Sri Lanka announced a 10-day state of emergency Tuesday after Buddhist rioters attacked mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in the central-hill district of Kandy. According to a local official, mobs made up of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority have damaged four mosques, 37 houses, 46 shops, and 35 vehicles since Sunday, CNN reports.
According to The New York Times, hundreds of security personnel were deployed to Kandy on Monday and an indefinite curfew — which has been broken by rioters — was imposed in the area. Police used tear gas and fired bullets into the air to disperse the mobs. Seven people were arrested, eight injured, and at least two killed during the conflicts.
The Associated Press reports:
Hundreds of Muslim residents of Mullegama, a village in the hills of central Sri Lanka, barricaded themselves inside a local mosque after Buddhist mobs attacked their homes Wednesday morning accusing them of stealing the donation box of a nearby temple. At least 20 Muslim homes appeared badly damaged and flames engulfed one two-story home.
The Muslims hiding in the mosque, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said police prevented them from saving their property and did nothing to stop the attackers.
Tensions between the Sri Lankan Buddhist and Muslim communities have been rising for months, NPR reports. Buddhist groups have accused Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalizing Buddhist archaeological sites. According to Reuters, some Buddhist nationalists have protested against the presence of Rohingya asylum seekers in Sri Lanka.
On February 22, during a “road-rage” incident, a group of Muslims assaulted a Sinhalese truck driver who later died from his injuries while receiving treatment at Kandy Teaching Hospital. This was the source of protest on Sunday when Buddhist rioters attacked Muslim-owned properties.
Officials fear the death of a 27-year-old man could provoke further violence. The man died after Muslims reportedly burned his parents’ home to the ground while he was trapped on the second floor. An audio recording of him describing the attack to his uncle circulated on social media after his death.
The Guardian reports that social media platforms were blocked by the government to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim hate speech and misinformation. As part of the emergency decree, access to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Viber has been restricted across Sri Lanka.
Harsha de Silva, the deputy minister of national policies and economic affairs, tweeted the following on Wednesday:
Hate speech on @facebook is increasing beyond acceptable levels #SriLanka. Government will have to act immediately to save lives. @RW_UNP pic.twitter.com/z9nadtLoU1
— Harsha de Silva (@HarshadeSilvaMP) March 7, 2018
The current state of emergency is the first to be called in Sri Lanka since 2009, after the end of a 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During that time the Sinhalese majority were pitted against the Tamil minority who tried to form an independent state. Between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the conflict.