Sri Lanka’s government blocks social media amid anti-Muslim rioting

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Anti-Muslim rioting flared again in the hills of central Sri Lanka despite a state of emergency, as the government ordered popular social media networks blocked to stop the violence from spreading.

The police also ordered a curfew across much of the region for the third straight day, trying to calm the situation.

In the small town of Katugastota, Ikram Mohamed, a Muslim, stood outside the wreckage of the textile shop where he worked, after Sinhalese Buddhist mobs set it on fire.

He and the owner had closed the shop on Wednesday morning when police announced the curfew.

They returned to find it destroyed, and clothing and dressmaker dummies smoking in the ruins.

“There are many good Sinhalese people,” he said. “This is being done by a few jealous people.”

Sri Lankan police officers attempt to douse burning shops in Ambatenna, in central Sri Lanka (Rukmal Gamage/AP)
Sri Lankan police officers attempt to douse burning shops in Ambatenna, in central Sri Lanka (Rukmal Gamage/AP)

Muslims own many of the small businesses in Sri Lanka, a fact that many believe has helped make them targets as Buddhist-Muslim relations have worsened in recent years amid the rise of hard-line Buddhist groups, which accuse Muslims of forcing people to convert and destroying sacred Buddhist sites.

Area residents said mobs swept through at least two towns in the central hills, attacking two mosques and a string of Muslim-owned shops and buildings.

An internet company official, meanwhile, said the government had ordered popular social media networks blocked in areas near the violence, and slowed dramatically across the rest of the country.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under company policy, said the order was for Facebook, Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp.

Some of those networks appeared to be blocked in Colombo, the capital, while others worked sporadically and very slowly.

Sri Lanka Violence
Security forces stand near a vandalised building in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, after mobs swept through the town, burning at least 11 Muslim-owned shops and homes (Pradeep Pathiran/AP)

President Maithripala Sirisena declared the state of emergency on Tuesday, though a day later details of the decree remained unclear.

While the hills were flooded with soldiers and policemen ordering people off the street, little, if anything, appeared to have changed elsewhere in the country.

While government officials have not directly accused Buddhist extremists of being behind the violence, many comments appeared aimed at them.

The government will “act sternly against groups that are inciting religious hatred”, Cabinet minister Rauff Hakeem said after a meeting with the president.

The emergency announcement came after Buddhist mobs swept through towns outside Kandy, burning at least 11 Muslim-owned shops and homes.

The attacks followed reports that a Buddhist man had been killed by a group of Muslims. Police fired tear gas into the crowds, and later announced a curfew in the town.

Sri Lanka Violence
Police officers stand guard in Ambatenna, in central Sri Lanka (Rukmal Gamage/AP)

Sri Lanka has long been divided between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and minority Tamils who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

The country remains deeply scarred by its 1983-2009 civil war, when Tamil rebels fought to create an independent homeland.

While the rebels were eventually crushed, the Buddhist-Muslim religious divide has taken hold in recent years.