Sri Lanka's Buddhists, Muslims working to repair rift

Recent incidents have fuelled tension between the two religious communities, but leaders work to restore the harmony that existed for years.

By Munza Mushtaq for Khabar South Asia in Colombo

August 20, 2013
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With tensions high following a spate of attacks on mosques across Sri Lanka, religious and civil leaders are joining hands to ease hostilities between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

  • Buddhist mobs wave sticks in the Grandpass district of Colombo on August 11th, a day after an area mosque was vandalised. Buddhist and Muslim leaders are working together to improve communication and unity between the two communities. [Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP]

    Buddhist mobs wave sticks in the Grandpass district of Colombo on August 11th, a day after an area mosque was vandalised. Buddhist and Muslim leaders are working together to improve communication and unity between the two communities. [Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP]

For years, the two groups lived together amicably, respecting each other's cultures and values. But relations have soured recently as hard-line Sinhalese nationalist groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya drum up hostile sentiment against the country's minorities.

On August 10th, a day after Muslims celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr, a mob armed with stones and rods vandalised a mosque in Colombo's Grandpass area, demanding its immediate closure. Monks were seen among the rioters, despite Buddhist teachings against anger, aggression and violence.

But many of the majority Buddhist community do not share the hard liners' views.

"As a Buddhist, I am ashamed by the attacks against the Muslims perpetrated by people from my own community," one local resident who identified herself as Tillekeratne, told Khabar South Asia.

"I think the government should immediately put in place a zero-tolerance policy to ensure such incidents don't recur," she said.

Compromise reached over mosque issue

Religious and civil leaders, meanwhile, have stepped in to calm the atmosphere and work out a solution to disputes that have inflamed emotions.

On August 12th, the Sri Lanka Muslim Council said it agreed to close the newly-built Grandpass mosque and move to an older site which had been slated for demolition under a city development plan.

For their part, Buddhist representatives agreed to cut down a sacred Bodhi tree that stood in the way of the old mosque's expansion. That will allow the mosque to accommodate all devotees.

The tree, typically a type of fig, is considered holy in Buddhism. According to tradition, it was under such a tree that Siddartha Gautama attained enlightenment.

"This is a welcome move," Sri Lanka Muslim Council President M.N. Amin told Khabar.

However, Ameen emphasised authorities should devise a mechanism to proactively solve such problems.

"If the police acted more responsibly, then this problem would not have gotten out of hand," he said. "We are hoping such unfortunate incidents won't happen again."

The Citizens for a Secure Sri Lanka and the Citizens Advisory Bureau– both networks of concerned individuals of all ethnicities and religions– established a hotline so the public can report any religious or racial incidents.

Citizens for a Secure Sri Lanka Co-Convener Visakha Tillekeratne told Khabar the hotline will act as a watchdog. "We hope to keep tabs on the police to ensure they work impartially," she said, adding that if alerted of any incident, the citizens would work to prevent escalation.

Government must do more

Publisher and accountant M.D.M. Rizvie believes if the government could tame the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) insurgency, it should be able to control hard-line groups.

"The government should take tough action," he said, "but the problem is that they are not taking action. Therefore this problem is spiralling."

Rizvie said the series of meetings following recent incidents were good and important moves to help educate both communities to not fall prey to people with vested interests.

Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Khabar relevant law enforcement authorities have received strict instructions to take all steps possible against such incidents from recurring.

However, he said, there are times when things can go beyond even law enforcement's control. "Such incidents are happening all over the world and it's beyond everyone's control sometimes. We are making every effort possible to ensure we are able to control such incidents in the future," he said.

Government discussions are being held to calm tensions and reinforce unity, he said.

"This is not easy, because there are some groups who instigate such incidents because they enjoy violence." Rambukwella said. "But we are working on controlling it."

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Reader Comments
  • saeeduddin AHMEDAugust 24, 2013 @ 06:08:34AM

    Let By-gones be By-gones and Built up New Friendly Bridges Between All the Communities and Live in Peace & Harmony and be Vigilant to keep up the Friendly Path for All..

  • ahamad basheer rumyAugust 21, 2013 @ 07:08:58AM

    we live peace and harmonym it,s welcome move we need place to prayer its where ever no problem when iam working in abudabhi.mussfah area located all the camps. each camp have prayer mosqe we jummah another mosqe. its ouroneofpillars salaha when listen azan weshould go to mosqe we have to prayer with immam.it is not reglion fundermentlist,we make dua after preyer i use to 3 kilowmeter to prey with immam let solve all the problem peacefull manner

  • MohamedAugust 20, 2013 @ 10:08:33PM

    Appreciate the article. Under no circumstances such unruly behavior,incidents should be allowed to happen. Govt. must take the responsibility to maintain peace and stability at any cost if the country wants to move forward. The opportunity is there, we should not miss it.

  • RajaAugust 20, 2013 @ 10:08:05AM

    I thought the Muslim place of worship in Grandpass that had to be closed was a storage building and not a mosque. In fact the Government blamed the US Ambassador for referring to this place as a mosque. In fact the UNP too keep referring to this storage building as a mosque. Who is correct?

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