Security Exchange News

Close to the Edge

22 March 2018

Heightened security measures have been in place throughout Sri Lanka following violent ethnic clashes which sparked a state of emergency earlier this month. Problems first arose in late February, when clashes broke out in Ampara. Members of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority community attacked shops owned by Muslims after footage emerged online appearing to show a Muslim restaurant owner putting sterility pills in food sold to Buddhist customers. Local shops and a nearby mosque were set on fire and at least one Buddhist was killed, while several others were injured. While 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population are Buddhists, the Muslim community only accounts for 10 percent – making it an ethnic minority.

The death of a Buddhist in the clashes further fuelled discontent, and by 6 March the Sri Lankan government had declared a nationwide seven-day state of emergency as the ethnic violence continued to worsen. Riots and arson attacks prompted a curfew to be imposed in Kandy, where there is a particularly concentrated Muslim population. The following day, rioters clashed with the police in Kandy. The police used tear gas to disperse the rioters and the government approved measures to restrict internet access to certain social media sites, including Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp. The temporary ban was enforced by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) under President Maithripala Sirisena’s orders after concerns were raised that much of the ethnic violence had been organised through social media.

While the curfew was lifted after a few days, the temporary internet ban remained in place, indicating the situation had not entirely died down. At least three people had been killed in riots – which brought back memories of the civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils. Some people have voiced concerns that the ethnic violence may escalate over time, leading to a repeat situation. Because most Muslims are business and shop owners, it’s believed that they could be accused of discriminating or exploiting Buddhist customers following the incident in Ampara. However, unlike during the civil war, the Sri Lankan government has demonstrated that it is committed to the maintenance of peace and has taken the necessary measures to protect the Islamic ethnic minority. Among other precautions taken, heightened security measures were put in place around mosques for Friday prayers, and the temporary social media ban was held in place to prevent hate speech inciting violence. Cabinet spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne stated that he believed many attacks on Muslims had been organised online by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – who was in power when similar ethnic clashes arose in 2014.

The bans restricting access to WhatsApp and Viber were the first to be lifted in response to complaints from the business and tourism sectors, while Facebook remained in place for eight days. The Sri Lankan government identified Facebook as the main platform through which incendiary material was being shared. Hate speech was believed to be fuelling the ethnic violence and there have been suggestions that certain Buddhist groups may have directly organised riots through the site. Facebook expressed concern over the ban and responded to allegations that their site had failed to prevent the riots by confirming plans to improve their regional content review procedures in light of the situation. Unconfirmed reports claimed the social media site didn’t have sufficient ‘resources’ to effectively review content written in the Sinhala language. The situation comes after UN officials suggested Facebook held a degree of responsibility for the mass genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Representatives of the UN claimed Facebook had allowed ‘ultra-nationalist Buddhists’ to incite violence through hate speech targeting the Rohingyas.

 The implication of Facebook’s content review procedures shouldn’t detract from the underlying issue in Sri Lanka. A deep-rooted ethnic problem exists in the country – which could arguably be attributed in part to the Buddhist majority. As the common factor in most ethnic clashes, some groups have claimed the Sinhalese Buddhist community is intolerant of ethnic minorities. While a repeat of the war with the Hindu Tamils is unlikely, future ethnic clashes are likely to occur as tensions continue to bubble un