Ugandan Asians wary after deadly protest

Some members of the Asian community in Uganda’s capital kept their children home from school, failed to report to work and left their shops shuttered on Friday, a day after a protest ignited racial violence.

A demonstration in Kampala on Thursday against a company’s plans to cut part of a prized rainforest set off racial tension that has long existed between black Ugandans and those of Asian origin.

The company is a subsidiary of the Mehta Group, which is run by Ugandans of Indian descent, and it wants to slash trees in part of the Mabira Forest Reserve to expand a sugar plantation it owns.

A mob stoned to death two people of Asian origin and two other people were also killed in Thursday’s violence, which forced military police in armoured vehicles to fire tear gas into the crowd. None of the victims was believed to be connected to the Mehta Group.

On Friday, many Asian-owned shops were closed in the capital, and a police spokesperson, Simeon Nsubuga, said police had received reports that many Ugandan Asians had not reported to work and were keeping their children home from in school.

The racial discord goes back several decades. In the 1970s, dictator Idi Amin expelled South Asians, saying they were trying to dominate the economy.

An official of an Asian community association said on Friday it will petition Mahendra Mehta, a director of the Mehta Group, to stop the company’s planned expansion of its sugar plantation.

“Mabira has made all of us suffer from some Ugandans’ anger.
The earlier he [Mehta] gives up about Mabira the better for all of us,” said Sign Pravel, coordinator of the Association of Asian Community in Uganda.

Nsubuga, the police official, spoke on three radio stations to try to reassure Ugandan Asians that officers have the situation under control.

“We call upon our brothers and sisters of the Asian community to go back to their places of work and start working,” Nsubuga told the Associated Press later. “We have deployed police in all parts of the city and no one will attack them. We regret what happened yesterday, but the situation is now under control.”

Nsubuga said police are hunting for the people responsible for the killings.

On Thursday, police arrested 20 people suspected of being the ringleaders of the violence. The crowd burned cars, attacked a Hindu temple and chanted, “We are tired of Asians!” and “They should go back to their land!”. Police fired live bullets in the air and used tear gas.

A subsidiary of the Mehta Group, the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, wants to use 7 000ha—nearly a third of the Mabira Forest Reserve—to expand the plantation. The Ugandan government owns a 51% stake in the company, and recent indications that it will allow the forest to be axed have enraged residents here.

Phillip Karugaba, spokesperson of the Environmental Action Network, a local lobby group campaigning against the Mehta Group’s plans, deplored Thursday’s violence.

But “this forest is our heritage and cannot be given away by the Ugandan government”, Karugaba said.—Sapa-AP

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