Reconciliation efforts in fractured Digana
The multi-ethnic and multi-religious region of Digana, Pallekelle and Balagolla in the Kandy district is a tinder-box with simmering ethnic tensions ready to explode into racial riots, a RepublicNext team found when we visited there some weeks ago.
But in this fractured community, there are many who are working towards healing.
The tension in this largely peaceful and prosperous region rose in February last year.
In the second week of that month, a Sinhalese truck driver was beaten badly in a road rage incident by three Muslim youngsters. On March 2, the man passed away in hospital igniting rioting that lasted for three days with Sinhalese mobs rampaging through the region attacking Muslim shops, places of worship and homes.
The riots, seen as the worst since the infamous 1983 ethnic clashes, claimed one more life, injured dozens of people seriously and left nearly 300 properties damaged.
The Kandy District Inter- Religion Committee and the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka held a Truth Commission to inquire into the incidents and concluded that when racially-motivated rioters gathered the Police did not intervene to stop their rallies and processions. This was backed up by ordinary folk whom we spoke to and they identified Police inaction as a principle cause for the riots to continue for three days.
The Commission also found that the mobs were organized and knew where they were attacking and in most cases they were led by politicians connected to the Sri Lanka Podujana Party.
Relations between the Sinhala and Muslim Communities at this time is not good, says Gamini Jayaweera who is part of the reconciliation process in the area. “There is a falling out between the Sinhalese and the Muslims and they are looking at each other with suspicion, there is no goodwill,” he says.
“It is like fire beneath the ashes it is not visible but the conditions are there for racial violence to break out at any time,” he adds.
Social Worker Silmia Shahabdeen says “It is not like the past we now feel a fear, people look at us with suspicion and that makes us sad as Pallekelle was a place where all races lived together.”
Mohamed Niroshan Nawaz, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Coordinator for the Muslim community in Pallekelle echoes these sentiments. “For now there is peace, but we don’t know when racial tension will break out,” he says.
Many people here want to move on. Maulvi Samsoodin Mohamed lost his brother when the rioters petrol-bombed his house. The 23-year old University student Shamsi died of asphyxiation in the burning building. But his family doesn’t want people punished for that.
“They have arrested seven people for that and the case is in courts but we are not participating in the process as we have forgiven them,” the Preacher told our team. He said they did so because “we are hopeful that nothing like this would happen here in the future.”
Ruwan Chinthaka Silva, head of the Buddhism Protection Society in Pallekelle is a strong supporter of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His organization runs a charity which helps economically disadvantaged families. “We don’t discriminate according to ethnicity. We support all poor people,” he said.
He said that after the Easter Sunday attacks there was suddenly a slowing down of the economy. “The Sinhala-Buddhist community gathered and discussed Islamic extremism,” he said. “At that time there were no violent incidents here but there was fear that a wave of violence may emerge from Digana,” he added.
Social Worker Shahabdeen is more hopeful. “People are disillusioned and have lost hope. But we need to work with them and get them back on the right path. We must be patient,” she says.
Pilhatha Mahanama Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Rajawalukaramaya temple in Digana was thrust into the conflict when Muslims who were being attacked ran into his temple from the town. Since then he has been trying to rebuild the community.
Mahanama says “all the people must not think of developing just their own community, only obtaining facilities and benefits to meet their own needs. They must think of national unity, they must become people who work for the common good.”
He calls for common laws for everybody, and to be united in a common purpose and for the protection of all communities. “ That is because if any one community is not protected it affects everybody else” he says.
In those words there is hope for this deeply wounded community.