Hate Rages On
By Raisa Wickrematunge
This week saw a storm of controversy as Pepiliyana was struck by a couple of attacks on Thursday (28) night.
The Emerald Trading Company was subject to a sudden arson attack when a domestic matter spiraled out of control. Emerald Trading, which is a car salesroom, is owned by partners Murshid Sadun and Amjad Sathik – who also happens to be a captain at the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines.
A domestic issue had arisen regarding one of Emerald Trading’s employees, a Muslim boy, who had been in a relationship with a Sinhalese girl. The issue was quickly resolved. However, the girl’s father had complained to a monk about the issue. Following the complaint, an eye-witness saw a monk leaving one of the temples in Pepiliyana followed by a group of youths, mostly under 25 of age. The group carried stones and, people were later to discover, kerosene.
The unruly mob had raided Emerald Trading and destroyed the salesroom, even setting it on fire. “All the files, the computers were totally destroyed. The glass was broken,” eyewitnesses said. Two employees who ordinarily sleep on the premises had been present at the time but had fled when they saw the mob advance. It was unknown which monk exactly the girl’s father had complained to.
The incident had occurred around 8:30 pm and havoc had been wreaked in just seven minutes time – the group led by the monk had even stoned a neighbouring house. One of the neighbours was struck in the head with a stone.
Eyewitnesses then saw this group walking towards the Fashion Bug store in Pepiliyana – they believed it was the same group, which carried out the attack on the clothing store. Here, too, stones were used and clothing from inside the store was strewn across the streets. Video footage even showed a person in robes throwing a stone at what appears to be a CCTV camera, while police idly looked on and did nothing to stop him.
It was said that the Fashion Bug attack was spurred on by reports that a young Sinhalese girl had been raped by a Muslim boy who allegedly worked at the premises. From an initial crowd of 20 the mob grew into the hundreds, and press who were covering the incident were also attacked.
Army, police and Special Task Force members had to be deployed to bring the area under control.
While some news reports had said the Bodu Bala Sena was behind the Pepiliyana incidents, Withanage said that the group was in no way involved in these incidents. Withanage added that every BBS member apart from a single monk had been attending a meeting in Kekirawa when they had received news of the Pepiliyana incident from members of the media. “We request people to remain calm and not get involved in violence or create fear among people. We categorically do not want to get involved in violence. We must promote ethnic harmony even at village level so that such incidents do not occur,” Withanage said.
Also, a major telecommunications service provider announced that their customers could download the Bodu Bala Sena theme tune from their website.
The ring-in tone had been downloaded over 1300 times as of Thursday (28).
Angry customers took to the service provider’s Facebook page to condemn the company for promoting Bodu Bala Sena and demanded that the song be taken down- as it was announced that proceeds of the song would go towards funding the group.
On Wednesday, the company issued an official statement, apologizing for the pain and inconvenience caused, while adding that the company aimed to promote unity amongst all ethnicities.
The statement went on to add that the Bodu Bala Sena song was like any other content on its website, and that adding the song did not mean the company endorsed the views of the group. ‘Downloading the said content is at the discretion of the end user,’ the statement said.
The statement was met with even more anger by many. Several customers felt the apology was not sincere, as the company had made no promises to remove the ringtone. A few others spoke up in defence of the company, stirring fierce debate.
Executive Committee Member of the Bodu Bala Sena, Dilantha Withanage emphasized that he had approached several other telecommunications service providers with the idea of uploading the group’s theme song a few months ago. As such it was not correct to single out this one company. “What [this company] is doing is nothing special. A singer can upload music to the website, and anyone can download it as a ring-in tone. Some groups just want to create problems,” Withanage said commenting on the online fracas.
Withanage added that the name of the Bodu Bala Sena had been misused by several groups. For instance, there were a Bodu Bala Sena Twitter account, and several websites such as www.bbs.info, www.bbs.net and www.bbs.com, which were all fake, Withanage said. “We will see… we can expose the culprits. We do have some clues as to who they are,” he added, saying that if any were identified they would pursue legal action against them.
Withanage said that in the wake of these incidents the group was being prevented from sharing their photos on Facebook- although the group was still active on Friday (29). Earlier in the week, an SMS claiming to be from Bodu Bala Sena had urged local journalists not to carry out their avurudu shopping in Muslim stores – the SMS came just a day after a police announcement to report any person inciting religious or racial hatred via SMS, as action would be taken against them. A police statement says that the CID is conducting investigations into the incident.
However Withanage of Bodu Bala Sena emphatically denied that the SMS campaign was from them, saying that anonymous parties were hijacking their name. “We hear about these things only from the media,” Withanage said, adding that the BBS had not even called for the boycott of the fake websites, which had been set up in its name.
