Following Easter Attacks: Clashes Erupted in Several Areas
By Buddhika Samaraweera
In the aftermath of the 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday bombings, several clashes erupted in areas such as Minuwangoda, Negombo and Kuliyapitiya. The mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the bombings required it to identify individuals and organisations, which are connected with public protests, acts of sabotage, causing damage to properties and persons and thereby causing public unrest following the bombings. A number of witnesses testified before the PCoI in connection with these incidents and the same is referred to in a separate chapter of the PCoI’s final report on which this article is based.
Three weeks after the bombings, the country had to face a different challenge, the prospect of a backlash against the Muslim community with potentially serious consequences. Clashes were reported mostly in the North Western Province and in Negombo and Minuwangoda. Several shops, houses and religious places were damaged, when mobs attacked them and set them on fire.
Catholics and Muslims in Negombo have been living together peacefully for many years, and there is no record of ethnic clashes. However, in the aftermath of the suicide bombing on St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya relations between the city’s Catholics and Muslims grew tense.
The President of the Negombo Grand Mosque, testifying before the PCoI, said he was shocked when he heard that a group of radicalised Sri Lankan Muslims had carried out the attack, along with other Muslims in the capitol and suburbs. My three children are currently studying at a Catholic school. We have been part of this society, but we suddenly felt isolated, the witness said.
On 5 May 2019, nearly 14 days after the suicide bombings, violence erupted between Negombo’s Christians and Muslims. Despite a curfew, mobs attacked shops and houses belonging to Muslims. Nearly 70 houses and dozens of trishaws were damaged. The Army was also deployed, but victims allege that the soldiers came too late.
Chilaw and Kurunegala
While the initial incident was reported in Chilaw, the unrest quickly spread to other areas of the North Western Province. Mobs attacked several mosques, torched dozens of shops and homes of Muslims in Kurunegala District. It was the biggest outbreak of violence since the Easter Sunday bombings. Police curfew, initially imposed in six villages in the district, was later extended to cover the entire island until next morning, amid fears of the attacks spreading.
On12 May 2019, violence initially erupted in Chilaw town. The reason was a Facebook comment by a Sinhalese person indicating that the Sinhalese community should not visit a certain business venture. A Muslim boy who was working for the said venture in Chilaw town reacted by a Facebook comment and the Sinhalese people in Chilaw town began reacting against the said worker.
The PCoI observed dozens pelting stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores, and a person being beaten by a mob, prompting a Police curfew.
Another group of people congregated in the town of Chilaw allegedly following a new Facebook post which claimed that there was a plan to attack the town. An immediate Police curfew was imposed and the situation was brought under control without further damage. Two suspects were later arrested over the incident.
The clusters of villages in Kurunegala District were mainly affected. Kuliyapitiya, Kobeigane, Rasnayakapura, Hettipola, Bingiriya and Dummalasuriya were mostly affected and witnesses disclosed that the destruction began in the afternoon on 13 May 2019. It looked like the mobs had planned to move from one village to the next, attacking Muslims’ homes and properties. Some groups came on motorbikes and started attacking mosques and Muslims shops. The villagers were either indoors, or hiding in the nearby jungles in fear.
At least three mosques were attacked and according to witnesses, one mosque was destroyed. Glass was strewn across the Abrar Mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked. A witness testified that all the windows and doors of the soft pink building were smashed and copies of the Holy Quran were thrown on the floor.
Another witness who was at the mosque said about 150 to 200 people came towards the mosque with rods and swords on 13 May 2019, but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the Police. But a little later they came back, and this time there were about 1,300 people. The crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said. They have destroyed and burned Qurans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution, he further testified before the PCoI.
There had been some damage to property in Hettipola area, but no injuries reported. The Police also fired in the air in Hettipola.
One Muslim person was killed in Marawila, Koswatta on 13 May 2019. The Police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops and imposed a curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter Sunday bombings. A 42-year-old person who was admitted to the Marawila Hospital with stab wounds had died on admission. A witness testified that there were hundreds of rioters, Police and Army were just watching. Mobs had burnt a few mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims.
It was revealed that on 13 May 2019 more than 1,500 people gathered in Minuwangoda town around 5:45 p.m. They had started attacking shops and hotels owned by Muslims. Roshan Wijewardana, who was the SSP Gampaha at that time (presently DIG Badulla) immediately, alerted the surrounding Police Stations. When he arrived near the Faus Hotel on the Katunayaka-Minuwangoda Road, people were attacking and damaging that hotel. The SSP had informed the Army to send troops to control the situation. The STF was summoned when a large number of attackers arrived there. About 2,000 mobsters were involved in the attack.
Some of the damaged shops belonged to the Minuwangoda Municipal Council. It was revealed that those tenants were occupying most of the shops even after their lease had expired. A majority of those shops were completely damaged. Some of the witnesses indicated that the Municipal Council purposely allowed the mob to destroy the shops, as they wanted to get them back to the Municipal Council to construct a new Super Market Complex on the same premises.
There was speculation on 13 May, that a Muslim boy in Polwatta came to the village temple and stabbed a Buddhist monk. This news spread within a short time in the whole of Minuwangoda. People gathered at the Polwatta Temple when they heard this story. A few people tried to speculate this story to create unnecessary tension in the area. It was revealed by the two Buddhist monks who testified that the “stabbing story” was completely false.
