A fullmoon is shining over the traditional pooja celebrations in Kataragama, in southwest Sri Lanka. By the light of candles people offer flowers, fruit and incense.
The Sri Lankan flag waves above. In each of its corners is a leaf, representing the four religions on the island: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and christian.
An idyllic setting- but it’s deceiving. The peaceful existence between religions here came crashing down on June 15th last year.
Hundreds of anti-Muslim Buddhists, led by a dozen monks from the extremist organisation Bodu Bala Sena stormed into Dharga Town, a Muslim suburb of the city of Aluthgama, south of the capital Colombo.
Buddhists burned cars, Muslims threw stones. The military opened fire. 50 were injured, four Muslims died.
The pain still lingers nine months later.
Back in Dharga Town across from the mosque, I see a young man on crutches enter a house.
20 yr old Mohammed Afkar comes out of the local mosque on crutches.
He lost a leg in the shooting. His mother Zeenathul says they don’t understand what happened: ”What did he do to anyone? My strength is our local society and my belief in god. I have no faith in promises from any government.”
While the government offered no explanation for the violence, an independent investigation was conducted.
The report underlined the government’s institution of Muslim marginality, and buddhist superiority, and the fact Bodu Bala Sena had been able to broadcast hate speech.
It is difficult to say who cast the first stone. Private cellphone videos do show members of the Buddhist crowd with sacks containing rocks.
Mohammed Nijabdeens is Muslim and has been the village head of Dharga town for 37 years.
”When the Buddhists pushed into the village we fled to the mosque. When we refused to leave there the military opened fire. Two young boys were shot in the legs. We carried them to the hospital but the Buddhists blocked the entrance so they couldn’t receive treatment. It took so long that the doctors had no choice but to amputate their legs,” he recalled.
He says tensions have grown as the Muslim community has got bigger.
When he was appointed village chief in1972 there were - 2000 Muslims in Aluthgama now there are 25000.
”We want to live in peace. Together. Like before. But I’m afraid the oppression against us Muslims will continue,” said Nijabdeen has he dried his thick eyeglasses.
Muslims comprise 8% of Sri Lankas population but pose stiff competition for the Singalese Buddhist owned businesses in the area.
In their attempt to create an ethnic state, more than 90 000 Muslims were expelled from the northern areas by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. The Muslims however remained neutral.
After the 30 year war with the Tamil Tigers which cost 100,000 lives there is also a new fear among the Buddhist majority of Islamic fundamentalism.
”The main problem is the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress. They’ve asked for a separate zone in an eastern province. This is something very disturbing to Sri Lankan people. Because they fear these groups will one day create a huge problem here. Sri Lankans think there will be a clash,” said journalist Keerthi Warnakulsunya who works for the newspaper The Island.
There is no proof that violent extremist Islamic exist in Sri Lanka.
Last year Ashin Wirathu an Buddhist monk from the Burmese ultra nationalist 969 movement came to Sri Lanka - his goal- to build a partnership with the Sri Lankas Bodu Bala Sena anti-Muslim group.
Rambukpitiya Rathana who has been a chief Buddhist monk near Aluthgama for 45 years is worried.
”There are many people with racial agendas who use people who bear the robe. It’s clear the Bodu Bala Sena are not following Buddhist philosophy. Real Buddhists rejected the Bodu Bala Sena alliance with the government and voted against them,” he said.
The previous Rajapakse government formed an alliance with the Bodu Bala Sena. In the January President elections minority groups including Muslims overwhelmingly voted against them.
The new president Mathripala Sirisena has promised that the Bodu Bala Sena will get no support and have asked the media not to give them space.
They’ve asked the extremist monks to reflect on their important role in sewing peace in society.
But extremist Buddhist monks are still preaching within the confines of their temples.
”We are ashamed that our philosophy is being dragged in the dirt by Bodu Bala Sena,” said Chief monk Rathsana as he looked up at the large Buddha statue in his temple.
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