ALUTHGAMA, Sri Lanka — The attackers stormed in close to midnight, tearing through town with gasoline bombs and clubs before carting away piles of cash and jewelry they stole from Muslim families in this tiny corner of Sri Lanka.
The onslaught incited by the Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force, a hardline group that has gained thousands of followers in recent years, killed at least two Muslims and injured dozens more last month in the worst religious violence Sri Lanka has seen in decades.
Now, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is under fire, accused of failing to protect Sri Lanka’s tiny Muslim minority and allowing radical Buddhists spewing illegal hate speech to operate with impunity for years.
Critics of Rajapaksa’s government say it has turned a blind eye to the violence as a way to shore up its core constituency—the Sinhalese Buddhist population—which makes up about 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people.
“At the root of the failure of the government to check the violence is electoral politics,” said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, a local peace activist group in Sri Lanka. “If the Sinhalese voters feel insecure for any reason they will tend to vote for the present government, which is seen as strong and pro-Sinhalese.”
But the most recent violence has drawn rare—and harsh—criticism from inside Sri Lanka, with the media, moderate Buddhists and even the justice minister slamming Rajapaksa’s seeming unwillingness to safeguard Muslims.
Foreign embassies and the UN also demanded action. The United States canceled a five-year, multiple-entry visa held by the BBS’s general secretary, according to the group’s chief executive, Dilanta Vithanage.
Facing a growing backlash, the government in recent days has tried to deflate the crisis, although critics say the moves are too little, too late.
The Defense Ministry called an unusual press conference on July 2—nearly three weeks after the bloodshed—to distance itself from the Bodu Bala Sena and to address allegations that Sri Lanka’s powerful defense secretary and the president’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was quietly supporting the group’s cause.
But the military spokesman, Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya, was careful not to criticize the group, either. “I am not condemning the BBS,” he said. “What I am saying is it is wrong to say that the secretary of defense is supporting the BBS.”
The same day, police interrogated the group’s general secretary, the Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, for five hours before releasing him without charge.
It was the first time Gnanasara had ever been questioned by police for his hate speech even though it has been widely acknowledged and circulated in videos online for years. He was once questioned for disrupting a press conference convened by a moderate monk at odds with the BBS, but he wasn’t prosecuted.
Just hours before the latest violence, video clips showed him inciting crowds in Buddhist rallies that passed through Muslim areas like Aluthgama and Beruwala.
“Yes, we are racists!” Gnanasara shouted. “Yes, we are religious extremists!”
He also warned “marakkalayas”—a derogatory term for Muslims—not to lay a hand on any Sinhalese.
“If you marakkalayas try to mess with us, if you want to test our strength, we are ready for that. Don’t mess with us—if you do, the second action will be doom for the shops in places like Aluthgama and Beruwala.”
That evening, the mob attacked Aluthgama, Beruwala and nearby Darga Nagar, three towns with a large Muslim presence.
In the wake of the raid, Gnanasara acknowledged that his supporters were behind the violence, saying the attackers were angry over an assault on a Buddhist monk. Muslims deny attacking the monk.
“When people heard it they went out of control,” Gnanasara said at the time. “This is natural because the people were under a lot of pressure.”
Previous attacks by the BBS have gone unpunished and hardline monks, for the most part, have acted without fear of any legal repercussions.
Sri Lanka is still deeply scarred by its 1983-2009 civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and ethnic Tamil rebels, who are largely Hindu. During the war, Buddhist-Muslim violence was relatively rare.
But the monks leading Bodu Bala Sena have amassed a significant following in recent years, drawing thousands of followers. At raucous rallies, radical monks encourage violence against minorities and implore Sri Lankans to preserve the purity of the Buddhist majority.
Muslims are a particular target. Members of the Bodu Bala Sena claim Muslims are out to recruit children and marry Buddhist women. They say Muslims are trying to take over the country by increasing their birthrate and secretly sterilizing Buddhists.
Even as the country has seen rising instances of hate speech against Muslims and attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, there have been few attacks on people.
The June 15 violence changed all that.
“They hit us with gasoline bombs and stones,” said Mohamed Namaz, a 17-year-old Muslim who rushed into the streets of Aluthgama after a call came over the mosque loudspeaker, warning that an armed Buddhist mob was closing in on the town.
“Then we heard shots being fired but we took them for firecrackers. I was trying to hold a friend who was shot and I was also hit,” said Namaz, who still has the bullet lodged in his thigh.
The initial toll from the violence was three Muslims killed, but authorities subsequently lowered it to two. Many of the injuries were critical; two people had legs amputated, according to A.R.M. Badhiuddeen, a local council member.
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.
Sinhalese comprise about 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people, and the Tamil community accounts for about 18 percent. Most of the rest are Muslims.
The violence has raised fears that Sri Lanka could soon see echoes of Burma, where Buddhist monks helped incite violence in 2012 and 2013 in which Buddhist mobs slaughtered Rohingya Muslims. Still, many Sri Lankans and human rights workers are alarmed, saying the monks are creating communal divisions and giving Buddhism a bad name.
But Perera, of the National Peace Council, cautions that for now, the BBS have relatively limited power.
“In reality this is the violence of a few, to which the government is turning a blind eye,” he said. “It is the availability of impunity that drives the violent elements to more violence.”
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.