Sri Lanka has imposed a state of emergency nationwide in response to days of violence between Muslim and Sinhalese communities, the first imposition since 2011 during the civil war era.
Special measures now permit soldiers to be deployed to civilian areas to deal with a sharp rise in riots and arson attacks in the central district of Kandy.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramsinghe said the violence appeared to be organised and promised government action.
The Sri Lankan Minister for Co-existence, Mano Ganesan, said the state of emergency would initially apply for 10 days, after which the deployment would be need to be ratified by parliament.
Ganesan added that the imposition also widened police powers to detain suspects.
Similar violence was seen in February 2018 when arson attacks were inflicted on Muslim-owned businesses and a mosque in the east of the region.
The recent violence in Kandy is believed to have been triggered by accusations against a group of Muslim men of killing a man from the Sinhala Buddhist community, which makes up 75% of the population, in Digana town.
Spiralling acts of violence and arson occurred as monks from hardline Buddhist groups failed to negotiate the release of the accused men.
A curfew was imposed in two towns in the district and a number of deaths have been reported.
The island nation has been attempting to rebuild following a devastating 28-year-civil war between the government and Tamil separatists in the north.
Tensions between the 5% Muslim population and majority Sinhala Buddhist community have become more acute since the civil war’s end.
Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a staunch Sinhala nationalist, is accused of condoning instances of anti-Muslim hate speech and violence.
Though he was defeated in the 2015 election, his party won numerous municipal election in the country in February 2018 and it is likely that the renewed violence is connected to the growing influence and strength of this opposition movement.
In a report by The Guardian, Sri Lanka specialist at the International Crisis Group, Alan Keenan, said attacks on Muslims by radical Buddhist groups had risen in regularity since 2012, with a spike since April 2017.
He added: “One of the key underlying elements is the sense many Sinhalese and Buddhists have that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese and Buddhist island and other communities, [ie] Muslims and Tamils, are here on the sufferance of the majority.”
Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia, called on authorities to properly penalise Buddhist groups accused of inciting or participating in acts of violence.
She added: “The failure to take action against these groups has only emboldened them further and plunged minorities in a deeper state of fear.”
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