June 2014 will be remembered in Sri Lanka for the communal violence in the towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala in Southern Sri Lanka, that resulted in 4 persons (three Muslims and one Tamil) being killed, more than 80 injured and widespread damage to property, mainly of Muslims. The widely held belief, including by the Minister of Justice and several other Government Ministers is that the Buddhist extremist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS – meaning Buddhist Power Force) was primarily responsible for the rioting, particularly through an inflammatory speech by it’s leader, Ven. Galabodaatthe Gnanasara Thero, who said
“In this country we still have a Sinhala Police; we still have a Sinhala Army. After today if a single Marakkalaya (derogatory term for Muslims) or some other paraya (alien) touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end.”
Police had allowed the rally in which this speech was made to go ahead, despite appeals by Muslim religious and political leaders that it may lead to violence. The BBS and some government officials have claimed that the origins of the riots was an alleged attack by Muslim youth on a Buddhist Monk few days earlier. Others have reported that the Buddhist Monk in question was not attacked, but there was an incident involving Muslim youth and a Sinhalese – Buddhist driver of a Buddhist Monk. Three Muslim youth have been arrested for this incident. However, the Police and government institutions have been accused of inaction by those affected by the riots and the violence and eyewitnesses.
An opposition Parliamentarian and several journalists who went to cover the communal violence were attacked and threatened. A leading Sri Lankan journalist and a prominent citizen journalist website were accused of being “twitter/social media murderers” by the editor of a leading state controlled newspaper. This was after they exposed facts about the communal violence, in the absence of independent coverage in mainstream newspapers. The Defence Ministry was accused by the Leader of the Opposition of attempting to censor media institutions.
A training workshop for Tamil journalists organized by a leading Sri Lankan NGO had to be cancelled for the second time due to protests by an unknown group and refusal of the Police to provide protection. Participating journalists were evacuated and housed in a leading Colombo hotel for safety, only to be driven out of the hotel rooms in the middle of the night by the hotel management following alleged threats by a “powerful” group. Media reports appeared about proposals by the Ministry of External Affairs to control events organized by NGOs, by demanding detailed information in advance and controlling visas for foreign visitors through the Ministry of Defence and other governmental authorities. The Military and Police also tried to stifle a protest by Tamil politicians and Families of Disappeared persons in the North.
Academics critical of the government received death threats. Repression of University students continued, with arrests, protests attacked and student activists being called lunatics, fools and foxes by the Minister of Higher Education in a speech publicized by mainstream TV in Sri Lanka. Even teachers and parents agitating about conditions in a school in Colombo were attacked. A report from “Students for Human Rights” claimed that a Magistrate has recommended to break necks of student activists while another Magistrate had advised female student activists to refrain from political activism.
Police protection was suddenly withdrawn for a Buddhist Monk who had been subjected to several attacks, threats and intimidation, and he was later found on roadside with injuries. The Police later arrested the Monk and accused him of having staged the abduction and inflicted the injuries on himself.
Overall, June was another month where minorities and those critical of the government faced numerous attacks and threats with impunity.