CHRISTCHURCH: Sri Lanka blocked Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms on Monday after anti-Muslim riots hit several towns in the latest fallout from the Easter Sunday suicide attacks.
Christian groups attacked Muslim-owned shops in a sign of the continued religious tension in Sri Lanka since the April 21 attacks by jihadist suicide bombers on three hotels and three churches which left 258 dead.
A state of emergency has been in place since the bombings — which the Islamic State group claims to have helped — and security forces have been given sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects for long periods.
Police said a mob targetted shops in the north-west town of Chilaw on Sunday in anger at a Facebook post by a shopkeeper. Security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but the violence spread to nearby towns where Muslim businesses were also attacked.
A motorcycle gang attacked shops in nearby Kuliyapitiya and four members were arrested, officials said. However, dozens of people laid siege to the police station and forced their release.
Despite a night curfew, a mosque was vandalised, local residents said.
Police said the curfew in Chilaw and nearby areas was relaxed Monday, but the social media ban was brought in to head off new violence.
“Don’t laugh more, 1 day u will cry,” was posted on Facebook by a Muslim shopkeeper, and local Christians took it to be a warning of an impending attack.
Mobs smashed the man’s shop and vandalised a nearby mosque prompting security forces to fire in the air to disperse the crowd. A curfew was imposed from Sunday afternoon until dawn Monday.
There have already been clashes between Christians and Muslims in Negombo, the town north of Colombo that was one of the targets for the suicide attackers.
The main body of Islamic clerics, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), said there was increased suspicion of Muslims after the Easter attacks carried out by local jihadists.
“We call upon the members of the Muslim communities to be more patient and guard your actions and avoid unnecessary postings or hosting on social media,” the ACJU said.
Internet service providers said they have been instructed by the telecommunications regulator to block access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and other platforms.
The latest unrest came as Catholic churches resumed Sunday masses for the first time since the bombings.
Worshippers were searched before being allowed into churches that were guarded by armed police and troops. There were no reports of disruption to services, however.
Dozens of people have been detained since the Easter Sunday attacks, and amid the heightened security, police have banned parking near schools and students are allowed in after checking for explosives.
Public schools completed their reopening from extended Easter holidays after the attacks, but attendance was low, according to education authorities.
Upper classes resumed last week while primary school pupils were asked to start Monday.
Private Catholic schools were to open on Tuesday, but many were planning to postpone the reopening until next week, parent groups said.
Muslims make up around 10 per cent of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka’s 21 million population and Christians about 7.6 per cent.
A judicial inquiry into whether New Zealand’s police and intelligence services could have prevented the Christchurch mosque attacks in which 51 worshippers died began taking evidence on Monday.
The royal commission — the most powerful judicial probe available under New Zealand law — will examine events leading up to the March 15 attack in which a lone gunman opened fire on two mosques in a mass shooting that shocked the world.
“This is a critical part of our ongoing response to the attack — the commission’s findings will help to ensure such an attack never happens here again,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
New Zealand’s spy agencies have faced criticism in the wake of the attack for concentrating on the threat from militants while underestimating the danger posed by right-wing extremism.
The Christchurch victims were all Muslims and the massacre was allegedly carried out by a white supremacist fixated on the belief that there was a plot to “invade” Western countries.
The commission is jointly headed by Supreme Court Judge William Young and former diplomat Jacqui Caine.
It is due to report its findings by December 10, although it may release interim recommendations before then if it regards them as crucial to public safety.
Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a self-avowed white supremacist, has been charged over the attacks and is currently undergoing psychiatric testing to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial.
The royal commission will examine Tarrant’s activities before the attack, including how he obtained a gun licence, weapons and ammunition, and his use of social media.
Since the attacks, the government has tightened the country’s gun laws and is reviewing legislation dealing with hate speech, as well as pressuring social media giants to do more to combat online extremism.