By Saman Indrajith
Higher Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe told Parliament yesterday that a well-organised plan was underway to instigate racial and religious tensions by certain unscrupulous elements publicising false reports to the effect that heritage monuments of the country were being destroyed by minorities.
Making a ministerial statement, the Minister said that there were serious allegations and news reports regarding the destruction of archaeological sites in the country.
“In response to these allegations I made several inquiries and found that reality was different from what is being described in media and social media,” he said.
The Minister presenting the data pertaining to the destruction of archaeological sites, under the Antiquities Ordinance from January 01, 2016 to July 2018, said during that two-and-a-half year period 36 incidents of stealing archaeological artifacts had been reported, 75 reports of the destruction of archaeological sites, 515 cases in illegal excavations in search of artifacts and 51 other cases of violation of the Antiquities Act were reported totaling 677 such offences.
“It is claimed that the highest number of destruction of archaeological sites has been reported from the North and East. However, the statistics indicate otherwise. Most offences have been reported from districts with majority Buddhist Sinhala populations. In Anuradhapura 178 such incidents of archaeological destruction were reported, Kurunegala 75, Monaragala 58, Badulla 41, Kandy 36, Matale 28, Polonnaruwa 28, Hambantota 26, Gampaha 23 and Ratnapura 23,” he noted.
He said the lowest number of archaeological offences had been reported from the Northern and Eastern provinces. One offence had been reported from Jaffna, three each from Mannar and Killinochchi three each, five from Mulaitivu, six from Batticaloa, 20 from Ampara 20 and 26 from Trincomalee.
He said that there were extremist elements trying to blow the situation out of proportion to create ethno-religious tensions. “The fact that the highest number of archaeological offences was reported from Anuradhapura and Kurunegala proves that the media is misleading the public,” he said, adding that the people in those areas were living in harmony and there were only a handful of extremists belonging to the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities.
The minister noted that the gravest offence of the above mentioned offences was the theft of archaeological artifacts. “While 36 such incidents have been reported, the highest number (9) of thefts has been reported from Kandy, 6 from Anuradhapura and 5 from Kegalle. The next is the destruction of archaeological sites and of the 75 reported cases during this period the highest number has been from Anuradhapura 13, Kandy 11, Kurunegala 8 and six each from Gampaha and Matara. Hence, it is very clear that a sinister plan is underway to distort the facts and create false opinions about the North and East which is a clear threat to national reconciliation.”
Referring to a headline in a Sinhala newspaper, the Minister said that it had been reported that a group of students at the Vavuniya University were not allowed to keep their Buddhist status and they had been suspended in violation of their fundamental rights. “However, the headline clearly implied that the Buddhist students did not have the opportunity to even have a Buddha statue with them in the North and East. There are students representing all four religious denominations studying at the Vavuniya University. Accordingly, four religious places of worship have been built for them. Some students even consume kasippu and cannabis behind the Buddha statue. A small group of Buddhist students had taken steps to install a Buddha statue at another location without notifying the Dean of the Faculty. It was when this illegal construction was stopped that there was a huge clash and the university authorities had to take disciplinary action against those responsible and suspend them. When a student’s father and a famous monk came to meet me, I explained what had happened and having understood what had transpired, they appealed to us to forgive the students and allow them to continue with their education. Hence, it is evident that no unreasonable action has been taken against any student.”
Referring to certain instances where Buddha statues in the North and East areas were shown to have been splashed with tar, the minister said, “In fact in some areas Buddha statues were seen damaged and some splashed with tar. But upon investigation I found out that these Buddha statues had been set up at temporary military camps in the North and East and when these camps were removed, they had left the statues,” he said, adding that there was suspicion as to whether disruptive elements from the South had in fact, splashed those statues with tar and taken photos and posted on social media, just to create racial clashes.