Burdened by communal tensions Lanka under State of Emergency

Burdened by communal tensions Lanka under State of Emergency

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Criticism of the current United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led government  of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena mount as the country was placed under a state of Emergency in a background of communal tensions that could have easily been tackled if immediate action had been taken to ensure the rule of law.

In the wake of attacks on Muslim business establishments Monday following the death of a Sinhala man, President Maithripala Sirisena promulgated a State of Emergency in the country to bring the situation under control and police curfew was re-enforced for the 2nd day in two of the volatile areas in Kandy from 6pm Tuesday to 6 am Wednesday.  The Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara had sent a special team of officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the Teldeniya area in Digana to carry out investigations into the violent incidents reported from the area Monday.

Critics point out that actions taken by the government after the damage of violence is similar to those taken after the horse has bolted and cite the declaration of a State Emergency as an extreme step that could easily have been avoided.

“President promulgated a State Emergency a short while ago to redress the unsatisfactory security situation prevailing in certain parts of the country. The Police & Armed Forces have been suitably empowered to deal with criminal elements in the society & urgently restore normalcy,”  the President’s Media Division (PMD) announced Tuesday evening.

The State of Emergency will last for seven days, the PMD clarified after earlier in the day, Minister S.B. Dissanayake told the media that the Government had decided to impose a State of Emergency for a period of 10 days.  The Minister said the decision was taken at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

The current ethnic tensions in the island is in the backdrop of the 37 th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on in Geneva and further clouds the image of the country struggling to recover from its 30 year old war with the Tamil Tiger rebels that ended in 2009.

Meanwhile, Police curfew was re-imposed in the Teldeniya and Pallekele Police Divisions which saw violence and communal tensions on Tuesday after reports of groups of thugs planning a repetition of Monday’s violence. Although no major incidents were witnessed Tuesday there were reports of the government military thwarting an attack on a mosque in Peradeniya in Kandy.

Throngs of Special Task Force (STF), the army as well as the police lined the roads in the multi cultural district of Kandy known for its Buddhist heritage, while many of the shops and offices  functioned as usual in the district except  shops owned by Muslims which remained closed as a precautionary measure. Schools in the Kandy district which were declared closed Tuesday will remain closed Wednesday the government said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who is facing his first challenge as Minister of Law and Order which he took on in last month’s cabinet re-shuffle told parliament Tuesday that  the government would deal sternly with those who disturb peace, instigate communal clashes and spread racial sentiments.

Speaking at the adjournment debate, the Prime Minister said that the government would pay compensation for the losses of lives and properties caused by recent Sinhala-Muslim clashes.

“I contacted public representatives, religious leaders, IGP, Chief of Defense of Staff over the phone last night and issued instructions to bring the situation under control. We as a government condemn these violent activities. We as a responsible government have no way to approve these illegal and violent activities. All of us having  experience a 30-year-long war are aware of the value of peace and harmony,” the Premier told the House. He laid the blame on those ‘driven by political power hunger’ for instigating the unrest.

“Some of those who driven by political power hunger are trying to make use of incidents of this nature and it could be seen that they are planning the disruption of normalcy and instigating communal violence. The only trump card they have is instigating racial violence. It is their wish to see that violence and racism spread all over the country and to make use of that crisis to win power. It could be seen that organized efforts are being made to spread racism and communal disharmony through social media,” he said, but did not mention any names.

After taking over the government in 2015 the prevailing situation is a major litmus test for the national unity regime of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena who survived a tightrope struggle to retain being in governance after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won a landslide victory in the February 10 local government elections and demanded the ousting of the government.

Rajapaksa’s earlier exit from the presidency in the 08 January 2015 Presidential election was largely attributed to him alienating the Muslims by failing to protect them in the riots of 2014 in the Southern town of Alutgama orchestrated by the infamous group the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

The most scathing indictment of the current regime’s incompetency to handle the enforcement of law was made by Tamil National Alliance Jaffna District Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, who addressing parliament Tuesday accused Government leaders of being “spineless” in the face of violence directed against “numerically inferior communities.”

