Sri Lanka blocks social media to curb mob attacks on Muslims
COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka barred social messaging networks including Facebook on Wednesday to stem violence against minority Muslims after mob attacks continued despite the imposition of emergency on the Buddhist-majority island.
Tension has been growing between the two communities in Sri Lanka over the past year, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalizing Buddhist archaeological sites. Muslims deny this.
Some Buddhist nationalists have also protested against the presence in Sri Lanka of Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers from mostly Buddhist Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has also been on the rise.
Police declared a curfew until 4 p.m. (1130 GMT) Thursday in the central highlands district of Kandy, the epicenter of the violence since Sunday in the wake of the death of a Buddhist youth in an altercation with a group of Muslims.
Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and businesses belonging to Muslims overnight, residents told Reuters on Wednesday, even after President Maithripala Sirisena decreed an emergency for seven days to control the violence.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said there had been several disturbances throughout Tuesday night in the Kandy area, renowned for its tea plantations and scenic hilly beauty.
“The police arrested seven people. Three police officers were injured in the incidents,” he told Reuters. There was no information about how many civilians had been wounded, he said.
A severed head of a youth was found in a mainly Muslim district of the capital Colombo, adding to tensions, residents said. Police said they were investigating.
Muslims in Colombo said they feared for the safety of relatives living in Kandy.
Mohamed Khan, a 71-year-old worker in a soap factory in Colombo, said his relatives in Kandy were in hiding. “They say the police and military are…not taking any action,” he said.
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.
Analysts say Muslim-owned businesses were being targeted because many Sinhalese believe the minority 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.
Buddhist 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 the 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 U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The U.S. State Department issued a security alert warning of the possibility of further unrest in Kandy, also famous for a temple said to contain the tooth of Buddha.
Tourism, is one of the foreign exchange mainstays of Sri Lanka’s $81 billion economy, could take a serious hit from the violence as Kandy is a prime destination for foreign travelers.
A government minister said the violence in Kandy had been whipped up by people from outside the area. “There is an organized conspiracy behind these incidents,” Sarath Amunugama, a senior minister, told reporters in Colombo.
Kandy is located in the heart of the Indian Ocean island nation’s hilly tea-growing region but a trader said the emergency was not likely to affect global tea markets in the near term.
“The emergency is only for 10 days. This will delay shipments, but won’t have any impact on global prices. Kenya and India have ample supplies to substitute. If supplies remain disrupted for more than a month, then prices could go up,” said a tea broker in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata.
Sri Lanka is the world’s third biggest tea exporter.