This month, the world may witness the final chapter in the 25-year-old conflict between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. The civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands others, was triggered by Tamil demands for an independent homeland in the North and East of the country following decades of complaints about discrimination against them by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government. Now, with the fall of the Tigers’ 10 year de facto capital of Killinochchi in January 2009 followed by the Sri Lankan army’s takeover of their last stronghold, Mullaitivu, the Tigers have been left in control of only a small stretch of coastal land, estimated to be no more than 12 square kilometres, in the north-east of the country. Despite mounting civilian casualties and a humanitarian disaster, the international community, motivated by its desire to see an end to the LTTE, has issued only feeble calls for a mutual ceasefire.
Raise the issue of Sri Lanka with most Muslims, even those who would describe themselves as politically aware, and you would be hard pressed to find many who are interested beyond a mere superficial curiosity spawned by the recent international media coverage of the conflict. Motivated by a common and understandable sense of solidarity with the underdog, most Muslims would declare their support for the Tigers in this struggle. If asked about the effects of the war on Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim population, most Muslims would struggle to realize that with no major affiliations to either side in the conflict, they have been effectively caught in the crossfire, being used as political footballs by both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army, and subjected to horrific atrocities and ethnic cleansing by both sides for almost twenty years.
Most recently on 10 March 2009, fourteen Muslims were killed and thirty injured when a LTTE human bomber targeted a procession celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) at Godapitiya in Akurassa town, about 160 km south of Colombo. Muslims also continue to be targets of extrajudicial killings, abductions and brutality by both the Sri Lankan army and pro-government Tamil groups such as the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) or Karuna faction. Understanding the role of Sri Lankan Muslims in the conflict and addressing their political aspirations are vital if there is to be a lasting peace settlement.
Muslims began arriving in Sri Lanka around the 8th century when Arab traders began settling in the region. With the arrival of the Portuguese colonialists in the 16th century, the descendants of these traders were persecuted and forced to migrate to the Central Highlands and East of the country. It is these Sri Lankan “Moors” (as the Portuguese saw them) who form the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka (95%) today and who are the most politically active. The other two distinct groups of Muslims in Sri Lanka are the Malays, descendants of Javanese and Malaysian Muslims brought over by the Dutch and British rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Indian Muslims who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries seeking business opportunities. Both the Malays and Indian Muslims are isolated from the majority Muslim community and the wider Sri Lankan population.
Muslims, Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka generally co-existed in peace and harmony for much of their history. However, disputes over business and trade, sometimes manipulated by nationalist groups, have fuelled occasional clashes. The first blatant anti-Muslim riots took place in 1915 when Sinhalese gangs attacked Muslim traders and shops. The pogrom appeared to be the result of a combination of rising Sinhalese nationalism coupled with antagonism at the traditional Muslim dominance of business in Sri Lanka.
Since that time, Muslims and Sinhalese have had peaceful relations with much economic interaction, albeit limited social integration. Muslims enjoy considerable freedoms with no restrictions on religious worship and major Muslim religious holidays are celebrated as public holidays. Muslims have the right to use their own courts governed by shariah for family and personal matters, and also enjoy separate state-funded schools in which Islam is taught in addition to the national curriculum. There are Muslims in all political parties with many Muslim parliamentarians, and no restrictions on Muslim political parties. There is however some clear discriminatory policies in place when it comes to recruitment in key revenue bureaucracies, ministries and the security forces, where well-qualified Muslims are often passed over in favour of less qualified Sinhalese. Muslims are substantially underrepresented overall in state and semi-state structures.
Nevertheless violence has erupted intermittently usually linked to organized nationalist campaigns or business disputes. In 1976 police shot several Muslims in Puttalam after clashes between Muslims and Sinhalese, apparently provoked by disputes over jobs and land. There were sporadic incidents in the 1990s, including attacks on shops in Nochchiyagama in 1999. In April 2001 Sinhalese mobs attacked Muslims in Mawanella killing two Muslims and destroying dozens of buildings and vehicles.
Some commentators have attributed the lack of escalation of these incidents to the reluctance of Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka to draw attention to discrimination and ethnic tensions in public, aware of their minority status and fearful of the consequences of taking a bolder stance. For example, following the killing of Muslims in Puttalam in 1976, not a single Muslim raised the matter in Parliament. Most if not all of the Muslim leaders during this period were from the mercantile class in the South who were less concerned about the fate of their co-religionists, consisting mainly of farmers and fishermen, in the North and the East.
The rise of Sinhalese nationalism in the 70s and the resulting discriminatory policies against Tamils and Muslims in the North and East of the country brought about a change in the political thought and activism of Sri Lanka’s hitherto dormant Muslim population. With the creation of the LTTE in the 1970s, disaffected Muslims saw the opportunity to take matters into their own hands and away from their leaders who they viewed as defeatist and compromising. With state-sponsored development in the East causing the influx of Sinhalese settlers and the loss of Muslim lands, Muslims and Tamils worked together, with some Muslims even joining the LTTE. Following the establishment in 1986 of the country’s first Muslim political party, the Sri Lankan Muslin Congress (SLMC), relations between Muslims and the LTTE soured with the Tigers viewing its formation as a political threat to their full control of the North and the East. Sporadic violent clashes between Muslims and the LTTE broke out throughout the 1980s but what occurred in 1990 surpassed anything that had occurred before.
