Muslims, their properties and mosques attacked in Sri Lanka

29th Mar 2018

Elham Asaad Buaras

Sri Lanka has lifted a state of emergency on March 18 that was put in place after an outbreak of violence against Muslim communities.

A state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka on March 7 after two people were killed, nearly 450 Muslim-owned homes and shops damaged and 60 vehicles burnt in attacks in the central district of Kandy.

On March 5, a mob set homes, shops and a mosque ablaze in the Digana area of Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. The incident came just days after a similar attack in the eastern coastal district of Ampara, on February 26.

Police have so far arrested almost 300 people, including a hardline Buddhist organisation leader they suspect of inciting the violence. Under the state of emergency, Sri Lankan authorities were able to arrest and detain suspects for long periods if they deemed it necessary.

Details of the emergency decree were not immediately announced, and it was unclear how it would affect life on the South Asian island nation, where Buddhist-Muslim tensions have flared in recent years with the growth of extremist Buddhist organisations.

Life went on as normal in the capital, Colombo, and many other towns and cities, with no sign of increased security.

The areas where the violence erupted on March 5, outside the town of Kandy, remained under curfew the following day, with soldiers and police patrolling the streets and no one allowed outside except for emergencies.

Buddhist mobs swept through the town and burnt down at least 11 Muslim-owned properties. It came amid claims that a Buddhist man was reportedly killed by a group of Muslims.

However, despite a curfew, a state of emergency and heavy deployment of security, reports of Buddhist mobs sweeping through Muslim neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka’s central hill were continuing.

On March 7 while the curfew was in effect about 50 people broke into Mohamed Ramzeen’s small restaurant in the town of Pilimathalawa destroying nearly everything they found.

“The security in town is inadequate,” Ramzeen said. “We fear for our lives.”

Muslim leaders have come out strongly against the failure to bring the situation under control. In a Parliamentary address, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader, Rauff Hakeem, who is also Minister of City Planning and Water Supply, strongly criticized the police force for their inaction and failure to contain the situation.

“Attacks on religious establishments and damaging private property have been part of this issue. These are not just isolated events but well-organized activities by certain individuals or a group to destabilize, to discredit the Government,” he said.

A tweet from the office of President said the measures would “redress the unsatisfactory security situation prevailing in certain parts of the country”. “The police and armed forces have been suitably empowered to deal with criminal elements in the society and urgently restore normalcy,” he said.

While Government officials did not specifically mention Buddhist extremists, many comments appeared aimed at them.

The Government will “act sternly against groups that are inciting religious hatred,” Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem said after a meeting with the President.

Lakshman Kiriella, a lawmaker from Kandy, said in Parliament that the attacks were “carried out by outsiders.”

“I am ashamed as a Buddhist and we must apologise to the Muslims,” he declared.

Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tweeted: “As a nation that endured a brutal war we are all aware of the values of peace, respect, unity and freedom. The Government condemns the racist and violent attacks that have taken place over the last few days. A state of emergency has been declared and we will not hesitate to take further action.”

Sri Lanka has long been divided between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and minority Tamils who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

The country remains deeply scarred by its (1983-2009) civil war, when Tamil rebels fought to create an independent homeland. While the rebels were eventually crushed, a religious divide has taken hold in recent years, with hard-line Sinhalese groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert and destroying sacred Buddhist sites.

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