25 July, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Muslims:Caught In The Crossfire

By Aziz A. Mubaraki –

During much of the 25-year war in Sri Lanka, attention was focussed on the altercation between the majority Sinhalese and the largest minority Tamils. The views of the country’s Muslims, who constitute about 9 per cent of the population and see themselves as a separate racial group, have largely remained overlooked. Understanding their role in the conflict and addressing their political ambition are essential if there is to be a lasting peace resolution.

Atrocities of LTTE on Muslims
For centuries, the Muslim community has been scattered around Sri Lanka living in co-existence with the other two main ethnic communities (Sinhalese and Tamil) with very close socio-economic interactions among them. For years Muslim and Tamil children attended the same school but took different roles in cultural displays and sporting events. However as the ethnic crisis developed into armed conflict with Tamil youth taking to arms and the LTTE (Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Eelam) being formed, it became apparent that in the early eighties, in the east of Sri Lanka, there was a conflict of interest between Muslims and Tamils. Whilst this was initially at a manageable and political level, it slowly disintegrated in 1990 as the LTTE massacred worshippers in a mosque in Batticaloa and other attacks on Muslim civilians.

But before this, Muslims and Tamils had been traditionally included into local life as mutually supporting communities. There were Muslim traders, tailors, iron mongers, laborers and scholars. The Muslims in Jaffna had lived next to each other and therefore densely occupied a small part of this town. As part of the arena of culture and scholarship, Muslims formed an important part of the historic University of Jaffna. But when the development of districts took place in sixties and seventies, it hit the Muslims harder economically. A number of Muslim youth thus became convinced of Tamil militant ideology and joined the LTTE’s military wing. In several Muslim villages and towns the LTTE opened its branch offices and was gradually gaining popularity amongst certain sections of the Muslim community. But soon this development received a setback when Tamil-Muslim riots broke out in April 1985, apparently over an incident in the town of Mannar in the north where three Muslim worshippers were said to have been gunned down by Tamil militants inside a mosque.

Following the above 1985 riots the LTTE changed its approach towards Muslims and unleashed some of its most ferocious acts of savagery on the innocent Muslims of Polonnaruwa in the Northeastern and Kattankudy and Eravur in the Eastern provinces. Tens and hundreds of Muslim men, women and children were massacred in their homes, fields, markets; the entire Muslim population of Jaffna in the north were evicted from their homes at gunpoint and turned into refugees overnight. They are still living in camps without any hope of returning to their places of birth. In short, the LTTE seems to have erroneously decided on a mission of ethnic cleansing in the Tamil districts. As a result of this mistaken strategy the LTTE lost all sympathy it had within the Muslim community and the animosity between the Tamils and the Muslims became widest.

Thus changing it all, on the 23rd of October 1990, Muslims were given an “expulsion ultimatum” merely 24hrs to exit from the so called ‘Tamil land’ by leaving all their possessions behind”. Armed LTTE cadres had gone round every village and handed over letters from their district leaders forcing the chief trustees /Imams/religious heads of all mosques to read out the letters over loud speakers. The letters ordered all the Muslims to vacate their respective villages within 48 hours and hand over all their belongings such as vehicles, radios, sewing machines, water pumps etc to LTTE cadres at a particular village school. They said the orders were from the LTTE high ranks and anyone trying to disobey shall be eliminated. After the deadline the armed cadres came round to push the Muslim residents out of their homes: men, women and children were herded through a narrow passage and, at the point of exit from the village they were bodily searched for ill-gotten gains. Metallic cutters were used to remove jewelleries that could not be easily removed, and each family was only allowed to take about 200 rupees (5 US dollars at that time). In some cases, the Muslims were not even allowed to change their clothing. All possessions of the Muslims were deemed by the LTTE to belong to Tamil Eelam.

The Muslims from other parts of the Northern Province (Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi) suffered the same fate as well. Approximately 95,000 men, women and children were expelled. (For details please refer to UTHRJ; Report 6, Chapter 3, andhttp://jaffnamuslims.lk) But this incident has been largely gone from the chronicles of the Sri Lankan conflict. Even the successive governments have failed to provide sufficient support to the displaced Muslims who find themselves in a political wilderness, without much of a voice, despite having representation in the government. Problems with education, proper shelter and sanitation plague the camps and so the displaced people were dependent on tedious jobs or handouts from generous donors or the government and charitable organizations.

Muslims didn’t agree with ceasefire of 2002
The 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) was dissatisfaction to many Muslims. They had no self-decisive representation at the peace talks, and many feared that any accord that gave the LTTE un-restricted control of the north and east, even in a centralized arrangement, would be critically damaging to their own welfare. Despite talks between Muslim leaders and the LTTE, they continued to suffer brutal attacks. Since the recommencement of large-scale military action in mid-2006, Muslims have again been caught up in the fighting in the east. Dozens have been killed and thousands displaced. Memories of LTTE cruelty are still fresh and bitter disputes with Tamils over land and resources remain compelling in the east. It is important to know that Muslims have never resorted to armed insurgency to assert their political position, although some have worked with the security forces, and few were members of early Tamil militant groups. But Muslims, mostly remained determined to peacefully channeling their annoyance through the political process by negotiating with the government and Tamil militants at different times. But there is no guarantee that this obligation to non-violence will be maintained, predominantly given the frustration visible among younger Muslims in the Eastern region. In some areas there are Muslim armed groups but they are small and not a major security threat. Fears of armed Islamist movements emerging seem to be overstated, regularly for political ends. But there is a clear and present danger they will take on a role in inter-communal clashes if the conflict continues to infringe upon their safety.

