In just over a year, the saffron-swathed monks of Bodu Bala Sena — or Buddhist Power Force — have amassed a huge following, drawing thousands of fist-pumping followers who rail against the country’s Muslim minority.
Buddhists have attacked dozens of mosques and called for boycotts on Muslim-owned businesses and bans on headscarves and halal foods in the past years. At boisterous rallies, monks claim Muslims are out to recruit children, marry Buddhist women and divide the country.
The Sri Lankan government only rarely steps in to defend or protect Muslims, who make up roughly 10 percent of the 20 million people on this Indian Ocean Island.
In September 2011, Buddhists reportedly smashed a 300-year-old Islamic Sufi shrine to rubble in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, a UNESCO world heritage site.
In April 2012, a 2,000-strong Sinhalese mob including monks ransacked Jumma Mosque in the north-central city of Dambulla as police looked on. The government later ordered the removal of the decades-old mosque, saying its location within a sacred Buddhist area was an affront.
In March last year, police watched as red-robed monks led a hollering crowd in trashing a Muslim-owned clothing store.
Muslims say they are also the targets of ludicrous conspiracy theories, including rumors that they spit three times in any dish before serving it to a non-Muslim, or that Muslim shops sell women’s undergarments tainted with chemicals that cause infertility.
Many Muslims feel they are being victimized because of their visibility in the economy — a role they have played for more than 1,000 years since Arab traders brought Islam to Sri Lanka and allied with the Sinhalese against Spanish and Dutch colonial forces. Today, they control at least half of small businesses and hold near-monopolies in the textile and gem trades.