Sri Lanka on Tuesday declared an island-wide state of emergency to curb heightening anti-Muslim violence in the country’s Central Province. The decision, taken at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, came in response to a series of arson attacks targeting dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes in Kandy.
On Tuesday morning, police found the body of a Muslim youth, burnt to death, in a building that had been set to fire.
Describing the move to declare emergency as a “confidence building measure”, Cabinet Minister and government spokesman Dayasiri Jayasekara told The Hindu: “The emergency allows us to deploy the Army in case of any violent clashes. There were concerns that the police were mishandling the situation over the last few days and we want to make sure the situation does not escalate.”
The emergency will lapse in two weeks unless Parliament votes to extend it at that time, legal experts said.
Over the last few days, police have arrested 24 suspects in connection with the attacks in Kandy. The violence, according to police sources, was triggered by the death of a 41-year-old man, who succumbed to injuries caused by a group of Muslim men, following a road-rage incident last week. The suspects were arrested immediately after the incident and remanded, officials said.
The days that followed witnessed a spate of anti-Muslim attacks in the area, provoked reportedly by hard-line Sinhala Buddhist forces.
While Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who recently assumed additional charge as Law and Order Minister, told Parliament on Tuesday that the government would deal sternly with those who disturb peace, instigate communal clashes and spread racial sentiments, critics have accused the police and the Special Task Force of a delayed and inadequate response.
The emergency measures give authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods, and deploy forces where needed.
President Maithripala Sirisena said the measures would “redress the unsatisfactory security situation prevailing in certain parts of the country”. “The police and armed forces have been suitably empowered to deal with criminal elements in the society and urgently restore normalcy,” he said.
The Sri Lankan government, which has condemned the recent anti-Muslim violence in Ampara and Kandy, came under severe attack in Parliament for “pandering to extremist forces” in the Sinhala majority community.
Leader of Opposition and senior Tamil politician R. Sampanthan said that the anti-Muslim attacks were indicative of a sense of impunity. “People seem to have the confidence that they can engage in such acts and that the arm of the law would not reach them,” he said.
Tamil National Alliance Jaffna district parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said: “the fundamental belief that one must pander to the extremists within the majority community must change. Until then other communities that are numerically inferior will never feel like equal citizens.”
Accusing the government of “lacking spine”, Mr. Sumanthiran said: “It [a spine] is not there in the President, the PM or in any of the Cabinet Ministers. If you can’t stand up for what is right, stand up for the numerically smaller communities in your country, then you have no right to govern.”
The tension between the majority Sinhalese and minority Muslims, who currently account for nearly 9% of the country’s population has a long history, according to M.A. Nuhman, senior academic in Kandy.
“The first major incident of riots in Sri Lanka was in 1915, targeting Muslims. The anti-Muslim sentiment among Sinhalese subsided a bit when Tamil militancy emerged. And after the war ended in 2009, it seems to have resurfaced,” he said. While the clashes had a communal appearance, it had a lot to do with the communities’ economic interests, he added.
During the country’s civil war years, Muslims suffered violence and displacement, when the LTTE forcefully evicted them from the north in the early 1990s.
Sri Lanka has witnessed several attacks against Muslims since 2012, including two major clashes in the southern towns of Aluthgama and Gintota in 2014 and 2017 respectively. More recently, a number of mosques and Muslim-run establishments were attacked by Sinhalese mobs in the eastern town of Ampara last week. (The Hindu)