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Muslims in Sri Lanka suffering between Sinhalese majority and Tamil guerrillas

A Special Correspondent in Colombo

Sri Lanka's one-and-a-half million Muslims (8 percent of the island's population) feel that they are caught between the hammer and the anvil. A number of incidents in the last few monthshas caused deep concern among the second largest minority: the fear is that they too face increasing insecurity not only because of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the East but also because of chauvinists within the Sinhala majority in the South.

The world perceives the conflict in Sri Lanka as one between the Tamil guerrillas and the Sinhalese-dominated government. However, since the conflict began two decades ago, Muslims have suffered immensely despite their being not directly involved in the conflict in any way.

More than a third of the Muslims in the country used to live in the North East. In 1990 the Tigers ordered the Muslims of Jaffna district (nearly 100,000) to quit giving them barely 24 hours' notice. They were ordered to leave with only the clothes on their backs: they had to leave behind millions of dollars' worth of property—homes, schools and mosques. Since then they have lived in refugee-camps throughout the country, with their properties and possessions plundered and possessed by the marauding Tigers.

Now the Muslims in the Eastern province are also being threatened. During the past few months more than 30 Muslims have been killed; fingers are being pointed at the Tigers. The LTTE are suspected of intending to repeat their ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Jaffna in the East. Already several thousand Muslims have been forced to flee their villages, especially in theBatticaloa and Trincomalee districts, as a result of intimidation and violence in the East. Repeated pleas to the government for greater security and protection have fallen on deaf ears even while there are Muslim ministers and members of parliament in government. They have remained silent in the face of atrocities, content with the perks that come with these positions, such as duty-free luxury cars and the like.

In addition to the dangers posed by the Tigers, whenever the security forces respond to Tiger attacks with bombing raids, as happened after the assassination attempt on the life of the commander of the army, Muslims are also killed. A typical example was during the recent air raids on villages in Trincomalee, when a number of Muslims, including the imam of a local mosque, were killed. The Tigers' enmity toward Muslims is caused by the fact that the latter refuse to support separatism and become party to the break-up of the country. They further aver that Muslims will support the government if war breaks out again. This is the plight of Muslims in the Northeast.

Muslims in the South, meanwhile, suffer at the hands of Sinhala chauvinists, who accuse them of sympathizing with the Tamil separatists. Muslim businesses and properties have suffered immense damage despite its being common knowledge that the Tigers would have taken over not only the whole of the East but even additional territory if the Muslims had supported them. The Sinhala-Buddhist extremist party, the Jatike Hela Urumaya (chauvinists in the mould of the Indian RSS), who used to back President Mahinda Rajapakse, are suspected of fanning anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, most of whom have lived amicably with the Muslims for centuries.

During the last several years there have been numerous riots against Muslims, causing millions of rupees' worth to damage to their properties. The towns of Mawanella, Galagedera,Maligawatta, and Alutgama were targeted, and Muslim homes and shops destroyed. What is even more troubling is that whenever such anti-Muslim riots occur, the Sinhala-dominated security forces and police sent to restore order merely stand by, watching while the mobs rampage against the Muslims. Muslims in Alutgama have filed court cases against the police and army for failing to protect them against such attacks. The cases are due to open in July.

Unfortunately Muslims also suffer from a lack of strong and sincere leadership. Although the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress raises its voice in Parliament and the media, the party itself has suffered from defections and has split into four factions. The Muslim demand to be represented independently in peace talks between the LTTE and the Government has also been ignored so far.

The future looks bleak for the Muslims of this small island in the Indian Ocean unless they have a new and sincere leadership: that of leaders who will not barter the interests of their people for government patronage such as ministerial posts and other perks.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 4

Jumada' al-Ula' 05, 14272006-06-01

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