One of the most horrific but least well known incidents of the conflict in Sri Lanka involved the butchering and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the summer of 1990. The violence started in the East in July, when more than 60 people, most returning from Hajj, were reportedly killed by the LTTE at Kurukal Madam. A further fourteen were killed in Akkaraipattu on August 1 and fifteen more in various locations over the next two days. On Friday August 3, some 300 men were at prayer in the Meena Jumma mosque in Kattankudi when LTTE gunmen entered the mosque, locked the doors to prevent anyone escaping and began firing into the crowd with automatic weapons. A similar incident took place at the nearby Hussainiya mosque. In total, more than 100 men and boys were killed. Thereafter several weeks of massacres throughout Muslim towns and villages in the East followed in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered and dwellings burned. Thousands of Muslims fled their homes and have still not returned.
What occurred in the North was even more gruesome. Despite there being no similar history of violence between Muslims and Tamils as there was in the East, in October 1990, without any warning, LTTE fighters went from village to village announcing over loudspeakers that Muslims had 48 hours to leave the province or face reprisals. The orders came from the very top. InJaffna, Muslims were given only two hours to leave and permitted to take just 150 rupees with them. Elsewhere, they fled with just the clothes on their backs. Within a few days, the entire Muslim population of the North numbering 75,000 had been forced out of their homes leaving behind as much as 5000 million rupees of property and valuables. There was no pressure on the LTTE, either from the government or the international community, to halt this episode of ethnic cleansing. The displaced Muslims fled, many by foot, to the adjoining districts of theNorthern Province – Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala – where they set up homes of mud and canvas and remain there to this day.
Since they arrived, the Sri Lankan Government has all-but ignored them, delivering only a small amount of rations every six months. The Puttalam camp’s unsanitary conditions — 40 makeshift lavatories and one water tap for 3,500 residents — have contributed to the deaths of about 100 people in 18 years, most of them children or babies, from what were mostly treatable diseases. Although the government retook the town in 1995 and urged the Muslims to return, and some LTTE leaders apologized for the forced transfer in 2000, there is little incentive to go back – their homes have been long occupied and businesses removed. Furthermore, LTTE recruiters still operate in the area and have been known to force families to surrender their children to them as soldiers as a sign of their loyalty. On the other hand, some of the camp residents have been accused by the government of being informants for the Tigers, reflecting the Muslims’ vulnerability.
Following the Cease Fire Agreement between the LTTE and the government in 2002, the situation deteriorated again for the Muslims, who despite being directly affected by the conflict, had no independent representation at the peace talks. The LTTE promised the Muslims that their properties would be returned and that they would no longer have to pay protection tax to the LTTE. In reality, the properties were not returned, taxes increased and Muslims found themselves the targets of increasing violence as the Tigers sought to consolidate their control in the East. This contributed to the crystallization of a grassroots-led Muslim national identity which in 2003 demanded an autonomous area for Muslims in the East. This call was largely ignored by the self-serving Muslim leaders in Colombo which led to more inter-Muslim disunity, distracting from the bigger picture.
With the eruption of war again in the East in 2006, Muslims were caught in the crossfire. On May 29, 2006, notices appeared in the Muslim settlement of Mutur ordering Muslims to leave within 72 hours, prompting panic and recollections of 1990. The LTTE captured the town in August and 25,000 Muslims were again forced from their homes until the military recaptured the town, several weeks later. Hundreds of Muslims were killed and abducted during this time.
Another disturbing element in this conflict is the emergence of the pro-government Karuna faction (or TMVP), which left the LTTE in 2004, and who have been involved in abductions, extrajudicial killings and the recruitment of child soldiers. The TMVP are effectively in control of the East and have specifically targeted Muslims, shooting men returning from prayers and burning homes and businesses. Enormous resources are being spent to spread Buddhism in Muslim areas with Buddhist statues being erected, perhaps a pre-cursor for something far more horrific. Atrocities continue to be committed against Muslims with both the LTTE and the army blaming each other for the violence, hoping to politically point-score with Muslim blood. For the first time in recent history, many disaffected Muslim youth are now prepared to take up arms to defend their communities, despite efforts by senior community leaders to rein them in.
Muslims in Sri Lanka are at a very critical juncture in their history; whether the Tigers are destroyed by the army or an agreement is reached, Muslims in Sri Lanka are gradually waking up to the reality that relying on the Buddhist government or the Hindu tigers for protection is futile and that only when they govern themselves will they finally feel secure. Their demands so far have been peaceful but for how long more will they suffer in silence?