Campaign against hate groups picks up speed
In the meantime, a petition is circulating on social media website Facebook asking President Mahinda Rajapaksa to protect the liberties of the minority communities. The petition calls for the President to publicly condemn the actions of hate groups.
“I call on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to protect the liberties of Sri Lanka’s minorities and to defend their interests against hate speech and hate acts such as those committed by Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and other such hate groups,” the petition reads. Further, the petition asks that the President make it a criminal offence for hate groups to utilize the police force and make unauthorized raids on residences.
It also calls for the police to stop the harassment of minority communities and their business. The petition started on change.org already has over 2,200 signatories- the petitioners say they are planning to collect 10,000 signatures before delivering the petition to the President’s office. A parallel Facebook campaign entitled ‘No More Hate In Sri Lanka’ has over 200 fans – “No matter what race or religion, we are all Sri Lankan,” the campaign tagline reads.
Meanwhile tension continues to rise.
The Kuragala conflict
One of the issues brought up at one of the first large rallies the Bodu Bala Sena attended was the Kuragala site, which is a bone of contention between Buddhists and Muslims. In the wake of what they term as a victory on the halal issue, the Bodu Bala Sena has said it would continue campaigning on the Kuragala site.
Executive Committee member of the Bodu Bala Sena, Dilantha Withanage said that Kuragala was an archaeological site with monuments dating back to 2000 years ago. The caves at Kuragala were of historical importance to national heritage, Withanage said. However Muslims had occupied the caves and had put up an illegal construction when the site should be kept open, Withanage said. “Rather than a religious site this was an archaeological site – Even Buddhists can’t construct a toilet on an archaeological site,” Withanage said.
The area did have some religious significance. Bhikkus had stayed at Kuragala 2000 years ago, Withanage said, and there had been a monastery there.
Upon asked if he was aware that Muslims also claimed Kuragala as a religious site, Withanage said, “that would be decided by historians”.The Muslims occupying the site had no right to build constructions on a historical site, he added.
Meanwhile, Roshana Aboosally, a trustee of the Kuragala Daftar Jailani mosque said that the area has long been a resting place for Muslim pilgrims, who used it as a stopping point on their way to Adam’s Peak. However what made it religiously significant to the Muslims was the fact that one of the greatest saints of Islam, Abdul Qadir Jailani used to meditate here for 12 years after having visited Sri Pada, Aboosally said. A mosque has been built on the site where Jailani meditated, and several books have been written on the significance of the site to Muslims, she added.
Even before the saint meditated at Kuragala, pilgrims from the Maldives or Iraq used to pass through the area and rest at Kuragala during long treks to Adams Peak.
NCFSL concerned over violence
The National Christian Fellowship Sri Lanka (NCFSL), which represents over 200 indigenous Churches in Sri Lanka, view with serious concern the sudden escalation of violence directed towards Pastors, Christian Workers and religious places of Worship all over Sri Lanka during the recent months. The NCFSL confirms that 23 such incidents have been reported for the year 2013.
“As Sri Lankans, we are also concerned about the wrongful and distorted bias reporting of some of the electronic as well as print media concerning such attacks. We have documented cases of intimidation, threats, violence and arson, all this in the cause of religious intolerance,” says General Secretary of the NCFSL, Rev. Rohan Ekanayake.
“We note that Sri Lanka has suffered greatly through two major insurgencies and a 30-year war which tore at the nation’s heart and caused us all great grief. Not to mention the cost of lives as well the damage caused to the economy. As a nation, we need to ask ourselves whether we need yet another ethnic or religious conflict at this moment of time.”
The NCFSL maintains that the laws of natural justice and the Constitution of Sri Lanka in Articles10 and 14 (1)(e) recognize the individual’s right to adopt and practice the religion of his choice. “We categorically state that communication of the Gospel is an inseparable part of the practice of our faith. Correspondingly, we recognize the right to every other religion to proclaim its beliefs. Those who recognize this right may also agree that it is unethical to interfere with the expression of the individual‘s freedom to choose.”
The NCFSL believes that the attacks are attempted in order to justify the so-called ‘unethical conversion’.
The NCFSL says that the accusations, intimidation and violence against Christians are biased and illegal and should not be tolerated in a democratic society such as ours; in essence, it is a denial of the fundamental human rights of its citizens.
We call upon all Christians to unite and to participate in a day of fasting and prayer for the Nation and for the persecuted Church on April 8 at Holy Trinity Auditorium, No.784 Prince of Wales Avenue, Colombo 14 at 10.00 a.m.
We also call upon the authorities to enable justice to be meted out to all Sri Lankans in this connection including the affected Christian clergy and workers.