First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/06/10/opinion/ampara-100-days-after-violence-against-muslims on 17th June 2018
On the night of February 26 and early hours of February 27, the Jumma Masjid Mosque in Ampara and a few nearby eateries run by Muslims were attacked by Sinhalese mobs. The mobs started by attacking the eatery ‘New Cassim Hotel’ based on a wild allegation that the Muslim owner was putting wanda pethi or sterilisation pills into the food served to customers, in order to wipe out the Sinhalese population in the area. The local mosque was accused of playing the lead role in distributing the pills. However, it appears the violence was premeditated and systematically planned, and the wanda Pethi story was just used as an emotive trigger.
100 days after
One hundred days after the violence, the fear and disappointment felt by the Muslim community in the area is palpable in their voices and in their body language. Fear that sparks off hatred smouldering beneath ashes may be ignited into fires again. Fear when some of those who attacked the Mosque still walk right in front of it, and others who hooted while going past it, despite the presence of policemen and a member of the Civil Defence Force providing 24 hour security at the mosque. Fear of reprisals, if they identify local youth they know were part of the attacks. Fear that prosecution of perpetrators may lead to further reprisals against them. Disappointment that the violence was not prevented despite ample opportunities and early warnings and disappointment that no compensation has been paid yet and no information about how much and when it would be given. And disappointment that the Government is not countering the continuing ideological warfare against Muslims, that violence against Muslims have continued for many years and they are compelled to live as second class citizens, in fear.
The physical damage caused by the attackers is still visible, especially, in the Mosque. The windows remain broken, the ashes from the burnt vehicles and motorcycles are still lying there. The remains of a brand new generator that was burnt is also still there, along with burnt and half burnt documents and furniture. Engineers have warned that the floor of the Mosque, which is an elevated structure, is not safe for worshippers to gather in numbers, due to damage caused by the fire. The broken boundary wall of the premises and gate remain the same, as they were after the night of violence and rioting in February.
New Cassim Hotel is still under construction following the damage. We had breakfast and lunch at the other two eateries which had resumed business, after some repairs and the purchasing of new furniture and fittings. But, both owners said, business was not what it used to be. The events that took place seemed to weigh heavily on their hearts and minds, even as they were trying to work hard and focus on rebuilding.
The lead up to the February violence
Trouble had been brewing for Muslims in the Ampara town long before the attacks. According to a Mosque leader, after the 2004 tsunami that badly affected many coastal towns close to Ampara, many Sinhalese construction workers had arrived in the area and some had remained in Ampara. These men had been hostile towards the Muslims. Muslim clerics who had come to teach religion in Ampara had faced harassment on the main roads. They had been hooted at and in one instance, the traditional cap worn by the moulavi was grabbed. Muslim leaders in the area said they had decided not to complain to the police about these incidents, to prevent the tensions from escalating. Instead, they had advised their clerics to reduce the amount of time spent walking on the roads and to take off their caps to prevent hostile persons from identifying them in public. When police complained that their traditional call to prayers were too loud, the Mosque responded by reducing the volume without arguing their case. Though native Tamil speakers, the Muslim community in the area have made an effort to learn Sinhalese and sent their children to study in the Sinhalese medium, the community leaders say.
In a separate incident, in Manikkamadu, in Irrakkamam, about 8 km south of Ampara town, a Buddhist statue had been placed on lands that the Muslims claim have been their lands, leading to protests and a court case. The statue is still there, but a policeman on duty prevented us from going up to the statue, citing a Prohibition Order from court.
The attack and damages
According to the several eyewitnesses and Mosque leaders we spoke to, the mobs which came to the Mosque had numbered several hundreds, with some estimates as high as 500-800. Two private buses had been used. Most were youth, and a few had been drunk. One eyewitness said he knew several local youth who were part of the mob. The mob had beaten and chased away the persons who were renting residential quarters owned by the Mosque, situated just behind the main Mosque building. A 65-year old Muslim cleric and a staffer in the mosque were also beaten and injured. Money, mobile phones and other valuables had been looted. The fire brigade had come to the Mosque while the fires were raging, but the mob had not allowed the them to douse the flames.
The community believes, only 11 persons had been arrested since the violence. At a subsequent meeting held in the nearby town of Oluvil with the Prime Minister and other high ranking politicians and government officials, the police had asked local Muslims to identify the persons responsible, but a senior Muslim leader had insisted that it was the duty of the police to investigate and identify the suspects. An eyewitness expressed concern about the effect it would have on the families of the mob, if the rioters were to be detained, several of whom they knew personally, who were part of the local Sinhalese community.
The damage to the Mosque is estimated by the Mosque leaders to be around Rs. 45 million. However, the District Secretariat assessment of the damage is around Rs. 24 million. Damage to the shops is estimated to be around Rs. 3.5 million while damage to a vehicle and motorcycles burnt is estimated to be around Rs. 3 million. Compensation is yet to be granted, while people are yet to learn the amounts which they would be entitled to.
Police and STF
One of the eateries attacked is opposite the District Secretariat and a few metres from several police offices in the vicinity, including those of senior officials. The other two eateries that were attacked and the Mosque were also within a five minutes drive from the police. But, it had taken the police a long time to get to the troubled spots and call in adequate reinforcements to deal with the mobs. Several residents said, that when the police had reached the Mosque, they had addressed the mob as “little brother” (Malli) and asked them to stop the destruction. But since no decisive action was taken, the mob had carried on.
Far worse was the fact that the police had not responded in advance, despite the calls to the emergency hotline (119) about 45 minutes before the mob’s arrival at the Mosque. One eyewitness used a landline to call 119 even as the mob was on the rampage, even then, there had been no clear response. Police had been present as tensions were brewing at New Cassim Hotel, well before the attack on the Mosque.
When an eyewitness at the Mosque – who was also beaten – was taken to a jeep parked just outside the boundary wall of the mosque, he had recognised the armed and uniformed men in the jeep as being from the Special Task Force (STF). He claims the STF had abused him in derogatory and obscene language. The STF appeared to have been observing the mobs and not intervened even with ‘minimum force’, the man claimed. There was proof that the STF stood by while the mob rioted, in the fact that the section of the Mosque wall where their jeep was parked had remained intact, while the rest of the wall was destroyed, the residents and religious leaders claimed.
An officer who was part of a team with weapons, that was deployed to an eatery which was being attacked, expressed frustration that he could not deploy minimum force, or even fire into the air to disperse the mobs, as there were as no orders from senior officers.
About a week after the violence in Ampara, more intensive violence was unleashed against Muslims in Digana and around Kandy, leading to the death of at least two people and massive destruction to Mosques, Muslim businesses, houses and properties. Since then, attention on the violence in Ampara appears to have faded away. But Muslims in Ampara await justice – which in the long term means opportunity to live without fear as equal citizens, co-existing with other communities. For this to happen, the Government will have to ensure those responsible are held accountable, without delay and start addressing deep-rooted and widespread anti-Muslim sentiments and canards about the Muslims.
[The writer is a Human Rights activist]