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Between Hammer And Anvil

Between Hammer And Anvil

Sri Lanka’s Muslims


Adam's peak, a symmetrically conical mountain set in the gorgeous hill country of southern Sri Lanka, is sacred to all of the island's main faiths. There is a strange indentation set in the living rock of the summit. To the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (69% of the total population) it is the footprint of the Buddha Gautama. The Tamil Hindus (21%) know better - it is, of course, the sacred footprint of the god Shiva. Then again, the island's Muslims (7%) insist, it is the footprint left by Adam when, cast out of the Garden of Eden by a wrathful God, he fell to earth in the place nearest to that celestial grove in terms of beauty, fertility and climate - Sri Lanka.

In happier times Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim - together with the Christians, who adhere to the Adamic interpretation of the footprint - were content to disagree amicably, sharing the pilgrimage season between December and April each year, when every night thousands of people climb the seemingly endless stairs to the 2,224 metre summit and await the sunrise.

As the world knows, those days of inter-racial and inter-denominational harmony are long since gone - though, happily, not at Adam's Peak, secure in the government-dominated Sinhala heartland. Rather the troubles are at the other end of the island, where for twenty years, ever since the simmering hostility between Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamil Hindu exploded into open warfare, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have pursued their struggle for a separate Tamil state.

As the third, and smallest, of the island's racio-religious communities, the Sri Lankan Muslims - generally if confusingly known as "Moors" - have become the forgotten losers in this vicious struggle. The Tamils, evidently misclassified by the British during their long hegemony in South Asia as a "non-martial race", have fought with an extraordinary fanaticism under the cold command of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakharan. From the earliest days of the war they did not hesitate to employ "ethnic cleansing" - that late 20th century euphemism for genocide - against Sinhalese villagers living in the north. Subsequently, and with the same ruthlessness, the same tactic has been used against Muslims.

To understand why this should be so, it is necessary to examine the anomalous situation of the Sri Lankan Moors - Tamil speakers who yet, for the most part, support the Sinhalese-dominated government of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

There have been Muslims in Sri Lanka for well over a thousand years. Trading dhows plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to Arab sailors - like Sinbad - as Serendib even in pre-Islamic times. The first Muslim merchants and sailors may have landed on its shores during Muhammad's life time. By the 10th century this predominantly Arab community had grown influential enough to control the trade of the south-western ports, whilst the Sinhalese kings generally employed Muslim ministers to direct the state's commercial affairs. In 1157 the king of the neighbouring Maldive Islands was converted to Islam, and in 1238 an embassy to Egypt sent by King Bhuvaneka Bahu I was headed by Sri Lankan Muslims.

From about 1350 onwards the predominantly Arab strain in Sri Lankan Islam began to change as Tamil Muslims from neighbouring South India moved to the island in increasing numbers. By the late 15th century, when Portuguese vessels first arrived in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's Muslims were truly indigenous to the island, representing a mixture of Sinhalese, Arab and Tamil blood, and speaking Tamil with Arabic overtones, sometimes known as "Tamil-Arabic". None of this made any difference to the newly-arrived Portuguese, for whom all Muslims were "Moors" - the name given to their traditional enemies in Morocco and southern Spain. The name Moro - employed as a derogatory designation by the Portuguese - stuck, and is today "worn with pride" by Sri Lankan Muslims, in much the same way as the "Moros" of the southern Philippines.

In Sri Lanka, as everywhere they went, the Portuguese made a special point of persecuting the Muslims. As a consequence, many fled the western littoral which had passed under Portuguese control, and settled in the north and east of the island where their descendants live to the present day. A hundred years later, in 1656, when the Dutch replaced the Portuguese, a third (and final) element was added to the island's Muslim population - the Malay. Malay sailors had been visiting Sri Lanka for centuries using long-distance outrigger canoes; now, with the arrival of the Dutch, many more were brought from Java to serve their Dutch colonial rulers in Sri Lanka. In time they were absorbed into the island's ethnically diverse Muslim community, though even today many Sri Lankan Muslims identifying themselves as "Malays" rather than "Moors" can be found living in Western Province, and especially in Colombo.

Today Sri Lanka's Muslims live scattered throughout the island, from Galle in the south to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in the north. Generally they are involved in commerce, from running local dry goods stores to dominating the wealthy gem business associated with Ratnapura - "Jewel City" and much of the capital's import-export business. In the disputed north and east of the country, where the LTTE are currently battling the Sri Lankan armed forces, many Muslims are farmers or fishermen, living in small villages far from the protection of government forces. It is these people - the poorest of the island's "Moors", descendants of the orginal refugees displaced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago - that are now caught up in the struggle for "Tamil Eelam".

Most Moors speak Tamil as their first language, regarding Sinhalese (and English) as languages of commerce to be used in their business dealings. Despite this linguistic affinity they do not consider themselves Tamil, however, and have precious little sympathy for the Tamil Tigers' cause. Rather they tend to support the government, albeit passively, wishing simply to pursue their business interests with the full freedom of religion they have long been accustomed too. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible. In those areas contested by the LTTE with a substantial Muslim population - for example, Northern Province's Vavuniya District, and Eastern Province's Tricomalee and Batticaloa Districts - they are under serious pressure.

Initially, it seems, the Tamil separatists hoped to enlist the Tamil-speaking Moors in their struggle for an independent Tamil state encompassing all of Northern and Eastern Provinces. When the Moors remained aloof - and even indicated support for the government position - they became identified as enemies. Worse than that, as Tamil-speakers there seemed, to Tiger minds at least, an element of treason in their lack of support. Subsequently, as the LTTE struggle for secession developed into open warfare with the government in Colombo, Prabhakharan, showing characteristic ruthlessness, targeted the Moors for "ethnic cleansing" - that is, physical expulsion or elimination - from the lands sought by the Tigers as a Tamil homeland.

The Tigers first began to attack the Moors on a systematic basis ten years ago. In August, 1990, in two separate incidents, more than 230 Muslims were massacred at prayer at towns near Pulmoddai, in the north-east of the island. At the same time Prabhakharan gave notice that the entire Muslim population of Northern Province, including the rebel capital of Jaffna, should leave contested areas forthwith or face being killed. An estimated one hundred thousand people were affected by this threat, many of who have since fled to government-controlled areas in the centre and south of the island. Tens of thousands were made destitute, the majority of whom still eke out a living in refugee camps. Following this incident, Muslim fishermen became a favourite target of LTTE maritime patrols, and Muslim businessmen a preferred target for abduction and ransom.

Muslim leaders in the north and east have responded by voicing their own claims for autonomy in the region, making it clear that - should the LTTE reach an agreement with Colombo on autonomous status - they would seek to opt out from Tamil control. Prabhakharan's response has been as vigorous and ruthless as ever. If the Muslims won't accept Tamil rule, they must be expelled from Northern Province and Eastern Province en masse.

Caught in the intricate and seemingly endless web of violence between Tamil Hindu and Sinhalese Buddhist, Sri Lanka's Muslims are increasingly desperate, unsure which way to turn, and whom to trust. Forgotten victims of a particularly vicious war, they are trapped between hammer and anvil, a long way indeed from the Garden of Eden.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Rainer Krack, Chaweewan Chuchuay, David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media