The riot victims say the Sri Lankan government is not doing enough to counter anti-Muslim groups that are acting with impunity across the country.
DIGANA, Sri Lanka — Windows broken and glass shattered on the ground, Razeey and his mother were barely beginning to put their house back together after a mob threw rocks through the windows during a riot.
Razeey’s family is Muslim, and like many of their neighbours, they are reeling from an attack they say was led by violent Buddhist monks who came from the south.
Earlier this month, riots erupted, and more than 200 businesses and homes that belonged to Muslim owners were damaged. At least two people were killed and more than two dozen were injured in the clashes.
“There were at least 500 people,” Razeey told TRT World, “there was a group of them, they came and we left before they reached the house.”
His uncle, Amam, came into the house to join the conversation. He pulled up a plastic chair and piped in, “I ran into the bathroom, it’s a concrete building, so we hid,” he said, “and when everything [the riot] finished, we came out and everything was burned and lost.”
Witnesses to the riots say the police are to blame because they stood by on the streets and allowed the mob to go on a rampage.
Amam said, “They [The police] can stop it but they don’t stop it. This [incident] was already arranged, it was very organised, the government knew, but they didn’t do their duty.”
Another man, Faleel, 27, told TRT World he is frustrated and that “the security forces are racist. They are all against us. With the security forces help, [the rioters] were able to attack.”
Residents in Digana raised concerns that most of the police are of Sinhala-ethnic origin and sympathisers toward Buddhists. The country suffered a 30-year ethnic war that ended in 2009 between the majority Sinhalese people and the rebel fighters, known as the Tamil Tigers, who were looking to establish their own Tamil state. They lost, of course, but the mostly Muslim-Tamil population have remained a minority in Sri Lanka.
But in Digana, a mountainous jungle town, 17 kilometres east of Kandy district in central Sri Lanka, the Muslim population and their Sinhala neighbours have remained relatively peaceful for decades. The residents don’t fear many neighbours but are frustrated outsiders from the south were able to come in and cause grief in their community — and they want to know why.
Another man, Samsudeen Mohammed Fazel, a local Imam, said he saw groups of people arrive in busses, and that his brother was killed when a petrol bomb was thrown at his father’s house.
“My brother couldn’t get outside, he tried to come back. He had whatsapp, he tried to inform me of what was going on, in his last audio, he said, ‘please help me, call the fire brigade, I’m burning, our house is burning,'” Samsudeen told TRT World.
After the violent clashes, Sri Lanka’s government declared a state of emergency on March 5, blocking social media and enforcing curfews. It was the first state emergency declared since the end of the civil war in 2009. And in the past year, tensions between the Buddhists and Muslim communities have increased.
A number of Muslim-Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were attacked last October and the United Nations had to work with government officials to move them.
And according to peace activist and media analyst Mohamed Hisham, there have been “smaller provocations” and violence over the last few years, which were incited by charismatic Buddhist leaders “close to Myanmar’s movement”.
But Hisham also says the government has shown a “lack of leadership” when it comes to holding violent perpetrators accountable. And in the case of Digana, “leaders underestimated the possible effects of the violence,” he said.
Hisham said the “rest of the perpetrators need to be arrested by police” and believes the best outcome is to promote diversity and “reiterate that this is a multi-cultural country.” This way, it strengthens communities.
But for the time being, the government’s crackdown isn’t enough for the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka, who only make up about 10 percent of the population.
Rushdhie Habeeb is an attorney and has been visiting Digana to collect evidence of the damages. He spoke to TRT World and said the people don’t have faith in the country’s law and order. “The general public do not believe [the perpetrators] will be tried properly and punished,” he said.
He added the “governments have failed” to take action against those who incite violence in the communities. “They have not been charged,” Habeeb said and his firm is “urging the government” to investigate intelligence units and security forces.
Back along the main road in Digana, Zaky Mohamed, another businessman, said he lost his fabric shop. It burned down after a petrol bomb was thrown into it. The singed material samples are all that is left and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to afford to clean it up.
“I am very sad, I cannot make anything,” He told TRT World, “I come here and clean, from morning [until night] I clean, God help me.”
Mohamed has four children—including a two-month-old newborn—and he worries he won't be able to provide for them. But at Jumahaa Mosque, the community leaders are trying to help men like Mohamed.
Inside a room down stairs from the prayer room, young boys are helping pack rice and filling bags with food. Some of the men are measuring flour and others are loading a truck to take aid to families in need.
After the state of emergency was declared, businesses closed all over the city, and people went without daily supplies.
Isra, one of the distribution co-ordinators at the Mosque, said their provisions “are enough for two or three days,” and because schools have been closed, “more than 100 children” are volunteering.
Much of the community feels helpless. Reports emerged a number of Buddhist monks offered condolences and denounced the violence. The country’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, attended a council of Muslim and Buddhist community leaders, to encourage discourse, but in Digana, people say, aside from their own Sinhala neighbours coming to their aid, they have not received an apology from Buddhist leaders.
During a political visit to Digana, one Buddhist monk was among the parliamentary entourage visiting damaged mosques. But he declined an interview with TRT World. Some of the Islamic council members voiced their appreciation for the monk’s attendance.
But outside on the steps of the Pallakele Mosque—another mosque that was attacked in Digana—a man shouted at the politicians: “We don’t respect you coming here, you need to care about the Muslim people.” His voice shook and his eyes watered as politicians walked away.
The community is demanding that government officials provide security and implement the law to prevent hate crimes. They also want an investigation into the negligence of police forces during the riots.
Faleel said, “We wanted to fight back, but we didn’t—we are a minority community and so we want peace.”
Samsudeen echoed Faleel’s sentiment, “I preach Islam in Sri Lanka and I have always taught—don’t fight each other —we are all human, we should respect everyone.”
TRT World reached out the country’s police spokesperson, Ruwan Gunesekara, to ask if they were conducting an investigation among security forces. He stated that they are.
“The chief inspector ordered a special police investigation to see if there was any negligence,” he said. “After the investigation we will review; if any police officer [is at fault] we will take necessary actions."
So far the police have arrested more than 230 people but as of the writing of this article, there may be more to come, though that is not clear.
But it may be too little too late for the community in Digana. Rebuilding could take years and government officials have not promised compensation for the damages.
For Razeey, Amam and their family, building trust in the police force will take more than arresting the current perpetrators. They need to believe the police will take their complaints seriously and investigate groups spreading hate speech towards the Muslim community.
Shaking his head, Amam said, “This government, even if a new government comes in, they need to stop this—and stop [perpetrators] in the future. They have to take action.”