Sri Lanka struggles to contain communal violence despite state of Emergency; govt admits to lapses

The Sri Lankan government on Wednesday blocked a number of social media sites and communication apps in a bid to curtail the communal violence, which rocked the country's hill-capital Kandy for the third day in a row, despite a declared state of Emergency and curfew orders.

Internet services blocked

Sri Lanka's Regulatory Commission first directed all internet service providers to block internet access in Kandy district. Later instructions were issued to block access to social media sites and communications apps like Whatsapp and Viber in the entire country as a temporary measure.

President Maithripala Sirisena had on Tuesday announced a state of Emergency for ten days in a bid to control the situation.

Mobs torched shops in Nugawela, Kandy, as communal violence escalated between groups of Sinhala Buddhist extremists and Muslim minority. N D Bandara/ Team 101 Reporters

Mobs torched shops in Nugawela, Kandy, as communal violence escalated between groups of Sinhala Buddhist extremists and Muslim minority. N D Bandara/ Team 101 Reporters

On Wednesday morning, the government imposed curfew in Kandy, until further notice, as incidents of mobs attacks on places of worship, homes and businesses continued for the third day in a row.

Two incidents were reported from Kandy last night, where a mob of over 300 individuals attacked shops and houses in a locality called Thennekubura, police said. The attacks were triggered by the death of a Sinhala who was injured in a group clash on 2 March.

The victim, identified as HD Karunasinghe, was beaten by three Muslim men in a case of road rage on 22 February. News of his death in hospital was widely shared on social media, which gave it a communal twist.

Several extremist groups, using social media posts, urged people to come to Digana on Sunday to attend the funeral. By Monday a large crowd had gathered in the area, and people were posting live feeds of the situation on the streets. As situation worsened, mobs attacked Muslim-owned shops and homes in Teldeniya- Kandy area when news of the death of the road-rage victim spread.

The incident came hot on the heels of another communal clash in Ampara, in eastern Sri Lanka, when extremist groups accused the Muslim owner of an eatery of mixing so-called 'sterilization pills' in food served to Sinahala customers. A mob torched several shops in Ampara, but the police has been accused of ignoring the rampage.

The police arrested 24 men in connections with the 2 March riots but no arrests have been made in connection with the attacks that have unfolded this week.

Violence continues despite curfew

Mobs set fire to rows of Muslim-owned shops in Teldeniya and Digana area in Kandy on Monday. On Tuesday morning, the police uncovered the charred remains of Abdul Baslith, a 24-year-old resident of Digana town inside his house. A mob had set fire to Baslith’s house and he was unable to get out before the ceiling caved in, his father Fayaz Samsudeen said. Baslith’s brother is now being treated for burn injuries in Kandy Hospital.

"They came during the curfew hours. We did not know what to do. I had to carry my wife out as she is unable to walk. My son screamed for help but was unable to get out in time," Samsudeen recalled.

The front side of the house had been converted into a small shop and Baslith had just found a job as a regional correspondent for a radio channel. Grief-stricken Samsudeen can't recall what his son had told him about his new job.

Similar attacks have continued in different locations all over Kandy district since Monday night. Incidents also occurred on Tuesday night despite the curfew. Law- enforcement authorities are struggling to keep the situation under control. A special Criminal Investigation Division team has been dispatched to investigate Baslith’s death. Over 600 army troops have now been deployed in the area to bring the situation under control.

"This is communal violence, very different from a war situation. The groups that are causing violence are not armed. We are using minimum force to control the situation. The extremist elements are provoking us to shoot and take lives," Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne said at a special media briefing on 7 March.

Government admits to lapses

Government spokesperson and minister, Dr Rajitha Senaratne said that investigations have revealed that political forces are behind the attacks. "There is a particular group behind this. It is evident that they are working towards a political agenda. Arrests will be made in the future in this regard," Senaratne said on Wednesday.

He also said that the attacks are being carried out in a very organised and systematic manner with instructions being given from remote locations.

Responding to allegations that the situation got out of hand because the government failed to set precedence by taking stern action after the first-ever incident of communal violence in the coastal town of Aluthgama in 2014, Senaratne admitted that action on the matter has been slow. In that incident, a mob lead by the radical Buddhist monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara had attacked Muslim residents of the town. "Investigations are still ongoing," he insisted.

The Sri Lankan government also admitted to lapses in law enforcement in both Ampara and Kandy incidents. "We admit there is a delay in response. For instance, the police was not able to take action in time as the assistant superintendent of police in the area was not available to give the orders to take action. The junior officers therefore were not able to respond in time without orders from higher ranks. The Ampara incident is also being investigated," Senaratne told reporters on Wednesday.

The coalition government that was elected to power with a large minority support base came under severe criticism in parliament this week, for its inability to control the situation. Addressing the parliament on Tuesday, Tamil National Alliance member and Jaffna district representative MA Sumanthiran accused the government of being "spineless" in the face of extremist violence directed at "numerically inferior communities".

"If you can't stand up for what is right, if you can't stand for numerically inferior communities in your country, then you have no right to govern," Sumanthiran thundered.

Chathuri Dissanayake is a Colombo-based journalist and a member of, a network of grassroots reporters

Published Date: Mar 07, 2018 21:01 PM | Updated Date: Mar 07, 2018 21:13 PM

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