Kandy communal unrest: We must learn lessons from our past- Ven.Galkande Dhammananda thera | Sunday Observer

Kandy communal unrest: We must learn lessons from our past- Ven.Galkande Dhammananda thera

Chairperson of Valpola Rahula Institute and Senior Lecturer, Department of History, Kelaniya University Ven.Galkande Dhammananda thera stressed the importance of healing a nation that has been exposed to terrorism and violence for over three decades, in the aftermath of the Digana riots.

Citing the serious setbacks the country suffered as a result, Ven. Dhammananda thera said, the government must take the Digana lesson seriously, study the root causes and offer long term solutions.

“We are a society that had lived through terrorism and violence for over three decades. The conflict ended but minds are yet to heal. All communities, including, the Sinhalese are constantly in fear of death and extinction. Such people are easy prey for extremist elements,” he added.

In summery, the thera said disintegration of the Muslim community from society due to Middle East influence and organization of ethnically biased political parties would have contributed to fuel the communal riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims.

Q. Even the smallest provocation is enough for Sinhala sections of the community to rise against the Muslims, as was evident in the recent incidents in Beruwala, Ampara and Kandy. Do you think this distrust was a result of a deep rooted, and a more complex issue?

A. I think there are many reasons for these unfortunate incidents to recur. Some are not at all related to Muslim communities but others are directly related.

As I see it, among the reasons not directly related, is the use of fear as a tool by the LTTE, JVP, as well as the security forces in the country’s darkest eras. LTTE massacred villages and religious places killing even children to instil fear in the minds of the people.

Between 1987 to 1990 even the JVP, although not to the extent of the LTTE, rode on the people’s fear. They used various tactics to generate fear and communicate their message. The military forces too, in their effort to contain these armed groups, used fear as a tool. Thus, the rebels were not secretly arrested and killed, but brutally killed and dumped in tire-pyres.

We are a society that had lived through terrorism and violence for over three decades. The conflict ended, but minds are yet to heal. I don’t see any real action to address that issue. All communities, including the Sinhalese are constantly in fear of death and extinction. Such people are easy prey for extremist elements.

Another reason is the sudden disintegration of the Sri Lankan Muslims from the rest of society. Although the Muslim people have lived among us peacefully for about 1,000 years, they began to change in appearance, behaviour and mannerisms during the past 30 years or so, perhaps influenced by the migrant workers taking up jobs in Saudi Arabia .

The oil rich Arabians fund mosques here, since it is considered a means to invoke blessings on the deceased. So, instead of becoming ‘Sri Lankanised’ over the years, Sri Lankan Muslims embraced an Arabian identity. Earlier, the Muslim community was very much integrated in the society.

The third point is, the organization of Muslim politicians as a separate political force moving away from mainstream parties.

But, on the contrary the Christian faith, moved closer to the locals by introducing Sunday Mass in Sinhala language, etc. And, churches began doing ‘poruwa ceremony’ during wedding services. Father Aloysius Peiris and Fr.Marcelline Jayakody, played a pivotal role in bringing the Catholic church more closer to the Sri Lankan people. Buddhist-Catholic cross marriages were not frowned upon by the Church anymore. Similarly, the Buddhists had a closer affinity with Hinduism.

Asian countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanisatan converting into Islam states, is another reason for the Buddhists to harbour distrust against Muslims. This is the larger picture as I see it.

Q. Another claim by the Buddhist hardliners, to justify the attacks on Muslims, is the alleged encroachment of Buddhist temple-lands by Muslims in the Eastern parts of the country. What is your take on this?

A. I would like to associate this matter with the acute dearth of inhabitable land in the country. Not only Muslims, even the Buddhists have occupied temple land. Lands of Jethawana Viharaya within the most sacred Anuradhapura cultural triangle are encroached by Sinhalese villagers. There is no trace of the ancient kingdom there. Many cases are heard in the Courts over temple land-grabbing by the Sinhalese in the southern parts of the country. Buddhist monks have even got killed over such issues.

Being a person from Ampara, I know as a fact that the forest cover where I grew up has shrunk so much to make way for growing populations. The Deegawapi Vihara issue where Muslim encroachment is reported is another such case. We must try to offer practical solutions to these real problems of the people and not fuel it by spreading racial hatred.

I believe this is more of a land issue than an ethnic problem.

Q. Do you believe there is an organized violent campaign against the Muslims in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese community?

A. I don’t believe there is such an organized campaign. The vandalists may have been driven by business rivalry as was evident in the attacks on business properties. There were no targeted attacks on Muslim people, which was the case in the ‘83 riots against the Tamils.

Q. Has anyone done a proper study on these violent cycles that recur from time to time?

A. There may be individual studies, but I have not come across any by the Government, so far.

Q. How important do you think it is to do a conflict mapping by the Government to understand and remedy the root causes?

A. That is imperative. There will be severe consequences if this trend is not arrested immediately.

The consequences will be for all communities and the country in general, and the Sinhalese community in particular. Even now, the tourism industry must have had a major blow after the Kandy riots. Curfew and Emergency was imposed for days.

There was a social media blockade. All this contributed to tarnish our image as a growing tourism destination, as well as a peaceful nation. It also invited unnecessary action by the international community.

The other effects would be the probable drop in the rupee value and our outlook for foreign investment.

The government must take these incidents very seriously and make long term efforts to douse communal flames.

Q. There is a perception among the Majority community that even an agitation over their legitimate rights is misinterpreted as racist. Your comments?

A. Whatever agitation, it must be peaceful. We cannot condone violence perpetrated on anyone or anything by an aggrieved party, to win their demands.

During the particular instance which triggered the clashes in Digana, four drunk Muslim men attacked a Sinhala driver who later died.

The response should have been a protest to arrest the drunk men and bring them to book. The mobs instead destroyed businesses and attacked properties of Muslims at great cost to the good name of the Sinhala community.

I must say, any action should focus on the officials with the objective of deriving remedial action. Unleashing violence will create more issues, and would settle none. If a section of a particular community is breaking the law and creating problems, we must turn to law enforcing agencies.

We must learn lessons from our past and not let emotions guide us.

Q. In Singapore, different ethnicities, like Tamils, Chinese Buddhists and ethnic Malays live in perfect harmony. Do you think the breakdown of the law and order situation in the country has been a major contributor for ethnic tensions like these?

A. Certainly. The law responds differently to those with money and political power, whether you are a Muslim, Sinhalese or Tamil. In Kandy, the police failure led to that disastrous situation. It could have been brought under control if the law took its due course at the right moment. I observed a complete collapse of law and order in the case of Digana.

Q. What is your opinion on the role played by extremist groups led by Buddhists monks during the clashes in Ampara and Digana?

A. Within a few days these organizations have done a greater damage to the sasana and to our country, than to any Muslim or other group. It was a big disgrace.

Things went out of control because a situation that should have been handled by intellectuals was hijacked by these unruly elements.

Q. Can the Chief prelates and Nayaka Theras take any action to stop the disgraceful behaviour by these so called ‘Buddhist’ groups ?

A. It is not easy. The extremist groups are hard to control. I am sorry to say the Spiritual Leadership in our country too has failed the people.