SRI LANKA declared a nationwide state of emergency for 10 days on Tuesday (6) to stop the spread of communal violence, a government spokesman said, after clashes erupted between majority Buddhists and members of the minority Muslim community.
Tension has been growing between the two communities in Sri Lanka over the past year, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalising Buddhist archaeological sites.
Some Buddhist nationalists have also protested against the presence in Sri Lanka of Muslim Rohingya asylum-seekers from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has also been on the rise.
“At a special cabinet meeting, it was decided to declare a state of emergency for 10 days to prevent the spread of communal riots,” government spokesman Dayasiri Jayasekara said.
He said some people were instigating violence through Facebook and warned of tough action against them.
The government deployed heavily-armed police commandos in the hill station region of Kandy, which is popular with tourists, after rioters defied an overnight curfew and went on the rampage.
The emergency declaration gives authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods and also allows the government to deploy forces where needed.
It is the first time in seven years Sri Lanka has resorted to such a measure.
The unrest in the Indian Ocean island’s central district of Kandy began last Sunday (4) after the funeral of a truck driver from the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community who died days after he was involved in an altercation with four Muslims, the government has said.
It was not clear why the initial altercation occurred but after the driver’s funeral on Monday (5), a Sinhalese mob attacked Muslim shops, police said. The body of a Muslim youth was found in a burnt-out house early on Tuesday, police said.
More than two dozen arrests have been made and an inquiry opened into police conduct in Kandy, just the latest region to be plagued by religious and ethnic conflict.
Mobs set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country last week after a Muslim chef was accused of adding contraceptives to food sold to Sinhalese.
The government dismissed the allegation as baseless and ordered the arrest of those fomenting unrest in the area.
Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Twotter: “As a nation that endured a brutal war we are all aware of the values of peace, respect, unity & freedom. The Govt condemns the racist & violent acts that have taken place over the last few days. A state of emergency has been declared & we will not hesitate to take further action.”
Last November riots in the south of the island left one man dead and homes and vehicles damaged.
In June 2014 riots between Buddhists and Muslims left four dead and many injured.
That violence was instigated by a Buddhist extremist group whose leaders are on trial accused of spurring religious conflict.
Muslims make up about nine per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people. Buddhists make up about 70 per cent and ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, about 13 per cent.
The government ended a 26-year civil war in 2009 with the defeat of Tamil separatist rebels. Muslim communities were occasionally caught up in that violence but on the whole, Muslims managed to stay out of the war.