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Muslims caught in Sinhalese-Tamil crossfire in Sri Lanka

M Hamza Haniffa
Hamid Papang

A spate of violent attacks against Muslims in the South Eastern province of Sri Lanka last month has caused alarm among the community. A police constable, M Badurdeen was shot and killed while performing ‘isha prayers in Masjidul Hudha (mosque) in Akkaraipattu, Amparai district on May 14. Other worshippers who tried to grapple with the gunman, believed to belong to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), were injured when he threw a grenade.

The same day, a hand grenade knocked an electricity transformer which fell inside a mosque in Kalmunai, injuring seven Muslims. A month earlier, the shooting death of a Muslim home guard had led to fighting between the Muslims and Tamils in Kalmunai. Two Tamils were killed in retaliation. Calm was restored through the intervention of community elders, preventing open warfare.

Following the May 14 killing, Muslims in the villages of Amparai district went on a strike (hartal) which paralysed life for a day but there were no untoward incidents. These events have occurred against the backdrop of other troubling developments: Sinhalese attacks and propaganda against Muslims who constitute the second largest minority in the country.

Muslims are now caught between attacks by the Tamils who insist that they must join the secessionist struggle, and the Sinhalese majority who have targeted them at a time when they should be courted. Muslim leaders ask: who benefits from Sinhalese attacks against Muslims?

Anti-Muslim violence has occurred in such areas as Galle (Southern Province); Beruwela, Atulugama and Kalutara (Western Province); and Ugurasspitiya, Madawela and Akurana (Central Province). The incidents in the Central province culminated in riots in Galagedera last April. Sinhalese mobs torched and destroyed about 50 Muslim shops and homes. They also attacked mills (factories) owned by Muslims as well as agricultural estates.

Often, minor incidents turn into fullscale anti-Muslim riots. For instance, the Galagedera riots erupted after a Muslim tricycle owner (a three-wheel taxi for hire) wanted to pick up passengers from the town centre. This was resented by a few Sinhalese who have monopolised the business. The argument turned violent and soon flared into an anti-Muslim riot affecting thousands of people.

Leading Muslim organisations have accused the largely Sinhalese police of inaction and connivance in the anti-Muslim riots. Rauf Hakeem, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) who is also deputy chairman of the committee in parliament, and the All-Ceylon Muslim League, have voiced concern about police behaviour.

Muslims are convinced that these are not isolated or spontaneous incidents but acts of deliberate provocation to create rift between the Sinhalese majority and the Muslims. The beneficiaries will be the Tamils. On the other hand, the Tamil terrorists are targeting those Muslims who have joined the police force or have volunteered for home guard duty.

Sinhalese-Muslim relations date back for centuries. Muslims have consistently refused to join the Tamils’ campaign for a separate homeland even though the latter have promised all kinds of inducements. What has offended the Muslims most is the ugly carricatures that are drawn of them in the media and the accusing finger pointed at them in television dramas. It does not serve the Sinhalese cause to antagonise Muslims at a time when they are unable to control the LTTE and other Tamil terrorist groups.

Muslims, however, fear that the worst has yet to come. Caught between an increasingly hostile Sinhalese majority and a vicious Tamil minority, they find themselves in an unenviable situation. The best their leaders can hope for is to initiate a dialogue with both to try and ease tensions which may spiral out of control causing immense suffering to the Muslim community.

More than 70,000 Muslims driven from their homes by the Tamils see no hope of an early return. They were given 24-hour notice to vacate their homes and abandon all property and possessions. Such is the plight of the Muslims who are not directly involved in the civil war.

Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 8

Safar 21, 14191998-06-16

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