Police lined up on the streets of the Sri Lankan highland city of Kandy and the army was on standby, as hardline Buddhist monks gathered for their first big assembly since a spate of deadly bombings targeting churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the influential head of the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), has called for as many as 10,000 clergymen from across the country to attend the meeting on Sunday.
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The group said the gathering will decide who to back in the presidential elections later this year in the Indian Ocean island nation where Buddhists make up about 70 percent of the population. The rest include ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, and Muslims.
Dressed in orange, Gnanasara visited one of Buddhism’s most sacred temples in Kandy on Sunday where a relic believed to be the Buddha’s tooth is kept.
Later in the day, the monk, who has faced allegations of inciting violence against Muslims, will address the gathering.
After visiting the temple, he told reporters they would take a “historical decision” to give leadership for the development and security of the Sinhalese – the predominantly Buddhist ethnic group in Sri Lanka.
“Today, the Sinhala ethnicity, which has developed this country historically, has become very weak … There is no leader who holds responsibility for Sinhalese,” he said.
“We will only turn back after creating a leader to the country and getting the power to Sinhalese. Trust us,” said Gnanasara, adding some people were trying to sabotage the convention by spreading fears of possible riots.
Police and armed army officials lined the streets around the venue of the gathering and were also present outside other Buddhist temples in the town centre.
“The army is assisting the police on security under the emergency law,” military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said, adding soldiers were on alert should trouble erupt.
Fears of backlash
Muslims have become fearful of a backlash, especially from groups such as the BBS that are leading the campaign against Muslim hardliners.
There has been increasing anti-Muslim violence in the country in recent weeks, blamed in part on Buddhist groups, in apparent reprisal for the April bombings claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL or ISIS) that killed more than 250 people.
Kandy was also rocked by violence last year when mobs vandalised mosques, homes and Muslim-owned businesses. Some blamed the BBS for the violence.
Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez said, reporting from the event Fernandez said that the Muslim community in the city were worried that the event can still lead to violence, despite the assurances by the BBS.
“The BBS says that the meeting has no intention of causing violence. They say this is a coming together of the Buddhists to discuss the issues of the day,” she said.
“We have heard overnight that Muslim businesses, which have a fairly high presence in Kandy, were planning to keep their businesses shut down. However, during the course of the day, we have seen that this is not a uniform call to all Muslim traders. There have been those who chose to open their businesses,” she added.
MJM Faizal, a Muslim who set up the Expo Leather store in Kandy 20 years ago, told Reuters News Agency late on Saturday he never had a problem with his neighbours even if they belonged to different communities.
“We cannot predict anything because a lot of outsiders are coming to Kandy and we don’t know what that means,” said the 55-year-old, who said he has been losing business since the attacks in April.
“We are not safe now, there is always tension about what might happen. If we could, we would move to another country,” he said, adding that his wife and daughters now do not leave the house alone and are always accompanied by him or his brother.
Yatawaththe Dhammaloka, one of the organisers of the event, however, said the objective was to unite Sinhalese, who were politically, economically and culturally divided.