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.
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.