Negombo, called Meegamuwa in Sinhala and Neerkozhumbu in Tamil, is a multi-ethnic coastal town 31 km to the north of Colombo. The ethnic breakdown in Negombo is roughly 75% Sinhalese, 14% Muslim and 9% Tamil people. The population is mainly Christian, comprising Catholics (65.3 %) and Protestants (3.35%). With numerous Catholic cathedrals, churches, shrines and grottos dotting the landscape, Negombo is often referred to as “Little Rome”.
The peace and tranquillity of Negombo was shattered on 21 April when a suicide bomber targeted the St. Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya during Easter mass. A large number of people were killed and injured. The attack was part of a coordinated campaign by suicidal followers of the Islamic State (IS) organisation in which three churches and three five-star hotels were targeted.
Ninety-three people including children who were killed at St. Sebastian’s Church were buried en masse in a highly-emotional funeral conducted by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who is also the Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of. Colombo.
Although a very large number of Christians were killed on Easter Sunday by Islamist suicide bombers, there were no reprisals or attacks against Muslims by Christians. This was particularly so in the predominantly Catholic Negombo where there is a sizeable Muslim population (14.33%) also. This enlightened conduct was chiefly due to the timely appeals made by different Christian leaders who called upon their members to desist from such unchristian behaviour.
Christians and Muslims
One important point needs to be emphasised here. Attacks by on members of a particular group by a few members of another group does not mean retaliatory measures have to be taken against all members of the latter group by members of the former group. But this has been a recurring phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even here there is a marked difference. It is usually members of the majority community who unleash violence collectively against members of a minority community when the former is attacked by the latter. But when minority communities are attacked by the majority community very seldom does retaliatory violence occur.
Prior to the April 21 attacks, Sri Lanka has witnessed a series of attacks on Christian places of worship by Buddhist mobs. There has been no retaliatory violence by affected Christians. Over 30 Mosques were attacked by predominantly Sinhala Buddhist mobs in the 2018 anti – Muslim violence in Amparai and Kandy districts. There were no retaliatory measures by the affected Muslims. Christians and Muslims expect the Police and security forces to protect their places of worship. They expect the Govt to hold the scales evenly and ensure the rule of law by taking legal action against the aggressors from the majority community. However the stark truth is that of successive regimes being unwilling or unable to do so.
The April 21st Easter violence was totally different from the prevailing pattern of inter-religious violence in Sri Lanka. There has been practically no instance of violence between Christians and Muslims for many decades in Sri Lanka. The Easter Sunday attacks by suicide bombers on Churches was a shocking departure in that sense. Since Catholics were in the majority in the Negombo area and because the attack on St. Sebastians had inflicted a great loss of life to people in the locality, violent repercussions were expected due to enraged feelings of passion. Again had such retaliation happened it would not have been justifiable at all though perhaps understandable. It is to the credit of the Christians in Negombo both clergy and laity that such violence did not occur.
The church was quick to clearly distinguish between a fanatical group engaging in terrorism and the innocent, overwhelmingly peace-loving Muslims of Sri Lanka and provided correct guidance to their flock. Cardinal Ranjith played an exemplary role in this exercise. There was no “backlash” against the Muslims in Negombo despite the horror affecting St. Sebastian’s Church. The Muslim people of Negombo appreciated this greatly.
Refugees Under Attack
Unfortunately another group of pitiable people suffered in Negombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday attacks. According to reports these were the refugees and asylum seekers who came to Sri Lanka seeking protection due to persecution they faced in their own countries. They are from 15 countries, with the majority being from Pakistan (1,341) and Afghanistan (201). Many are Ahmadiya and Shia Muslims from the Hazara ethnic community, while others are Christians, all allegedly persecuted by Muslim groups.
Since Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention there are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Sri Lankan governments have allowed them to stay in the country temporarily, until they found permanent resettlement in other countries. As of 31 March 2019, there were 851 persons who have been accepted as refugees awaiting resettlement in other countries and another 819 asylum seekers, whose refugee applications are pending.
The majority of these refugees were staying in and around the Negombo area. After the Easter attacks these pathetic people became the targets of enraged citizens. Many were harassed and threatened. Owners of the residences where they were staying asked them to vacate immediately. As a result around 1,200 such refugees are now refugees again.
As one of them told the media, “In Pakistan we were told we are not Muslims and persecuted. In Sri Lanka we are told we are Muslims and victimised.” They are now housed in makeshift refugee camps in two Ahamadiya Mosques and the Negombo Police station. There are 175 people including 45 children staying at the garages in the Negombo Police Station.
