Muslims in the Sri Lankan town of Mawanella suffered damage to their businesses and property estimated at R2.100 million ($1.2 million) earlier this month, when mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses and shops, destroying 18 vehicles, 20 houses, 140 shops, two garment-factories and a rubber factory on May 2. The attacks in Mawanella, on the main highway between Colombo and Kandy in the Kegalle district, were well planned. While the government of president Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to downplay the seriousness of the attacks, reports from Mawanella confirmed that Mahipala Herath, Rural Industrial development minister, was behind the attacks. He has been implicated in the recruitment of Sinhalese thugs, known as Chandiyas, to attack and destroy Muslim properties in the predominantly Muslim town.
Muslims see the attacks as part of a government conspiracy. While not one culprit of the Mawanella mayhem has been arrested, at least 14 Muslims who protested outside Maradana police station in Colombo after juma prayers on May 4 were arrested immediately. According to eyewitness accounts, a few Muslims threw stones at the police station; the police immediately responded with teargas shells, and the protest was over in a matter of minutes. A 6 pm-to-6 am curfew was then imposed on Maradana, Maligawatte and Kotahena areas. The next day’s papers, however, carried photographs of vehicles whose windshields had been smashed or damaged, even though no incidents of that kind had occurred at Maradana police station.
The Muslims not only accuse the government of a cover-up, but have also expressed disappointment with both Muslim ministers in the cabinet, who are repeating the government’s version of events. Following the Muslims’ demand for a commission of inquiry into the Mawanella attacks, president Kumaratunga appointed a panel to be headed by the prime minister. It includes H.M. Fauzi, minister of highways, as well as Syed Maulana, minister of labour. The two Muslim ministers, however, are already trying to minimise the significance of the Mawanella incidents.
A Muslim opposition parliamentarian, Ali Zahir Maulana (nephew of the labour minister), revealed on May 3 that at least two mosques, 60 houses and 40 shops as well as two fuel (gas) stations had been burnt by the Sinhalese mob the previous day. He said that Sinhalese mob attacks were intended to destroy the basis of the Muslims’ economy in Mawanella. Maulana demanded that the Sri Lankan government take full responsibility for the attacks on Muslims. He also charged that the police had stood by even during the curfew, while Sinhalese mobs went on their rampage. Without protection from the police, Muslims had to flee for their lives. Hundreds sought refuge in a local Muslim school.
The Sri Lankan government, meanwhile, claimed that the situation was brought under control when police from outside Mawanella were deployed; this is an indirect admission that the local police had sided with the attackers and failed to protect the victims. While Muslims have demanded full compensation for their losses, the government has sought refuge behind the excuse that it is too early to assess the damage. The Muslims’ past experiences, however, give little cause for optimism. In the past, whenever Muslims have suffered damage at the hands of Sinhalese mobs, the compensation offered them has been derisory, less than one tenth of what they lost.
A spokeman for the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress said on May 3 that the government, aided by some sectors of the media, was deliberately trying to play down the attack against Muslims and their property, businesses, places of worship and homes. “Instead they are attempting to make the Muslims the villain of the piece”, he charged. According to reports from Ruwanwella, a small town near Mawanella, on May 1 Muslims in the town had shut their shops and flown black flags to protest an attack on two Muslim businessmen a day earlier. The businessmen were assaulted by the bodyguards of a ruling-party politician when they refused to pay extortion-money. Not only were Muslim businesses attacked but also the Mawanella Juma Mosque, which was burnt down.
This latest flare-up against the Muslims was instigated by the Sinhala Traders Association, which is backing such racist groups as the Sinhala Urumaya (formerly Sinhala Veera Vidhaahana, a Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic racial group) to attack and undermine the Muslims systematically. It must be emphasized that Muslims have never had any problem with the silent majority of Sinhala, who are Buddhist, but there is a racist group within the majority community that is unwilling tolerate any minority presence. This is also the allegation made by the Tamils. In fact TamilNet, an Indian-based Tamil internet service, has gleefully pointed to Sinhala intolerance in light of the attack on Muslims to justify their own campaign against the government.
Well-informed Muslim sources in Colombo suspect that president Kumaratunga is under pressure from the Sinhala not to give in to the Tamils. The government is about to open talks with them in an attempt to bring the 20-year civil war to an end. There is little chance of that, but in the meantime Muslims have been killed and hundreds of millions of rupees’ worth of property has been destroyed. Muslims also suspect another reason for the sudden flare-up: Israel is about to open an embassy in Colombo. Because the Muslims intend to hold protest rallies against the zionists’ presence, the Mawanella mobs were unleashed to keep the Muslims preoccupied with their own problems, undermine them economically and teach them a lesson. It is unlikely that such tactics will work. Muslims will go ahead with their protests when the Zionists come to Sri Lanka.