Pain of 1990 Muslim 'massacre' lingers in Sri Lanka

By Sivaramakrishnan Parameswaran
BBC Tamil

image captionThe distrust created by the killings has hampered reconciliation efforts (Photo: Uthayakumar)

An apology has been issued by Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka to the country's Muslim minority for "massacres" allegedly carried out by the Tamil Tiger rebel group during the civil war 20 years ago.

The rebels have been blamed for shooting dead more than 300 Muslims inside two mosques in the eastern town of Batticaloa in August 1990, and of attacking others in surrounding areas.

The killings were part of a series of tit-for-tat attacks by the local Tamil and Muslim communities between July and September 1990.

The Tamil Tigers never admitted responsibility for the deaths and, because they were defeated by government forces in May 2009, seem unlikely to have the opportunity to do so.


Efforts for reconciliation have gathered pace since the civil war came to an end, but the aftermath of the Batticaloa killings means there remains much mutual distrust between Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, and Muslims.

"The killings of Tamils and Muslims were not spontaneous," says Yuvi Thangarajah, an anthropologist and Sri Lankan analyst. "They were well planned and executed."

Mr Thangarajah says the question of land ownership was a major issue in eastern Sri Lanka during the early 1980s and still remains a major cause of friction between the communities - even though today some of that antipathy appears to be disappearing.

While Tamil youths were largely drawn towards militancy throughout the mid-1980s, the Muslim community did not hurl itself into the fight for a separate homeland with the same enthusiasm - even though they spoke the same language.

The largest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) - widely seen as sympathetic towards the rebels - has now condemned the killings as "totally unacceptable".

"I have to regret that the Tamil Tigers did not apologise for the mosque massacre," TNA leader R Sambandar told the BBC Tamil service.

"That was a mistake, but we have no hesitation whatsoever in apologising to our Muslim brethren for what happened 20 years ago.

"One cannot explain all the actions of the Tamil Tigers. Some of their actions were quite irrational, and the mosque massacres were one such example of that."

Mr Sambandar points out that while there is no excuse for the killings, they have to be seen in the context of the tense situation at that time.

'Forget but not forgive'

However, Nisam Kariappar, a senior leader of the country's largest Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), says that the killings sent a very clear message from the Tamil Tigers which lingers to this day.

image captionThe bullet holes remain today inside Batticaloa mosques

"What they were saying is that although we speak the same language, the Muslim community are aliens to this area," he says.

Muslims argue that the 1990 killings amounted to "ethnic cleansing" and that the community still bears the scars, which is why their leaders remain cautious about discussing Tamil issues today.

Mr Kariappar says the rebels were determined to carve out a separate homeland in the north and east at any cost, despite the fact that Muslims were the single largest community in the east.

V Ameerdeen, a senior lecturer in post-conflict studies at the University of Peradanya, lost 13 members of his family, including his parents, in the attacks.

He says that Muslims in the east want to "forget, but not forgive".

"After the Tamil Tigers, reconciliation must take place; it's unavoidable," says Mr Ameerdeen.

"There are signs of that happening, but it will take some time before it does."

Most agree that until such healing process can take place, a lasting solution to Sri Lanka's troubles will continue to elude the country.

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