SRI LANKA’S government has blocked social media networks across the country, imposed a state of emergency and declared a local curfew to prevent further bloodshed after violence broke out between Buddhist Singhalese and minority Muslims on Sunday in the country’s central highlands.
Anti-Muslim riots broke out on Monday after a Buddhist man was allegedly attacked by Muslims, leading President Maithripala Sirisena to decree a state of emergency for seven days to curb the violence. On Tuesday night, however, attacks on Muslim businesses and mosques continued.
Police declared a curfew until 4 pm Thursday in the central highlands district of Kandy, epicentre of the violence.
Some of the violence has been instigated by Facebook postings that threatened more attacks on Muslims, the government said. On Wednesday, it said Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp would be blocked across Sri Lanka for three days.
“The last few days have seen technology created to bring people together, being used to pull people apart,” said a statement from the Sri Lankan telecommunications authority, as quoted by local newspaper the Daily Mirror.
“Do not make the mistakes of our past generations. You have today an opportunity to create a Sri Lanka where everyone can live in peace and prosperity. You have in your hands, technology that our forefathers didn’t even imagine was possible,” it said.
“Put down your smart phones, let go of your hate and help make a new Sri Lanka that is good for everyone.”
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, said it was working to identify and remove incitements to violence, and was in contact with the government and private organisations.
“We have clear rules against hate speech and incitement to violence and work hard to keep it off our platform,” the social network said in a statement.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said there had been several disturbances throughout Tuesday night in the Kandy area, renowned for its tea plantations and scenic hills.
“One person was killed and three were injured during the day after a hand grenade exploded,” Gunasekara told Reuters, without elaborating. Police have arrested seven people and three police officers were injured in the incidents, he said.
The severed head of a youth was found in a mainly Muslim area in the capital Colombo, adding to tensions, residents said. Police said they were investigating.
“If this uncivilised behaviour do[es] not stop immediately, the country will face a huge crisis in future,” said opposition parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila as quoted by the Daily Mirror. “I am requesting all Sinhalese to intervene and bring this situation under control.”
Communal tensions have grown over the past year with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalising Buddhist archaeological sites. Muslim groups deny these allegations.
Some Buddhist nationalists have also protested against the presence in Sri Lanka of Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers from mostly Buddhist Burma (Myanmar), where Buddhist nationalism has also been on the rise.
Analysts said Muslim-owned businesses were being targeted as many Sinhalese believe that the minority group holds disproportionate economic power.
Sri Lanka is still healing from a 26-year civil war with Tamil separatist rebels that was plagued by atrocities and ended in 2009. Sinhalese comprise around 70 percent of the South Asian nation’s 21 million population, ethnic Tamils – who are mainly Hindu – about 13 percent, and Muslims around 9 percent.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said he was alarmed by recurring episodes of violence against ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka and wanted accountability.
“There should be no impunity, either for the incitement that led to the attacks, or the attacks themselves,” he said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Additional reporting from Reuters.