Tamil Sinhalese also targeted Muslims
When Muslims were heaved upon miseries by the vindictive LTTE, the non-Tamil Sinhalese leaders too targeted the Muslims. During the period the Sinhalese leadership had been instrumental in instigating the Sinhalese masses to attack Muslim lives and property. The racial riot of 1915 was the first major episode in the Lankan history when Sinhalese animosity towards the Muslims was violently expressed. The most celebrated Sri Lankan Buddhist evangelist of that time, Anagarika Dharmapala, was a leading campaigner against Muslim presence in the country. He (just like any other RSS leader in India) termed Muslims as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ who according to him, deserved to be deported to Arabia. Although Dharmapala is long dead, but the echo of his views can still be heard during times of Sinhala-Muslim tension. Many among the Sinhalese Muslims believe that the Muslim domination in business in the country should be reversed. Both the spiritual and secular branches of the Sinhalese middle class share this view, and it cannot be denied that most of the communal violence against the Muslims has had economic overtones.

Sri Lankan Muslims not fundamentalists
Till date there is no interest among Sri Lankan Muslims in fundamentalist versions of Islam, although there have been some negligible violent clashes between orthodox and Sufi movements. But this hostility remained limited and most Muslims show considerable lenience to other sects and faiths. Nevertheless, the conflict is at least partly responsible for some Muslims channeling their frustrations and identity issues into religious disputes.

Almost all Muslim peace proposals remain dependent on the politics of the major Tamil and Sinhalese parties. Whereas most of the times the government evades consultation with ethnic minorities (including the Muslims) and do not seem to include significant devolution of powers to local communities.

The war crimes
Apart from occasional ceasefires, from the 1980s through May 2009, the civil war raged across the country and the government along with the increasingly authoritative LTTE got engaged in widespread violence, often against defenseless civilians. Lankan forces are believed to be behind thousands of forced disappearances of Tamils (both Hindus and Muslims), mostly in the north and east. War crimes by both sides (the govt forces and the LTTE) in the last year of fighting may have contributed to as many as 40,000 Tamil civilian deaths. But it’s a big relief that the LTTE, the most dreaded terrorist outfit of south Asia, which took the life of our former Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi, is now extinct in Sri Lanka. The organization which killed and maimed lives of thousands of Sinhalese and Tamil Muslims, spread terror across the island carried out suicide bombings and attacked civilian targets, especially in Colombo and the villages bordering the Tamil-speaking Muslims in the north and east of the island country. These “border villages” suffered enormously during the conflict. Some of the major LTTE incidents include the 1985 attack at the Sri Maha Bhodiya in Anuradhapura, where it murdered more than 100 Buddhist pilgrims, the 1996 suicide truck bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo in which over 70 people died, the 1998 suicide truck bombing at the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and the 2008 suicide bombing at the Colombo Fort railway station. The Tamil rebels also eliminated many political leaders, which include Sri Lankan deputy defence minister Ranjan Wijeratne in1991, President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005.

There is hardly any doubt that the LTTE was an evil organization whose leadership had no reservations about killing Sinhalese civilians or Tamil political opponents ( including the unfortunate Muslims) to serve its own political and personal ambitions. At the same time many Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad perceived that the LTTE was the only group that stood for them and presented their demands to the government and the majority Sinhalese population that had repeatedly targeted the Tamils. The complex 30-year relationship between the LTTE and the Tamil civilians cannot be judged by the government’s simple “with us or against us” paradigm, particularly after such a brutalizing and humiliating victory.

In the country’s interest Sri Lanka continued their offensives against the LTTE, until the rebel group was literally wiped off. But the government is yet to pay any attention to the rights of the civilians. It was expected that The Sri Lankan government would set up camps, to provide shelter to thousands of innocent civilians fleeing the war zone. But it never happened. Post-conflict efforts to bring societies together are always burdened with difficulties, particularly in cases of deep racial division. In Sri Lanka the challenge is even greater, because the government denies that ethnicity was the driving factor behind the civil war. After all conflicts, issues of reconciliation and accountability arise. The Lankan government has tried to collapse the two and has said that both can be dealt with through domestic mechanisms. Reconciliation is a more forward-looking process of healing divisions between and within communities.

The way ahead for Sri Lanka
Although reestablishing of cordial relations after long periods of conflict never happens quickly. And in Sri Lanka there is a serious risk that it may not happen at all. The government’s intransigence and triumphalism a full two years after declaring victory over the LTTE has meant the country is yet to see any semblance of compromise or inclusiveness for both the Tamil Hindus and Tamil Muslims. To avoid an eventual return to violence, the government must change course drastically. The 30-year emergency needs to come to an end, and government repression of the media and political opponents must stop. Restoring the rule of law and accountability in the island is essential, as is a political settlement to provide real devolution of power. Attention must also be paid to the many victims of these three decades of war and political violence from all three main ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Indeed, rebuilding relations among those communities and getting to a point where each has some real understanding of what the others have gone through should be a central goal. All of this will take years, but the sooner the process starts it’s better for the country- the chances of resumption of another conflict will be less and less.

(The author is Member, Advisory Committee, Airport Authority of India (NSC), Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India)



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comment

  • 0

    The article is well balanced.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.