“Post -Easter Backlash”
While refugees and asylum seekers felt the sting of a misdirected “post-Easter backlash,” the Muslim people in Sri Lanka did not suffer any violent repercussions. However the ongoing security operations to counter and check terrorism and terrorist activity has caused many problems and pain of mind to the Muslims as it is that community which is bearing the brunt of anti-terrorist action.
However, most Muslim people realise that this state of affairs is inevitable at this point of time and undergo current hardship with the hope that this would only be a temporary phase.
In the prevailing climate of insecurity they are thankful that they have not been the victims of violence despite the attacks on churches and hotels. After all this is a land where “Black July” was unleashed against innocent Tamils in 1983 when 13 soldiers were killed in a landmine ambush by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Negombo Violence On 5 May
Sadly this sense of safety and security felt by the Muslims received a shock in Negombo on Sunday (May 5) night last week. Houses, businesses and vehicles belonging to Muslims in Negombo came under attack. Even a mosque was damaged. A curfew was imposed.
When news about anti-Muslim violence in Negombo became known, most people were upset and puzzled. Why was anti-Muslim violence happening in Negombo now whereas there had been no immediate backlash in the aftermath of the attack on St. Sebastian’s Church? The knee-jerk reaction of the Government in blocking social media outlets and the bland announcement of a “clash between two groups” did not help very much either. There was a sense of shock and disbelief.
It is against this backdrop that I contacted many people in Negombo and a few other knowledgeable persons elsewhere to find out what had exactly happened. This article is pieced together from the bits and pieces of information gathered from multiple sources including Muslim residents of Negombo.
The good news about this violence is that there was no loss of life or limb. A few were injured but none serious. There has been damage to property but again not as much as was feared. The salient factor is that the Negombo violence was not in any way a backlash caused by the terrorist bombings. Though the targets were Muslim, the motivating factor does not seem to be “delayed” retaliation for the Easter attack on St. Sebastian’s Church. In fact the singular hallmark of this “violence” appears to be the conspicuous absence of extensive physical harm.
Strained Ethnic Relations
Although there was no anti-Muslim violence in Negombo relations between the pre-dominantly Catholic and Muslim communities were strained and somewhat tense.The sense of mutual trust and amiability that prevailed earlier broke down rapidly. According to some Negombo Catholics the residents of Negombo knew the suicide bombers were outsiders who were not supported at all by Negombo local Muslims. But another incident had upset the non _muslims considerably
This was the arrest of Negombo’s Muslim deputy -mayor Mohamed Ansar Seinul Fariz who was elected from the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPP) for allegedly possessing a sword a Manna knife and 38 Telephone batteries. The arrest of the deputy -mayor upset many in Negombo. Moreover this news was relayed over TV and Radio along with other news items such as the seizure of 46 Swords from a Mosque in Slave Island and discovery of 49 knives in a Maskeliya Mosque. This created an erroneous impression that the Deputy -mayor had been arrested in connection with the seizure of swords and knives im Negombo Mosques. The Mosques in Negombo had all been searched after the St. Sebastian’s Church bombing and no weapon had been found. Nevertheless the wrong impression of swords being found in Negombo Mosques spread and a lot of non – Muslims were upset by this.
Furthermore Christian churches had also stopped services and prayers in Churches after Easter Sunday attacks due to security reasons. This too was rather upsetting to the devout ,regular church -goers. Prayers at Mosques continued and this was being commented upon by some. The Mosque administrators realised the “sensitivity” of the prevailing situation and stopped airing the calls to worship and related activity over the loudspeaker system. Muslims were also asked by Mosque administrators not to loiter about Mosques after prayers or move about in large groups.
Another issue affecting both Catholics and Muslims in Negombo was the economic crunch after Easter. Tourists have dwindled and the movement of ordinary people too has got restricted. Businesses are affected and the usage of Taxis and three-wheelers has dropped considerably. The economic pinch being felt in Negombo also dampened ethnic relations further. It was against this backdrop that anti-Muslim violence erupted.
Flashpoint of Tension
The Negombo violence originated on Sunday 5 May at the place called Poruthota in Sinhala and Palahathurai in Tamil. There are several versions about the flashpoint that triggered off the frenzy.
One is that it was caused by an accident between two three-wheeler drivers from the Sinhala and Muslim communities respectively. This resulted in an altercation that led to fisticuffs and ultimately a free-for-all among Sinhala and Muslim auto drivers.
