A violent clash between Buddhists and Muslims in Aluthgama, a southwestern coastal town about 60 km south of Colombo, on Sunday left three persons dead and nearly 80 injured, reports said.
Clashes began in Aluthgama and nearby Beruwela -- Muslim-dominated towns located along the Sinhalese-majority southern coast -- during a protest rally led by the hard-line Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) and continued late Sunday night. Minor tensions continued in the area on Monday, gripping residents in fear.
A curfew imposed on Sunday is on indefinitely, police officials said. “The curfew will be there till normalcy returns completely,” police spokesperson told Ajith Rohana told The Hindu on Monday. Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem told the media that three persons had died and 78 injured, but police maintained that two people had died and around 30 were injured.
At the Sunday rally, the BBS leader Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera said: “In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today, if a single Marakkalaya [commonly used to refer to Muslims] or some other outsider touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end,” according to local reports.
The BBS, which led a campaign against halal certification last year, is also accused of playing a role in an attack against a popular Muslim-owned chain Fashion Bug nearly a year ago. The BBS denied involvement.
With most of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media underplaying Sunday’s incident – barring a few exceptions – most of the updates on the ground situation came out on Twitter on Monday, with reporters and activists tweeting visuals and updates from the spot.
On Monday, English newspaper Daily Mirror reported on its website a statement from the Government Information Department urging the media to refrain from publishing news that could cause religious disharmony.
Going by the tweets and eye witness accounts that international news agencies and select media reported on Monday, the situation escalated Sunday night, with some of the attackers setting ablaze nearly 10 stores and some homes in the area – many of them said to be owned by Muslims. “The situation is stable now,” Mr. Rohana said.
Mr. Hakeem strongly condemned the attack. “I just can’t understand a government which prevents even a trade union or students going to protest marches ... allowing the BBS to conduct the meeting,” Reuters quoted him as saying. The Minister’s statement to local media sparked rumours on whether he would continue his support to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition, which his party is currently part of. However, there was no official word from his Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in this regard.
Police said the root cause was an assault on a Buddhist monk in the town, allegedly by three Muslims on June 12. The same day, police arrested three persons in this connection. Asked if any arrest had been made following Sunday’s religious clash, Mr. Rohana said: “So far no arrest has been made. We have set up three investigation teams to find out who the culprit was. There was violence from both sides, and casualties on both sides.”
There was no official statement from the Sri Lankan government on the violence – said to be the worst communal clash in recent times – except for a tweet from President Rajapaksa, on a visit to Bolivia.
“The Government will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands. I urge all parties concerned to act in restraint.” and “An investigation will be held for law to take its course of action to bring to book those responsible for incidents in Aluthgama” -- he tweeted from there.