Police in front of a Muslim-owned clothing store's warehouse in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after it was attacked by a mob.
An angry mob of hundreds of people, led by Buddhist monks, attacked a warehouse belonging to a Muslim-owned clothing chain in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on Thursday. This comes as Buddhist hardliners ramp up their campaigns against Muslims’ lifestyles.
The scene was eerily reminiscent of attacks on Muslim-owned stores throughout the past week in Burma. One video shows a monk throwing a rock at a security camera in front of the warehouse, as policemen look on and the mob erupts into cheers.
A monk throws a stone at a security camera outside the Fashion Bug warehouse, as policemen look on. Video filmed by Azzam Ameen.
The warehouse belongs to Fashion Bug, a popular clothing chain that operates stores throughout the country. The attackers yelled insults against Muslims throughout the attack. Several people were injured, including the warehouse’s manager and journalists trying to cover the incident.
Muslims make up about 9 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, making them the third largest group after Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamils. During the long civil war that pitted Buddhists against Tamils, Muslims kept a low profile. Four years after the end of the war, they are now being targeted by increasingly vocal Buddhist hardliners, who call for their followers to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and recently pressured the government into getting rid of “halal” labels on food.
The most prominent of these emerging hard-line Buddhist organisations is Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which translates to “Buddhist Power Force”. On Friday, it issued a statement saying that it had nothing to do with the attack against Fashion Bug’s warehouse. During a massive rally two weeks ago, BBS’s general secretary accused Fashion Bug, as well as another Muslim-owned clothing chain called No Limit, of forcibly converting Buddhist employees, and alleged that “harems [of Buddhist female employees] are being created” by Muslim store managers. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara also said: “We are not asking anyone to go and stone these places and attack them. […] Let’s solve this through discussion.”
“People in the crowd tried to grab my mobile phone to stop me from filming”
Azzam Ameen is a journalist in Colombo. He lives near the Fashion Bug warehouse, and arrived on the scene shortly after the mob started attacking it.
There was a crowd of about 500 people, led by about a dozen monks. They were throwing stones at the glass building, sending glass shattering. Clothes from inside the building had already been strewn all over the street. About 25 to 30 policemen were on the scene, but were clearly overwhelmed.Most of the crowd was made up of young men, in their early twenties or even younger. Many of them were shouting epithets against Muslims. I asked one guy why he was there – he said that a Buddhist girl had been raped by a Muslim man, that she was inside the building and that the police wouldn’t rescue her. [This did not turn out to be true.]“I don’t know where the attackers got all these large stones from”I took out my phone to film the scene, but people yelled at me and tried to grab my phone. Camera crews soon arrived; monks tried to stop them, but they managed to get into the building to film the damage. However, when they came back out, people threw stones at them. I don’t know where they got all these stones – they were rather large. I took one of the injured cameramen to the hospital; he had to get three stitches. A man I met there, who had also been injured, told me that the crowd had first attacked a Muslim-owned shop not far from the warehouse, right next to his house; mistaking him as being Muslim, they threw stones at him, too.One of the warehouse's managers being treated for injuries at a local hospital. Photo by Azzam Ameen.The whole incident lasted about one and a half hours, and only ended when the fire brigade arrived and dispersed the crowd, part of which took refuge in the Buddhist temple right across the street from the warehouse and continued throwing some stones from there.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).
“Ironically, the end of the war in Sri Lanka has created a space for new conflicts to come out”
Sanjana Hattotuwa lives in Colombo. He is a human rights activist and the editor of the citizen journalism site Groundviews.
During the 27 years of war in Sri Lanka, lots of other conflicts that existed in terms of social, ethnic and religious differences didn’t quite come to the fore. But ironically, the end of the war in 2009 created a space for these conflicts to come out.In the past couple of years, groups made up of Buddhist monks and lay supporters have become increasingly powerful, engaging in hate speech and brazen acts of violence against mosques and Muslim-owned businesses. They have all sorts of conspiracy theories about Muslims trying to take control of the country. It’s interesting to see that the same thing is happening concurrently in Burma: as relations between the Burmese population and its leaders pacify, Buddhist extremists are increasingly attacking the country’s Muslim minority there, too.“What’s disturbing is that our defence secretary is openly associating with Buddhist extremists”Here in Sri Lanka, what’s quite disturbing is that our defence secretary – a very powerful figure who also happens to be our president’s brother – is now openly associating with BBS, the most well-known of the increasingly powerful Buddhist extremist groups. He recently attended the opening ceremony of BBS’s new training centre. [During this ceremony, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the gathered crowd that “It is the monks that protect our country, religion, and race. […] We’re here to give you encouragement. ” Not only that, but the BBS now has a deal with a telephone operator – whose majority shareholder is the government – to sell a ring tone they’ve created, which people can buy and download to their mobile phones, thus helping fund their organisation. This raises a lot of questions about our government’s agenda.It is clear from videos of the attack on Fashion Bug’s that the police are scared to get involved – why would they stick out their necks and do actual policing, when our government is not doing anything to stop anti-Muslim violence?