Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Riots



Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force soldiers walk past a damaged mosque after a clash between two communities in Digana central district of Kandy. (Reuters)

By 14/3/2018

On February 27, 2018, a riot broke out in Ampara, a Southeastern town in Sri Lanka. A group of Sinhala-Buddhist rioters attacked and destroyed a number of shops belonging to Muslims. A mosque was also attacked.

Muslims are a minority religio-ethnic group, whose main concentration is in the Southeastern region of the country. The first shop was attacked on the premise that the Muslim eatery owner secretly mixed sterilization pills called wanda pethi, in food sold to other ethnic groups.

The next week, a clash between a Sinhala driver and a small group of Muslim youth resulted in the death of the Sinhala man, igniting a riot against Muslims in Digana, a Kandy district town in central Sri Lanka, followed by widespread attacks and burning of mosques, Muslim shops, and other facilities. Violent incidents, which looked rather organized, were reported from several towns in the Kandy district. In some places, politically active Buddhist monks were leading the campaign. According to Al Jazeera, a small number of Buddhist places of worship were also attacked, presumably by Muslims.

Sri Lankans know when there is a riot because the country has witnessed a series of ethnic riots against the Tamils before the hostilities turned into an organized armed conflict. Sri Lankans also understand pretty well the destructive consequences of such anti-minority violence. Therefore, the government got into action reasonably soon and declared a national emergency and curfew in some places. It also slapped a temporary ban on social media platforms.

The sad reality is that this was not the first-time Muslim facilities were being attacked by Sinhala nationalist groups. In fact, it has been a recent trend, which began to unfold ever since the war between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in a stunning military victory for the Sri Lankan state.

During the war, relations between Sinhalese and the Muslims were at the zenith as Muslims played a constructively supportive role to deal with the LTTE threat. The Muslims traditionally, and many of them even today, speak Tamil. Tamil is their home-language. Therefore, they were able to fulfill civilian and military responsibilities, which the Tamils could not be trusted with.

A large number of Muslims served, for example, in the police, intelligence services, broadcasting facilities and so on. Many Tamils in the Eastern province maintain that the military collaborated very closely with Muslim home-guards in the province. On March 7, 2018, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, who currently serves as the Chief of Defence Staff of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, stated that “we are living today thanks to them (the Muslims)…Our intelligence during our conflict time was entirely run by our Muslim community …They sacrificed their lives, they went with us in the long-range reconnaissance patrols to go to the LTTE areas, they were fluent in the language, and they protected us…”

Naturally, Sinhalese in general and the state, in particular, valued the warmth and patronage of the Muslims, leading to cordial relations between the two entities. It has now been changed.


Dismissing the riots as madness is erroneous. There is a need to comprehend the fundamental reasons of the hostilities in order to think about how to deal with it. I believe that the emerging troubles are a result of the evolving threat perception within the Sinhala community. With the end of the war, the utility value of the Muslims disappeared and especially Sinhala nationalist groups began to view the Muslims as a threat. The threat perception emanates from three important factors: (1) the gradually expanding nature of the Muslim population, (2) the Muslim domination of especially the small and medium trade sector and market even in rural areas, and (3) increasing radicalization within some segment of the Muslim population.

The Muslims were only seven percent of the total population in 1981. In 2012, they grew to 9.3 percent. The Sinhala population increased only by 0.9 percent in this period. Sinhalese view this as a structural issue that could transform the fundamental Sinhala-Buddhist characteristic of the country. Some believe that Sri Lanka could become a Muslim country.

Nationalist Sinhalese often point out the fate of states such as Afghanistan and Maldives, where Buddhism was a predominant religion, once upon a time. The fear is that the changing demography in Sri Lanka could transform it into an Islamic state in the long run. It is important to note that the alleged wanda pethi, which ignited the Ampara riot, has a direct nexus to population growth. The implication of the theory is that the Muslims are involved in a conspiracy to mitigate population growth of other communities.

