Image Credit: AP

Kandy The curfew imposed in Kandy has been temporarily lifted on Thursday following days of violence against Muslim minorities in the tourist town.

About 50 people broke into Mohammad Ramzeen's small restaurant in the town of Pilimathalawa on Wednesday night while the curfew was in effect, destroying nearly everything they found. 

Buddhist mobs are still sweeping through Muslim neighborhoods in Sri Lanka's central hills, destroying stores and restaurants despite a curfew, a state of emergency and heavy deployment of security forces, residents said Thursday.

"The security in town is inadequate," Ramzeen said. "We fear for our lives."

Others in the area around Kandy, the main hill town, have described similar attacks since the violence began early this week.

The streets of most towns were all-but empty Thursday except for police and soldiers. The Sri Lankan government has reportedly deployed more troops to maintain peace in the area.

Social media blocked for three days

The government ordered a state of emergency Tuesday, and has also shut down a handful of popular social media networks, saying they were being used to spread false rumors that led to mob attacks.

"Technology created to bring people together, is being used to pull people apart,' technology minister Harin Fernando was quoted as saying by the Sri Lanka Mirror.

"Social media websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber - which were created to bring us closer to our friends and family and make communication free and convenient, have been used to destroy families, lives and private property."

Sri Lankan residents speak

As mobs continue to sweep through Muslim neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka's central hills, destroying stores and restaurants despite the state of emergency and heavy deployment of security forces, many Sri Lankan residents voice their concerns to Gulf News. 

Many Sri Lankan residents are concerned and disappointed with the current situation in Sri Lanka.

Hashan Gunasekara, a Buddhist living in Kandy said “I was born a Sinhalese Buddhist. By the time these riots were taking place, my roommate’s Muslim parents and younger sister were trapped in the town of Digana hiding in a different home and they were scared for their lives. There was substantial damages to property. Two of my work colleagues had their families trapped in the other towns where the riots escalated. My father's work place was near the riots and when I called to check on him, he said they closed his office and he was leaving. I could not get in touch with him for many hours after he left. The people who were behind these attacks should stop for a moment and think: What if it was their parents? Brothers or sisters? Wives? How would they feel? Despite our peaceful religion, strong actions should be taken by the government to punish the people who have caused this incident.”

Arshad Booso, a young Muslim from Wattala expressed his disappointment at how the warm and friendly Sri Lankans are partaking in violence. He said “The excuse used, to start all these riots, was the death of a "Sinhalese" truck driver killed by four "Muslim" youth. If only these people saw it as a truck driver dying as a result of four youth without the racial tags being attached. I would have thought that after going through a war lasting over 25 years, people would have learnt their lesson by now. Not a single religion practised in Sri Lanka promotes violence. Not Islam and definitely not Buddhism either. Sri Lankans need to know that they will not get anywhere with all this racial division and corrupt leaders.”

Lisanthi Jayawardana, a young woman from Sri Lanka, believes that Sri Lankans have learned to deal with issues like these over the years.  “Is there racism in Sri Lanka? Yes. But it’s a lot less compared to how it is shown in the media. We have too many roots instilled in different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions, to allow another 'war' to happen. A small group of power hungry people should not and will not be allowed to stop all the love, friendships and understanding we built up through all these years. This situation will be controlled, because people are much smarter than they were 30 to 40 years back. We have learnt our lesson. We know what to avoid and when to fight for our rights.”

A former Navy Admiral, who wished to remain anonymous, said “All the communities here, have existed as brothers and sisters for many years. The violence is a very unfortunate issue. However, even after the incidents, the people of Sri Lanka are continuing their day-to-day life together.

Other residents, living in in the capital aren’t feeling the twinge of violence and say that life is going on quite normally in the areas further away from Kandy. Ryan Cornelio, a resident of Colombo, said “The recent situation in Sri Lanka is limited to a small part of the country, and is unlike what international media are making it to be. While this incident is unfortunate, the security forces have done a great job in ensuring the safety of people, limiting rumours and ensuring calm in the rest of the country. As an expatriate living here, I’ve always felt safe. The people here are peace-loving and tourist friendly.”

Celebs react to the situation

Respected Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakarra tweeted on Wednesday and said there was no place for racism and violence in Sri Lanka

What we know about Kandy

Kandy is a scenic hilly town in central Sri Lanka and is a well-known tourist hotspot. It is also the second-largest city in the country and has an elevation of more than 1550 feet above sea level.

For people who would like a movie-reference to the beautiful city, much of the Harrison Ford starrer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), was shot in the scenic surroundings of Kandy.

Demographically, the population is largely Sinhalese (an ethnic group native to the country, most are Theravada Buddhists) and has minority populations of Tamil-speaking Moors (largely Muslims, tracing ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka ) and other groups including Tamil Hindus and Christians. 

The city is also significant for Theravada Buddhists as a religious and cultural hub, and as a place of pilgrimage. 

A brief look at history

Sri Lanka has long faced a bitter ethnic divide between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, fueling a bloody, decades-long civil war as Tamil militants tried to carve out their own homeland. 

The past

Like most rebellions and divides in South Asia, the conflict has its roots in sentiments harboured and grown during Great Britain's colonial rule of Sri Lanka - then called Ceylon. The 'Divide and Rule' policy of the Empire festered and created evergrowing permanent tension between the native Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority groups.

This grew to unmanageable levels, and ultimately led to the formation of the rebel militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. LTTE turned terrorist and propogated 'ethnic cleansing' in their strongholds - directed at Tamil Moors and Sinhalese, calling for a separate state 'Eelam' comprising areas in the northern and eastern provinces of modern Sri Lanka.

LTTE came to be known as 'masters of suicide bombing' and used this tactic for many of their high-profile assasinations and terror attacks. These include the 1991 assasination of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi (son and successor of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) and the 1993 killing of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

The country was in a state of emergency for almost three decades as the Sri Lankan government tried to defeat the militant rebellion, succeeding ultimately in 2009. 

The present

But in the years since the war ended in 2009, a religious divide has grown, with the rise of hard-line Buddhist groups that stoke anger against minority Muslims.

This year, the riots and violence started off with a singular incident - a truck driver, admitted to the intensive care unit in Kandy General Hospital, died of injuries suffered when four youth attacked him. The driver was Sinhalese while the perpetrators of the attack were Muslim. This and a few other incidents in the area started off the communal violence, a first in the country since another similarly motivated clash in 1983. 

The violence and the heavy security presence are largely contained to the island's central hills. In the capital, Colombo, and other cities and towns, there are few if any signs of trouble.

Sinhalese are overwhelmingly Buddhists, while Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

- With inputs from AP and Reuters