Sri Lanka declares emergency to counter communal violence

By Prarthana Mitra

The Sri Lankan government on Tuesday, March 6, declared a state of emergency, for the first time since the civil war, to contain the growing unrest and communal tension between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims. The situation escalated after a spate of anti-Muslim attacks broke out in a few central hill towns outside Kandy on Monday. Over 11 Muslim-owned shops have been vandalised, and a mosque torched to the ground by Buddhist mobs since February. Continued attacks incited by religious groups allegedly led to retaliation from the Muslim community, resulting in the death of a Buddhist civilian. According to The Hindu, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said the emergency would “redress the unsatisfactory security situation” in some parts of the country, adding that the police and armed forces have been “suitably empowered” to “urgently restore normalcy”.

Sri Lanka in turmoil

Ties between the two communities have been strained for a while, especially with the rise of extremist Buddhist groups in recent years. Sinhalese Buddhists, who comprise 75% of the country’s population, have been carrying out hate crusades under the pretext that Muslims are responsible for desecrating Buddhist shrines and forcefully converting people. The Guardian reports that racial attacks against Muslims, who form 10% of the overall populace, have increased at an alarming rate since last April.

Given Sri Lanka’s history of civil war, during which there was a widespread violation of human rights, foreign governments and international organisations are urging the government to ease the current crisis as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the violence as “systemic and organised”, and said that the government “won’t hesitate to take further action” if required. The major conflict areas are now under curfew with no permissible outdoor activity except for in cases of emergencies. Although it’s too soon to say how this decree will affect life and trade on the island nation, there has been no sign of increased security or renewed unrest near the capital, Colombo.

Declaring emergency: A strong move

Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka expert at the International Crisis Group, told the Guardian that while the previous government under Mahinda Rajapaksa had overlooked instances of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Sirisena regime is taking a stronger stance. Keenan also added that the recent violence could be connected to the Rajapaksa’s opposition movement gaining strength.

According to a report in TIME magazine, although government officials refused to hold any particular group responsible on record, they felt it necessary to curb and contain such riotous unrest with a state of emergency. Cabinet minister and government spokesperson Dayasiri Jayasekar told The Hindu that declaring the emergency was a “confidence-building measure” and a means to ensure “the situation does not escalate”.

However, Reuters reported fresh instances of mob violence against Muslims in the Kandy area, despite the imposition of curfew.

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