Recent unfortunate events have place in the Kandy area of Sri Lanka, specifically in the towns of Digana, Balagolla and Teldeniya, where there was a rampage against the Muslim community for nearly 4 days.
Last Monday, 19th March 2018, leaders from the National Christian Council (a Global Ministries partner) in Sri Lanka were able to visit the area. This visit had a tremendous impact on the affected Muslim community, which are reported below.
- We had a meeting with the Maha Nayaka of the Malwatte Chapter, who spoke few words but was full of wisdom. He suggested that awareness programmes are needed for local Buddhist monks and the custodians of the local Buddhist temples, suggesting that they be alert when outsiders come into the village to incite people.
He regretted what took place and was very open for dialogue and future action to prevent such incidents.
- We met nearly 20 Moulavis and leaders of the Muslim community at the Kandy Mosque, which represented many of the affected mosques during the riots.
- They all spoke of the long-standing goodwill and relationship that existed and they were very grateful of the visit.
One senior Moulavi said that it is the first time a Maha Nayaka had visited a mosque and that itself heals half the pain we have endured in the past few days.
Goodwill was expressed and everybody wanted some concrete follow-up to take place.
- We visited one of the prominent monks in the affected area who had been instrumental in preventing the spread of these attacks. He was very outspoken and he is still visiting the Muslim community and I am sure we can do a lot in associating with him in the future.
- We personally visited many affected mosques, houses, and shops and particularly the house of the young, deaf, Muslim boy who died of suffocation from the smoke of the burning house. It was deeply sad, but he had videoed all that took place in front of the house, which we believe will be an important source of evidence to find the perpetrators.
- We also visited the house of the Sinhalese lorry driver who died following an assault on him by 3 people who happened to be Muslims, who traveled in a three-wheeler. This altercation took place due to a minor incident related to overtaking a vehicle.
This family lives in a remote part, far removed from the place of the riots. He has a 9-year-old deformed child and a daughter who is in Grade 9. There are no other bread-winners in this family.
- The parents of the lorry driver were so grateful that we visited their house for which we had to travel nearly 10-12 km on a rugged road, away from the main road.
The father, wife, and family of the lorry driver who died did not express one bitter word about the people who assaulted his son. He never mentioned the word ‘Muslim’ and viewed the whole incident as a fight that emerged due to the small accident that took place.
He had even refused the funeral to be held in the town but insisted it be in the village, in their family burial grounds.
They are so poor, so simple but rooted in the Buddhist philosophy and it is evident that they were not part of the instigating group. Not one Muslim family in this village was attacked.
The credit also goes to the monk in this village as well.
- The father of the Muslim boy who died also had no vengeance in his words and all he wanted was that no child should die like this.
- It is evident that this was a well-orchestrated and externally manipulated attack on the Muslim Community but of course there were a few from the local communities who assisted them.
- Our visit received a lot of media attention by the fact that the Maha Nayaka Thero was walking from place to place, visiting the affected people. Many, including some Buddhists were grateful that we facilitated this visit.
Since the above visit, we are pondering on the following:
- It is evident that Police inaction in some areas on the first 2 days led to the spread of the events. Why and how this happened should be probed.
- Wherever the Police intervened, the scale of the attack was less.
- This is externally orchestrated. It is evident there are underlying grievances (some real and some imaginary), among the Sinhalese and also of the Muslim community, which needs to be addressed as early as possible.
- It is evident that a lot of goodwill from the Muslim Community is also essential to build bridges that will not break or burn in the future due to external manipulation.
- It is also evident that there were political manipulations behind this and the impact of the recent Local Government Elections cannot be ruled out.
What we hope and want to do:
- Continue our connections and build on the goodwill that has been built up and perhaps have small action groups from people belonging to all communities. [not only Buddhists and Muslims but include the Hindus, Christians as well] For this. a lot of underlying work that has to be done. This is not merely creating interfaith forums, but moving beyond that.
- Some documentation has to be done with regard to some of the actual incidents that took place which should also include the positive stories such as the statements of the father of the lorry driver, the statements of the father of the Muslim boy who died and many Buddhists who had prevented / protected the spread of violence. The idea is not to just tell the story but to understand the dynamics which prevailed during these unfortunate days.
- A serious, concrete discussion has to take place as to how to handle the social media which was definitely instrumental in escalating the scale of violence, while not curtailing the democratic freedom of expression. This I believe is a great challenge.
- How do we use the social media for a positive influence when such unfortunate events occur?
- I am sure we need some small scale programmes to heal the memories and to turn the negative experience into a positive one.
- This is a good eye-opener for the Christian community though I am a little disappointed at their response.
- We need to constructively challenge the Muslim community, to help them also to integrate to the Sri Lankan National Polity and to respect or understand the values that have been dominant in the Sri Lankan villages.
- It might be good to discuss together what is going on in Myanmar and Sri Lanka – Would a small consultation help?
As this visit received a lot of publicity, we have been invited by the Speaker of the Parliament to attend a meeting on the 19th of April 2018, to discuss the future steps to be taken.
But we need to immediately embark on a documentation process and to facilitate small-scale programmes such as Healing of Memories, Children's Integration programmes and facilitating dialogue among different communities.
This event is a sad reflection of some of the undercurrents that we see in the wider Sri Lankan society. Reflecting on what happened at the United Nations Human Rights Council last week and the political events that are unfolding in the country, there is an urgent need to put our heads together and act with greater commitment and speed, failing which we will miss the reconciliation bus.