Continuing attacks fuel fears of anti Muslim violence spreading in Sri Lanka

Muslim and civil society leaders in Sri Lanka fear violence against the minority community that raised its ugly head twice within a week spreading to other areas of the island, largely due to inaction by law enforcement authorities.

The latest attack against Muslims were launched in villages near the tourist city of Kandy by an unruly mob despite a heavy police presence following warnings by community leaders.

It comes in the wake of a Sinhala mobs attacking Muslim religious and business establishments in the Eastern town of Ampara, a week ago.

'Road rage' incident

On 4 and 5 March, more than a thousand Sinhalese with Buddhist monks went on a rampage protesting the death of a Sinhala lorry driver from Moragahamula, in the  Kandy district.

The driver, Heepitiyegedara Kumarasinghe (42) wounded in an alleged assault by a group of Muslims on 22 February following a road rage incident. He had succumbed to injuries on Saturday (3) while undergoing treatment at Kandy Teaching Hospital. Four suspects have been remanded until 7 March, said Police Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara.

However, hundreds who gathered on the night of 4 Sunday had set fire to several Muslim shops in the Moragahamula village.

A government Minister who visited the area says that the shops were closed on advice by the police top brass due to fear of ethnic tension following the death of the Sinhala driver.

“The police chief and central province deputy inspector general advised us to tell the Muslims to close shop and stay indoors,” Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen told journalists.

“Then mobs came and burnt the shops down."

Central Province Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Mahinda Ekanayake had guaranteed Muslim leaders that additional  troops will be called in for enhanced security.

The military announced that 200 soldiers have been deployed to stand by and assist the police.

Police Spokesperson Gunasekara said that 24 people have been arrested for the violence on Sunday.

Buddhist monks

The following morning an angry mob including Buddhist monks had laid siege to the Theldeniya police station demanding the release of the arrested suspects.

A Buddhist monk from the eastern town of Batticaloa, well known for active participation in violence against Tamils and Muslims was seen promoting the demands of the mob in a heated exchange with police officers.

“Don’t be a joke and release those arrested,” the monk Ampitiye Sumanarathana told Central Province DIG Mahinda Ekanayake.

A participant representing the mob told police that many from faraway places have been bussed to the area to secure the release of the arrested 24.

“People who have come from Matara, Galle, Kurunegala and the Sinhala villages of Vavunia don’t want to go empty handed,” said Amith Weerasinghe, one of the a mob leaders involved in instigating violence.

The mob later went on to attack at least two mosques and several properties owned by Muslims in Digaana, while police looked on for almost four hours.

Police inaction

A Muslim civil activist who spoke to JDS on condition of anonymity said that the police inaction is helping the spread of violence to neighboring areas.

“Men are on the road looking for Muslims and even checking in the buses that are passing through Sinhala villages.”

JDS has seen video evidence of groups speaking in Sinhala searching busses for Muslims.The top official of an election monitoring body confirmed the participation of outsiders in the violence who were summoned through social media.

"A group of people whose names have been mentioned with racial violence in Batticaloa, Mount Lavinia and Beruwala were preseent," said Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) Executive Director Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon.

Police had later declared a curfew in the Kandy administrative district after dispersing the crowd with tear gas.

Security forces took over four hours to get into action, charged Keerthi Tennakoon.

Police inaction in preventing unruly mobs from entering the area led to an explosive situation, said Muslim Religious Affairs and Posts Minister Mohamed Hashim Abdul Haleem. The minister who hails from the Kandy district expressed fears of racist violence spreading.

The government announced that President Maithripala Sirisena had directed the police and security sector to hold an unbiased, independent investigation into what it called the “incidents at Digana Kandy”.

“The Police put on alert to ensure that the enforcement of the law proceeds without hindrance and the situation does not spiral into an inter-communal conflagration,” said a statement by Director General of Government Information, Sudarshana Gunawardena.