A man looks on from a burnt-out home as Sri Lankan police commandos patrol the streets of Pallekele, a suburb of Kandy, on March 6 following anti-Muslim riots that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. (Photo by AFP)
Kumuduni Withana and her team have been travelling from village to village in Sri Lanka's Central Province, interviewing the victims of recent bouts of anti-Muslim violence and inspecting damaged Muslim-owned businesses and homes to learn more details about what transpired in March 2018.
Withana, as the regional coordinator of the independent Human Rights Commission (HRC) for Kandy, has been collecting reports and photographic evidence, including CCTV footage, as part of an unfolding investigation.
"We have been documenting the violence with photographs," she told ucanews.com.
"We have security camera footage showing angry crowds stealing products from Muslim shops before they set them on fire. In one clip, a group of three or four Buddhist monks can be scene engaging with what happened."
Tensions were sparked after a Sinhalese truck driver called Kumarasinghe, who was beaten by four inebriated Muslim men, succumbed to his injuries in hospital, leading to communal clashes in the center of the country.
Buddhist mobs reportedly torched buildings and attacked mosques in broad daylight, resulting in 445 houses and shops being damaged as well as 24 mosques and 65 vehicles. Three people were killed in the attacks.
Kumuduni Withana, the regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission for Kandy, said the latest outburst of hate-based violence appears to have been instigated by 'external elements.' Here she is pictured on April 6. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
President Maithripala Sirisena, an agriculturist and former minister of health, promised there would be an inquiry into the religious riots, which activists allege were stoked in part by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters.
The government was urged to act quickly to quell further outbreaks of hate-based violence that could tear the country apart.
The mob violence, which involved the willful destruction of Muslim places of worship, seems to have been organized by "external elements" aiming to further divide communities along religious and ethnic lines, Withana said.
"None of the monks have been arrested yet. However, at least 10 complaints have been filed with the HRC including some against local police officers," she added.
Withana said some of the episodes she has heard recounted indicated a crazed mob out for blood, with outraged Buddhists even storming women's houses and smashing their aquariums.
The government responded to the March madness by imposing a curfew and a nationwide state of emergency for 10 days from March 6.
However, over a month later, hundreds of Muslim villagers say they are still living in fear of possible reprisals.
Some have gone to live with relatives in other villages and towns and are refusing to return to their homes as they fear for their safety.
"We need to find the root causes that led to the violence against Muslims," said Withana.
"The HRC will publish a paper urging victims to come forward with written statements including the date, place and time of the incident and the names of the people involved," she said.
The HRC is an independent commission set up to promote and protect human rights in the island nation. It was established by a special act of parliament in 1996.
R. Musammil, a Muslim human rights activist in Kandy, said some Sinhalese Buddhists claim Muslims deserve to be attacked because they are trying to Islamicize Sri Lankan society, which the activist called "a myth." (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
In recent years, hard-line Buddhist groups including Mahasohon Balakaya, Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya have preached hatred and encouraged a growing wave of religious intolerance and extremism.
Musammil, a Muslim human rights activist in Kandy, said some Sinhalese Buddhists claim Muslims deserve to be attacked because they are propagating certain "myths" or live in a way that runs counter to other faiths.
Points of antagonism include their amassing large wealth as Muslims open more businesses, including banks, in Sri Lanka; allegations that they are attempting to Islamicize the nation; and their apparently swelling ranks as they are believed to be deliberately encouraging larger Muslim families in a bid to "dilute" the population.
While there may be some truth to these claims, in other cases the facts look like they are being distorted to inflame tensions.
"These Buddhist mobs were politically motivated and they have anti-Muslim sentiments. But the government has failed to find the root cause or arrest the main actors," Musammil said.
"Recently, a group of Muslims at a local mosque gave alms to some visiting Thai Buddhist monks. That is how we treat Buddhists," he said.
Musammil said the government must take strong action against those who propagate racism and extremism to stamp out the hatred and preempt future outbursts of violence.
Buddhist monk Keenapalesse Gnanissara Thera, pictured here in his office on April 6, protected both Muslim and Buddhist families during the attacks in March in Central Province. He said he is trying to drum up financial aid for the family of a Sinhalese lorry driver whose death at the hands of four drunk Muslims sparked the attacks. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com).
The government has provided compensation to Muslim victims but Sri Lanka's Muslim community has done at least as much if not more to help them rebuild their lives, with the aid of the wealthy Arab country of Qatar, he said.
"[They] delivered food rations to the victims for three months," he said. "Several mosques have also donated money to help reconstruct damaged and torched businesses," he added.
S.H.M Faiz, a street vendor, said that Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil businessmen have managed to work well together having formed a joint committee in the town of Digana near Kandy years earlier.
He said that Buddhists and Muslims compete over business across the nation but the answer is increased engagement and dialogue not vandalism and bloodshed.
Faiz was resting at his home in front of a mosque when the Buddhist mobs attacked his mosque and neighboring houses during the imposed curfew in March, he said.
"The Sinhalese are generally peaceful and good people but there are extremist religious groups in the country who are bent on upsetting the equilibrium," he said.
Keenapalesse Gnanissara Thera, a Buddhist monk who protected Muslim and Buddhist families during the mob violence, said he wanted to raise funds to help the family of the murdered lorry driver.
"They are a very poor family with five members including a disabled child," he said.
Withana said the attacks follow a series of similar outbreaks of hatred-based violence that the country.
"We saw the same kind of thing during riots in Aluthgama in 2014, as well as more recently in Gintota and Ampara," she said.
The episode in Aluthgama left four people dead and also saw many Muslim businesses and houses destroyed.