Another version is that there had been a longstanding dispute over parking spots between Muslim and Sinhala auto rickshaw drivers and that it had erupted into violence on that fateful day after a verbal duel turned into scuffles.
Most versions however point to a “tuk-tuk” quarrel as reason for the squabble and independent inquiries made by this writer reveal that the original clash did involve a three -wheeler parking stand. Apparently there were two parking stands for auto-rickshaw parking in the area near the beach.Though there was no “official” ethnic segregation one stand was used by Sinhala and the other by Muslim drivers. In recent times an unauthorised structure had been built adjoining the Muslim stand.This was used as a recreation centre. Efforts to have it removed did not succeed due to political pressure exerted on behalf of Muslims.
On Sunday May 5th afternoon there was no custom for three-wheelers and some idling auto-rickshaw drivers had been playing cards and draughts inside the recreation shed. Another group of Sinhala men including some other idling three-wheeler drivers had got drunk in a bar nearby. This group had come to the recreation shed and abused those inside in vulgar racist language.They had also accused them of being Islamic State terrorists. There was a heated argument and then a physical scuffle ensued after one man was hit on the head by another with a draughts board.
This led to the brawl spilling over into the street. Soon the two groups began expanding on ethnic lines with Sinhalese and Muslims in the multi-ethnic vicinity joining their respective groups in solidarity. In spite of loud abuse and blood – curdling threats and “exhibitions of valour” there was little violence of a seious nature except for mini-scuffles that would end soon and flare up again. Some elders from both communities also turned up and began pacifying both sides and the clash was seemingly ending.
Suddenly the returning calm was disrupted. The volatile situation was further exacerbated by the influx of extraneous elements. A group of persons reportedly armed with clubs, poles, knifes and bottles had entered the scene about an hour after the initial altercation.
This group of outsiders were also in an inebriated state and led by someone called “Sumathi Mahathmaya” . They began attacking the Muslims. The tuk-tuks owned by Muslims were overturned and smashed up. Attempts were made to set three auto-rickshaws on fire but only one was totally burnt. Some Muslim-owned shops were also attacked. Many Muslims sought refuge in the nearby mosque. The mob that was swelling in numbers then converged in the vicinity of the mosque.
A potentially ugly situation was averted by the Police who arrived at the trouble spot along with some STF personnel and anti riot squad personnel. They separated the two groups and brought about a stand -off. They succeeded in dispersing the mob through persuasion without penalising anyone. No miscreant was arrested. A few Catholic clergymen also arrived at the scene and confronted the mob. They pointed out the appeal made by Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith that Catholics and Christians should not do any harm to their Muslim brethren and asked the persons to leave.
A curfew was imposed from 7 p.m. on 5 May to 7 a.m. on 6 May. Police curfew was imposed in 10 police divisions including Negombo, Kochchikade, Katunayake, Divulapitiya, Kotadeniyawa, Pamunugama, Raddolugama, Seeduwa, Dungalpitiya and Katana. The Army and Police were deployed to enforce the curfew. However, gangs of armed men had arrived around 8 p.m. and resorted to anti-Muslim violence during the night while the curfew was in force. Power was cut off in certain localities while the gangs engaged in violence. The troubling aspect in this is the allegation by Muslims that many of the incidents happened within the sight of the security forces who simply remained passive and did nothing. Muslims also allege that the security forces prevented them from gathering in numbers to resist the mobs.
The mob consisting of loose gangs of men had proceeded steadily along areas and roads where Muslim residences were and engaged in attacks. Many houses were stoned. The gates and doors of some residences were broken and damaged with axes and rods. The windows were smashed. A few houses were broken into and furniture damaged. There was practically no looting but in a few instances jewellery and valuables were robbed. When terrified Muslims telephoned the Negombo Police Station, the phone calls were not answered, complain some Muslim residents. As news of the mobs began spreading, many Muslims ran to the Grand Mosque in Periyamulla for safety.
Frantic calls were made by the mosque authorities to influential people in Colombo. As a result both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Defence Secretary Gen. (Retd.) Shantha Kottegoda were alerted. This led to quick action being taken. Additional reinforcements including Air Force personnel from Katunayake were deployed with specific instructions to disperse the mobs. This was done and by midnight the mobs had all vanished after running amok for almost four hours.
