Mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and homes have been attacked, looted and burned as security forces watch.
Sri Lanka’s government moved to block access to social media on Monday after an online posting sparked a bout of anti-Muslim communal violence that has left dozens injured and two people dead. Mobs have attacked mosque after mosque and targeted Muslim-owned businesses and homes.
As the anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka spread throughout Monday, the Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew.
The attacks are the latest fallout from the Easter Sunday suicide attacks on April 21 in which Daesh-linked suicide bombers targeted three hotels and three churches, leaving 258 dead.
Dilara (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) told TRT Worldthat a mob of around 500 people attacked her husband’s business last week. They pelted stones at the family business and looted items from the display cases while her husband and his three employees were inside.
“They had come and started throwing big blocks of stones, bricks. He was ducking, he was ducking,” Dilara said.
When they succeeded in breaking into the shop, they physically attacked Dilara’s husband and his three employees. Dilara’s husband was dragged outside by the mob armed with iron rods and sticks.
“And when they were about to beat him, thank god army jeep had come [sic]. And two army commandos had got down and chased this mob away,” Dilara said.
“Close by there were two to three truckloads of army [soldiers] and they didn’t do anything to help,” Dilara told TRT World.
It cost the business $113,100 (20 million Sri Lankan rupees) in goods that night.
Local reports suggest mobs were moving from village to village in Kurunegala District, near the capital Colombo, with authorities doing little to disperse crowds. Some reports say they were standing by as mobs rampaged.
In the town of Minuwangoda, a 500-strong mob attacked the Muslim-owned Diamon pasta factory in Sri Lanka, burning it to the ground. Video footage shows some parts of the factory still on fire, with most of it reduced to smouldering rubble.
Police arrested six people they believed to be behind the mob attacks. However, Kurunegala District MP Dayasiri Jayasekar arrived at the scene and pressured police to release the suspects, a move that may ultimately embolden other rioters.
Reuters reported that in at least one region Buddhist monks had incited a crowd of more than 1,000 to search a mosque, which they later stormed and ransacked.
The Sri Lankan government used the recent attacks as an opportunity to also ban the full face veil—temporarily, under the pretext of security—but some academics argued that this move could further stigmatise Muslims, in particular women.
As a result of the current mob attacks, police have been instructed to use the full force of the law. However, many Muslims fear that police may not intervene to protect them or their property given the fragile political atmosphere.
Late on Monday afternoon, videos emerged online of stone-throwing mobs targeting mosques, with no police in sight.
Social media users further flagged individuals who had taken part in the violence and been arrested only to be released due to mobs surrounding the police station.
Crucially, one individual brazenly admits he was part of the mob in what appears to be a Facebook live stream and encourages others on the island to follow his path, once again bringing into the spotlight the use of social media in spreading hate.
One of the victims described the moment the family home was attacked. “Mobs have broken the door and stormed the house. They smashed the windows of our new house where we live with our parents,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Muslims were using social media to appeal for calm and avoid any retaliation against the mobs.
Some, including former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, fear a similar fate to the Tamils during the pogrom of 1983.
An engineering student from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, speaking to TRT World on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said: “This is not the first time mobs are attacking properties and religious places of Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka. This will not stop until the government takes stern action against culprits. My feeling is that this time also the government will let the culprits get off without punishment as always. Very sad.”
In 2014, three people were killed and 75 injured when mobs led by the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) targeted Muslim-owned businesses and homes.
Then in 2018, anti-Muslim riots targeted mosques as well as Muslim businesses and homes in the cities of Kandy and Ampara in a three-day rampage, killing two people.
The terror group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked Muslim villages in the northeast during the 1983-2009 civil war. More than 140 people were killed in a massacre of Muslims in 1990 blamed on the LTTE, which the group denied.
Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists, with Christians representing around 7.6 percent.