The government declared a state of emergency for ten days and blocked access to social media as 11 mosques were torched and 200 Muslim-owned businesses destroyed in riots by Sinhalese mobs that left at least three people dead and around 20 wounded.

Muslims make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka's 21 million people. The majority are Sinhalese, a largely Buddhist ethnic group. (March 8, 2018)
Muslims make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka's 21 million people. The majority are Sinhalese, a largely Buddhist ethnic group. (March 8, 2018) (Reuters)

Police and politicians backed by the country's former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa joined anti-Muslim riots that rocked Sri Lanka's Kandy district this month, according to witnesses, officials and CCTV footage reviewed by Reuters.

Scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district previously known for its diversity and tolerance. The government declared a state of emergency and blocked social media platforms for a week to control the unrest.

The role of police and some local Buddhist politicians suggests the Sri Lankan government lost control of elements of its security forces, and that the violence was more than a spontaneous outbreak fuelled by fringe Buddhist extremists and hate-speech spread on social media.

Rajapaksa has denied that he or other leaders of his party were involved. Police said the allegations against officers and politicians were being investigated.

Victims and witnesses, whose accounts were partly backed by CCTV footage seen by Reuters, described members of an elite paramilitary police unit, the Special Task Force (STF), assaulting Muslim cleric and leaders. Local STF commanders declined to comment.

"They came to attack," said AH Ramees, a cleric at a mosque where worshippers say they were beaten by police who were supposed to be protecting them. 

"They were shouting. There was filthy language. They said all the problems were because of us, that we were like terrorists."

Ruwan Gunasekera, a spokesman for the national police force, including the STF, said a special investigation unit was "probing the deficiencies of the police in the incident". A second unit was examining the role of political actors, he said.

The riots were the latest example of rising Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the region and have unnerved Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic coalition government, which ousted Rajapaksa in an election in 2015, according to analysts and two sources familiar with the government's deliberations.

Buddhists make up about 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 21 million people. Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, account for 13 percent while Muslims make up about 9 percent of the population.

Sri Lanka's Law and Order Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara has said the violence in Kandy was "well organised" and pointed the finger at members of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a political party backed by Rajapaksa that scored a huge victory in local elections last month.

At a press conference flanked by senior leaders earlier this month, Rajapaksa said the accusations were politically motivated. In fact, the government fomented the violence to "get the Muslim vote" and to distract from its inadequacies, he said.

AH Ramees and MSM Farwin, two Islamic clerics who allege they were beaten by Sri Lankan police inside the Hijrapura Mosque during anti-Muslim riots speak during an interview with Reuters in Digana, Sri Lanka. (March 16, 2018)
AH Ramees and MSM Farwin, two Islamic clerics who allege they were beaten by Sri Lankan police inside the Hijrapura Mosque during anti-Muslim riots speak during an interview with Reuters in Digana, Sri Lanka. (March 16, 2018) (Reuters)

Violent trigger

The violence in Kandy was triggered by an attack on a Buddhist truck driver, HG Kumarasinghe, by four Muslim men after a traffic dispute on February 22.

As Kumarasinghe lay in a coma, calls for retribution and anti-Islam polemics flooded social media and the government ordered the deployment of 1,000 members of the STF.

Rioting erupted after his funeral 11 days later.

An excerpt of CCTV footage from the first day of attacks reviewed by Reuters showed police letting a large group of men through the cordon protecting the Noor Jummah mosque in Digana, a Kandy township.

The men rush into a multi-story building opposite the mosque. A local SLPP politician, Samantha Perera, can be seen pointing at the higher floors of the building.

The family of HG Kumarsinghe hold a portrait of the man, whose death at the hands of three Muslim men, sparked the rioting in Kandy, Sri Lanka. (March 18, 2018)
The family of HG Kumarsinghe hold a portrait of the man, whose death at the hands of three Muslim men, sparked the rioting in Kandy, Sri Lanka. (March 18, 2018) (Reuters)

Post-war flare up

Anti-Muslim sentiment has surged in Sri Lanka since 2009, when a long civil war against Tamil insurgents was brutally ended by Rajapaksa amid charges by a United Nations panel of experts of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings by the military and STF.

As in Myanmar, from where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled an army crackdown in recent months, Buddhist hardliners in Sri Lanka have argued that Islam is a threat to the Buddhist way of life.

Though the level of violence is not comparable, the Sri Lankan Secretariat for Muslims, a civil society group, logged more than 600 attacks and threats to Muslims in the past five years, according to director Hilmy Ahamed, who added the rate of anti-Muslim violence had accelerated in the recent years.

"The fear that Muslims are going to take over, are going to deprive you of your welfare, is so widespread," he said.

Veteran political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda said Buddhist chauvinism in Sri Lanka was a "monster beyond control", as local activists draw inspiration from the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar and Hindu radicals in India hostile to Muslims.

Source: Reuters