One knifed to death in anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka; 2 arrested

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COLOMBO: A 45-year-old man, who ran a timbre store, died of stab injuries, even as two busloads of people, aided by local goons, carried out raging attacks on mosques, Muslim-owned shops and homes on May 13 at Kurunegala in Sri Lanka.

This is the worst outbreak of violence since the Easter bombings in the island nation.

“The fact that the mobs arrived in buses showed that these attacks were planned,” said Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella body of Muslim civil society organisations. “It was very much like the previous instances of anti-Muslim attacks,” he said.

Two arrested

On May 14, a special police team arrested Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya, a reactionary Sinhala-Buddhist group; and Namal Kumara, a self-declared anti-corruption activist. Thirteen others were also arrested.

“They have been arrested for questioning in connection with Monday’s violence,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said. 

Weerasinghe has been accused of inciting the deadly Digana violence in March 2018, where angry Sinhalese mobs attacked several homes and stores owned by Muslims in the Central Province. He was arrested and granted bail in October last.

Kumara made news when he claimed he was aware of a plot to kill President Maithripala Sirisena. Earlier this year, the Criminal Investigation Department said they were probing his activities. It told a Colombo court that he was identified as an Army deserter in 2010.

Sustained violence

On Monday afternoon, mobs unleashed sustained violence on a group of villages in Kurunegala district in the island’s North-Western Province, damaging several mosques in the area. Dozens of homes and shops were torched. The allegedly planned attacks prompted a police curfew and several residents spent the night in nearby jungles, locals earlier said. Social media platforms remain blocked after a government decision, and several Sri Lankans also complained of mobile data being interrupted.

A prominent legislator aligned to Mr. Sirisena, and suspects linked to earlier anti-Muslim attacks in the southern and central parts of Sri Lanka, have come under the spotlight in the wake of Monday’s raging attacks.

Dayasiri Jayasekara, general secretary of President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and a former Minister, visited a police station in one of the affected villages to reportedly transfer six suspects, who were in custody for allegedly violating the curfew, to another police station and to have them released on bail. Daily Mirror on Monday reported that “residents in the area laid siege to the police station” and demanded their release.

Multiple attempts to reach Mr. Jayasekara proved unsuccessful, and messages seeking his response to the allegation have so far not been answered.

Key suspects

Video recordings of the clashes shared by locals revealed at least two key suspects were present in the vicinity, with the mobs.

“One individual whose hate speech triggered the Aluthgama violence in 2014, and another linked to the Digana anti-Muslim attacks in 2018 were in the area,” Mr. Ahmed said. Weerasinghe was seen in the area, said sources.

If the authorities do not take swift action, the situation could “snowball into a complex conundrum”, cautioned Cabinet Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem. Allowing such violence and “pre-planned attacks”, he said, was a reward to the “demented individuals” who carried out the Easter bombings. “This is exactly what they wanted,” he told The Hindu.

Security forces had “no excuse” to let violence persist despite a police curfew, Mr. Hakeem said. “We raised the matter at a meeting with the top brass yesterday and things were later brought under control. But the situation in the country is very worrying.”

M.A. Sumanthiran, spokesman of the Tamil National Alliance and Jaffna district parliamentarian, said they strongly condemned such violence, and called on the authorities to take swift and severe action against the perpetrators.

People would be forced to defend themselves if they think that the government and the security forces are not able or willing to protect them, he said. “We appeal to the government: Do not let that happen. Do not let yet another community in Sri Lanka feel that in order to survive in this country, it must fight for itself. There can be no room for terrorism in this country — not for the terrorism that bombs churches, and not for the terrorism that attacks mosques,” he said in a statement.

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