A mob led by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka attacked a clothing shop owned by Muslims in March, setting fire to clothes while police looked on.
The attack on the Fashion Bug shop in Pepiliyana, a suburb of Colombo, followed the spreading of a false rumour that a Sinhala Buddhist employee had been raped by a Muslim employee on the premises.
The Sinhalese are the majority ethnic group on the island, and their main religion is Buddhism. The attack is part of a pattern of attacks on Muslims by Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists. There have been attacks on mosques and on individual Muslims, including women wearing hijab.
Hostility to Muslims is being promoted by a group called the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Force). A prominent leader of this group, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero, had publicly denounced the owners of the Fashion Bug two weeks before the attack.
Sri Lanka’s defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has publicly expressed support for the Bodu Bala Sena.
Tisaranee Gunasekera, writing in the April 21 edition of the Sunday Leader, said: “The current anti-Muslim hysteria, like the past anti-Tamil hysteria, did not happen spontaneously; it was created, word by word, figure by figure, image by image, by the BBS and its offshoots, in an enabling environment of Rajapaksa-provenance.”
Some Buddhists have spoken out against the BBS’s anti-Muslim campaign. On April 19, a vigil was called by a Facebook group known as “Buddhists questioning Bodu Bala Sena”. About 150 people gathered outside the BBS headquarters, planning to light candles and chant teachings of the Buddha.
But 15 minutes before the vigil was due to start, the police began making arrests. Some people were assaulted by police when they tried to light candles.
The attacks on Muslims are reminiscent of similar attacks on Tamils, in which Buddhist monks have often played a role.
During the British colonial era, some Sri Lankan Buddhists were influenced by racial ideologies which had first developed in Europe. Some of them adopted the view that the island of Sri Lanka belonged to Sinhalese Buddhists alone, and that all other ethnicities were alien.
After Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948, the ruling class used racism to divide the working class. They first deprived Tamil plantation workers of the right to vote, then refused to give the Tamil language equal status with Sinhalese. They also adopted policies of discrimination in education and government employment.
Peaceful protests by Tamils against unequal treatment were met with violent repression, not only by the police and army, but also by racist mobs, often led by Buddhist monks.
There were a series of anti-Tamil pogroms, starting in 1956 and culminating in the massacre of an estimated 3000 people in July 1983.
These pogroms were a major factor motivating Tamils to take up arms and fight for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. The armed struggle for independence ended in defeat in May 2009.
Ever since 1948 Tamils have been the main victims of the racist Sri Lankan government and Sinhalese chauvinists generally. The government has often been able to buy off the leaders of other minority communities, including the Muslims, with ministerial positions and other favours. It has, at times, been able to instigate violent conflict between Tamils and Muslims.
Now however some Sinhalese chauvinists are turning their attention to the Muslims, seemingly with the support of the government.
There are still Muslim ministers in the government. Several Muslim commentators have criticised them for not speakout out strongly enough against the attacks on the Muslim community.
Members of parliament representing the Tamil National Alliance have spoken out against the attacks on Muslims. TNA leader R. Sampanthan, speaking in parliament on April 9, condemned“the collusion of the State in this campaign of hate.