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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 01:21 GMT
Sri Lanka's Muslims warn of backlash

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Muslim in eastern Sri Lanka
There is concern that Muslims may become more radical
Sri Lanka's Muslims are warning of a militant backlash as increasing tension between them and the Tamil community in the east of the country fuels feelings of frustration and anger.

There is real concern among Muslims that a peace deal between the Sinhalese-majority government and Tamil Tiger rebels will mean they come under Tamil control and that their interests will be ignored.

Now they are demanding full and equal representation if stalled peace talks resume.

Each Thursday afternoon at the Kattankudy mosque, little boys recite their Koran. Line by line their small fingers guide their hands.

It is as much a matter or survival as identity. For years, Sri Lanka's Muslims have been victims of a war that is not theirs.

In 1990, 130 were gunned down at this mosque by the Tamil Tigers.

More than a decade on, relations have improved, but there is still concern at the possibility of Tamil rule in the east.

Disconsolate

Rauf Hakeem leads the Muslim Congress, one of the main Muslim political parties.

Muslim fishermen in eastern Sri Lanka
In parts of the east, Muslims are in the majority

He says Muslim representation in talks "needs to happen".

"If it doesn't happen, I don't think the peace process can succeed, since Muslims are an important component.

"Among the three districts in the eastern province, two districts contain Muslim majorities."

Recent tensions have only reinforced these concerns.

Abdul Rasheed is farmer who has owned his land for more than 30 years. Now he is frightened and sits disconsolate as he sifts through the remains of his tool hut.

It is a burnt out shell, he says, because Tamils came and warned him before torching his hut.

He says Muslims cannot accept this for much longer.

Muslims in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka
Muslims have lived in eastern Sri Lanka for generations

"If a Tamil attacks a Muslim there will be tensions between both the communities," says Mr Rasheed.

"Sooner or later, it will lead to ethnic tensions all over the country. We can't keep quiet for so long. We've kept quiet so far, but we can't keep quiet in the future if no action is taken."

Despite the potential for violence between the two communities, politicians sympathetic to the Tigers say that while Muslim issues will be addressed, the talks table is only for two.

Political clout

Joseph Pararajasingham is an MP with the pro-Tiger Tamil National Alliance.

"The reason for the talks is because two parties were fighting the war, one is the Tigers and the other is the military or the government.

"So unless these two parties agree, there cannot be a solution to this problem."

Muslims fishermen in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka
Muslims say they must have equal status in peace talks

Mr Hakeem says such an attitude is short-sighted, because Muslims have lived and worked in the east for generations and have political clout.

"This ostrich-like attitude by the Tamils is causing a lot of concern among Muslims. Simply to say only those parties that engage in war need to talk is rather like telling Muslims to take up arms and engage in war.

"Already there is discontent among Muslims, particularly among the young, and we pray that they will not get radicalised as has happened in many parts of the world.

"There are signs of it already in some areas and therefore it is important if you are permanently to resolve this issue that the Muslims be recognised and given their due status."

For the community the issue of talks presents a dilemma.

On the one hand it does not want to be seen as an obstacle to a peace deal in Sri Lanka.

But on the other, Muslims say if they do not get equal status at the talks, the country faces more problems in the future.


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