Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Muslim Demand for Territorial Autonomy in the Eastern Sri Lanka: An Analysis of Its Origin, Accommodation and the Present Stance

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Muslim Demand for Territorial Autonomy in the Eastern Sri Lanka: An Analysis of Its Origin, Accommodation and the Present Stance

Article excerpt


Since Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was considered as a confrontation between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, the impact of conflict and civil war on other [minority] ethnic groups has always been sidetracked by major parties involved in resolving conflict. One of the communities severely impacted but always forgotten in the discourse of resolution process is the Muslims who ever resorted to violent agitations and arm rebellion to resolve their problem and achieve their political objectives. However, the constant impact of ethnic conflict and civil war on the lives and livelihoods of the community caused them to search for political and institutional mechanism to protect them. Muslim autonomy demand has emerged on this backdrop in the middle of 1980s and has been advocated by Muslim parties and public in the discourse of ethnic politics in Sri Lanka. There has been changing dynamics, phases of acceleration and sidetracks on the advocacy of the demand. This paper aims to examine the changing dynamics of the Muslim demand for territorial autonomy in the eastern part of Sri Lanka. The study was conducted using both primary and secondary data collected from desk analysis and field survey conducted in three years. Analysis of the study is interpretive and descriptive in nature. Findings reveal that the fragmentation of Muslims politics, demerge of north-eastern province, and the new political context in eastern Sri Lanka not only caused to sidetrack the demand but also made the demand politically contested and irrelevant.

Keywords: ethnic conflict, autonomy demand, Eastern Muslims, Sri Lanka

1. Introduction

Territorial cleavages are today's main source of ethnic conflict and one of the principle causes for violence in the World. Most of the minority groups within a state are confronting or fighting for autonomy (territorially based) for self-determination and self-rule and to safeguard their distinct identity and rights. Power-sharing or granting autonomy to regions or ethnic groups is one of the successful ways to accommodate ethno-regional and religious minorities in an ethnic conflict resolution process. The conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority centers primarily on the question of sharing powers or granting autonomy to ethnic or regional groups. However, since the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has come to impact on the Muslims living in the north-eastern part, they also started to demand and advocate for an autonomous power-sharing unit to safeguard their existence and to ensure their rights of self-determination in the ethnic conflict resolution process. The model of the autonomy unit that they have been advocating was territorial base, but non-contiguous similar to the model of Pondicherry union territory in India and Palestinian authority in Israel. However, as Wangner (2006, p. 87) indicates, all discussions have neglected the role of the other minorities like the Muslims for many years in the power-sharing debates in Sri Lanka. On this backdrop, this research pays attention on the emergence of the Muslims' demand for an autonomy unit, its development, and its present stand after the de-merger of north-eastern province in Sri Lanka. The research is conducted using both primary and secondary data. Primary data were mainly collected through questionnaire survey, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions conducted from 2009 to 2013. The respondents were drawn from 140 questionnaires administered in 14 selected villages along the eastern province. The interviews session was conducted on 21 respondents selected from the academics, politicians, and civil society members to gain different perspectives of different ethnic groups on Muslim demand for autonomy. The analysis of the research is descriptive and interpretive in nature. The rest of the article is divided into six sub-topics which explore the demand in different angles.

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