Periyamulla Grand Mosque
Much of the anti-Muslim violence had occurred in Poruthota, Periyamulla and Dalupotha areas. Most of the attacks happened along Lazarus Road, Sellakanda Road and Samagi Mawatte. According to details provided to the media by Ismathul Rahman, the Secretary of the Periyamulla Grand Mosque, 53 houses had been damaged in different degrees. In most cases windows had been shattered and doors and gates broken. In a few instances furniture had been damaged. There was no looting except in a few places.
Ten three-wheelers had been damaged, inclusive of three being burnt. Six motorcycles were smashed and one burnt completely. Seven Muslim-owned businesses were attacked in Poruthota and damaged but nothing was looted. However another Muslim-owned gems and jewellery store on Beach Road was attacked and looted. The only mosque attacked was the Deniyakanda Asanaar Thakiya Mosque, where the glass showcase with the Holy Quran was damaged. Eight window panes were also smashed.
Cardinal’s Appeal For Unity
In a very commendable gesture Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith visited Negombo on the morning of Monday 6 May and inspected the affected areas like Poruthota and Periyamulla. He also went to the affected mosque and also the Negombo Grand Mosque and reassured Muslim clergymen. The Cardinal also re-issued his appeal that Catholics and Christians should not harm the Muslims who were their brothers, being “children of Abraham”.
His Eminence Cardinal Ranjith also held a press conference and said that the clash in Negombo on Sunday was the work of several outsiders who had entered Negombo to create unrest between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. Cardinal Ranjith charged that the said outsiders had intoxicated some residents in the area with liquor and provoked them into violence. He also suggested that this violence could be politically motivated.
“I request the Government to close all liquor shops in vulnerable areas. These forces are trying to create unrest in Sri Lanka to pave the way for external interference. Some forces are trying to provoke people and create religious unrest. The clash in Negombo is a perfect example for this. Those who are behind it are outsiders. They are attempting to create unrest among the Sinhalese and the Muslims. I ask all Catholics not to raise their arms against Muslims as they are not behind these destructive efforts. It had been done by a group of individuals who had gone astray. They are backed by some international forces. We don’t have to harm innocent Muslims because of this group,” the Cardinal further said.
Teachings of Jesus
The Colombo Archbishop also requested Catholics to live according to the teachings of Jesus: “I appeal to them to continue to support the security forces. I request the Catholics to live according to the teachings of Jesus and pray for the country. At a time when people are living with uncertainty, we should realise that those who take up arms will die from the destruction caused by them.”
His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith demonstrated through his timely action how a true religious leader should act in troubling times. The manner in which he has acted ever since the Easter attacks occurred has been truly “Christian” and praiseworthy. There are many who have not been quite happy with the Cardinal over matters concerning the Catholic Church in the past but few will fault His Eminence for the manner in which he rushed to Negombo, consoled with affected Muslims and reiterated his appeal for peaceful co-existence. I think it is also very necessary to compare and contrast the conduct of the Catholic Cardinal with that of the upper echelons of the Buddhist Clergy in crisis situations like these.
There has been no violent incident in Negombo after that controversial Sunday. It appears that the Negombo anti-Muslim violence was an isolated aberration and was in no way a communal backlash caused by the Easter attacks. Nevertheless the Muslim people I spoke to continue to be afraid and fearful. The tendency by sections of the mainstream media to focus only on the initial clash and casually dismiss it as a “drunken brawl” and totally overlook or ignore the systematic, pre-planned anti – Muslim violence perpetrated by an organized gang during curfew hours with Police and security personnel doing nothing has caused much unease and anxiety. One supposes that the reported anti – Muslim violence in areas such as Chilaw,Kuliyapitiya and Bingiriya will further add to this sense of insecurity
The Air Force has been entrusted with the task of maintaining the peace and enforcing the curfew that is being relaxed gradually. Police security has been provided to the nine mosques in the Negombo area. Police have arrested two persons allegedly involved in the Sunday violence. Police are also utilising the smartphones of several Muslims who had “recorded” the violence to identify more culprits. It is to be hoped that more arrests would follow. More importantly it is necessary to apprehend those “forces” who instigated this anti-Muslim violence as mentioned by the Cardinal.
Meanwhile, it is learnt that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has ordered a survey and damage estimate of the Negombo violence with the intention of awarding compensation where necessary. While this is to be commended what is urgently necessary is to ensure the safety and security of innocent Muslims in all parts of the country while security measures are swiftly and efficiently undertaken to detect and apprehend the Islamic Jihadist terrorists and their supporters.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an updated version of an article written for the “Daily FT” of May 10th 2019. The “Daily FT” article can be accessed here