By T. Withanawasam in Gintota
Sinhalese and Muslim residents of the Gintota area met at the Welipiti Mosque last Wednesday and shared Kiribath with each other and members of the Armed Forces and Police. It should have been an unremarkable event except that just days before, clashes between Sinhalese and Muslim mobs had caused extensive damage to dozens of shops and houses and several vehicles.
After the milk rice was eaten the two groups and the security forces personnel came together to clean up the debris caused by the clashes.
The Welipiti Modera mosque is a special place for the village and its surrounding areas, as both Muslims and Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists, honour this place of worship.
Local Buddhist monk Kegalle Pannarama Thera said “The Sinhalese have great respect for this Mosque. They are in the habit of making a small donation to this place when they go on a religious trip. Pregnant women make a vow at this Mosque. Once a child is born they bring a bottle of milk and offer it to the mosque. Such close relations exist between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.”
So what happened to this close knit community that has existed in harmony for many years? How did mobs from the two communities rampage through the villages causing a total of 116 incidents in three nights?
It all started on 13 November when a motor cycle ridden by a Sinhalese hit a Muslim woman and a toddler at Maha Hapugala, injuring both. At the time the locals, who are Muslims, blocked the vehicle and prevented the driver from leaving.
Eventually, the motorcyclist who was involved in the accident paid a sum of Rs 25,000 to the injured party and the incident had been settled at the Police Station. On 16 November, two groups of youths, one Sinhalese and the rest Muslims had a clash at a football match and the Sinhalese had assaulted two Muslims. They were not in any way connected to the motorcycle accident. It could have been an isolated incident but escalated when the brother of one of the Sinhalese was assaulted subsequently by Muslims.
Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera bemoans the fact that police could have settled the issue at this stage. “Even though there were Community Police Units and Police Advisory Committees, they were of no use,” he told a press conference in Galle later.
By the 16th, Gintota was burning. Rival mobs roamed the streets, houses were stoned and vehicles set on fire. According to Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella, 66 houses, 26 shops, 10 vehicles, four motor cycles and two mosques were damaged and during that time, 8 incidents of thefts of property were also reported.
Later, locals accused a former UNP Pradeshiya Sabha member Mohamed Kiyaz of damaging houses and leading a mob. While the Police were hunting for him, Kiyaz surrendered to the police along with some of his close associates. Police also arrested two Sinhalese youth.
The IGP deployed additional police officers at Gintota as well as Police Special Task Force (STF) immediately, to bring the situation under control.
By the 17th police assessed the situation as peaceful. The STF was removed from guarding the area and confined to patrols only.
That night however, the mobs returned and started stoning houses and fire-bombing shops. Both Sinhalese and Muslims said their houses were attacked by a group with their faces covered, who arrived in the village from outside.
They had been egged on by rumours spread on social media of how Muslim mobs were attacking temples.
President of the Community Police Committee and Secretary of Thuparama Rajamaha Vihara Dayaka Sabha, H. L. Nandasiri said that several Muslims, who had got scared due to the attacks that targeted houses the night before, had gathered at the temple.
He said that the incumbent monk, Ven. Ambalangoda Sumedha Thera had calmed them down and the monk had engaged in an extensive effort to solve this problem through discussions.
One Sinhalese woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she lived in a predominantly Muslim area and witnessed a mob arrive and throw firebombs at a Muslim man’s shop. Her house was also stoned although she shouted she is Sinhalese.
“Our neighbours would never have done this to us. We live with each other peacefully.” By the morning of the 21st peace returned to the region but there were Police, STF, Army and Navy personnel who had been deployed. With armoured vehicles belonging to the Army and the Riot Squad of the Police, Gintota looked like a war zone. That night, Ministers Chandima Weerakkody, Rishad Bathiudeen and Faiszer Musthapha came to Gintota after they had heard about the incident. Reports said that people of the area objected this ministerial visit and had stoned the two vehicles the Ministers arrived in.
On 17th night, Police arrested a group of 19 persons increasing the number detained to 22. They were all produced before the magistrate and remanded. A student who was among them was handed over to the Probation Department.
A meeting was summoned on 18th Saturday at the Galle District Secretary’s office to settle this incident and to bring peace back to the area with the support of the security forces, Buddhist monks and Muslim religious leaders. This meeting was chaired by Minister of Home Affairs Vajira Abeywardena. Deputy Minister of Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara and Member of Parliament S. M. Marikkar as well as former representative of the President in the Galle District, former Minister Gunaratne Weerakone were also present.
It was decided at this meeting to further strengthen security in the area and not remove the STF until further notice. Buddhist monks, Muslim Moulavis and Christian and Hindu Priests who were also present said that places of worship should take the initiative and control this situation.
Members of Parliament from the SLFP, UNP, JVP and Joint Opposition, were involved in talks to bring peace.
Among the visitors was the extremist BBS Monk, Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera of who also came to the Thuparama temple in Gintota.
Eventually the religious leaders, Kanumuldeniye Chandawimala Maha Nayake Thera on behalf of the Buddhists and Mohammed Moulavi on behalf of the Muslims, issued a statement asking everyone to remain calm and that everyone in Gintota should live together in unity as they have always done.
That was how peace was restored. Even though there was a chance for a misunderstanding to occur and clashes take place, by imposing a curfew on the night of Saturday, the situation was managed. Everyone agreed that the curfew prevented persons from outside arriving in the area.
The next morning, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived in Gintota. He inspected several houses and said that it is necessary for Police to act intelligently in order to prevent such minor incidents.
The Premier also called this an unfortunate situation that “occurred due to a very small incident. I have instructed the Police to punish those who initiated such a terrible situation without taking into account their status, whatever it may be. I have also advised them not to remove security forces until there is total peace in the area.”
Lastly, here are the words of Kegalle Pannarama Thera who said, “As we are cleaning these areas today, we are healing the minds of people to bring about peace and reconciliation.”
Gintota is now returning to normal and it is hoped the problems are over.
We should resolve not to let minor incidents flare out of proportion to engulf the country in ethno-cultural clashes.