Sri Lanka: a time of danger

The ripples that spread out following the deadly terrorist attacks that struck Sri Lanka on 21 April are growing in intensity. Anti-Muslim riots have struck the towns of Kiniyama, Hettipola, Chilaw and Puttulam in Northwestern Province, as Christian anger over the attacks has bubbled over into violence.

A social media ban – including Twitter for the first time, alongside Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat – has been reimposed, to prevent the stirring of inter-communal tensions, and a curfew has been introduced in North Western province as police try to contain the unrest. On 22 May, Sri Lanka’s president announced an extension to the country’s state of emergency for another month.

However, the violence has already claimed one life – a 45-year-old carpenter killed in his workshop by rioters in Puttalam District. Elsewhere, Muslim-owned business have been burned to the ground and mosques and other religious sites have been attacked by angry mobs. Disorder has spread far beyond Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa – the sites targeted on 21 April.

Politicians from all communities on this pluralist island are appealling for calm, and the government has promised to bring the riots to an end. In an interview with the BBC, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka said: ‘What we want to say is that the government is very determined to control this and from tonight onwards it shall be completely controlled.’

Interior of Jami ul-Alfar mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka
The interior of Colombo’s historic Jami ul-Alfar mosque © Dan Lundberg /CC by-SA 2.0

The United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and the United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Karen Smith, have issued a joint statement urging the government to protect religious minorities in the country.

However, this may be easier said than done. The authorities are already overstretched investigating the 21 April bombings, and the riots near Colombo have created a new front in the battle to keep order. And public anger about government failings in the run up to the attacks continues to grow.

The army has threatened to use maximum force to bring the rioters under control, a statement that has powerful resonance in a country still emerging from the shadow of civil war. The coming weeks will be an important test of the government’s commitment to a multicultural, pluralist society, and its ability to govern in the interests of all Sri Lankans.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka
Serenity in Kandy, but tensions are rising elsewhere © Potier, Jean-Louis /CC by-ND 2.0

Against this backdrop, the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka continues to decline. Tourist arrivals in April are down 7.5 percent compared to 2018, and the government is expecting a 30% drop in overall visitor numbers by the end of the year.

How quickly Sri Lanka can turn its fortunes around will depend on how quickly the government can reassure tourists that Sri Lanka is safe to visit. For many of the tourists looking on, the situation in the country still appears too unstable to gamble on a holiday to Sri Lanka at the present time.

If you are thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka, check the latest travel advice from your government, and review local media for the latest developments in the country – is a useful resource for news stories from various Sri Lankan publications. Also see the article Where Now for Sri Lanka?

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