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World

AFP
March 8, 2018

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Sri Lanka blocks social media as anti-Muslim rioting flares

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka on Wednesday blocked access to Facebook and suspended internet services in a troubled central district after police warned that rioters were using social media to spread anti-Muslim sentiment.

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The government declared an island-wide state of emergency on Tuesday and imposed curfews across Kandy after days of rioting claimed at least two lives and left Muslim homes and businesses in ruins.

Schools were shut across Kandy, a hill station popular with tourists, as rioters defied curfews and clashed with police who used teargas to disperse the mobs. A senior government source said Sri Lanka’s telecoms regulator had asked internet providers to block access to Facebook and other social media platforms to stop the unrest spreading.

"This is a temporary measure and we will have the restrictions removed soon," a top official told AFP on condition of anonymity. He said police had already identified anti-Muslim messages being shared on social networks, including a video posted by a hardline Buddhist monk urging violence against Muslims.

Authorities suspended internet access entirely to curfew-bound Kandy after discovering rioters were using online messaging services like WhatsApp to coordinate attacks on Muslim properties. Sri Lankan telecoms providers said they would be blocking certain social networks following an order from the island’s regulator.

"Access to certain social media sites and messaging platforms will be restricted with immediate effect until further notice," Sri Lanka’s largest mobile phone provider Dialog said in a statement.

The internet blackout in Kandy, 115-km east of Colombo, has also affected media organisations to get pictures and video footage from the region. Censorship and media oppression was used widely by strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse, who for a decade in power ordered local internet providers to block anti-government sentiment online.

His successor President Maithripala Sirisena was elected in 2015 promising an end to draconian government restrictions, but some websites critical of the government remain blocked. 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 Wednesday, 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.

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 Tuesday 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.

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