Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's Muslims: Caught in the crossfire



Throughout much of the 25-year Sri Lankan conflict, attention has focused on the confrontation between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. 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. Muslims need to be part of any renewed peace process but with both the government and 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.

At least one third of Muslims live in the conflict-affected north and east and thus have a significant interest in the outcome of the war. They have often suffered serious hardship, particularly at the hands of the Tamil rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since 1990 Muslims have been the victims of ethnic cleansing, massacres and forced displacement by the insurgents.

The 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) was a disappointment to many Muslims. They had no independent representation at the peace talks, and many feared that any agreement that gave the LTTE exclusive control of the north and east, even in a federal arrangement, would be seriously detrimental to their own interests. Despite talks between Muslim leaders and the LTTE, they continued to suffer violent attacks. 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. They have also come into conflict with a new, pro-government Tamil paramilitary group, the Karuna faction. Memories of LTTE oppression are still fresh, and rancorous disputes with Tamils over land and resources remain potent in the east.

Muslim political leaders have often been divided, representing different historical experiences and geographical realities as well as personal and political differences. Muslims in the east and north - who have been fundamentally affected by the conflict - often have very different views from those who live in the south among the Sinhalese. Nevertheless, there is consensus on some key issues and a desire to develop a more united approach to the conflict.

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 nonviolence 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.

There is increasing interest among some Muslims in more fundamentalist versions of Islam, and there have been violent clashes between ultra-orthodox and Sufi movements. This kind of violence remains limited and most Muslims show considerable tolerance to other sects and other faiths. Nevertheless, the conflict is at least partly responsible for some Muslims channelling their frustrations and identity issues into religious disputes.

Muslim peace proposals have tended to be reactive, dependent on the politics of the major Tamil and Sinhalese parties. Muslim autonomous areas in the east are being pursued but seem unlikely to be accepted by the present government. Muslims are concerned about Colombo's plans for development and governance in the east, which have not involved meaningful consultation with ethnic minorities and do not seem to include significant devolution of powers to local communities.

In the longer term, only a full political settlement of the conflict can allow historical injustices against the Muslims to be addressed and begin a process of reconciliation. The LTTE, in particular, needs to revisit the history of its dealings with the Muslims if it is to gain any credibility in a future peace process in which the 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.


To the Government of Sri Lanka:

1. Support the Muslim community's demand for a separate delegation at any future peace talks.

2. Ensure that the right of return of northern Muslims to their original properties and the displacement of eastern Muslims during the conflict are addressed in any final peace settlement.

3. Establish a presidential commission to investigate the expulsions of the Muslim population from the Northern province in 1990 and address both immediate needs and long-term legal, political and physical obstacles to an eventual return.

4. Ensure that any new interim governing arrangements for the Eastern province:

(a) include equitable power sharing in which Muslims and Tamils are adequately represented and local government structures enhanced; and

(b) do not impede a final political settlement of the conflict.

5. Suspend major development plans for the east, such as the Special Economic Zone in Trincomalee, until there has been serious consultation and negotiation with local residents and their political representatives.

6. Reject state-aided development or land-settlement schemes with potential to transform the ethnic balance in the east to the detriment of Muslims and Tamils and increase development aid to the east, but only in consultation with local communities and while ensuring an equitable distribution among communities.

7. Assert effective control over Tamil paramilitary groups, notably the pro-government Karuna faction (Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal, TMVP), by:

(a) restricting them in civilian areas to political activity;

(b) prosecuting all TMVP members engaged in criminal activities, including abduction, child recruitment, robbery and extrajudicial killings; and

(c) strictly limiting the role of TMVP members in administration, relief and resettlement programs.

8. Investigate and prosecute atrocities and human rights abuses, including the December 2006 massacre of Muslims in Pottuvil.

9. Take tangible steps to reduce ethnic imbalances in the security forces, including in Eastern province police.

To the Muslim Community and Political Parties:

10. Build on Muslim communities' assistance to Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs) by developing broader economic and social programs to encourage Tamil-Muslim reconciliation and cooperation.

11. Monitor carefully the role of Muslim armed groups in the east.

12. Support enforcement of the constitutional rights of all believers and religious sects to freedom of religion and protection from harassment, including minority Muslim sects.

13. Encourage more local democracy and better representation among Muslims and promote state reforms to ensure more equitable distribution of resources among communities and less reliance on patronage networks.

14. Encourage civil society groups, including expansion of such groups as the Muslim Council, and greater involvement of women in civil society movements, and seek broader involvement in and support for the Muslim Peace Secretariat.

To the LTTE and Other Tamil Political Groups:

15. End any harassment, illegal taxation or human rights abuses of Muslims, re-examine the record of past abuses and make reconciliation a priority.

16. Support the Muslim community's demand for a separate delegation at future peace talks.

17. Publicly assert the right of northern Muslims to return to their original properties and of Muslims in the east to resume cultivation of their lands.

18. Make a public commitment to a multiethnic political future for the north and east, in which Muslims share political power.

To the International Community:

19. Make a greater commitment to include Muslim concerns in any new peace process, including a separate delegation at peace negotiations.

20. Press the government to:

(a) severely limit the role of the TMVP and prosecute TMVP members who indulge in criminal activity;

(b) seriously address atrocities in which security personnel may have been involved and end the climate of impunity; and

(c) include Muslim and Tamil communities in discussions about development in the east and develop a proper political process to enable real power sharing in any interim administration.

21. Consult representatives of the Muslim community and take their priorities into account in planning development assistance.

Colombo/Brussels, 29 May 2007