A fresh round of violence gripped parts of Sri Lanka’s Kandy district on March 7, a day after authorities declared emergency to quell heightening anti-Muslim attacks in the Central Province.
Scattered and sporadic, a series of attacks targeting Muslim-owned shops and other buildings in the suburbs of Akurana and Katugastota near Kandy were carried out by a mob, reportedly Sinhalese, local sources said.
President Maithripala Sirisena convened a meeting with top officials to review the situation.
Following the meeting, he tweeted: “Visited Kandy to discuss the prevailing situation and with religious leaders and law enforcement authorities. I ordered to strengthen security in the area.”
Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) blocked online networks such as Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp across the country for three days to prevent panic and further communal violence.
For the past few days, Sri Lanka has witnessed a spate of violent attacks targeting the island’s Muslim minority. It began last weekend, following a road-rage incident in which a group of Muslim youth beat up a Sinhalese driver, who later succumbed to injuries. Police arrested the youth, and 24 other suspects in connection with the ensuing violence and arson attacks, which claimed the life of one Muslim youth in Digana town, Kandy.
Amid mounting criticism of the police’s “poor response”, President Sirisena on March 6 declared Emergency Rule – a move that, according to his Ministers, allowed the government to summon the Army into ground action.
However, according to eyewitness accounts on March 7, security personnel on the spot were unable to quell the tension immediately, when a mob of “over a hundred” people came and set fire, despite a police curfew across the district. Roads in Kandy were deserted with most of the shops closed.
On March 7 afternoon, a shopping area with about 25 outlets, at a main junction in Akurana was in flames, with huge, black clouds of smoke in the air. “For Allah’s sake, we must all maintain calm and peace and not resort to any violence,” said a voice, apparently that of a local leader, through loudspeakers.
“An entire row of shops here is burning and authorities were merely watching this with their arms folded. About 20 minutes after our shops were set to fire, a few of our boys tried flinging stones in the direction of the attackers to chase them away. At that time, we heard the army personnel tell their colleagues ‘they are beating our people, bring your weapons and rush here’,’ said Jaffer, a resident.
“Until then they were just watching everything. Is this our government? Is this our justice [system]?” he asked.
Dozens of Army men and police personnel were in the area, and said they arrived soon after they heard about the incident.
Shopowners in nearby Uguressapitiya, in Katugastota, said two rounds of attacks were carried out across their shops — mostly bakeries and small stores at 11.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. “My father is still hiding in the mosque behind,” said a young trader, who was trying to douse the flames with water.
Asked why the Army had been late to respond to the March 7 attacks, Army spokesman Brigadier Sumith Atapattu, said 487 Army and 128 Navy personnel were deployed across Kandy. “We have another 450 on standby and confined to barracks. They are ready to step in any time,” he told The Hindu.