“If you can’t stand up for what is right, if you can’t stand for numerically inferior communities in your country, then you have no right to govern,” Sumanthiran said.

The TNA  MP thanked Chief Opposition Whip Anura Kumara Dissanayake who heads the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for speaking up for the rights of those from minority communities.

“This kind of spine is not there in the Government today. It is not there in the President, the Prime Minister or cabinet ministers,” he declared. During the adjournment debate on the current situation in the country in the aftermath of the communal clashes, 11 Muslim MPs led by Commerce and Industry Minister Rishard Bathiudeen sat in the Well of the House demanding government action to protect Muslims.

Meanwhile, Muslims around the country also demanded State protection for the community which makes up around 10% of the population.  In the Muslim majority Kalmunai area in Ampara district angry protestors had attacked a police jeep. Protests were also held in Colombo but had dispersed without incident.

Communal clashes involving Muslims and Sinhalese in the South-Eastern Ampara district took place in the last week of February while clashes erupted Monday in Kandy. While the violence in Ampara was hinged on a baseless rumor of a ‘substance’ that was, according to the canard, said to be mixed with food served in Muslim restaurants  to reduce the potency of Sinhalese customers to curtail the population growth of the majority community of the country, the Sinhalese.

The Kandy violence of Monday had its origin in a minor incident of road rage that turned into a brawl which had got out of hand between a group of Muslim men and a Sinhala man over a vehicle overtaking the other and knocking the side mirror.  Although the incident had occurred February 22nd events took a communal turn on March 05 as the man who was attacked , a Sinhalese, succumbed to his injuries after 10 days in hospital.

Critics blame the government of not taking the necessary precautions to ensure that the funeral of the diseased which was on Monday, would not be used for reprisals against the Muslims. Criticism is also leveled for not immediately arresting those responsible for the murder of the Sinhalese man. The Prime Minister in his address to Parliament Tuesday admitted that  there had been lapses by the police. “There had been some lapses in those actions by police and I instructed to conduct a separate investigation under the supervision of Batticaloa  DIG,” he said.  Meanwhile police confirmed Tuesday that the body of a 24-year-old who had been burnt to death was found in a shop which had been set on fire at Kengalla in Digana on Monday.

The Daily FT newspaper in its editorial Wednesday titled ‘A call for peace’ said that  concerned people in the Kandy town of Digana had appealed to police to be vigilant on the day of the funeral as an extremist organisation was planning a rally.  ‘But it would appear that such counsel fell on deaf ears,’ the leading financial daily in the country noted.

The paper noted that both Buddhist and Muslim property had been damaged and that when the police were finally forced to cordon off the town with the help of the army and STF it had become evident that people from outside the area had instigated the clashes.

“Clearly a huge amount of responsibility lies with the police as they are the first point of protection for citizens. However, as before, police are being accused of standing by as shops and houses were burned in both Muslim and Buddhist neighbourhoods,” the Daily FT editorial noted.

Leader of the House in Parliament Lakshman Kiriella said that a resolution should be brought in parliament and Buddhists should apologize to the Muslims in connection with the violence in Digana and Teldeniya in Kandy. He told parliament that the state intelligence services had collapsed resulting in the violence in Digana and Teldeniya.

“This situation was created by some outsiders. Police were aware about the people who came from other areas. Even we got to know about them. But the police higher-ups were kept in the dark about the impending violence,” the minister said.

All leading think tanks in the country working towards peace have outrightly condemned the violence and called for the government to step up its mandate to protect all people of the country.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in a statement Tuesday said it is deeply concerned by the viral circulation of video clips inciting violence against the Muslim community and stated that the organisation is in possession of several such clips including one by a person claiming to be a Buddhist monk.

“The individual in the video uses demonstrably false information as fact to incite violence against the Muslim community and accuses the Chief Prelates of favouring Muslims over Buddhists,” the think tank said pointing out that the recent incidents in the Kandy area and Ampara are not isolated incidents but those that highlight the persistence and increase of communal tensions in post-war Sri Lanka.

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