KATARAGAMA — A full moon is shining over the traditional Pooja celebrations here in southwest Sri Lanka. By the light of candles, people offer flowers, fruit and incense. Above waves the Sri Lankan flag, with a leaf in each of its corners to represent the four religions on the island nation: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. 

But this idyllic setting in Kataragama is deceiving. The peaceful coexistence between religions in the country came crashing down last June 15 when hundreds of anti-Muslim Buddhists, led by a dozen monks from the extremist organization Bodu Bala Sena, stormed into Dharga Town, a Muslim suburb of the city of Aluthgama.

Buddhists burned cars, Muslims threw stones. The military opened fire. Fifty people were injured, and four Muslims died.  Nine months later, the pain still lingers.

Back in Dharga Town, a young man on crutches enters a house across from the mosque. It's 20-year-old Mohammed Afkar, who lost a leg in last year's outbreak of violence. His mother Zeenathul says they don’t understand what happened. "What did he do to anyone?" she asks. "My strength comes from our local community and my belief in god. I have no faith in promises from any government."

While public officials offered no explanation for the violence, it did conduct an independent investigation. The report that came from it found that the government continues to marginalize Muslims, and hold on to an idea of Buddhist superiority, and the fact that Bodu Bala Sena had been able to broadcast hate speech against Islam.

It's difficult to say who cast the first stone. Private videos taken with smartphones show members of the Buddhist crowd with sacks containing rocks.

Mohammed Nijabdeens is Muslim and has been the village head of Dharga Town for 37 years. "When the Buddhists pushed into the village, we fled to the mosque," he recalls. "When we refused to leave there, the military opened fire. Two young boys were shot in the legs. We carried them to the hospital, but the Buddhists blocked the entrance so they couldn’t receive treatment. It took so long that the doctors had no choice but to amputate their legs."

Growth of Islam

He says tensions have grown along with the Muslim community. When he was appointed village chief in 1972, there were just 2,000 Muslims in Aluthgama. Now there are 25,000. 

Muslims praying in Kattugoda, Galle, Sri Lanka — Photo: Barbara Davidson/TNS/ZUMA

"We want to live in peace," Nijabdeen says as he cleans his thick eyeglasses. "Together. Like before. But I’m afraid the oppression against us Muslims will continue."

Muslims comprise 8% of Sri Lanka's population but pose stiff competition for the Sinhalese Buddhist-owned businesses in the area. The guerilla organization Tamil Tigers expelled more than 90,000 Muslims from the northern areas during the civil war (1983-2009) in their attempt to create an ethnic state. The Muslims, however, have remained neutral.

After the 30-year war with the Tamil Tigers, which cost 100,000 lives, there is also a new fear of Islamic fundamentalism among the Buddhist majority, though there is no proof that violent and extremist Islamists exist in Sri Lanka.

"The main problem is the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress," says journalist Keerthi 
Warnakulunya, who works for the newspaper The Island. "They’ve asked for a separate zone in an eastern province. This is something very disturbing to Sri Lankan people because they fear these groups will one day create a huge problem here. Sri Lankans think there will be a clash." 

Last year, Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, from the Burmese ultra-nationalist 969-Movement, came to Sri Lanka with the goal of building a partnership with the anti-Muslim group Lankas Bodu Bala Sena. 

Rambukpitiya Rathana, who has been a chief Buddhist monk near Aluthgama for 45 years, is worried. "There are many people with racial agendas who use people who bear the robe," he says. "It’s clear the Bodu Bala Sena are not following Buddhist philosophy. Real Buddhists rejected the Bodu Bala Sena alliance with the government and voted against them."

The previous Rajapakse government formed an alliance with the Bodu Bala Sena. In the January presidential elections, minority groups, including Muslims, overwhelmingly voted against them.  

Newly elected President Mathripala Sirisena has promised that the Bodu Bala Sena will get no support and has asked the media not to give the group a platform for hate speech. Meanwhile, Sirisena has urged extremist monks to reflect on their important role in sowing peace in society.

But these extremist Buddhist monks are still preaching within the confines of their temples. Looking up at the large Buddha statue in his temple, chief Monk Rathsana sighs: "We are ashamed that our philosophy is being dragged in the dirt by Bodu Bala Sena.”