March 07, 2018
At least two people have been killed and eight others injured in anti-Muslim riots in a popular tourist district in central Sri Lanka as the government blocked Facebook and other social media services in an effort to quell the violence.
Sri Lanka blocks social media as deadly violence continues
Reports of an attack on a Buddhist temple in Abathanna triggered another day of clashes across Kandy district between members of the country’s mostly Buddhist Sinhala majority and police.
One man died from a heart attack after his shop was attacked and another person is thought to have been killed while trying to attack a mosque, according to police in Katugastota town and sources at the prime minister’s office said.
Groups of men wielding clubs, some covering their faces, were seen roaming the streets in at least five areas across Kandy on Tuesday as the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, arrived to meet police officials.
Police fired teargas as the rioting spread across the district on Tuesday night. Three officers were wounded in one area, Menikhinna, and seven people were arrested for breaking an indefinite curfew in place across Kandy, a police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekara, said.
Supporters of radical Buddhist nationalist groups have been blamed for days of arson attacks and vandalism against Muslim-owned properties in Kandy which have prompted the government to declare its first state of emergency since the end of the civil war era.
A witness in Abathanna said crowds including masked men had begun to congregate in the town around 9am on Wednesday morning.
“There was a story that a temple had been attacked last night, so these groups were going around, stoning and smashing windows of Muslim shops,” Ruwan Kulasekera said.
Police in riot gear fired bullets in the air and used teargas to clear the crowd, but there were fears people would return again after dark, he said.
Facebook and other social media services were blocked or restricted across Sri Lanka on Wednesday afternoon to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim posts the government said were helping to fuel the violence, which it has blamed on hardline Buddhist groups accused of bussing supporters into the district.
Harsha de Silva, the deputy minister for national policies and economic affairs, tweeted:
More than 150 homes, shops and vehicles were estimated to have been destroyed in riots on Monday and Tuesday, which were sparked at the weekend after a group of Muslim men in Digana town allegedly killed a Sinhala man. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala population makes up about three-quarters of the country’s total population.
Muslim-owned properties were attacked soon after the man’s funeral but the violence escalated after two hardline Buddhist monks with large social media followings and a history of inflammatory rhetoric arrived in Digana to negotiate the release of accused rioters.
When police refused, dozens of Muslim properties were set alight and a curfew was imposed in two towns in the district. On Tuesday morning the body of a 24-year-old man was pulled from one of the houses set on fire the previous day.
All schools in the district have been closed and the governments of the United States, Britain and Australia have issued travel warnings to their citizens.
Analysts said Buddhist nationalist groups had sharpened their anti-Muslim rhetoric since the end of the civil war in 2009. Four people were killed and many more injured in riots between Muslims and Buddhists in June 2015. Several Buddhist extremist leaders were accused of instigating the violence and are on trial.
Last week groups of people set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country after rumours that a Muslim chef was adding contraceptives to food served to Sinhala customers.
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