be held accountable for any incidents of racism in their areas.
At the time of writing on May 25, police teams were deployed to arrest Gnanasara Thero.
Court bans Bodu Bala Sena's Gnanasara Thero from traveling abroad, several police teams deployed to arrest him
— Azzam Ameen (@AzzamAmeen) May 25, 2017
However, a day later, there have been no developments as to his arrest, which is notable in itself.
The question remains – will arresting the Secretary of the BBS be enough to stem the tide of attacks in Sri Lanka, or is this all too little too late?
For more articles on this topic, see “Escalating Violence: Renewed assaults on the Muslim community” and “Lankan Muslims, Extremist Monks and a Feverish Government.”