COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka's main Muslim party is boycotting parliament over communal violence that saw at least three Muslims killed in southwestern Sri Lanka, the party's leader said Wednesday.
"Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Members of Parliament will boycott parliament sittings today in protest of Aluthgama and Beruwala incidents," Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem told Anadolu Agency.
His announcement comes on a day when mass demonstrations are planned, to rally against communal violence in Sri Lanka.
The resort towns of Aluthgama and Dharga were hit by clashes between Sinhalese Buddhist hard-liners and Muslims on Sunday. They started after the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena held a rally in Aluthgama and then tried to march through a Muslim-majority area.
A local source told AA that up to 2,500 Muslim women and children have taken refuge from the violence in the Al Humaizara School in Beruwala in the aftermath of the clashes.
Eyewitnesses said that Muslim-owned businesses were set alight and a mosque was set alight. Local hospitals have told Anadolu Agency that up to eight people have died in the aftermath of the violence.
Teargas and water cannons were used to disperse the clashes and a curfew was placed on the towns of Althugama and Beruwala until 8 a.m. local time Wednesday.
Media freedom campaigners Reporters Without Borders claimed on Tuesday however that Sri Lankan authorities requested the local media did not report on the clashes, which were publicized through social media, and used the curfew to contain the situation.
“Censorship of the media’s news coverage by the authorities is outrageous but customary in Sri Lanka whenever problems with minorities arise,” said the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific head Benjamin Ismail. “However, banning coverage of events will not prevent the information from getting out.”
Reporters Without Borders claimed that journalists were attacked and had their equipment smashed when trying to cover the clashes.
- International reaction
Sri Lanka's opposition and the international community have made statements criticizing the violence and calling on the government to prevent it.
A statement made by the European Union delegation in Sri Lanka said it is "very alarmed by the recent violence perpetrated against the Muslim community. We condemn the outbreak of communal violence which resulted in the loss of lives and extensive damage to property in the Kalutara District."
"We call on all Sri Lankans to exercise restraint, respect diversity and refrain from violence, working together to achieve reconciliation," the statement said.
The U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in her daily briefing on Tuesday that the United States is "concerned by inflammatory rhetoric" that led to the violence, while the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said on Monday she was concerned about violence against Muslims spreading.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also released a statement emphasizing that Muslims have a long-standing presence in Sri Lanka and "the recent attacks appear to follow a rising trend of violence instigated by extremists which is spreading fear and mistrust among the population."
The clashes, which occurred while President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on a foreign trip, have raised fears about ethnic and religious divides in Sri Lanka, where a three-decade long civil war was fought between the Sinhalese-majority government and Tamil rebels in the north and east.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka also released a strongly-worded statement on Tuesday, criticizing "the blatant attack on members of the Muslim minority."
"In recent months Muslims and Christians alike have been subjected to hate speech and numerous attacks and violence against their places and practices of worship," said the statement. "Social polarization along religious lines is something Sri Lanka can ill-afford, particularly at this juncture of our history where as a country we are yet to resolve the ethnic conflict that manifested itself in a thirty year long war."
Muslim leaders in Aluthgama reportedly told police about their security concerns prior to the rally on Sunday but were assured of their safety. Local press had reported clashes in the area on June 12 after a Muslim man allegedly assaulted the driver of a Buddhist monk.
Bodu Bala Sena, which literally translates to Buddhist Power Force, is a right-wing Buddhist group that was established after the end of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war in 2009. They belong to the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority and have been accused of inciting hate against other religions in Sri Lanka.
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