Human Rights Watch said today that ethnic violence in Sri Lanka would continue to escalate without decisive government action against those responsible for a prison massacre last week. The international monitoring group also called on all groups involved, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to refrain from retaliatory attacks.
On October 25, twenty-five Tamils in a detention facility in Bandarawela were killed by a Sinhalese mob. Many of those killed had been detained on suspicion of links to the LTTE. Following the massacre, President Kumaratunga ordered two high-level police probes into the incident.
"We welcome President Kumaratunga's swift action to set up high-level inquiries. We hope the investigations will proceed equally swiftly," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "It's critical that the government impartially investigate allegations that police personnel stationed at the camp were complicit in the attacks, and look into reports of incitement of violence by political parties preceding and following the massacre. With ethnic tension already so high, failure to address these highly-charged issues could be explosive."
A sharp rise in communal tensions has followed the attack, with some Sri Lankans describing the situation as worse than at any time in the last twenty years.
Ethnic clashes and large-scale riots erupted in Sri Lanka's central hill districts following the Tamil-led protests against the massacre. As many as four people were killed and many were injured in rioting from October 28 to 30 in the towns of Talawakale, Ginigathena and Nuwara Eliya.
In Talawakale, demonstrators set fire to Sinhalese shops after a drunken Sinhalese man reportedly abused the demonstrators. Sinhalese mobs retaliated, burning and looting Tamil shops. In Ginigathena, hundreds were driven from their homes after mobs set fire to local shops. Rioters also stoned vehicles on the main highway to Nuwara Eliya.
After the massacre, police briefly detained more than 250 suspects from the majority Sinhalese community. Several police officers who guarded the camp were also reportedly arrested. Curfews have been imposed and security has been stepped up in hill district towns to quell further protests and rioting. The unrest marks the first time in recent history that communal riots have broken out in tea estate areas where most of the 140,000 Tamils of Indian origin live.
Human Rights Watch also emphasized that the government must address the underlying causes of the uprising at the detention center, including prolonged detention without trial. Ahead of the massacre, inmates at the facility—many of whom may have been held without trial under the
Prevention of Terrorism Act and other security laws—had been protesting conditions of their detention and allegedly took at least one security guard hostage. As news of an attempted inmate takeover spread, Sinhalese residents reportedly began amassing outside the camp and on the morning of October 25 stormed the facility.