It was evident that 50 Police Officers were on duty in Minuwangoda Town on 30 May 2019. More Police contingents were brought to the town when violence was escalating. It looked like the Police was not ready to face such a situation. Three Sinhalese youths were injured and admitted to the hospital according to SSP Liyanage, who was in charge of Kelaniya District 01. Those who came to attack Minuwangoda Town were from Wegauwa and Halloluwa. There were about 300 shops and business premises in Minuwangoda town. Out of that nearly 60 shops were owned by Muslims.
A textile business premises called ‘Eco,’ which is situated on Minuwangoda-Negombo Road was damaged. The owner is a Sinhalese lady who had constructed the four-storey building a few months before the riots. She testified her damage was assessed at Rs 55 Million. Her grievance was she was not paid anything, but all Muslim shop owners in Minuwangoda were given compensation considering their damages. It was not clear why her compensation was not paid, the PCoI points out in its final report.
A total of 78 incidents took place in Minuwangoda and 47 suspects were arrested and produced in Courts. Court proceedings have already been initiated regarding the Minuwangoda incidents.
Also, a total of 37 incidents were reported in the Kuliyapitiya Police area and 20 suspects were arrested. On 12 May 2019, there were 37 incidents that took place in Kuliyapitiya Police area and 17 suspects were arrested and produced in Courts. Several shops and buildings were damaged. Within three to four hours, the Police managed to control the violence in Kuliyapitiya.
In addition, two incidents were reported in the Dummalasuriya Police area and no suspects were arrested.
Police found a bag full of ammunition near Kiniyama Lake in Bingiriya. This was brought to the lake by an unknown person. A day prior to this incident, Police received information that some Muslims had brought and dumped a few bags of ammunition in Kiniyama Lake. Navy personnel searched the lake and nothing was found. The following day, a bag full of ammunition was kept near the bathing step. As it was not inside water, a person who wanted to create a tense situation must have dumped ammunition near the Kiniyama Lake. Two suspects were arrested on suspicion. A total of eight incidents were reported in the Bingiriya Police area and nine suspects were arrested by the Police.
A total of 200 incidents were reported in the Hettipola Police area, while 12 suspects were arrested. Six suspects arrested by the Bingiriya Police for damaging shops were brought to Hettipola Police Station and nearly 500 people gathered outside the Police Station demanding their release. They were about to attack Hettipola Police Station. At that time, then Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara visited the Police Station to inquire about the matter.
According to his testimony, the people requested to release the six suspects arrested by the Bingiriya Police and he spoke to the DIG Kurunegala and obtained permission to release them on Police bail. As there was no vehicle to transport the suspects, Jayasekara voluntarily took them in his jeep to Bingiriya Police Station. His explanation was that the mob who surrounded Hettipola Police Station was behaving violently.
At the same time, Namal Kumara, who was a suspect of attempted assassination charge against then President Maithripala Sirisena, also appeared near the crowd at Hettipola Police Station. Jayasekara suspected Kumara was the person behind organising riots in Hettipola. But there was no evidence to prove that allegation. For a moment there was a heated argument between Jayasekara and Kumara in front of Hettipola Police Station.
After some time, Jayasekara went away in his jeep with the six suspects and the people who gathered in front of Hettipola Police Station were heading towards the Hettipola town. On the way, a group of about 500 persons attacked Muslim shops and some houses in Hettipola town.
It was revealed that Police could not control the crowd. There was not enough strength for the Police Officers to bring the tense situation under control. In Hettipola, there were many incidents and several Muslim shops were attacked.
In addition, a total of five incidents were reported in the Katupotha Police area and seven suspects were arrested. Three incidents were reported in Narammala Police area and two suspects were arrested. One incident was reported in Pannala, but no suspect was arrested in that regard.
Following nine incidents reported in Chilaw Police area, six suspects were arrested, while seven suspects were arrested over 13 incidents reported in Dankotuwa Police area. Also, 20 suspects were arrested by the Police in connection with 42 incidents reported in Marawila Police area. According to the Police, 15 suspects were arrested over 45 incidents that took place in Koswatta Police area. Another 46 suspects were arrested in Nikaweratiya Police area following 67 incidents.
According to evidence before the PCoI, two incidents took place in Kobeigane following which three suspects were arrested. Over 55 incidents were reported in the Negombo Police area, no suspect had been arrested. Another 17 suspects were arrested over 13 incidents reported in the Kochchikade Police area and 34 suspects had been arrested after 30 incidents took place in Katana Police area. Also, two suspects had been arrested in the Dungalpitiya Police area following one incident, while four suspects were arrested over two incidents reported in Katunayaka Police area. The PCoI further states that certain Local Government politicians were seen instigating the mobs in certain areas. Such miscreants should be identified and legal action should be taken against them.
It is also mentioned in the PCoI’s final report that a Muslim from Nikaweratiya, whose shop was partially destroyed by mobs, revealed that although the attack on his shop was anticipated, Security Forces did little to prevent it. It is clear that the Police did not do anything to stop the violence. Two Police Officers were placed two or three shops away, for the protection of the mosque and they were there when the mob came and attacked the local shops, as shown by the photos and CCTV footage.
When a wave of attacks was happening against the Muslim-owned businesses and Muslim neighbourhoods, some people reached out to Koswatta Police, where they were assured that nothing would happen. The officers assured that they would provide protection as well. But the Police only showed up at 7:00 p.m., when they finished burning homes and there was no use of them showing up afterwards.