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The News Line: Feature SRI LANKA–10-DAY STATE OF EMERGENCY – as Colombo Port workers take industrial action
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Shops burnt by a Buddhist mob in the Sri Lankan town of Teldeniya in Kandy
COLOMBO Port workers engaged in the clearance of containers and cleaners resorted to trade union action on Monday following repeated requests to allow inspections and weighing of goods to be carried out within the port premises itself. The port is faced with increased congestion as trucks carrying containers take about two and a half days to be cleared, creating inhuman work conditions and congestion that adds to all of the traffic in Colombo, the unions allege.

Private Sector Container Operators Association General Secretary D.I. Abdeen told TimesOnline that currently the protest is underway and about 1,500 containers, that are sent daily for inspection to the two locations at Orugodawatte and Thotalanga, have not been processed today (Monday).

He pointed out that they want these inspections to be carried out at the port premises itself as a long-term solution and as a short-term measure to use the two weigh bridges for inspections to ease the traffic congestion, as only about 110 could be taken in for inspection at a given time. This has led to most drivers having to live on the roads in their trucks for nearly three days as they are unable to leave the vehicles behind and available parking is limited.

Inspections of goods on containers have been carried out since 2003 by two private companies Grey Line 1 and 2 because of the war situation prevalent in the country at the time. However, since the war ended this practice continues to date causing inconvenience to the lorry drivers and increasing the traffic congestion in Colombo, the unions alleged.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan authorities on Monday imposed a curfew in the town of Kandy, following a series of anti-Muslim attacks targeting mosques, shops and homes. At least two mosques and four shops were attacked and set on fire, according to police sources. The curfew, imposed until Tuesday morning, came in the wake of violent incidents that followed the death of a 41-year-old man, who succumbed to injuries sustained during a clash some days ago.

‘We have so far arrested 24 suspects. Additional security has been deployed in the area, the situation is under control,’ police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told The Hindu, even as images of violence, which users claimed were from Kandy, flooded social media.

In a strongly-worded tweet on Monday evening, Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera said: ‘Enough is enough. Inciting racial violence must be made a nonbailable offence & politicians who give leadership should have their civic rights revoked. #lka’

Last week, the Muslim-majority town of Ampara in the east witnessed a series of anti-Muslim attacks, carried out at a mosque and several Muslim-run shops. Five persons were arrested and police said investigations are on. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who recently assumed additional charge as Law and Order Minister, visited Ampara and has ordered a probe in to the incident.

On Monday, President Maithripala Sirisena called for an impartial investigation into the violence that shook Kandy town. The developments have sparked concern among many Sri Lankans over the growing religious intolerance that earlier came to the fore in 2013, when hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist groups openly engaged in hate speech, sparking violent clashes.

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.

‘The cabinet of ministers decided on tough measures, including a 10-day nationwide state of emergency,’ minister of city planning Rauff Hakeem said as police imposed a curfew in the riot-hit central district of Kandy. The government deployed heavily-armed police commandos in the hill station region, which is popular with tourists, after rioters defied an overnight curfew and went on the rampage.

The curfew in the district was extended after the body of a Muslim man was pulled from the ashes of a burnt building, threatening to further raise communal tensions that have flared up across Sri Lanka in recent weeks. The emergency declaration gives authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods, and allows the government to deploy forces where needed.

It is the first time in seven years Sri Lanka has resorted to such a measure. The island nation was under a state of emergency for nearly three decades as government forces battled Tamil rebels in a civil war that ended in 2009. Hakeem said the riots were concentrated in Kandy — home to famous tea plantations and Buddhist relics — but the government wanted to send a strong message given outbreaks of communal violence elsewhere recently.

A police spokesman said earlier on Tuesday hundreds of commandos from the police Special Task Force had been deployed to Kandy to restore order and enforce the curfew. More than two dozen arrests have been made and an inquiry opened into police conduct in Kandy, just the latest region to be plagued by religious and ethnic conflict.

Mobs set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country last week after a Muslim chef was accused of adding contraceptives to food sold to Sinhalese.

The government dismissed the allegation as baseless and ordered the arrest of those fomenting unrest in the area. The police also ordered a curfew across much of the region for a third straight day, trying to calm the situation. The curfew will be in force until further notice, Police Spokesman Superintendent of Police (SP) Ruwan Gunasekara confirmed.

Hundreds of Muslim residents of Mullegama, a village in the hills of central Sri Lanka, barricaded themselves inside a local mosque after Buddhist mobs attacked their homes Wednesday morning accusing them of stealing the donation box of a nearby temple. At least 20 Muslim homes appeared badly damaged and flames engulfed one two-storey home. Area residents said mobs swept through at least two towns in the central hills Wednesday, attacking two mosques and a string of Muslim-owned shops and buildings.

Meanwhile, Kandy residents have been urged to stay in their homes. All Kandy schools have been closed The government also ordered popular social media networks blocked in an attempt to stop the violence from spreading, and thousands of police and soldiers spread out across the worst-hit areas. An internet company official, meanwhile, said the government had ordered popular social media networks blocked in areas near the violence.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the order was for Facebook, Instagram, Viber YouTube and WhatsApp. Some of those networks appeared to be blocked in Colombo, the capital, while others worked sporadically and very slowly. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) confirmed that the decision had been taken following a request made by the Defence Ministry.

While initially, the plan was to monitor and filter out content on social media, the sheer volume of false information being shared online was making it difficult and a decision has now been taken to block all social media sites temporarily.

The TRC official stated that it was difficult to say when the blockade will be lifted. ‘It will depend on the situation in Kandy,’ he added. Shares at the Colombo stock market on Wednesday edged lower on uncertainty and worries over the state of emergency imposed in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, analysts said.

The Sinhalese are a mainly Buddhist ethnic group making up nearly three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people. Muslims account for 10 per cent of its population. 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.


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