Sri Lanka’s Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire
Sri Lanka’s Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
Report / Asia 3 minutes

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.

Executive Summary

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 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.

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.

Colombo/Brussels, 29 May 2007

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.