By Mujib Mashal and Dharisha Bastians
March 6, 2018
Sri Lanka’s government imposed a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday after mob attacks against the minority Muslim population in a central district, violence that has highlighted the country’s fragility as it tries to recover from decades of civil war.
The unrest in the district of Kandy began on Sunday as angry mobs made up of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group attacked dozens of Muslim businesses and houses and at least one mosque. At least one person was killed. Hundreds of security personnel, including Special Forces, were deployed to Kandy on Monday and a curfew was declared there.
Officials feared that the death of a 27-year-old man — who was trapped inside a burning house and who described the attack on the building in an audio recording — could provoke violence across the country.
“We have decided to declare a state of emergency to ensure these clashes and tensions don’t spread elsewhere in the country,” said Dayasiri Jayasekera, a government spokesman.
Mr. Jayasekera said the state of emergency would last 10 days and that law enforcement would also act against “all communal hate speech posts on social media.”
“There were mistakes on the part of the local police in implementing the law. Some of the attacks happened in front of them,” Mr. Jayasekera said.
The victim was identified as Abdul Basith, who had just gotten a job as a local reporter for a radio station. He lived with his parents, who ran a small shop selling slippers on the first floor of their two-story house. The house was burned to the ground, witnesses said.
Fayaz Samsudeen, Mr. Basith’s father, said they had escaped the first floor when the fire started. But his son was on the second floor.
“When the fire started, he screamed for help and asked people to help us get out of the house. There is no way to get outside from upstairs, but we thought he would have escaped,” Mr. Samsudeen said. “In the morning when we came back to see our house, we found his body.”
Mr. Basith’s uncle, Mohammed Maleek, said he was in communication with Mr. Basith in his final minutes and that his nephew had assured him he would be safe because the police were everywhere.
In an audio message sent to his uncle, Mr. Basith described the scene as the mob could be heard outside. The audio was circulating in Kandy after his death and as a sign of its authenticity, a cabinet minister who had visited the scene referred to the message in Parliament on Tuesday.
“They have broken all the doors in our house, large stones are falling inside,” Mr. Basith said in the message. “Hello, yes I am inside our house and they are burning something. There are flames coming inside.”
Later, his voice grew tense.
“They have burned the house,” he said. “The house is burning.”
The latest tensions, coming a week after similar mob attacks against Muslims in an eastern region, erupted after a Sinhalese truck driver was injured by a group of Muslim men in what has been described as a road rage incident. The man died from his injuries on Saturday.
After his death, officials and Kandy residents said, extremist Buddhist monks who have incited communal violence in the past descended on the area, offering their condolences. But many believed that their presence amid the tensions fuelled the violent backlash against the Muslims.
“Two controversial Buddhist monks who have been at the centre of similar anti-minority clashes before had been in the area on Sunday night,” said Rishad Bathiudeen, Sri Lanka’s minister of industry and commerce who was in Kandy to survey the damage. “We demand their arrest for inciting communal violence.”
Mr. Bathiudeen said that after the truck driver died, the police in Kandy were warned about the rising tensions and urged to send reinforcements.
“The deputy inspector general told us to tell the Muslims to stay at home and close up their shops in the Digana town,” Mr. Bathiudeen said. “The Muslims stayed at home and the mobs came and burned the deserted shops.”
“How are minority communities supposed to feel when the police stand by and watch while their houses and their businesses are destroyed by violent mobs?” said Mr. Bathiudeen, who is Muslim. “We are urging our people to remain calm. But when their houses and livelihoods go up in flames, how long will they bear it?”
Four mosques, 37 houses, 46 shops and 35 vehicles have been damaged in the attacks, according to Hidayath Saththar, a member of the provincial council in Central Province, where Kandy is located.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s prime minister, told the Parliament on Tuesday that local community elders, both Buddhists and Muslims, had tried to ease tensions after the driver’s death through dialogue. “Extremists” from outside had come in to the area to stir violence in what he called “organized acts of sabotage.”
“All of us who have experienced a 30-year war know the value of peace, harmony and unity,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said.
Anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise in Sri Lanka in recent years as the country’s leaders have struggled to rein in the nationalist fervour of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists. President Maithripala Sirisena’s fragile coalition government has been accused of emboldening extremists by failing to hold groups that incite hatred to account.
Sri Lanka’s long civil war ended in 2009 with the bloody crushing of an insurgency by the Tamil ethnic minority. But observers say many of the underlying causes of the war still remain and the country’s relative stability could further deteriorate if the government does not win trust of the minority groups by providing protection and justice. Thousands of families, mostly Tamil, are still looking for loved ones who were forcibly disappeared or trying to take back land taken over by the military.
One recent example of how tense relations remain was an episode involving the country’s military attaché to the United Kingdom. From the steps of the Sri Lankan high commission in London, video cameras captured Brig. Priyanka Fernando, who was in uniform, making a throat-slitting gesture to Tamil protesters gathered there, which many saw as a threat.
The foreign ministry suspended him from his job but the president stepped in to reinstate him.
Eventually, Brigadier Fernando was recalled from London — not to be disciplined but for his own security, the army said.