ALUTHGAMA, Sri Lanka — In some of the worst religious violence in Sri Lanka in decades, three people have been killed and 78 injured in riots between Buddhists and Muslims in this southwestern coastal town after months of rising tensions, officials said Monday.
The riots on Sunday followed a protest march by a hard-line Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena, which is led in part by monks. Its name roughly translates as Buddhist Power Force. Shops and homes in the area, many of them owned by Muslims, were set ablaze and vandalized in violence that continued throughout the night. Mobs shouting anti-Muslim slogans and hurling gas bombs and stones advanced on a Muslim part of the village of Welipitiya, where men were protecting a mosque.
Three mosques and several Muslim prayer houses were set on fire, according to unofficial reports. “They fought us face to face for two hours,” said M. Hussein, a Muslim man involved in the fighting on Sunday night. “The police didn’t show up until after people were dead.” Police teams eventually appeared in the early hours of Monday to transport the dead and injured, Mr. Hussein said.
Muslim residents said Monday that their lives had changed forever. “They finished the Muslims in this area,” said M. Farina, who added that the police watched impassively Sunday evening as Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim shops and homes.
The Sri Lankan justice minister, Rauff Hakeem, denounced his own government’s inaction.
“The law-and-order machinery completely failed,” said Mr. Hakeem, who is the leader of the country’s largest Muslim party and confirmed the number of dead and injured. “For 72 hours, we begged the government to prevent this rally from taking place on Sunday for fear of riots.”
“I am ashamed,” he added. “I couldn’t protect my people.”
Local tensions, which have been building for months, began to bubble over Thursday after a fight between a Muslim youth and a Buddhist monk. That clash led to the protest march Sunday, which degenerated into riots. The police imposed curfews in Aluthgama and the adjoining town of Beruwala to prevent violence from spreading, but they had little effect on violent mobs.
On a visit to Bolivia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka wrote on Twitter late Sunday night that the government would not allow anyone to take the law into his own hands.
“I urge all parties concerned to act in restraint,” he wrote. He said the police would bring the perpetrators to justice.
Buddhist radicalism has been increasing in Sri Lanka just as it has in Myanmar, which has experienced a surge in attacks by the Buddhist majority on the minority Muslim community.
Many in Sri Lanka believe that the Bodu Bala Sena has the quiet backing of Mr. Rajapaksa as well as his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, although the Rajapaksas have denied any link. Previous attacks by the Bodu Bala Sena have gone unpunished, and hard-line monks have been able to operate largely with legal impunity.
The Rajapaksas are hoping to consolidate the Sinhalese majority vote, which is about 75 percent of the country, by demonizing minority Muslims and Tamils, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonpartisan policy institute in the capital, Colombo. The presidential election is not scheduled until 2016, but there is speculation that President Rajapaksa will call elections far earlier.
Allowing religious rioting is often an effective political ploy in South Asia, home to a wide mix of religions. But it is a dangerous one, since passions can quickly get out of hand and voters can sometimes punish incumbents if the law-and-order situation deteriorates badly.
“When you let this genie out of the bottle, sometimes you can’t get it back in again,” Mr. Saravanamuttu said. “The Rajapaksas have very short-term political goals, and they are doing whatever it takes to remain in power.”