By Dharisha Bastians in Gintota
The bright red SUV screeched to a stop at the Gintota Thuparamaya Purana Raja Maha Viharaya for the second time on Saturday (18), creating a buzz of excitement among scores of villagers assembled in the temple’s expansive garden at sundown.
As the hybrid vehicle gleamed in the fading light, a familiar figure hopped out of the front seat. Galagoda Aththe Gnansara Thero, the controversial Bodu Bala Sena chief monk who strikes fear in the hearts of ethnic minority communities – was back in the region that had been the epicentre of communal violence the previous night.
This time he was purportedly playing the role of ‘peacemaker’ in the tense region off Galle, after 19 people were arrested following several hours of mob violence on Friday (17) night that caused extensive property damage and wiped out livelihoods.
Varying villains, horrific violence
Depending on which side of the village tells the tale the villains vary, but at least most people agree that it started out with a minor traffic accident on 12 November, escalated into repeated scuffles between the village boys and eventually morphed into horrific communal violence.
On Thursday (16), the night before the violence, a local Muslim politician, hoping to run in the forthcoming Local Government elections, reportedly led a mob from surrounding areas to attack Sinhalese residences in Gintota. Police arrested three persons including the local politician after three homes were damaged in the attack. On Friday night, the reprisals came.
Bringing back bitter memories of the Aluthgama communal riots in 2014, dozens of Muslim homes and businesses were burned and vandalised. In predominantly Muslim areas, the destruction of property is immediately apparent. Three-wheelers, motorcycles, a brick business and shops were set on fire by the attackers, carefully chosen targets to destroy means of income and livelihood.
Some of the scorched property was still burning even on Saturday evening. Among the wreckage is the still-smouldering grocery store run by D. Liyanage, a 58-year-old Sinhalese trader. Most of his customers are Muslims who live in the Maha Hapugala area. The cause of the damage appears to be a petrol bomb, Liyanage said. His neighbour Mohammed Rimzi seems equally upset by the damage caused to Liyanage’s shop. “They are our brothers. No one from this village would do this,” he insists.
Further down the road, N.Y.M Faheem is in shock about the damage to his concrete brick business and how the sudden loss of income will affect his family, including his eight-year old son who is battling cancer. Every week, Faheem takes his boy to the Maharagama Cancer Hospital clinic for treatment and must purchase expensive cancer-fighting drugs for the child. Faheem, whose business employed seven or eight daily wage workers, is distraught. The attackers crushed 800 new bricks and set fire on his lorry for good measure. “I can rebuild the bricks. But without my vehicle how will I deliver them?” he cries.
The residents explain that when the violence started, they ran into their homes and switched off all the lights. “We even turned off the street lights,” says Mohammed Yusuf, who hid under beds with his daughters and their children.
Yusuf alleges that most of the damage to his house occurred when the STF shot at it, after a gang of attackers ran past his house to escape when they saw the armed troops coming down the road. “They thought we were sheltering them, so they fired at my house,” Yusuf complains – “the bullets shattered the windows, leaving glass powder all over the house.”
Just like in Dharga Town, Aluthgama, many residents claim they could not identify the attackers as residents of their villages. Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunesekera confirmed that politically and racially motivated mobs from surrounding areas had been mobilised and gathered in Gintota on 16 and 17 November.
Growing fear and suspicion?
The violence affected a cluster of villages that lie across the ocean in the Gintota area, including Gintota East, Gintota West, Maha Hapugala, Kurunduwatta, Ukwatte, Welipitimodara and Piyadigama. About 3,000 Muslims and 600 Sinhalese residents live cheek by jowl in the region, where villages merge seamlessly into each other, linked by trade, community facilities like schools and playgrounds and main roads.
Residents say they trade at both Sinhalese and Muslim owned businesses, have minor complaints about infractions by neighbours or commercial establishments, but insist that they all generally get by peacefully. For most Gintota residents, Friday night’s violence was an aberration, but other politico-religious factors unfolding in the region indicate fear and suspicion between the two communities may have been growing over time.
“It was such a small thing in the beginning,” explains Mohammed Naseer, Imam of the Gintota Hillur mosque, who was locking up the premises ahead of a Police curfew scheduled to take effect at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
After they were blamed for inaction and premature withdrawal of Special Task Force (STF) personnel on Friday night, shortly before violence shook several neighbourhoods in the area, the Police were taking no chances. Every mosque and temple inside the tiny villages was being provided Army, Navy or Police protection.
But it upsets Naseer that the Hillur mosque which suffered minor damage in the violence will not host Maghrib prayers at 7:30 p.m. that night because of the night curfew. The Imam admits Gintota had experienced communal tensions even in the past. “But it is not often that these things lead to an attack on a mosque,” he mused. The mosque is fitted with CCTV cameras but the Police were yet to come by to study the footage, Naseer said.
According to the Muslim cleric, the real trouble began when the chief monk of the Thuparamaya Vihara summoned residents from nearby villages to the temple grounds and “worked people up”. “They met at the temple for two hours. People were provoked there,” the Imam explains.
The Thuparamaya temple to which the Imam refers lies a stone’s throw away from Naseer’s mosque, and is led by Ambalangoda Sumedhananda Thero. Lean and youthful looking, Sumenanda Thero refers to himself as a Buddhist scholar and author who has lived in the Gintota temple for 18 years. He vehemently denied allegations that monks at the temple incited violence in the region last Friday.
“Stemming from this road accident, tensions were running high between Sinhalese and Muslim residents. This led to a small clash in the village school,” the monk explains. “We summoned the residents to the temple on Friday evening to advise parents to ensure their children don’t get involved in brawls in school,” he insists.
