Sri Lanka’s Muslims: the double-edged sword

Amid Sri Lanka’s political turmoil, its long-forgotten Muslim minority is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Tamil Tigers have been accused of ethnic cleansing
The Tamil Tigers have been accused of ethnic cleansing

President Kumaratunga has provoked a national crisis in the Indian Ocean island by suspending parliament, sacking key ministers and declaring a state of emergency.


She says Sri Lanka‘s government has made too many concessions to the Tamil Tigers in peace negotiations.


But whatever the outcome of the impending showdown between the president and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, one thing is sure – Sri Lanka‘s Muslims will lose out.


If they support Wickremesinghe’s government it is likely they will be sold down the river and left at the mercy of the Tamils.


And if they support the president they will be accused of hastening the country’s slide into chaos and anarchy.


It’s a no-win situation for a community that played no part in causing the war, but have suffered the worst of its consequences.




There have been Muslims in Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years.


Trading dhows plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to Arab sailors as Sarandib – whence the word “serendipity”. 


Today, there are around two and a half million Muslims in Sri Lanka – the smallest of the island’s communities after the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils.


Kumaratunga has declared a
state of emergency

Generally, Muslims are involved in commerce, from running local stores to dominating the wealthy gem business in Ratnapura – the “Jewel City“.


In the disputed north and east of the country, where the Tamils have been battling the Sri Lankan army, many Muslims are farmers or fishermen far from the protection of government forces.


The Tamils have been fighting for a separate state, or autonomy, in the island’s north and east for the last 20 years.


From the earliest days of the war they have not hesitated to “ethnically cleanse” Sinhalese and Muslim villagers living in the north.


Tamil independence


Initially, the Tamils hoped to enlist the Tamil-speaking Muslims in their struggle for an independent state.


But when the Muslims remained aloof – and even indicated support for the government – they became the enemy.


The Tigers first began to attack the Muslims on a systematic basis in the early 1990s.


In August 1990 more than 230 Muslims were massacred at prayer in north-eastern towns.


Wickremesinghe says he has the 
backing of Sri Lanka’s people

At the same time the Tamil leader, Vellupillai Prabhakharan, warned the entire Muslim population of Northern Province to leave contested areas or face being killed.


An estimated 150,000 people were affected by this threat, many of whom fled to government-controlled areas in the centre and south.


Tens of thousands were made destitute, the majority of whom still eke out a living in refugee camps.


Muslim autonomy


Soon after, Muslim fishermen became a favourite target of Tiger maritime patrols, and Muslim businessmen a preferred target for abduction and ransom.


Muslim leaders have responded by voicing their own claims for autonomy in the region, making it clear they would not accept any form of Tamil hegemony.


Prabhakharan’s response was as ruthless as ever – if the Muslims won’t accept Tamil rule, they must be expelled en masse from Northern and Eastern Province.


He said the Tamil people had been compelled to take up arms because of massacres and discrimination perpetrated by the Sinhalese majority.


The Tigers would not hesitate, he warned, to punish those who work against their liberation cause. 


“The Muslims didn’t want to support a situation which could lead to anarchy, but at the same time the peace process seems to be leading nowhere. It is a double edged sword”

United National Party spokesman

But a United National Party source said Sri Lankan Muslims are faced with a double edged sword.


“The Muslim community’s first reaction on Tuesday was that something really bad had happened, a coup even,” he said.


Chaos and anarchy 


“The Muslims didn’t want to support a situation which could lead to anarchy, but at the same time the peace process seems to be leading nowhere. It is a double edged sword.”


Sri Lankan Muslims say the current peace proposals appear to endorse a pre-arranged deal which will leave them at the mercy of the Tamil Tigers. 


The UNP source said that while Muslims are not against the Tamil community itself, the Tamil Tigers are simply not to be trusted.


“Muslims have plenty of experience living under Tamil Tiger control and they have been ethnically cleansed in the north and harrassed in the east.


“I think the media have been keeping quiet about this in the interests of appeasing the Tamil Tigers, but their past behaviour condemns them – they have proved to be unreliable.”


Civil war


Sri Lanka’s Muslims are a proud community that has lived peacefully and been used to freedom of religion for many years.


But since 1983 they have been caught in the middle of a vicious civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.


They are now confronted by the difficult choice of supporting a peace process that may lead to their own destruction, or a president who seems to be adopting the veneer of a dictator.  


It seems the serendipitous island the Arabs “discovered” in the 10th century has become something of a hellhole for its native Muslims.

Source : Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read