Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and the co-editor of “Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War.” Lisa Fuller is a Sri Lanka-based freelance journalist. She previously worked as civilian peacekeeper and senior staff member for Nonviolent Peaceforce in conflict zones in Sri Lanka, Iraq and South Sudan.
On May 29, 1915, a large group of Buddhists celebrating the festival of Vesak made its way through the streets of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. When the noisy procession — with its elephants, drummers and singers — approached a mosque, some Muslims hooted and hollered.
In response, some procession members attacked Muslims and the mosque, triggering nine days of riots across the country. By the end of the violence, 25 Muslims lay dead and more than 4,000 Muslim shops, houses and mosques were damaged or destroyed. This was the first of at least nine anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka over the last century, the most recent of which occurred this week.
In the past, relatively minor events would ignite long-simmering economic and nationalist anxieties — and lead to wildly disproportionate violence. But this time, the trigger was different.
The recent Islamic State-connected Easter Sunday bombings, which killed more than 250 people on April 21, immediately sparked anti-Muslim violence. Within hours of the bombings, a Muslim-owned shop was burned to the ground. The violence reached a fever pitch on Monday, when mobs reportedly armed with gasoline bombs swept through western Sri Lanka, destroying 500 Muslim shops, houses and mosques, and in some cases carrying out brutal assaults on Muslims themselves. Residents of the affected towns reported dozens of injured, and one man was killed.
These riots were different from other recent anti-Muslim violence. Last year, riots in central Sri Lanka targeted properties and businesses, but not people: The injuries and a lone fatality were collateral damage rather than direct assaults, according to more than a dozen victims and witnesses interviewed in four of the affected towns.
This week, rioters brutally attacked Muslims. Some videos show horrifying celebrations of the violence. In one particularly graphic video, police appear to comply with rioters’ instructions to drag a severely injured man along the road rather than take him to the hospital in a trishaw.
Though the riots dissipated after a day, there is widespread fear that more violence could erupt at any time, potentially even at a level on par with Black July, a horrific pogrom that targeted the minority Tamil population and helped spark a 26-year civil war in 1983.
What is particularly disturbing about the riots this week is that the government has both failed to stem anti-Muslim violence and have made decisions that implicitly encouraged hatred.
A week after the Easter bombings, the government banned face coverings, effectively outlawing niqabs and burqas. This seemed to imply that clothing worn by some religiously conservative Muslim women posed an inherent danger. In fact, the Easter Sunday bombers reportedly wore polo shirts and baseball caps.
During widespread search operations, police arrested Muslim religious leaders and publicly confiscated knives, swords and other sharp objects from mosques and homes — as though to suggest that such objects were evidence of radicalism and specific to the Muslim population. Ironically, many of the rioters were armed with the very same objects; the man who died in the riots was hacked to death with swords.
The government then failed to effectively stop the mob attacks. Local residents reported that the mobs roamed freely for hours without an apparent response from government forces. Residents of some towns said some police officers genuinely tried to control the mobs, but were grossly outnumbered: For example, a resident of the town of Kobeigane said that residents there saw fewer than 30 police officers deployed to protect them from a mob of an estimated 600 people. Videos circulating on social media suggest that some members of security forces may have been complicit in the attacks.
As the dust settles, it is clear that some of the violence was organic, with local populations retaliating after the Easter attacks. But there is also evidence of political involvement and coordinated thugs, roaming from town to town, targeting Muslim-owned businesses and reportedly even settling personal vendettas under the guise of communal angst.
Muslims on the ground say that, this time, the hatred they face is ubiquitous and unrelenting. The country is facing the worrying possibility that the forces that led to violence against the Tamil minority during the civil war still exist — but now have a new target. If political leaders don’t step in this time, there is a real risk that Sri Lanka could see violence on an unprecedented scale, a truly terrifying thought in a country that has only recently emerged from a close to three decades-long conflict.