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