Uniting to douse flames of hatred
By Skandha Gunasekara and Maheesha Mudugamuwa
Walking into the centre of Minuwangoda town on Tuesday (14) was akin to walking into a war zone with destruction abound; the roads and pavements were littered with pieces of glass and other debris.
We were able to still see smoke emanating from some of the shops that were attacked, while others still had smouldering fires yet to be doused – much like a visual depiction of the anger of those responsible for the carnage.
Just under a month after the terrifying Easter Sunday suicide bombings, Sri Lanka was nearly plunged into a torrent of – allegedly organised – communal violence against the Muslim minority. A sense of fear rapidly spread through society that these incidents could be telling of a repetition of horrendous Black July of 1983.
During the two previous days and nights – Monday (13) and Sunday (12) – extremist mobs had vandalised anything associated to the minority Muslim population in various parts of the country including in Chilaw, Kuliyapitiya, Minuwangoda, Hettipola, Kiniyama, and Kurunegala.
Minuwangoda was one of the worst hit areas during the riots with over 40 Muslim-owned shops along with four houses, four vehicles, as well as the Minuwangoda Jumma Mosque being attacked – the latter, a place of worship, was desecrated shamelessly.
The violence had started around 6.15 p.m. on Monday with the attack of the New Fawaz Hotel – one of Minuwangoda’s most famous and oldest restaurants.
The riots went on for several hours. The rioters, numbering into the hundreds, dispersed around 9.30 p.m.
Mohammed Azeem (33), owner of the Ezee Link mobile phone and electronics shop, said that he had incurred a loss of around Rs 3.3 million due to the damages done.
“I was in Colombo when the attack happened, and the shop was closed when the attack took place but the rioters had broken into the store and destroyed everything. They also stole expensive high-end mobile phones and other electronic devices,” he said.
The Mohideen Drapery store, a landmark in the centre of the Minuwangoda town for over 50 years, was destroyed by the riots.
Mohammed Husain Rimsan (37), co-owner of the Mohideen set of shops in the centre of the town including Mohideen Draperies, said four of their shops had been attacked, out of which two of had been completely burnt down.
“So far, we estimate that damages would amount to around Rs. 3.8 million. But we fear it will be much more once we make a proper estimate after the fires are put off,” Rimsan said, while admitting in a dejected manner that none of the shops were insured.
The Minuwangoda Jumma Mosque was also attacked.
Rioters had pelted stones at all the windows and had destroyed an altar within.
Inside the Mosque, glass from the broken windows was strewn everywhere and the burgundy carpets where devotees knelt for prayer, which were never before trod on with footwear, were covered with dusty shoe marks.
“This Mosque has been here for over a 150 years, but this is the first time such an incident has happened,” a patron of the holy building said.
It was not only Muslim shops that fell prey to the violence – the largest textile shop in Minuwangoda owned by a Sinhala-Buddhist was also attacked.
The owner of the shop, Chandima (who didn’t want to divulge more than her first name), said that her losses amounted to approximately Rs. 20 million.
“The mobs had attacked from the front door of the shop, but did not set it on fire.
However, the shop caught fire as the adjoining shops were on fire. This is not the only shop that was destroyed due to the attack, there are few more. The damage was not only to the Muslim but the Sinhala businesses as well,” she said.
Harmony till riots
Locals, from all backgrounds, were distraught after havoc wreaked their peaceful town in a matter of 48 hours. Many were standing in front of their ruined storefronts, overcome by hopelessness.
“We all lived peacefully until this incident took place. Even after the 21 April terror attack, no incidents took place here. There is no difference between the Sinhala and Muslim businesses. I don’t think this was done by the people that we know and those who lived with us for generations. This was done by outsiders,” Chandima said.
Samsu Nizard, who lived all his life in Minuwangoda, similar to his parents, lamented that he could not fathom reasons as to why such an attack would be launched onto the town.
“We don’t know why they would do such a thing as we have all lived in harmony here. In fact, I studied at Minuwangoda Central School along with the rest my age. We all studied together and were friends, despite our differences in culture or religion,” Nizard said.
He said that a majority of the attackers were outsiders but it was clear that they had help from locals as the mob was able to differentiate the Muslim-owned shops from the rest.
“Most of the rioters came in buses but we know that locals helped them. We saw a few familiar faces among the crowd and asked them why they were doing this. We only got hate-filled responses,” he said.
Many eyewitnesses alleged that despite security forces and the Police arriving while the riots were ongoing, action was not taken to curb the violence.
Mohamed Rizwi (35), who works at the Mohideen clothing store, claimed that the security forces watched idly while the chaos unfolded.
