Sri Lankan Muslims protest Buddhist extremist attacks

Muslims protested throughout Sri Lanka on Thursday in opposition to attacks by the Buddhist extremist thugs at Aluthgama and Beruwela on June 15. The violence at Aluthgama followed an anti-Muslim meeting organised by Bodu Bala Sena, a right-wing Buddhist formation. Muslim shops and homes were torched and two Muslims and a Tamil killed while the police looked on.

Muslim-dominated towns in the Eastern districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara were closed for three days in protest against the thug attacks. Muslims and Tamils in the North—at Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaithivu and Mannar—held joint demonstrations. Muslim-owned businesses in Gale, Matara, Weligama in the South, and Kandy, Katugastota, Akkurana, Badulla, Bandarawella, Welimada in the central hill districts were closed.

Muslim and Tamil shops were also shut down in the Kalutara and Gampaha districts. Partial protests were held in Colombo and black flags were flown in Aluthgama and Beruwela. Muslim authorities decided to cut short the weekly Friday prayers, fearing police and government provocations.

Police arrested two people in Aluthgama for attempting to hoist black flags. In some areas the demonstrations called for action against the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Joint protests of Muslims and Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north are significant, given the presence of thousands of occupying military and police personnel and the Rajapakse government’s attempts to divide residents along communal lines. Police unsuccessfully attempted to stop the protest in Vavuniya. The officer in charge of the Vavuniya police station seized placards while other officers tried to drag individuals from the demonstration.

In a clear attempt to intimidate protestors and create the pretext for a police crackdown on Muslims, senior police spokesman Ajith Rohana claimed to have received information about “an unregistered organisation named the ‘Movement to defend the Muslims rights’ that was campaigning through SMS and Facebook in a way to create violence after the prayer on Friday.”

Further evidence has emerged of police complicity. Opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Palitha Thevaraperuma, an eye-witness to the Buddhist mob attack in Aluthgama, has confirmed that police stood by and watched the BBS carry out its attacks on June 15. He decided to visit Aluthgama after local people asked him to help save some Muslim school children trapped in a hostel. When the MP tried to rescue the children, he was attacked by anti-Muslim thugs, receiving eye and chest injuries.

The anti-Muslim attacks continue. On early Saturday morning a NoLimit clothing store at Panadura on the outskirts of Colombo, was gutted by a suspected petrol bomb attack. The NoLimit retail chain is owned by Muslims. A police spokesman announced on Saturday that they had arrested five people for threatening to shut down NoLimit outlets at Wellawatta in Colombo and suburban Dehiwela.

In Jaffna a mosque in Kamal Road was attacked by a mob that arrived on motorbikes. The attackers fled when local residents mobilised to defend the building.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has come to the defence of the BBS. He denied that BBS secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnasara made a provocative speech at the Aluthgama meeting, which sparked last week’s pogrom. He told cabinet on Thursday that the Aluthgama meeting was held by a local body, the Council for Protection of Buddhism.

BBS leader Gnanasara made the same claim at a press conference, insisting that BBS did not hold the meeting. Convening meetings using other names is a common practise by the BBS and similar extremist groups in order to be able to disclaim responsibility.

While evidence of BBS culpability in the anti-Muslim attacks is clear, Rajapakse also tweeted on Saturday that he would appoint a “high-level panel to investigate recent disturbances.” The Rajapakse government is notorious for using committees, panels and experts to hide the real facts.

Chauvinist allies of Rajapakse’s ruling coalition—the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist party, and the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa, a breakaway faction of the communal Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)—have defended the government.

The JHU and the National Freedom Front have fully backed the BBS-led attacks, claiming that they were in response to Muslim provocations. JHU leader and cabinet minister Champika Ranawake has toured the Aluthgama area and met with Sinhalese residents whose homes were damaged. He has promised to provide funds to rebuild the properties.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana announced yesterday that rallies creating ethnic and religious disturbances would be banned and those participating prosecuted. Troops and an armoured vehicle have also been mobilised in Aluthgama and Beruwela.