B. Muralidhar Reddy

Successive governments have failed to factor in the aspirations of Muslims in the quest

for resolution of the strife, which is seen

as solely a problem between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

As the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government trumpets its “liberation of the east” after the ouster of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the Thoppigala jungles, the Muslims of Sri Lanka are faced with new dilemmas with regard to their place in the scheme of devolution as and when it comes into operation. The ouster of the LTTE from the East has provided little comfort to the Muslims who account for eight per cent of the island’s population. If anything, it has added to their woes.

Successive governments have failed to factor in the aspirations of the Muslims in the quest for resolution of the strife between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. In terms of population, Muslims can claim to almost equal the Tamils, considering that of the 12 per cent of Tamils four per cent are of Indian origin or up-country Tamils. The infamous ethnic cleansing resorted to by the LTTE in 1990 led to the expulsion of more than 75,000 Muslims from the Jaffna peninsula at 48 hours’ notice and with just 150 Sri Lanka rupees each in their pockets. Most of them continue to live in makeshift refugee camps in Puttalam district.

Like 65 per cent of the Sri Lankan Tamils, nearly two-thirds of the Muslims now live outside LTTE-controlled or dominated territory. Again like Tamils, representation of Muslims in the government hierarchy and the armed forces is abysmal. The similarities end there as the conflict in the island has invariably been seen through a Sinhala-Tamil prism. The justification for the approach, that the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of Muslims is Tamil, is no longer valid thanks to a series of ethnic cleansing operations, large scale targeted killings, and abductions carried out by the LTTE since the beginning of the 1990s.

The hopes of the Muslims for a fresh start at least in the East, after the emergence of the rebel LTTE faction led by Karuna in 2004, have proved to be short lived. Some of the community leaders have gone to the extent of saying that the Karuna group is a carbon copy of the LTTE vis-À-vis the Muslim community. The Rajapaksa Government’s lenient attitude towards the Karuna group has only added to the discomfiture of the community. Ground reports talk of rancorous disputes between Tamils and Muslims over land and resources, particularly in the last few months.

Here is what Muslim Guardian, a web-based daily that claims to be the representative voice of Sri Lanka Muslims, reported on July 23: “Eastern Sunrise was celebrated on 19th July 2007 in the Independence Square [Colombo] to mark the liberation of the Eastern Sri Lanka. However it seems that Muslims in the East are not yet allowed to walk independently, even after the liberation of the East. It is reported to Muslim Guardian that [the] Karuna group forcibly sells its propaganda newspapers to Muslims in the east especially in the Batticaloa district.”

A report on June 29 by the Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Peace and Coexistence (CMTPC), an NGO committed to pluralism and social justice, raised some disturbing questions on the operations by the Rajapaksa Government in the name of development and re-settlement after the ‘liberation’ of the East from the LTTE. Titled “Territorial Claims, Conquests and Dispossession in the ‘New East’: The growing concerns of the Muslims of Ampara,” it has drawn attention to the new flag for the Eastern Province hoisted by the Governor, Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, in May, and described as “terrifying” the use of the lion to signify the Muslim-dominated Ampara district.

According to the CMTPC, the use of the lion suggests a continuation of the post-independence Sinhalisation of the Eastern Province. It further alleged that state agencies were continuing the dispossession of Muslims in Pottuvil through land acquisition and demarcation. The Governor denied the charge and said the flag was retained as it existed prior to the merger of the North and the East. The merger was nullified by the Supreme Court in October.

Asserting religious identity

Thanks to the LTTE’s terror tactics and the indifference of successive governments, Muslims who once lived in peace with their Sinhalese and Tamil brethren have consciously started asserting their religious identity. A recent report, titled “Sri Lanka Muslims: Caught in the Cross Fire,” by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a multi-national NGO engaged in reporting on conflict situations, vividly captures the trials and tribulations of the community in the course of the two-and-a-half decades of ethnic strife. “The views of the country’s Muslims, who are 8 per cent of the population and see themselves as a separate ethnic group, have largely been ignored. Understanding their role in the conflict and addressing their political aspirations are vital if there is to be a lasting peace settlement.”

The ICG notes that Muslims need to be part of any renewed peace process but with both the government and the LTTE intent on continuing the conflict, more immediate steps should be taken to ensure their security and political involvement. These include control of the Karuna faction, more responsive local and national government, improved human rights mechanisms, and a serious political strategy that recognises minority concerns in the East.

The Norway-brokered 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) between the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government and the LTTE is a case in point. Muslim concerns figure merely as a footnote in the CFA. “The parties further recognise that groups that are not directly party to the conflict are also suffering the consequences of it. This is particularly the case as regards the Muslim population,” it read. Naturally, this came as a huge disappointment to Muslims.

Within weeks of the CFA, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Rauf Hakeem made it a point to reach out to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and even signed a significant agreement, promising the right of return for Muslims to LTTE-controlled areas, an end to LTTE extortion of Muslim businesses in the East, and access for Muslims to their lands in LTTE-controlled areas. At the second round of peace talks in Thailand (October 31-November 3, 2002), the LTTE announced that it would return land and property to Muslim owners in the North and the East. None of these promises was kept, and the hopes Muslims had for some compensation remained largely unfulfilled.

Since the resumption 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. Of course, part of the problem is the divisions within the community leadership. Muslims in the East and the North — who have been fundamentally affected by the conflict — often have very different views from those who live in the South among the Sinhalese. At the same time, there is consensus on some key issues and a desire to develop a more united approach to the conflict.

As the ICG report notes, “Muslims have never resorted to armed rebellion to assert their political position, although some have worked with the security forces, and a few were members of early Tamil militant groups. Fears of an armed movement emerging among Muslims, perhaps with a facade of Islamist ideology, have been present since the early 1990s, but most have remained committed to channelling their frustrations through the political process and negotiating with the government and Tamil militants at different times.

“There is no guarantee that this commitment to non-violence will continue, particularly given the frustration noticeable among younger Muslims in the Eastern province. 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 exaggerated, often for political ends. Small gangs have been engaged in semi-criminal activities and intra-religious disputes, but there is a danger they will take on a role in inter-communal disputes if the conflict continues to impinge upon the security of co-religionists.”

In the assessment of the ICG, which is shared by several independent observers, only a full political settlement of the conflict can allow historical injustices against the Muslims to be addressed and begin a process of reconciliation. Further, the LTTE, in particular, needs to revisit its dealings with the Muslims if it is to gain any credibility in a future peace process in which Muslims are involved. “Only an equitable settlement, in which Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim community concerns are adequately addressed, can really contain the growing disillusionment among a new generation of Sri Lankan Muslims,” says the ICG.