The right to land is crucial for peace in the East (Part One)

Neville Uditha Weerasinghe

The ethnic composition of Sri Lanka’s East makes it a unique place, as all three ethnic groups, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, are found spread within the Province. Through this article, we will briefly look into how this ethnic composition in the Eastern Province has in the past as well as in the present impacted ethnic polarization and ethnic tensions.  

For the most part, as far back as the 15th Century and definitely by the 17th Century, a large number of Muslim farmers had, owing to inter marriages with local Tamils including in the Eastern Coast – in the present-day Districts of Batticaloa and Ampara and the South of the Trincomalee District, shared the common original social sphere. While the Muslim population is the majority in the Eastern Coast in terms of population, today the East is a very important region and zone in terms of ethnic and racial conflicts (McGilvray. 2008). In a speech made in 1885 to the Constitutional Council with a strategic and tactical agenda, the famous Tamil leader Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan presented linguistic and ethnic evidence to argue that in addition to religion, Moors and Tamil peoples had over centuries, due to adaptations and inter marriages, shared a large number of cultural and linguistic characteristics. Three years later, when he published it as an essay titled “Ethnic/Racial Science on Sri Lanka’s Moors” in the Sri Lanka Royal Asiatic Society Journal, it was evident that Ramanathan’s views had taken on a more cultural legality (Ramanathan. 1888). Through this, what Ramanathan sought to establish was that Muslims were ethnically Tamils. Thus, it becomes clear that even the Tamil elite class from the beginning of history, did not want to accept the Muslim people as a community with a separate ethnic identity. Within this sphere, by the latter half of the 19th Century, the Muslim urban elite who lived in the Western Coast, had started to perceptively identify their ethnic identity as “Ceylon Moor”. Many documents show that the Muslim elite had sought to build a separate identity as Moors instead of as a community that spoke Tamil.   

The investigative report named Muslim Perspectives on the Sri Lankan Conflict shows that although the Muslims living in the North and East had even till the middle of the 1980s decades had friendly relations with the LTTE organization, the Muslim populous living in the North and East had to face severe repercussions due to not supporting the LTTE organization as a community that had discarded their ethnic identity and was a community that spoke Tamil. According to this report, in 1990, in the month of October, the reality that the Northern Muslim community faced was that owing to the LTTE organization forcibly evicting the Muslims living in the North from their villages, they had to face the dilemma of whether they should support the Government or join an alliance of “people speaking Tamil”. In the Eastern Province, an incident that openly declared the hostility of the LTTE organization towards the Muslim people in the area was when 141 Muslims who were praying at the Kattankudy Mosque were massacred on 1990 August 03rd. In an article to the Colombo Telegraph website, Sayed Alawi Sheriffdeen mentions that through this massacre, the objective that the LTTE organization wanted to bring to the fore was that by bending the Muslim community to their will, they would thereby silence the voice of the minority community that was opposed to the LTTE organization. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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