Why Sri Lanka's Easter attacks are unprecedented

Sri Lanka has a long history of unrest, violence and division but the Easter Sunday attacks are unlike any that's come before.

More than 200 people were killed and at least 450 injured in bomb blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday - an attack that caught the country off-guard.

It's been 10 years since a decades-long civil war ended on the island off the southern coast of India but tensions of a different kind have been simmering in recent years.

Civil war, divided largely around ethnic lines, broke out in the early 1980s led by the Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority. It is estimated that between 70,000 and 80,000 people died as a result of the fighting.

The two groups have a long history of struggle for power and acceptance of their cultures under both colonial and independent rule.

However, religion has begun to play a larger role in violence around the country in recent times.

Seventy percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, 12.5 percent are Hindu, just under 10 percent are Muslims and about 7.5 percent are Christian.

Since 2012, extreme Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have been active in protesting perceived Muslim extremism in the country and four people were killed in riots that began at their rallies in 2014.

In 2018 a state of emergency was declared in the country after Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim businesses, homes and a mosque in the city of Kandy. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the earlier beating of a Buddhist by Muslim men.

Human rights activist Ruki Fernando said on Twitter this week that Christian church services across the country have faced some sort of disruption in each of the past 11 Sundays.

However, the country has very little history of major violence against the minority Christians in Sri Lanka, in particular from any Muslim groups.

While news agency AFP says it has seen documents showing that Sri Lankan police have been fearing suicide bomb attacks from a local radical Muslim group, that kind of attack would come out of the blue given the country's history.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times that these attacks and their targets are unprecedented.

"In three decades of war, this scale of attack has never happened," she said. "In terms of serious, religion-based violence, we haven't really seen that."