Sinhala extremists stir up anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lankan capitalSinhala extremists fanned a minor local dispute over the extension of a Muslim religious school in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, into a major communal confrontation at the end of last month. Racist thugs looted and burned homes and businesses belonging to Muslims, prompting security forces to impose a three-day curfew throughout wide areas of the city. One person was killed and several others injured when soldiers fired on groups of Muslims.
The clashes began on October 30, one day before the second round of peace talks began in Thailand between the Colombo government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to seek an end to the country’s protracted civil war. The clashes are symptomatic of the tensions being stirred up by Sinhala extremist groups, which oppose any concessions to the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities. In this charged atmosphere, literally any issue is being seized on to heighten communal animosity.
The confrontation took place in Maligawatte, an inner suburb that features a mixture of residences and small businesses. It is home to large numbers of poor Muslims and Sinhalese who are largely segregated in different areas, as well as small pockets of Tamils.
Local Muslims had established a religious school in 1999 on a tiny patch of land—about 50 square metres. In August, the school was planning to build an extension—with the permission of the city’s municipal council—after purchasing another small piece of land.
Buddhist monks from the nearby Bodhirajaramaya temple, backed by the Sinhala chauvinist party Sihala Urumaya (SU), immediately began to agitate against the construction, claiming it would infringe the rights of Buddhists. A number of small protests were held which police then used to file a court case against the planned building on the grounds that it would “breach the law and order”.
The court ruled in favour of the construction on October 25 and work began on the same day. Five days later, however, the police produced a letter from the Colombo Divisional Secretary, the city’s chief administrative officer, demanding a halt to the work on the grounds that there was a dispute over the land. Thanabeddegama Sobitha, the Buddhist monk organising the opposition, admitted to the press that the letter had been written at his instigation.
When those in charge of the construction cited the court decision and refused to recognise validity of the letter, the police, including high-ranking officers, moved to halt the work. As the exchange with the police took place, groups of Sinhala thugs, who had gathered to watch events, began to throw stones and attack local Muslims. The police stood by as these gangs attacked and burned houses, looted businesses and torched vehicles. When groups of Muslims gathered to retaliate, the police chased them away.
As the situation started to escalate out of control, the government imposed a curfew in several areas of the city and mobilised some 7,000 soldiers and police to enforce it. The actions of the security forces, which are deeply imbued with Sinhala chauvinism, were directly mainly against Muslims. Soldiers opened fire in densely-populated areas to disperse groups of Muslims, killing a worker, Mohammed Junaid. In the same area, a 50-year-old woman, Buhari Fareeda, and a 26-year-old pregnant woman, Siththi Fawsia, received gunshot injuries and had to be treated in hospital.
Junaid was a father of four. His wife said he had been killed going to a small nearby store. Local residents explained that it had taken nearly 20 minutes to get him to hospital as a result of the army’s indiscriminate shooting. He was pronounced dead on arrival. The following day, 10,000 people participated in his funeral to voice their protest.