by Qadijah Irshad, The Telegraph, May 6, 2019
The Sri Lankan government has deployed troops and imposed a curfew after clashes broke out between religious communities in Negambo, one of the sites of the Easter Sunday bombings.
Sri Lanka military spokesperson Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said Sunday's riots, which saw attacks on homes and business, was between ethnic Sinhalese Catholics and Muslims.
It was the first reported outbreak of violence since the bombings on churches and luxury hotels that left 257 dead. The Easter attacks, carried out by eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers were claimed by Isil.
Eye witnesses to Sunday’s clashes said that they began with a scuffle between Catholic and Muslim three-wheel trishaw drivers in Poharathota, a Muslim settlement.
“Some of them (the drivers) were drunk, and it just escalated from there, ending in Muslim houses being damaged and a few trishaws set on fire,” said Luxman Perera, a carpenter at the St. Sebastian’s Church.
Residents told The Telegraph that although the initial altercation was not based on religion, the successive spread of violence “seemed coordinated”.
“The Catholic and Muslim trishaw drivers have been fighting long before, for the right of parking space, so that wasn’t a religious fight. But people took advantage of the situation and the violence spread very quickly,” said Mohamed Nizam, a shopkeeper.
Residents said that houses and shops were damaged by mobs after an all-night curfew was imposed.
“When I was walking out of the mosque, the military asked us all to go home because a curfew was on, but the attacks on the houses and shops started after that,” one said.
The Dhalupotha mosque, some four miles from the area where the initial fight broke out, was pelted with stones and damaged by men wielding sticks.
In the past the government and the military have been accused of turning a blind eye to attacks on Muslims. In 2014 four Muslims were killed and 10,000 displaced when extremist Buddhists started riots in the town of Darga, south of Colombo. Last year, a man was set on fire inside his house and homes and businesses set on fire during anti Muslim violence in the mountain city of Kandy. CCTV footage in both instances appeared to show police officers aiding the rioters and the military ignoring them.
On Monday, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Sri Lankan prime minister, instructed compensation to be paid “after conducting an assessment” of properties damaged during the Negambo riots.
The police said that no casualties were reported during the Sunday night violence.
Following the tensions, the government shut down all social media for the second time since the Easter Sunday attacks to prevent the spread of rumours and incitement. A ban was earlier imposed following the Easter Sunday attacks, and was lifted just three days ago.
President Maithripala Sirisena has also re-introduced the wartime state of emergency laws which give the police and military sweeping powers to arrest people without warrants and detain them for long periods of time. Muslim face coverings were also banned under this law last week.
On Monday morning, security remained tight in Negambo, with the air force and elite special forces on guard amid an atmosphere of tense calm.
St. Sebastian’s Church in Negambo was the worst affected of the six bombing sites, with more than 100 worshippers killed during the Easter Sunday service.