By Quintus Colombage, Niranjani Roland and K.W. Nissanka
Hapuarachchige Nalani, a Buddhist woman, lives alongside Muslims in Sri Lanka. She is worried about Muslims who were targeted by Buddhist mobs in recent violence in Wattegedara in Kandy district.
She understands the fear felt by her Muslim neighbors and their children, so she is gratified that her Sinhalese friends gave security to Muslims and their properties with the help of the Buddhist temple in Rajawella village.
Many Muslim-owned businesses, shops and houses were set on fire during the violence that erupted after a Sinhalese lorry driver was killed by a group of Muslim men in Kandy.
“We did not have laboring jobs for several days after the attacks,” said Nalani, 45. “Sinhalese families suffer without jobs.”
Nalani said law enforcement authorities should protect all citizens. She and her Sinhalese neighbors have no animosity toward Muslims and they have lived in peace and harmony for years.
Muslims in neighboring villages were made homeless by two days of riots but her Muslim friends and their properties were protected from mobs in her village.
On March 6, the government declared a 10-day state of emergency after violence that left two people dead.
According to police, 465 houses, vehicles and businesses were destroyed or damaged in the religious violence as Sri Lanka struggles to recover from the civil war (1983-2009) that wreaked immeasurable loss and destruction.
“Buddhist and Muslim children go to school and work together. If they have a Buddhist festival, they invite Muslims. During Sinhalese New Year, all the Muslims come to their house. If anyone gets married — Buddhist or Muslim — everyone comes,” Nalani said.
“Muslim and Tamil villagers buy things from Sinhalese shops and Sinhalese buy things from Muslims and Tamils. They used to come to our temple too.”
In recent years, hard-line Buddhist groups including Mahasohon Balakaya, Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya have preached hatred as rights activists have warned of a growing wave of religious intolerance and extremism.
Pilhatha Mahanama Thera, chief monk of Rajawella Ranthatipokuna Temple, joined villagers in protecting Muslims during the recent violence.
“We, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians, live together and stand against violence — there is no place for racism,” Mahanama Thera told ucanews.com.
“I was really disappointed with what occurred. It made a black mark in Sri Lankan history. These mobs came to our area but we all united and did not allow them to enter our village.
“After the incident, Muslim clerics came to our temple and we also visited the damaged mosques and shops. But it would be wrong to accuse the entire Buddhist community for the violent behavior.”
Many Muslim families no longer trust the police to protect them but have faith in their Buddhist neighbors.
Thalpotha Sri Dhamma Jothi Thera, chief monk of Balagolla Temple, protected Muslims in Balagolla village.
He took the lead in gathering over 1,000 villagers with the help of Balagolla police officers to protect the lives and properties of Muslims from mob attacks.
“There are 300 Muslim families, 200 Sinhalese families and 150 Tamil families living in Balagolla village,” said Jothi Thera.
“We are taking all measures to preserve the rights of all religions and races living in the village. Due to the attacks, not only Muslims but also Sinhalese have been affected. I distributed dry rations to both communities and protected the mosque and houses from the mob attacks.”
According to residents, mobs ruled the streets for hours with stones and poles but police dispersed them several times. Many residents said the attackers were politically and racially motivated.
They claimed security forces in some areas did nothing to prevent the attacks.
The government is to pay compensation to victims, while restricted access to social media sites has been removed.