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Sri Lanka Bombings Follow a Troubled Recent History Marked by War

A look at a long and troubled history marked by ethnic and religious divides

Sri Lankan security personnel walk next to dead bodies on the floor amid blast debris at St. Anthony's Shrine following an explosion in the church in Kochchikade in Colombo on April 21, 2019.
AFP

A series of blasts in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, blamed on religious extremists, recalled the worst days of the country's 26-year civil war.

A look at a long and troubled history marked by ethnic and religious divides:

YEARS OF WAR

Sri Lanka, an island nation of some 23 million people, was dominated for decades by the sharp divide between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil, who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The mistreatment of Tamils helped nurture the growth of armed separatists and led to nearly 30 years of civil war, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country's north. The Tigers were crushed in a 2009 government offensive, with some observers believing that tens of thousands of Tamils died in the last few months of fighting alone.

A RELIGIOUS DIVIDE

There is no history of violent Muslim militants in Sri Lanka. However, after the civil war ended, a religious divide quickly took hold, with hard-line Buddhist monks rallying Sri Lankans against what they argue is a pernicious threat: Muslims, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country's population. Buddhist nationalist leaders and false social media reports accuse Muslims of recruiting children, trying to grow their ranks by marrying Buddhist women and attacking Buddhist shrines. Small-town economics also plays a significant role, since Muslims own many of the country's small shops. As for the country's small Christian minority: While there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent years, there has been nothing on the scale of what happened Sunday.

SOCIAL MEDIA WAR

In 2018, anti-Muslim violence flared across the hills of central Sri Lanka, fed by rumors spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists. Mobs of Buddhists swept through small towns, attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops. The government briefly declared a state of emergency and ordered popular social media networks, including Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp, blocked for a time to stop the violence from spreading.