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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 22:02 GMT 23:02 UK
Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide
Funeral for a Muslim shot dead during an earlier clash
Differences between Muslim and Hindu Tamils are growing

Violence between Hindu and Muslim Tamils in eastern Sri Lanka comes at a time of relative calm in the rest of the country.


Muslim fears are based on sheer demography

The Tamil-Muslim divide is deep-rooted and could derail the fledgling peace process launched after a ceasefire signed by the goverment and Tamil Tiger rebels in February.

The Tamil community is not as homogenous as it appears to be.

The political aspirations of the majority Hindu Tamils have not always had approval from Muslim Tamils based in the east.

Tamil Muslims have nurtured fears that, in a unified north and eastern province - a demand of the Tamil parties - their interests would not be protected.

Growing divide

Their fears are based on sheer demography.

In the east, Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese constitute a third each of the population.

Sri Lankan soldier on duty
The clashes come at a time of hope for peace
If the northern and eastern provinces were to be merged as part of any political deal, the Muslims fear they would have to live under the Hindu Tamils of the north.

They have better social and economic mobility, thanks to the historic headstart they had in getting education and government jobs under British colonial rule.

With this in mind, the Muslims in the east have historically tried to forge a separate identity for themselves, based more on religion than on language.

Since the rise of Tamil militancy in the 1980s, the divide has only widened, with the Tamil Muslims increasingly seeking to align themselves with the Sinhalese majority.

The party representing Sri Lankan Muslims, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), has been a member of the ruling coalition now and in the recent past.

Forced out of Jaffna

The differences were further accentuated in the early 1990s, when Tamil Muslims from the northern province were forcibly evicted by Tamil Tigers when they captured the Jaffna peninsula.


They speak the same language, but find it difficult to see eye-to-eye on political issues

About 65,000 Muslims from the north of the country have lived as refugees in the south and parts of the east ever since.

The Tamil Tigers have shown signs of realising that the Muslim question has to be addressed if they are ever to make progress in the peace process.

An accord signed between SLMC leader and minister, Rauf Hakeem, and Tiger supremo Prabhakaran, hard on the heels of the ceasefire accord with the government, was reflective of this.

The deal specifically underlined the acceptance of the position that the internally-displaced Muslims of the north would have a right to return to their homes as part of the peace process.

Tiger taxes

However, there are other thorny issues to be sorted out.

Taxation of Muslims in the east by the Tamil Tigers is one such issue.

The Muslims in the east, mostly farmers and traders, have resented the taxes imposed on them by the Tigers.

But the Tigers have showed no signs of stopping the practice.

Observers, however, feel even if such issues are sorted out in the rush to strike a deal, the larger question of identity would continue to dog the two communities.

They speak the same language, but find it difficult to see eye-to-eye on political issues.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

27 Jun 02 | South Asia
13 Apr 02 | South Asia
07 Dec 01 | South Asia
16 May 01 | South Asia
07 May 01 | South Asia
03 Nov 00 | South Asia
16 Sep 00 | South Asia
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