Central Sri Lanka was gripped by tension on Thursday as a fresh wave of anti-Muslim attacks swept through the Buddhist holy city of Kandy and the surrounding hillside.
The attacks, led by the increasingly bold Sinhala-Buddhist mobs, have drawn comparisons with the start of the country’s decades-long civil war in 1983.
As the fourth night of a military imposed curfew fell, minority Muslims told The Independent they were apprehensive about the possibility of an escalation in violence following Friday prayers, with dozens of Muslim-owned houses, businesses and vehicles now burnt down.
Fresh tensions erupted in riot-torn Kandy when Sinhalese mobs took to the streets, defying the curfew, on Wednesday night. A Buddhist man was killed in an explosion, authorities said, when a grenade he was carrying detonated prematurely.
So far three people have died, including one Muslim youth who lost his life after being trapped in a house set on fire by mobs.
The riots started on Monday after a 41-year-old Sinhalese man died following a clash between some youths in Digana village, five miles from Kandy.
The incident, a personal scuffle, was stoked into racial riots by “outside elements”, say government ministers, and the Sinhalese community at large.
“This situation has been created by outsiders. It’s a conspiracy,” said Lakshman Kiriella, a Kandy District parliamentarian. “We should be ashamed as a majority Buddhist nation to be persecuting innocent Muslims in this country,” he told parliament.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara insisted the situation was under control. The government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said that “the army has been deployed in ten and thousands” to the hill country.
But despite such reassurances from police and military, residents in and around Kandy fear that Friday, when the Muslim men gather in congregation at mosques for midday prayers, could bring more attacks.
Victims and eyewitnesses have made allegations that the country’s elite Special Task Force (STF) and the army, called in to quell the riots on Monday, did not move to prevent the mobs from their rampage, looting, burning and pillaging of homes and businesses.
In Welikada, five miles from Kandy, where several houses and shops were burnt down and the mosque attacked, victims say the STF did nothing to stop the violence.
“The STF, police and the army watched more than 300 people destroy all the Muslim-owned property in my village,” one victim, who wanted to remain anonymous, told The Independent.
“Three of my cousins’ homes and my nephew’s shop were all burnt down. Their vehicles were set on fire and our family home, where all the Muslim families gathered when the mob started attacking, was destroyed,” he said.
The Central Province Deputy Inspector General of Police, Mahinda Ekanayake, denied claims that the police did not take action.
Under the Sri Lankan state of emergency law, which President Maithripala Sirisena imposed on Monday, the police and military have extensive powers to quell riots.
On Wednesday the police fired shots in the air and used teargas to dispel rioters in some parts of the hill country.
The state of emergency has been declared for the first time since the end of the country’s three-decades long bloody ethnic war that began in 1983 when Sinhalese mobs attacked the minority Tamils around the island.
Another victim, Jazeer Mohamed Hilmy, whose furniture workshop and showroom was razed to the ground in Akurana, a few miles from Kandy, said he has lost all faith in the system.
“I have lost everything. But what’s harder than the monetary loss is that some of the men who set fire to my building are people we have lived with peacefully for generations.”
“We have never thought of ourselves as Sinhalese or Muslims,” he added. “But we don’t feel safe anymore, we feel very helpless. We have our bags packed with the basic necessities, ready to flee if the need arises. That’s how insecure we feel.”
Mr Hilmy’s daughter, Zainab, a law student, confirmed there was no police or military presence in the area and the fire brigade arrived only after the building had burnt completely to the ground.
Meanwhile, President Maithripala Sirisena met with religious leaders in Kandy, promising “stern action” on those responsible for the violence.
The government has restricted access to the internet and blocked all social media platforms, starting on Wednesday, after the president blamed social media for the escalating violence.
Schools have been closed indefinitely in the central district and police leave has been cancelled.
Last week the eastern town of Ampara also saw a spate of anti-Muslim violence.
Tensions have been building in the 70 per cent Buddhist-majority country where Muslims make up only eight per cent of the population. Buddhist extremists, led by hardliner monks, have been fuelling the sort of anti-Muslim sentiment that resulted in an entire Muslim village in the south being burnt down in 2014.
Sri Lanka has a history of religious and ethnic violence. The country gave birth to one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in the world, the Tamil Tigers, following the 1983 Sinhala-Tamil riots. More than 100,000 people from both sides died in the three-decades long war that ended in 2009.
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