By Chathuri Dissanayake
As flames engulfed more homes and shops in different parts of Kandy, President Maithripala Sirisena rushed to the hill capital yesterday to meet with religious leaders and Government officials, in a bid to quell the situation.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was due to hold a meeting in Anuradhapura, rushed to Kandy when a fresh wave of attacks occurred in Akurana and Katugastota around noon yesterday (7 March).
Holding discussions with Mahanayake Theras of Malwattha and Asgiriya chapters, and Islamic Moulavies and other religious leaders, ministers, government officers, Sirisena urged for calm.
Meeting with Government officials and heads of security units deployed in the area, Sirisena gave instructions to take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the people in the area.
Struggling to contain the situation, Government re-imposed Police curfew in Kandy at 11am until 4pm today as incidents where mobs attacked places of worship, homes and businesses resurged when curfew was lifted in the morning yesterday. Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam also announced yesterday that schools in the Kandy District would remain closed indefinitely.
As rumours of attacks and messages inciting violence raged through new media networks, the Government took measures to block a number of social media sites and communication apps, in a bid to curtail the communal violence spreading across Kandy despite State of Emergency and Police curfew.
In the early morning, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) sent out instructions to all service providers to block access to internet and all other social media services for users in Kandy District. Later in the day, instructions were issued to block social media sites, and communications apps Whatsapp and Viber, for the entire country as a temporary measure.
While admitting that the move may cause difficulties to some, TRC Chairman and President’s Secretary Austin Fernando said it was a necessary measure to take in light of the current situation.
“I understand the limitations this may pose to a lot of people. Even I am affected, I also make calls through these apps, but right now this is a sacrifice that we will have to make for the country. We don’t want these messages inciting violence to go around,” he said, speaking at a press briefing held last evening at the Information Department.
Despite state of emergency and curfew, police and Army personnel deployed in the area were unable to disperse mobs gathered in Thennekubura and Manikhinna areas on Tuesday (6 March) night. Over 300 persons gathered and attacked shops and houses before the police and armed forces were able to get a handle in the situation.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara told Reuters there had been several disturbances throughout Tuesday night in the Kandy area, renowned for its tea plantations and scenic hilly beauty.
“The police arrested seven people. Three police officers were injured in the incidents,” he told Reuters. There was no information about how many civilians had been wounded, he added.
Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne told a special press briefing yesterday: “The mob gathered in areas where the army was not deployed. The attacks were systematic and planned out. The area is large so it is difficult to contain.”
While over 600 army troops have now been deployed in the area to bring the situation under control, Admiral Wijegunaratne said that they are still maintaining use of minimum force to control the situation.
“This is communal violence, very different from a war situation. The groups that are causing violence are not armed. We are using minimum force to control the situation. The extremist elements are waiting for us to shoot and for loss of life,” noted Admiral Wijegunaratne.
Cabinet spokesperson Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne stated that investigations have revealed that political forces are behind the attacks.
“There is a particular group behind this. It is evident that they are working towards a political agenda. Arrests will be made in the future in this regard,” he said.
The Minister also said that the attacks are being carried out in a very organised and systematic manner with instructions being given from remote locations.
Responding to allegations that the situation has got out of hand, as the Government failed to take stern action against the first incident of communal violence in Aluthgama, Dr. Senaratne admitted that action on the matter has been slow. But investigations are still ongoing, he insisted.
Senaratne also admitted to lapses in law enforcement in both Ampara and Kandy incidents. “We admit there is a delay in response. For instance, the Police was not able to take action in time as the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) in the area was not available to give the orders to take action. The junior officers therefore were not able to respond in time without orders from higher ranks. The Ampara incident is also being investigated,” Senaratne told reporters.
Investigations have revealed the involvement of a Member of Parliament and several other local level politicians in behind attacks, Senaratne said. Arrests would be made and names revealed soon, he claimed when pressed for details on alleged involvement.
“We will reveal soon. There is a MP and his secretary behind the Digana attacks. Two Local Government members who were recently elected, a district organiser and a Monk of the same political party are also involved in the attacks in Teldeniya,” he said.
However Police have not made fresh arrests since Sunday (4 March), despite escalating violence.
During his meeting with religious leaders in Kandy, President Sirisena discussed about the situation that has occurred suddenly and the leadership they can provide to bring it under control and to avoid spreading of the misunderstandings among people.
The religious leaders pointed out that that exaggeration of minor incidents through various social media platforms is one of the main reasons for the spread of this situation.
President Sirisena stressed the importance of communicating precise information to the public and instructed officers to inform the public about the true circumstances of the situation through religious leaders.
President Sirisena pointed out the importance of taking maximum efforts by all religious leaders to create an environment to prevent the recurrence of this kind of incidents in the society while building the peace and reconciliation among all the communities in the country.
The President instructed the Police and the Tri-Forces to take necessary steps to ensure the security of the people in the area and further stated to take every possible step to ensure peace in the relevant areas.
The President specially requested the religious leaders to, apart from the steps taking by the security forces to ensure the security of the people in the area, take the leadership in the process of building peace and harmony among the different communities in the respective areas.
The Maha Sangha including Most Ven. Niyangoda Sri Vijithasiri Anunayake MahaThero of Malwatta Chapter, Ven. Dibulkumbure Vimaladhamma AnunayakeThero, Most Ven. Wedaruwe Upali AnunayakaThero of the Asgiri Chapter, Ven. Narampanawe Ananda, Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thero, Ven. Dr. Medagoda Abayathissa Thero, Ven. Prof. Iduragare Dhammanandha Thero, the Moulavies including the Kandy Chief Moulavi Fazlur Rehman, Rev. Fr. Ivan Jayasundara ,the Parish Priest, St. Anthony’s Cathedral, Kandy, the trustee of the Shri Selva Vinayagar temple in Kandy, Krishanmoorthy Govindasami, Ministers Ministers Rauff Hakeem, Faizer Mustapha, State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardane and MPs, Secretary to the President Austin Fernando, public servants and heads of security forces participated in this meeting.