The Chief Monk strongly denied an association with the Bodu Bala Sena, even as monks from the movement visited him to discuss drafting documentation on the 17 November incident to be sent onwards to President Maithripala Sirisena. But many of his words were nuanced by the same ideology spread by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya.
The Muslims marry several women and have dozens of children, he complains. “They buy out land from Sinhalese residents by paying double its value, driving out Buddhists from Gintota in order to isolate the temple,” he asserts.
Vocal about the radicalisation of the Muslim community, Sumedhananda Thero said their ‘desire to be different from everyone else’ by covering their heads and eyes and ‘growing their beards’ had resulted in a breakdown of relations between the two communities living side by side for generations.
The chief monk of the Thuparamaya temple also laid blame for last week’s violence squarely at the feet of former pradeshiya sabha member, Mohammed Nizar. The monk claims Nizar alias ‘Kiyaaz’ had brought 300 thugs to Gintota on Wednesday (16) night and vandalised three Sinhalese homes.
“I spoke to the IGP and he promised to take action and deploy the STF; 300 people came for the attack but only three were arrested by the Police,” Sumedhananda Thero complains. The Thuparamaya chief monk claims that Muslim leaders alerted their people about Thursday’s incident and arrests during Friday prayers. “This upset the Buddhists. It created a lot of suspicion,” Sumedhananda Thero admits.
By all accounts, Thursday night’s incident involving the local politician and tensions stemming from a week-old traffic incident in Gintota had led to scuffles throughout the day on Friday, but residents, religious leaders and local politicians had managed to defuse tensions by evening leading to the withdrawal of the STF which had been brought in to the area to maintain order.
Alleged BBS links
But the meeting at the temple escalated the situation again, according to Imam Naseer.
“Do you know, the monk Gnanasara also came here today,” the Imam says in a low voice. He asserts that the “beautiful young monk” at the Thuparamaya temple is an Assistant Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena movement.
Naseer’s claim about the monk’s affiliations is corroborated by most Sinhalese residents except the monk’s inner circle, many of whom balk openly at the sight of reporters on the temple grounds. These supporters of the village monk tend to protest too much and too loudly about his alleged connections to the radical Sinhalese movement.
“This is a common place, we can’t prevent any priest from coming in here,” said a young man at the temple, who wore a friendship band woven in the colours of the Buddhist flag. “Gnanasara Thero came here because Sinhalese boys have been arrested, not because of any special friendship with us. Our priest has nothing to do with Bodu Bala Sena,” he asserted, without being asked.
The young man, who has just conferred with another monk at the temple, strongly urges us to leave the temple. “We have nothing to say to the media about this incident. The media always takes the Muslim side anyway. The Sinhalese are always the bad people,” he scoffed.
Gnanasara Thero’s intervention
When Gnanasara Thero walked into the crowd of assembled villagers at the temple at sunset on Saturday after the meeting in Galle, the young man rushes to him to warn him that there are reporters in their midst. The tall bespectacled leader of the BBS seemed unperturbed. “I have nothing to hide,” he chuckles, making his way to the small auditorium in the temple.
For hours, Sinhalese residents from the area had been gathered at the Thuparamaya temple, awaiting word from the Galle District Secretariat, where political and religious representatives were meeting to iron out misunderstandings that had led to Friday night’s violence. Of the 19 people arrested over Friday night’s violence, 16 had been Sinhalese men from the villages. Anxious to learn the fate of their ‘boys’ the villagers had put their faith in Gnanasara Thero’s interventions at the Galle Kachcheri that afternoon.
Before Gnanasara Thero addresses the crowd, monks from the nearby villages urge the people to trust in the BBS chief monk and listen to his advice. The Bodu Bala Sena Leader had intervened on behalf of the Sinhalese village and its security in the aftermath of the clashes, the monks told people gathered in the temple hall.
Uncharacteristically sober, Gnanasara urged the villagers to be calm and avoid further clashes. There was nothing he could have done to get the village boys out, the BBS monk told the crowd, since the paperwork had already been drawn up to put them into police custody. “Police will present the facts to court and by Monday they should be out,” he promised, “but only if all of you ensure there are no further clashes.”
Nuanced and ominous messages
Yet between the lines of his speech to calm the storm in Gintota, were more nuanced and ominous messages.
“It is important that we continue to struggle for our rights. We don’t need to submit to anyone. But we must also learn to be strategic,” he advised the crowd at the temple. There was experience to learn from, Gnanasara Thero said, in Mawanella and Dharga Town where similar communal violence had erupted.
“Windows and doors are broken and stones are thrown at houses. The following week, four storey buildings come up in those places through funding. So there is nothing to be achieved by throwing stones,” he explained. “Don’t be disorganised. The Sinhalese people must learn to turn this into an opportunity. Come together with your village priest and Police to face issues that confront us,” Gnanasara Thero emphasised. The common goal that Saturday evening after the clashes, the BBS monk said, was to “get the boys out”.
At the end of a day fraught with tension in Gintota, Government ministers publicly hailed the controversial BBS Chief Monk for his role in “defusing tensions” in the troubled region. Yet questions persist as to what factors drove the controversial monk so swiftly to Gintota, why village monks urged their people to heed his counsel and why he was permitted to participate in the Kachcheri discussions to resolve the issue.
Nearly a week after the violence broke out, these questions remain unanswered, but the shadow of the BBS and like-minded groups that are spreading messages of fear and mistrust of the Muslim community hangs over the latest communal violence in Gintota.
As the fear and hate-mongering filters down into tiny village temples all over the country, compounded by growing insularity and conservatism in the Muslim community, ethnically diverse regions have become particularly vulnerable to sectarian violence. Dharga Town, Mawanella and Gintota have all proved how little it can take to set things on fire when fear and suspicion is kindled in such communities over time.