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Grandpass Embers glow under the ashes

2013 Aug 22

 By  Sandun Jayawardana and Arthur Wamanan

A Temple and a Mosque have existed within meters of each other for years A Temple and a Mosque have existed within meters of each other for years Pics by Rukshan Abeywansha

Despite authorities claiming that the crisis had been officially ‘resolved’, the Grandpass area remains tense, while differing viewpoints continue to be expressed regarding what exactly triggered clashes between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in the area last week.

The area seemed calm when The Nation visited it on Friday evening (16), with people seemingly going about their business as usual. This followed discussions held last Sunday (11), where all parties had agreed to resolve the matter through a compromise.
However, the heavy presence of the Police and Special Task Force (STF) personnel in the area nearly a week after the clashes indicated tensions still remained. Heavily armed STF commandos were present all along Swarna Chetiya road, which was the scene of sporadic clashes last Saturday (10) night.

At one point, STF personnel guarding the Samadhi Viharaya, situated near the old mosque, poured out of the temple on hearing raised voices. However, it quickly proved to be a false alarm as it was pointed out that the voices were coming from the indoor sports complex situated adjacent to the temple. The incident, however, highlighted how things were still very much on edge.


The Nation was there last Saturday (10) as well, when tensions that had allegedly been simmering under the surface for weeks finally exploded into violence. Initial reports suggested that a Buddhist mob had attacked the multi-storey building functioning as a prayer center situated near the old mosque, and caused heavy damage. Enraged by the reports, Muslims were starting to gather in the area in large numbers. The Police and STF were striving hard to keep the two sides apart, while area leaders from the Muslim community were also seen making efforts to pacify people. The Police eventually had to impose a curfew in the area in order to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control and violence spreading.

The ‘compromise’ involved prayers being conducted at the multi-storey building which had earlier functioned as a store, being stopped. The Buddhist monks had, in turn, agreed to chop off the Bo tree situated next to the old mosque as the tree had made it impossible to add extensions to the mosque. This had reportedly been why the building that had been attacked was functioning as a prayer center; the old mosque simply wasn’t large enough to accommodate the large number of worshippers who came to pray there.

Earlier reports claimed the cutting down of the Bo tree had been suspended soon after it began. However, our news team was able to witness that this was not the case. All the branches had been cut down, with only the trunk remaining. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) was due to remove the tree trunk on Saturday (17).

Broken promise

The Police and STF personnel had thus far not been told when they would be moved out from the area. Many residents who spoke did not wish to disclose their identities. Sinhalese residents claimed they had been living peacefully with Muslims in the area for many years, but that the trouble began when some tried to convert the storehouse into a mosque.
“They initially kept insisting the new building was not a mosque. Then they suddenly started holding prayers in it after conducting a ceremony. When we opposed this, they asked us to give until the end of Ramadan to move back to the old mosque. We agreed. But nothing happened even after Ramadan. That was when people got angry and clashes occurred,” one resident claimed.
Another resident said he had been living all of his 36-year-old life in the area. “I have so many Muslim friends. But what happened was that those who were in charge of the mosque broke their word. It was only natural that people would then get angry,” he added.

A monk at the Samadhi Viharaya, situated near the old mosque, who identified himself as Mahanama thera, said blame for the incident rested squarely with the trustees of the mosque. He claimed it was Buddhists who had been attacked first.


“Some Sinhalese youth put up a banner near the new building reminding the Muslims of their promise to vacate it after Ramadan. They were pelted with rocks. As such, for them to claim that we instigated this is absurd,” he stressed.
When asked whether hanging up the banner in front of the building was not an act of provocation, the thera retorted it wasn’t as the mosque trustees had promised to move out of the building after Ramadan. “We suspected they always intended to convert the new building into a mosque. From 2010, we made a total of 10 complaints to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana regarding it. No one listened. Going back on the promise to move out of it after Ramadan, coupled with attacking youth who were putting up the banner, triggered the incident,” he emphasized.

“Some Buddhists are now condemning us for giving permission to cut down the Bo tree. But what could we do? We did it so that there would be some compromise. Our hope is that this will finally resolve the matter,” he added.
Muslim residents, however, told a very different story. Many also said they had been living in the area peacefully alongside Sinhalese for years, but that some monks at the temples (there are two along Swarna Chetiya road), perhaps fueled by extremist elements from outside, instigated people to attack the building, which they pointed out, was functioning as a mosque with permission from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs.
However, an older Muslim resident said both sides should be blamed for letting the situation get so out of hand.
“I have lived in the area for years. We haven’t had any trouble until recently. What I saw was impressionable young men from both sides taking the law onto their own hands. I believe the young people from both sides acted hastily,” he opined.

Police presence

Despite the heavy Police presence still prevailing in the area, residents were still optimistic that eventually, things will return to normal.
“There’s no real animosity between us. We live side by side, and though this problem did come up, there’s no intention of killing each other over it. Whenever we hear the call to prayer from the mosque we used turn down the volume of our televisions and radios. If we’re talking or singing loudly, we would stop. This will continue,” said one Sinhalese resident living near the old mosque.
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