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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 15:23 GMT
Sri Lanka's 'Muslim question'
A Sri Lankan soldier walks past a burnt lorry after the rioting
Muslims and Sinhalas clashed in Colombo in late October


The violence between Sinhalese and Muslim mobs in the Sri Lankan capital on Wednesday was the first of its kind in Colombo for decades.


There has always been a perception in certain sections of the Sinhala community, that Muslims are as much a threat as the Tamils

The clashes point to the underlying social, political and economic tensions dividing the Muslims from other communities in the country.

There are many issues relating to what is often referred to as the "Muslim question" in Sri Lanka.

The Muslims have lived as a separate community, although they speak Tamil, and make up about 7% of the population.

There has always been a perception in certain sections of the Sinhala community that Muslims are as much a threat as the Tamils.

The relationship between the Muslims and the Tamils, too, has been rocky.

Threat

Muslims have traditionally provided the traders and businessmen in many areas of the country - with the exception of the east and certain areas in the south, and the north-west.

Their economic success and prosperity have been seen as a threat by extremist Sinhala groups.

Sri Lankan Muslims
Muslims have long felt under pressure
Muslims were a powerful force within the mainstream political parties until recently.

With the emergence of Tamil militancy, Muslims created a separate political party, the Muslim Congress, which has been playing a crucial king-making role in contemporary Sri Lankan politics.

Many Muslims in the east are anxious about the expected outcome of the peace talks between the government and the Tamil Tigers.

They feel the east should be considered a separate entity from the north.

Following the peace accord between India and Sri Lanka in 1987, the north and the east were merged as a single administrative region.

Tamil Tigers claim the whole area as their traditional homeland.

Currently, Tamils are the single largest community in the east, but Muslims and Sinhalas together add up to a majority in the area.

Throughout the civil war, the Muslims have felt the pressure both from the government and the Tamil rebels.

In 1990, over 16,000 Muslim families were evicted from their ancestral homes by the Tamil Tigers.

Call to return

They were branded as collaborators and kicked out of rebel-controlled areas.

Tamil Tigers were also suspected of raiding a mosque in the east and spraying bullets at those inside, killing many innocent Muslims.

A Muslim being carried out of a troubled area
A curfew was imposed after the Colombo clashes
Recently the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, accepted that grievous harm had been done to the Muslims, and invited them to come back.

Thousands of Muslims are still living in refugee camps in the north-west and the east.

The government is acutely aware of the sensitivity of the issue surrounding the Muslims and the east.

Its working majority has been under threat recently because a group of Muslim MPs, including a cabinet minister, have been boycotting parliament over the past few weeks over of the issue.

They want a separate administrative entity for the Muslims prior to a lasting political solution in the north and the east.


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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