Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen in her home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka (Photo by Francis Wade)
Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen had been reading from her Quran when she heard a great roar outside, “smashing like a volume of thunderbolts and flames everywhere.” Her bedroom quickly filled with men armed with sticks and iron rods. Many more had swamped the front room of her house, and more waited outside. One man smashed the dressing table in her front room, while others attacked wardrobes and sinks, and threw the Muslim scripture board that hung on her wall to the floor.
It was the evening of June 15. That afternoon Buddhist mobs had besieged a number of Muslim quarters in Dharga Town on Sri Lanka’s western coast, and houses and mosques were turned to rubble. “They said, ‘come out, we want to set fire to the house,’” Nafeesathiek recalls. When the 68-year-old emerged from her bedroom into the front room, “people ran at me to assault me, but others stopped them”.
The violence began shortly after 5pm when around 7,000 Buddhists marched through the town’s streets. Many had watched earlier in the afternoon as Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, Sri Lanka’s firebrand monk and leader of the extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force monastic movement, spoke of the threat that Islam posed to the country.
The violence had appeared planned. When the group announced on its Facebook page that a rally would take place, supporters asked whether they should bring gasoline with them. Days earlier, three Muslims had reportedly attacked a monk in nearby Aluthgama, providing the spark for a day of frenzied mob violence that left three dead and many injured. Taking to the stage in Dharga Town, Gnanasara warned: “It will be the end of all [Muslims] if a Muslim lays a finger on a Sinhalese.”
A retired teacher, Nafeesathiek says she had taught students of all religious creeds, spending the majority of her career in a school in central Sri Lanka in which she was the only Muslim member of staff. Until that evening she had experienced no hostility. But emerging from her house, she remembers turning to see the length of the street full of armed men attacking the homes of neighboring Muslims. Around 150 meters away stood a group of policemen. “They were just standing there,” she says. Nafeesathiek approached them and they drove her to safety.
Sri Lanka has suffered several instances of religious conflict in the past three years, including the destruction by Buddhists of a 300-year-old Sufi shrine in Anuradhapura in 2011. But that day in Dharga Town was among the worst. Video footage showed smoke billowing from torched buildings. Days later the military was deployed to guard Muslim-owned property. When ucanews.com visited the town in July, several streets were lined with soldiers. Behind them sat the charred, skeletal remains of burned out mosques and homes.
Gnanasara co-founded the BBS in late 2012, agitating against religious diversity in Sri Lanka. Although its core member base is relatively small, it has quickly developed a strong influence. Muslims have not been the only target; in January, monks from a BBS-allied group called Bodu Bala Paura, or Buddhist Shield, led attacks on Christian churches in the country’s south. Gnanasara followed with a call in July for Pope Francis to come to Sri Lanka to apologize for the centuries of colonial rule by Christian nations – Portugal, Netherlands and Britain.
Although he has distanced himself from the violence, the monk has been unequivocal about the source of the growing hostility. "This is a Buddhist nation, so why are they trying to call it a multicultural society?" he told reporters earlier this year.
The Venerable Baddegama Samitha Thero, one of Sri Lanka’s best-known monks, is a former friend of Gnanasara and holds a seat parliament. In his office in the town of Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, he struggles to explain the emergence of an extremist brand of Buddhism that sees in other religions a threat to the national identity. “Muslims and Buddhists suffered together during the war with the Tamils,” he explains. “It was harmonious – there’s no reason for the hostility.”
In a post-war society still floundering from decades of conflict, mistrust feeds the quick spread of conspiracy theories. Samitha points the finger at a Zionist plot to take over Sri Lanka; others say the BBS is funded by the Americans. Few versions carry much weight, but instead point to a desperate attempt to explain what isn’t easily explainable: How has a movement that broke ground less than two years ago managed to mobilize sizeable elements of a society that has little prior history of antagonism towards other religions?
Some point to a dark hand in the violence that may trace back to the upper echelons of the government. Could President Rajapaksa's administration be looking to secure the majority Sinhalese vote in the next elections by mobilizing supporters against the specter of growing ethnic minority influence in the country? Or at its heart could it be an economic conflict? “Muslims used to be very close to the kings of Sri Lanka, and were granted crown land,” Samitha says. “Now they control much of the business, and therefore this could be due to trade competition.”
Such is the climate of fear following the June attacks that few people are willing to go on record criticizing BBS. Samitha says that on several occasions he has received anonymous phone calls warning him against speaking out against the movement. But on July 27 around 2,000 people gathered in Colombo’s Viharamahadevi Park to rally against the violence, the strongest show of force yet. An organizer of the rally, Mohammed Hisham, said that more groups have spoken out against the growing religious hostility over the past year, “which gives hope of saner voices getting together to make themselves heard against such racist groups and ideologies”.
But he warns that while BBS and its adherents remain a fringe phenomenon, “the continuing impunity with which some of these groups who propagate racism are still operating is a growing concern”. He added that the majority of incidents over the past few years are “still under investigation”, implying that law enforcement is dragging its feet. Indeed multiple accounts, including that of Nafeesathiek, have emerged of police standing by and watching as the violence unfolds. Even Sri Lanka’s justice minister, Rauff Hakeem, said that he had warned the government to prevent the June 15 rally in Dharga Town from taking place. “I am ashamed,” he later told the New York Times. “I couldn’t protect my people.”
For Samitha, the invective directed at him for criticizing the BBS is eerily familiar. “When I campaigned for peace during the war [with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – LTTE] I was accused of being pro-LTTE; now I’m being accused of looking for votes from Muslims.” But the supposed phantom menace of Islam is baseless, he says, with the statistics painting a different picture – examining the censuses of 1812 and of 2012, the proportion of Muslims in Sri Lanka has not changed.
Nafeesathiek returned to her house several days after the attack to find furniture smashed and jewelry and money taken. She remains close to her Sinhalese neighbors, but that only reinforces her belief that the men who flooded into her house that evening were not from Dharga Town, but perhaps a product of the organizing powers of a higher force in the Sri Lankan clergy or government. She has not felt well since the incident, and after the interview was due at the hospital for a checkup on her high blood pressure and dizziness.
The trauma for the Muslim population here is likely to remain until light is shed on both the cause and solution to the violence. Lack of substantial action by the government will only worsen the crisis, Hisham says. “Young and old from various communities will feel as if they have been left alone after trusting that the perpetrators will be held accountable,” he says. “That can give rise to a sentiment which could result in people thinking the only option would be to take the law into their own hands.”
The upshot of this could have additional repercussions for Sri Lanka’s Muslims. “This could play in to the hands of the extremists and racists who want to see Sri Lanka as a pure Sinhala Buddhist country, contrary to the diversity and the nature of the populace, by giving them an excuse to swing the mindset of even the moderate Buddhists,” Hisham warns.