Colombo: Fresh violence today erupted in Muslim neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka’s hilly central district where communal clashes destroyed more shops and homes, as a worried President Maithripala Sirisena divested the law and order portfolio from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The communal violence between majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority Muslims in the Indian Ocean island nation has not subsided despite a state of emergency and a heavy deployment of troops in riot-hit Kandy district.
Anti-Muslim riots, since Monday, have damaged several homes, businesses and mosques. The violence erupted after the death of a man from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority last week.
To rein in communal violence, a state of emergency has been imposed by the Sirisena government.
The government ordered the internet blackout, blocking of social media websites including Facebook and instant messaging app Whatsapp, after police discovered mobs of Sinhalese rioters were using social media to coordinate attacks on Muslim establishments.
According to media reports, petrol bombs were hurled at a mosque even as armoured vehicles and heavily-armed troops fortified the troubled district, where anti-Muslim violence has left two people dead.
A total of 81 people, including the main suspect, who had led anti-Muslim violence were arrested, police said.
“A man, named Vidanapathiranage Amith Jeewan Weerasinghe, who is believed to be the main suspect and nine others were arrested today,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told reporters.
They were arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) in a special operation.
“They were arrested for inciting communal violence and hate speech,” he said.
He said since March 4, there have been two deaths due to clashes. “One of them died of suffocation due to an arson attack while the other had died due to a grenade explosion”, he added.
During the period, there have been 45 attacks against Muslim properties throughout the Kandy district and at least four religious sites had been attacked, the spokesperson said.
The arrests of main suspects came after the police came under increasing public criticism over its alleged inaction to prevent violence in spite of the imposition of curfew.
Earlier in the day, President Sirisena, under attack for alleged police inaction, replaced Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as the law and order minister.
Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a senior politician from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) was sworn in as the new minister in charge of the police.
Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the law and order minister just 11 days ago.
Yesterday, the President visited riot-hit Kandy and ordered security forces to use the full force of the law against troublemakers.
Sirisena discussed with religious leaders the situation in Kandy and the leadership they can provide to bring it under control and to avoid spreading of the misunderstandings among people.
Former president and MP Mahinda Rajapaksa has rejected the reports of a political conspiracy in the violence and said the incident reflects the inaction of the UNP.
“This is not a political conspiracy. It reflects the inaction of the UNP. They are not keen on resolving the matter and the government has deviated from its responsibilities. There is no one to turn to,” Rajapaksa said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has condemned the violence and urged Colombo “to ensure that appropriate measures are swiftly taken to restore normalcy in affected areas”.
The Kandy region is about 115 kilometres from Colombo. It is popular tourist as well as Buddhist pilgrimage destination.
The Sinhalese Buddhists are about 75 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population while Muslims are 10 percent of the population.
Tensions between Muslim groups and the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community in the country have escalated since the end of the civil war in May 2009.
In 2014, violence directed against Muslim minority groups broke out in the southwestern town of Aluthgama, following a rally by hardline Buddhist nationalist monks, resulting in the death of at least three Muslims.