Violent clashes between Buddhist mobs and Muslims rocked Sri Lanka for the third day in a row on Thursday, as armed Buddhist mobs rampaged through towns and villages of central Sri Lanka, burning Muslim-owned houses and businesses, and leaving victims barricaded inside mosques.
Despite the government announcing State of Emergency in an attempt to calm the situation, Buddhist mobs attacked at least 20 Muslim houses in Mullegama, accusing them of stealing from donation boxes.
Muslims hiding in the mosque, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said police prevented them from saving their property and did nothing to stop the attackers. One Sinhala Buddhist man who was part of the attack died in an explosion and another man was injured, according to the men in the mosque.
Thursday was the third day of violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka, which started after mobs burnt 11 Muslim owned properties in Kandy, following reports that a Buddhist man had been killed by a group of Muslims.
The island nation has Buddhists in majority, numbering over 70 percent as per the 2011 census, while Muslims number about 10 percent. However, the two have coexisted largely peacefully over the centuries. Even when northern Sri Lanka was singed by communal violence, it involved the Sinhalese speakers, who are predominantly Buddhist, against Tamil speakers who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. However, the civil war, that lasted from 1983 to 2009, wasn't communal in nature.
Sri Lankan police officers stand out side a vandalised temple in in central Sri Lanka. AP
But in the years since the rebels were crushed, a Buddhism-Muslim divide has taken hold of Sri Lanka.
As reported by Time, Muslims and Buddhists have lived in harmony for decades but have begun clashing in sporadic incidents over the last few years. A religious divide has especially taken hold in recent years, with hard-line Sinhalese groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert and destroying sacred Buddhist sites.
The view of 'us versus them' is further propagated by fear mongering and unchecked spread of rumours. A report on India Today attributed clashes in Ampara town of central Sri Lanka to a rumour that Muslim-owned eateries were adding chemicals to food being eaten by Buddhist customers to make them impotent. This rumour, when taken in the context of Muslims' birth rate being greater than Buddhist birth rates, made many fear about Sri Lanka being on its way to becoming a Muslim-majority country.
Visible religious symbols like burqas being worn by women and men sporting long beard have also fuelled mistrust. Slogans like 'Sri Lanka for Sinhalese Buddhists' and 'Muslims are not one of us' have gained currency in Sri Lanka, the India Today report added.
Rise in Buddhism radicalism
Buddhist radicalism has been rising in Sri Lanka, just like it did in Myanmar, a report on The New York Times said. It wrote, back in 2014, that then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had given his backing to the Bodu Bala Sena, a hard-line Buddhist group which is led in part by monks; its name roughly translates as 'Buddhist Power Force'.
Previous attacks by the Bodu Bala Sena have gone unpunished, and hard-line monks have been able to operate largely with legal impunity, the report wrote.
"The Rajapaksas are hoping to consolidate the Sinhalese majority vote, which is about 75 percent of the country, by demonising minority Muslims and Tamils, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonpartisan policy institute in the capital, Colombo," The New York Times wrote.
However, as explained by an article on The Indian Express, Rajapaksa went on to lose in the 2015 presidential election, which led to a de-escalation of Buddhist-Muslim tensions. But towards the end of 2016, the incidents began again, when some Muslims, who had been displaced from northern Sri Lanka during the earlier civil war, began returning to Mannar to reclaim their lands. With Mannar close to Sinhala majority areas of the northwestern province of Puttalam and north-central province of Anuradhapura, this led to violent clashes.
Arrival of Rohingya
Around mid-2017, Rohingya refugees began arriving in Sri Lanka, fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar. Buddhist outfits began a campaign against the arrival of Rohingya in Colombo. In September last year, The Indian Express reported, a monk led an attack on a UN-maintained safehouse for Rohingya in Colombo. The Rohingya were taken into custody while attempting to land in Sri Lanka, and were meant to be kept under UN protection at the safehouse.
However, the group that attacked the safehouse alleged that Rohingya were arriving in Sri Lanka having killed Buddhists in Myanmar. Witnesses said the monks stormed into the safe house chanting, "Rohingyas are terrorists", and accusing them of having killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar. This led to clashes on the streets of Gintota in Galle.
The clashes prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to call the situation "alarming". "UNHCR emphasises that (the) refugees... need international protection and assistance. UNHCR urges the public and all those concerned with refugees to continue extending protection and to show empathy for civilians fleeing persecution and violence," it said.
It said Rohingya had been staying in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka with the Colombo government's approval and UNHCR was providing assistance "until longer-term solutions can be found".
With inputs from Reuters