“The bulk of the Police and security personnel only arrived around 7.30 p.m. – well into the looting and rioting. Once they came, they did nothing to stop the riots. They watched as our homes and livelihoods were destroyed,” Rizwi said.
In addition, allegations were rife that popular singer and member of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Madumadawa Aravinda, was also directly involved in inciting the riots in Minuwangoda, giving possible credence to the claims of a mobilised mob attack.
Mohamed Nazmi (38), a local of Minuwangoda, said that Madumadawa Aravinda was directly involved in the attack.
“We saw Madumadawa help set fire to some shops. He was also present when the Mosque was attacked. UNP Parliamentarian Edward Gunasekara saw Aravinda as well,” Rizwi said.
UNP Parliamentarian Edward Gunasekara, told The Sunday Morning that had seen Madumadawa Aravinda during the riots.
“He is a known racist and is a part of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. He definitely took part in the riots. He using this as a platform for his political aspirations,” MP Gunasekara said.
Nevertheless, refuting the allegations levelled against him, Madumadhawa Aravinda told The Sunday Morning that he was on his way to Divulapitiya, passing Minuwangoda in Gampaha.
“The video that circulated on social media was taken when I was walking back to my vehicle after inquiring, from a police officer, about the reason for the traffic congestion at that time,” Aravinda said.
Political scientist and Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and Founder/Director of the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis Jayadeva Uyangoda said that there was an element of retaliation to the Easter Sunday attacks evident in the rioting mobs.
“My judgment is based on media reports. So judging by media reports, it seems that there is an element of retaliation to the Easter Sunday bombings,” he said.
However, he said that the retaliatory attack did have political motivation.
“They do have political motivation, but I’m not sure whether these motivations are linked to political parties or to local political groups,” he said.
He noted that investigations should reveal said political motivations.
Meanwhile, National Peace Council Head Jehan Perara said that it was clear that the riots were mobilised and not spontaneous.
“Although three weeks had passed since the bombings, there was still tension and fear among the masses. So this fear was purposefully mobilised. The riots were organised,” he said.
He said that rioters would have justified their actions based on the fear that suspects of the bombings were being harboured by the Muslim community.
“What gave the rioters and mobs a sense that they were correct in what they were doing was the fear that bombers were still around and that the Muslims were harbouring them. But the riots were organised – they were not spontaneous,” he said.
However, he said that he believed that it was unlikely that any more major riots of this nature would take place.
“Firstly, I don’t believe there would be a repeat as it has been widely accepted by all that these riots were organised. Also, the military and Police seem to be out in full force and a large number of arrests have been made,” he concluded.
Ignition from Chilaw
The first incident in the series of riots reported this week erupted in the town of Chilaw after a group of villagers attacked a shop owned by a Muslim businessman.
Later, the Police said that the incident was a result of a Facebook post put up by the shop owner.
An eyewitness of the incident, Helen Rebecca, told The Sunday Morning that a group of people with iron rods and knives suddenly attacked the shop.
However, the owner was not in the shop when the attack occurred.
“I was at my shop when the attack happened and we were shocked as to why they were attacking the shop. However, some time after the attack, the Police came and asked us to close the shops,” she said.
Later, it was reported that the shop owner was arrested by the Police to be questioned over a Facebook post he put up.
The group had started to behave in an aggressive manner while roaming the Chilaw town on motorcycles and three-wheelers.
The security forces, however, managed to disperse the crowd and controlled the situation within a few hours.
Speaking on the matter, Police Media Spokesperson SP Ruwan Gunasekara said that the situation had erupted as a result of an escalated argument between two people over a post on Facebook.
He said that the argument had caused area residents to gather opposite a store owned by one of the men, at which time they had started behaving in an unruly manner.
Gunasekara said that the law will be enacted against the individual arrested over the Facebook post based on emergency regulations.
Mob violence erupted in places in North Western Province including Koboigane, Hettipola, Wariyapola, Katupotha, and Kuliyapitiya as mosques and Muslim-owned shops were attacked or set on fire by angry mobs resulting in a countrywide curfew being imposed immediately after the violence was reported.
In Kurunegala, only one incident was reported where petrol bombs were thrown at a mosque. Kurunegala Pradeshiya Sabha Member for the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Mohamed Musin told The Sunday Morning that four youths had arrived on to two motorbikes and thrown petrol bombs at the Aswedduma Jumma Mosque.
“Four youths arrived and threw two petrol bombs. A curtain we had put up on the outside of the Mosque caught fire, but we were able to put it out and no damage was done. They left two other unlit petrol bombs on the ground outside and fled,” Musin said.
