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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Creeping pogrom against Muslims in the South

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

 

Creeping pogrom against Muslims in the South

Northeastern Herald, 28 November 2002


“There is a creeping pogrom against the Muslims in the South. It is being well orchestrated by a powerful group of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists that includes some top business families and ruling party and opposition politicians. The press is trying to cover up and deflect the matter by describing the clear manifestations of this creeping pogrom as clashes between two groups of people”, observed a Muslim intellectual in Kattankudy in Batticaloa during a discussion about the Muslim question in Sri Lankan politics with the Northeastern Herald this week.

“The attack on Muslims in Mawanella was also described in this manner. The Sri Lanka Muslims Congress (SLMC) knows there is a concerted effort by Sinhala extremists backed by several big business houses to undermine the Muslim community physically and economically in the south. But the political and business interests of its present leaders are closely bound to the Sinhala establishment in the south. Hence, the SLMC is able to make only mild noises about this emerging threat to our safety and security in the south. As in 1915, the fundamental reason behind the antipathy appears to be trade competition”, he explained.

“The Sinhala Buddhist aversion towards the Muslims runs deep in the south. Sinhala traders began hating Muslim businessmen in their midst long years before they turned their guns on the Tamils. Even Sinhala academics are scarce able to hide the sentiment,” said the Kattankudy intellectual said.

To drive home his point he read out a relevant part from A History of Sri Lanka by Prof. K. M De Silva where the historian quite unsubtly justifies the 1915 Sinhala pogrom against the Muslims.

“The Coast Moors were not only tenacious in the protection of their trading interests, but they were also more vociferous… in the dogged and truculent assertion of their civic rights… This streak of obduracy and their insensitivity to traditional rites and customs of other religious groups (read Sinhala-Buddhist) brought them, at a time when there was a resurgence of Buddhism, inexorably into conflict with the Singhalese Buddhist masses.” (Page 382)

“As one can see quite plainly in Silva, anti-Muslim sentiments do have academic backing too. It is part of a wider scheme. People talk only about Mawanella. Actually the Muslims in the south have been facing problems for several years from the well-organised Sinhala nationalists groups in the rural areas and towns. What happened in Nochchiyagama three years ago?” he asked.


Forty shops and businesses belonging to Muslims were completely burnt in Nochchiyagama town in February 1999. The police said at the time that steps are being taken to withdraw few of the guns issued to Sinhala farmers living close to the Tamil border, north of Nochchiyagama to pre-empt any further attacks. The weapons were issued by government with a view to organising able-bodied Sinhala farmers into a militia to assist the army against the Liberation Tigers along the border between the North Central and Northern provinces.

The police claimed at the time that the conflagration was sparked off by a love triangle involving a Sinhala girl courted by a Muslim shopkeeper and a Sinhala youth. The girl had rejected the latter and confirmed her love for the former. This led to a fisticuff in which the Sinhala youth had got a severe drubbing. He had soon after returned with a large Sinhala mob that had first smashed the Muslim lover’s shop and had then gone on a rampage, burning and looting Muslim businesses in the town.

However, Muslim businessmen in Nochchiyagama refuted this story at the time, saying that the love affair was just a flimsy pretext for a well organised and politically backed pogrom against their community.

They alleged that the United Sinhala Traders Association (USTA) was behind the attack. SLMC sources in Colombo confirmed the opinion of the Muslim traders in Nochchiyagama. While Muslims shops were burning in Nochchiyagama, a Sinhala mob set fire to a Muslim school in a village called Heel Oya in Bandarawela.

An SLMC spokesman, responding to questions from a section of the Tamil press about the situation in Nochchiyagama at the time said that there was increasing evidence that United Sinhala Traders’ Association (USTA) which belongs to the powerful umbrella organisation Sinhala Veera Vidhaahna (SVV) or Sinhala Warrior’s Society, is involved in a systematic pogrom against Muslim businesses in Sinhala towns and villages. He charged that the USTA in Amparai was allegedly behind the eviction of Muslims farmers from the village of Alimsenai in Akkaraipattu in 1997.

Yet, SLMC leaders could not do anything about it because they were the main coalition partners of the PA at the time and several PA politicians were working hand in glove with the STA.

According to informed sources, the USTA is the most powerful and influential wing of the Sinhala Veera Vidhaahna. The Association has 614 branches in many parts of the island and allegedly has more than 80 million rupees in reserves for its activities. It urges Singhalese to boycott Tamil and Muslim businesses in rural and provincial towns of the south and the suburbs of Colombo.

The Association prevails on Sinhala landlords not to rent out shops and business premises to Tamils and Muslims. Several prominent (SLFP) politicians are either leaders or tacit supporters of the Sinhala Traders’ Association. An SLMC source in Colombo said that the USTA began its activities in the large Colombo suburb of Kiribathgoda in 1990 when it told a Sinhala-owned business called Sunanda Trade Centre to erase the Tamil on its hoarding. The order was complied with immediately.


The same year it began a campaign against the opening of an outlet of the Bairaha Farms owned by the Muslim multi-millionaire Nalim Haajiyar who, nevertheless, managed to start his business in the face of strong opposition from USTA.

However, in May 1996 a Sinhala mob attacked the Bairaha outlet, lobbing grenades and smashing up the shop. The local PA MP, Jinadasa Nandasena at the time who is a patron and permanent member of the USTA, had allegedly instructed the police in Kiribathgoda not to be present in the neighbourhood after 9 p.m. on the night the shop was attacked.

The mob had also thrown grenades that night at the house of an USTA member who had been to the shop’s opening. Later the PA MP had instructed the CID of the Police to collect the details of all Tamils and Muslims working in shops and other enterprises in Kiribathgoda. This created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the non-Sinhalese living in this large suburb of the city.

PA supporters and members were involved with the Sinhala Veera Vidhaahna and the USTA in instigating the attack on Muslims in Pannala during this period according to an SLMC politician in Colombo.

The USTA has successfully campaigned against Muslims buying land in the Ampara town. It is also in the process of buying up some lands in that town, which still belong to Muslims. (Tamils who owned real estate here were massacred many times since 1956. Almost all left the town after many of them were massacred in 1990.)

The USTA’s biggest venture in recent years is the purchasing of rice from Sinhala farmers at reasonable prices.

This venture is aimed at gathering popular support among the rural rice cultivators who constitute the largest segment of the Sinhala population and whom World Bank IMF and World Bank have hit, recommended withdrawal of the fertiliser and price subsidies.

The SVV and USTA are reinforcing their growing influence among paddy farmers by supporting with additional fees the poorly paid rural Cultivation and Colonization Officers (COs) who work for the government department of agricultural services.

The USTA has sent many of them abroad on scholarships negotiated with foreign governments through a front called the Lanka United Merchants Associated (LUMA).

SVV is led by the former University student leader Champika Ranawaka, who is also the moving force behind the Sihala Urumaya party. Powerful Buddhist monks, Sinhala ideologues and academics comprise the ruling body of the organisation. A very powerful family in the entertainment and gold business is believed to be behind the USTA. Several Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists in the UNP and the PA either support the Vidhaahna or are active members in many of its wings, including the USTA.

The most worrisome development in recent years, however, has been the inroads the Sinhala extremists have been making into the armed services.

The question is: Against whom will they strike first? Right now the Muslims in the south appear to be in their crosshairs.

 

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