As far as the second factor is concerned, traditionally, Muslims have been traders. Many of them first came to Sri Lanka as traders from the Middle East and other regions. Hence, they naturally have an edge in the marketplace. Economic liberalization helped Muslim community’s commercial activities to boom in the recent past. Sinhalese are finding it difficult to compete with Muslim traders.

As one may easily notice, the rioters mostly target Muslim commercial interests as shops and industries are razed to the ground. In a video posted online, one of the rioters claimed that he was trying to distribute leaflets in a Sinhala town, but cannot find any Sinhala shop except a sole kade (shop) selling CDs. He claimed that the town has gone to the Muslims, signifying the view that Muslims are taking over businesses and townships plays a role in the recent attacks.

Third, there has been a process of radicalization within the Sri Lankan Muslim community. Many have adopted radical Islamic practices and espouse Middle Eastern style of dress codes, a relatively new phenomenon. Consequently, the Muslim community has been evolving into an isolated group in many areas. Some believe that radical ideologies are preached in several mosques especially in the Eastern Province. The ongoing radicalization has influenced some Sri Lankans to join hands with transnational terrorist organizations. For example, reports indicate a small number of Sri Lankans have been recruited by ISIS. The trend creates considerable resentment and enmity towards the Muslim people among other communities.

Why Now?

These factors have led to periodic violence and riots against Muslim interests since the immediate aftermath of the end of the war with Sinhala nationalist organizations such as Sinhala Rawaya and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), leading the violent campaign. In the 2010 national elections, the Muslims overwhelmingly voted for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party.

However, the unstoppable attacks diminished their support for the Rajapaksa government. Many believed that the attackers had the patronage of leading members of the government. In 2015, Muslim voters helped unseat Rajapaksa by voting for the incumbent president and the United National Party (UNP). With the coming to power of the new government in 2015, the attacks receded to a great extent. However, the recent riots have shown they are making a comeback after some time.

Why are the attacks reemerging?

Some observers have informally pointed the finger at former President Rajapaksa and his party. However, there is no evidence to suggest this was instigated or influenced by the Rajapaksa people.

One of the factors that could have emboldened the rioters and political monks, who lead the campaign, is the outcome of the just concluded local government elections. The results suggest that Rajapaksa’s party is overwhelmingly popular among Sinhala voters and may win the general election in 2020 with ease. The crisis ignited by the riots adds to the woes of the government, which has already been struggling to deliver the promises made.

The riots also have the capacity to split Muslim votes and take a portion in favor of Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Pramuna (SLPP). Some of the Muslim community leaders have already complained that the present government has betrayed them by failing to provide security immediately. Some are demanding that Muslim parties, which are part of the government, should leave the coalition in protest. Indicating if the attacks continue, the present government stands to lose its vote base within the Muslim Community.


It is possible that Sri Lanka is re-entering into a dark age with the renewed attacks. The riot does not bode well for the country or people. The trend should be halted immediately. Political leaders and concerned people have been appealing to the goodness of the communities involved. However, the important question is, will common sense help to resolve this issue.

This is doubtful for two reasons. One, the main problem of the Sinhalese is fundamental and structural. It seems that the fear that they will become extinct due to the growth of the Muslim community has been deeply rooted within the nationalist Sinhala psyche. Until this fear factor is addressed, the attacks are likely to continue.

Two, the attackers are extremely powerful people and groups. The political monks have no fear of law enforcement and at times, they are endorsed by forces within the law enforcement agencies. The political monk cannot be arrested and punished due to the very nature of the Sri Lankan society and state.

For example, arresting and taking legal action against political monks who are openly advocating violence will considerably dent Sinhala votes in the next election. Therefore, the present government is unlikely to take concrete action against the rioters, especially the political monks. In my view, these two factors combined make the riots difficult to stop completely, unfortunately. The implication being that we have to deal with these structural issues in order to completely halt the anti-Muslim riots.

Yet, one of the first steps that could be introduced is a sustained dialogue between Muslim community leaders and the political monks. Some opportunities might emerge from such dialogues.