Religious tensions still high as Muslims compete with Buddhists for business and army allegedly turns blind eye to attacks
A man stands inside a mosque on April 6 that was set on fire in Pallekelle, Kandy during the clashes in March. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
Hundreds of villagers are still living in fear a month after anti-Muslim riots rocked Digana near Kandy in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, killing three people and damaging hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses and homes.
Muslims say they are still afraid to go out at night and lament the loss of their livelihoods as they wait for justice to be served after the vicious attacks.
Tensions erupted after a Sinhalese lorry driver was killed by a group of Muslim men. The government declared a nationwide state of emergency on March 6 for 10 days and imposed a curfew on hot spots like the town of Kandy.
Muhammad Salee, 57, who lives in the Kandy suburb of Pallekelle, said many Muslims are now scared that another attack could break out spontaneously as religious tensions run high.
“Some soldiers and police were helping the Buddhist mob in front of our mosque in Pallekelle last time,” he told ucanews.com.
“We saw the police officers giving stones to those who attacked Muslim houses and mosques,” added Salee, who personally witnessed buildings being torched. His house was also pelted with stones, he said.
A human rights leader stands inside a torched mosque on April 6. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
“Muslims fear being targeted again. It was horrible. We watched as some of our neighbors joined our tormentors,” he said.
“Now we are very concerned because all that happened while the security forces stood by and watched. They did nothing to prevent the attacks.”
“Our children will never be able to forget that. They will never be normal again. One of my neighbors, a young man, is still in hospital. Many others are traumatized,” he added.
Police officers chased off Muslims during the attacks but Buddhist youngsters were left free to roam the streets and act like vandals, throwing stones and poles at their targets, he said.
“The police didn’t arrest them,” Salee said. “Even when they stole valuables from our shops and houses.”
Pictured is a damaged house after a clash in a central district of Kandy on April 6. The government imposed a curfew on the town following a series of anti-Muslim attacks targeting mosques, shops and houses. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
He said the government should deliver some guarantee to the community that their lives would not be endangered again due to religious persecution.
“Some Muslim families went elsewhere to live with their relatives and they dare not return,” he said.
“But we have the same rights as people of other religions in Sri Lanka. It is not fair.”
He said the government has paid damages to the victims worth US$670 for each damaged shop and $330 for each house that was vandalized and, in some cases, reduced to rubble.
Security forces helped to clean up the debris caused by the clashes but no renovation work has been undertaken yet, he claimed.
“There hasn’t been any rebuilding,” he said. “No compensation for our stolen valuables or damaged furniture, either.”
He said the feeling among the local Muslim community is that the government and security forces have deliberately turned a blind eye to the mindless violence conducted by the Buddhist mobs.
Muhammad Salee, 57, lives in the Kandy suburb of Pallekelle. He was one of the victims of the anti-Muslim riots carried out in March by Buddhist mobs. He said Muslims fear they will be targeted again after they watched their neighbors turn on them while security forces simply stood by and watched. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
Mothis, a church worker in Pallekelle, said over 300 Buddhists entered the Pallekelle mosque in March and torched it to the ground.
“Even my clothing caught fire,” he said.
“The mob burned cars, houses, shops and threw stones. I didn’t feel safe until I ran far away.”
“The memories haunt us still,” he added.
He called on religious leaders representing Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus to take the initiative and find ways of healing their broken community.
Moreover, he said greater religious tolerance should be promoted through inter-faith dialogue and other activities among towns and villages across the country that have become divided along religious lines.
One Buddhist Sinhalese woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she lives in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, said Muslims compete for business with Buddhists, giving the riots a financial imperative.
“The Sinhalese have concerns about the way the Muslims are spreading their influence,” she said, pointing to their higher birth rates and the uptick in forced conversions to Islam in recent years.
“They also destroy historic Buddhist sites, start many businesses in Sinhalese areas and establish more mosques,” she added.
Sri Lanka, a small island off the southwestern coast of India, has just 21 million people. About seven in 10 are Buddhist while Hindus make up 15 percent of the population, Muslims 9 percent and Christians 8 percent.
Salee urged lawmakers to stop sowing dissent among the island nation’s different religions and ethnic groups.
“Stop creating disharmony among the different races. Don’t insult people of other races and don’t stoke racial tensions,” he pleaded.