In Hettipola, it was reported that more than 80 shops, houses, and buildings owned by Muslims had been attacked by organised mobs as claimed by the villagers.
Prompt action by military: Brig. Atapattu
CCTV footage of the riots circulating on social media as well as conventional media showed an individual seemingly dressed in Sri Lanka Army fatigue taking part in the riots.
The individual was also wielding what appeared to be T-56 rifle.
Army Spokesman Brigadier Sumith Atapattu told The Sunday Morning that the soldier was not guilty of taking part in the riots.
“The Army conducted an inquiry into the CCTV footage shared on social media and it proved that the soldier had not done anything wrong.”
With regard to claims of inaction by the Army, the Spokesman said that such claims were false.
“As far as the Sri Lanka Army is concerned, it had taken prompt action and if not, the damage would have been worse.”
We were prepared: Fire Brigade
Gampaha Fire Brigade Duty Fireman A.D.J.A Suranga told The Sunday Morning that the Gampaha, Colombo, and Air Force Fire Brigades gathered at Minuwangoda to control the fires which broke out last week following the mob attacks.
“Normally, we carry a total of 12,500 litres of water to the site and when it is not enough to control the fire we use the water from there. It was the usual system. We were fully prepared to face such a situation,” he said.
Responding to allegations made by residents in Minuwangoda that the fire brigade had failed to act promptly to douse fires in many places, the duty fireman stressed that there were several ways of controlling fires and only one such method was through the use of water.
“It depends on the situation. But here, we used water. Usually in Gampaha and Colombo, there are hydrant pump systems but in Minuwangoda there was no such system and that was why the Fire Brigade had to ask water from the residents.”
Cracking down on the culprits
Close to 100 suspects were arrested and remanded in connection with violence in the North Western Province, Gampaha and Minuwangoda Police Spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told The Sunday Morning yesterday.
He said the suspects were arrested by the relevant police stations. He stated that investigations were in progress to identify the other suspects, using video clips.
SP Gunasekara said both private and public sector employees were involved in the acts of violence and that steps would be taken to notify their respective employers to take disciplinary action against them at the institutional level.
He said that a total of 5,500 police officers were deployed in the North Western Province on Monday and Tuesday to control the situation.
SP Gunasekara said 85 suspects in connection with the Easter Sunday bomb attack were arrested and being interrogated under the custody of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Terrorist Investigation Division (TID).
“Sixty-five suspects including eight women are being questioned by the CID while another 20 suspects including two women were being questioned by the TID,” he said.
He said 17 safe houses used by the terrorists had been identified by the CID.
The 17 safe houses were located in Kuliyapitiya, Negombo – Sarikkamulla, Panadura, St. Anthony’s Road, Colombo 3, Templers Road, Mt. Lavinia, Wanathawillu, Enderamulla, Wattala, Wellawatte, Sainthamaruthu 9th Division, Malwana, Kalagedihena, Katuwapitiya, Thihariya, Kochchikade, Mayura Place, Daluwakotuwa, Valaichchenai, Ridiyatenna, Subharathipura, Hettipola, Katupotha, Nintavur, and Sammanthurai.
Another seven locations which had been used to conduct training sessions and workshops had also been identified by the CID.
I went to control the situation: Dayasiri Jayasekara
Soon after the riots, social media videos and pictures circulated depicting Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara transferring six suspects from the Hettipola Police Station to the Bingiriya Police Station. Various allegations were levelled against the MP’s alleged involvement in the riots.
However, responding to the allegations, Jayasekara said that he went to Hettipola not to appear on behalf of the arrested individuals, but to control the situation.
He also noted that the tense situation was created after the suspects were transferred to the Hettipola Police Station from Bingiriya.
“I have no connection with the arrested individuals. The incident had occurred in Bingiriya. The tense situation began after the arrested people were transferred to Hettipola,” he said, adding that the arrests had been initially made in Bingiriya but the suspects had been taken to Hettipola and that he had only had the suspects transferred back to the Bingiriya Police Station.
“When I went to the Hettipola Police Station, it was surrounded by more than 3,000 people. I explained the situation to the OIC of the Hettipola Police and requested him to transfer the suspects to Bingiriya. I interfered to control the situation. I didn’t ask the Police to release the suspects on bail,” he clarified.
Furthermore, he denied any connection to Namal Kumara – Operations Director of the Anti Corruption Front – who was also seen at the Hettipola Police Station when Jayasekara arrived.
“I represent the Kurunegala District in Parliament and I should look after my people there. When I went to the police station, I saw Namal Kumara there as well and I instructed him to immediately leave the scene. Then I took the suspects in my jeep and handed them over to the Bingiriya Police.”