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Monks brawl at Sri Lanka peace protest

Protesters calling for an end to recent violence in Sri Lanka found themselves brawling with hard-line Buddhist monks on Thursday, after a rally dubbed a “peace protest” turned unexpectedly violent.
/ Source: Reuters

Protesters calling for an end to recent violence in Sri Lanka found themselves brawling with hard-line Buddhist monks on Thursday, after a rally dubbed a “peace protest” turned unexpectedly violent.

Organizers said there were around 1,000 people in a park in the capital, Colombo, listening to a range of speakers when hard-line saffron-robed monks opposed to concessions to Tamil Tiger rebels mounted the stage and erected banners.

Some more moderate Buddhist monks, protesting for peace, were already on the stage when punches were thrown. Soon, monks’ robes and fists were flying, although no one was badly hurt, witnesses said.

“They were saying we should go to war,” said pro-peace monk Madampawe Assagee. “We like to listen to other opinions so we let them do that but then they started fighting and we couldn’t control some of our people. They tried to make it a big fight but we settled it in a few minutes.”

Sri Lanka is currently embroiled in the worst fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam since a 2002 truce, with many believing a two-decade civil war has resumed. hard-line monks — allies of President Mahinda Rajapakse — say the government is too soft on the rebels and want military action.

The island is dominated by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, but is also home to Muslims as well as minority Tamils — some Hindu, some Christian. The hard-line monks are violently opposed to Tiger demands for a separate Tamil homeland.

A Reuters photographer said the fight first erupted between a speaker at the rally — a former government minister — and a monk, and then turned into a wider brawl. Other religious leaders on the platform found themselves dragged into the melee.

“By force, they disrupted the protest,” said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, who took part in a peace march earlier in the day but had gone by the time the fight erupted. “But I think they’re the minority. Most of the people we walked past were very supportive.”