AFP – Demonstrations by several thousand people gripped Sri Lanka’s pilgrim city of Kandy on Monday as Buddhist monks demanded the sacking of three top Muslim politicians over the Easter suicide bombings.
Even as shops and offices were closed in the city 115 kilometres (70 miles) east of Colombo, two of the Muslim leaders stepped down from their posts as provincial governors, President Maithripala Sirisena’s office said.
The governors of the Eastern and Western provinces, both Sirisena appointees, tendered their resignations which were accepted, the president’s office said in a brief statement. It gave no further details.
Inside Kandy’s famed Temple of the Tooth, where Buddhists believe a tooth of the Buddha is enshrined, prominent monk Athuraliye Ratana ended what he had called a "death fast" since the weekend after the two resignations.
The monk was taken away in an ambulance for medical treatment. Also present earlier in the day was Galagodaatte Gnanasara, a firebrand monk released from jail on a presidential pardon late last month who has long been accused of instigating hate crimes against Muslims.
Ratana, who is also a member of parliament, was demanding the sacking of the two provincial governors and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.
Political sources said all Muslim ministers were expected to step down from the government of the Buddhist-majority island en masse if Bathiudeen was forced out.
"All Muslim ministers may step down in solidarity if Rishad is forced out," a Muslim minister told AFP, asking not to be named.
– Cardinal criticised –
Buddhist monks accuse the three Muslim leaders of supporting the Islamic extremists responsible for the April 21 attacks on three churches and three hotels that killed 258 people including 45 foreigners.
The head of the Catholic Church in Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, also travelled to Kandy on Monday to express solidarity with Ratana.
"We support the monk’s campaign because so far justice has not been served," Ranjith told reporters in Kandy.
Government spokesman and Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera criticised Ranjith for supporting "communalism."
"Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith fanning the flames of hatred and communalism by visiting fasting robed MP Rathana. Vatican TAKE NOTE!" Samaraweera said on Twitter.
The government has said nearly 100 people linked to local jihad group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), have been arrested since the attacks.
In the wake of the bombings, anti-Muslim riots spread in towns north of the capital killing one Muslim man and leaving hundreds of homes, shops and mosques vandalised.
"There is tension in the area because of the demonstrations, but police are maintaining a high alert," a police official in Colombo told AFP.
Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency since the Easter attacks. Police and troops have been empowered to arrest and detain suspects for long periods.
Muslims make up around 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million.
In March last year, a week of anti-Muslim riots in a suburb of Kandy left three people dead and more than 20 injured.
More than 200 Muslim-owned homes and shops were also destroyed and the government clamped a brief state of emergency in the area to contain the violence.