Sri Lanka's plan to integrate communities angers Muslims

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The Independent Online

The town is meant to offer a blueprint for the new Sri Lanka; a shining example of how the one million people left homeless by the tsunami will live out the rest of their days. But the beleaguered Muslims of the southern coastal town of Hambantota are furious at what their government has in store for them.

The town is meant to offer a blueprint for the new Sri Lanka; a shining example of how the one million people left homeless by the tsunami will live out the rest of their days. But the beleaguered Muslims of the southern coastal town of Hambantota are furious at what their government has in store for them.

The first brick of what will be known as Siribopura was laid last week by the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Bandaranaike, in virgin jungle territory two miles inland. The new town will house 6,000 families from Hambantota, whose homes were destroyed on 26 December.

In theory, Siribopura will set the standard for the other 60 towns to be built around the country. But government planning assumptions have caused uproar among the villagers.

According to the plans, Siribopura will be multi-ethnic, mixing Muslim, Tamil and Singhalese communities in three-storey blocks of flats. It will also contain a "multi-ethnic religious centre", the first of its kind to be built in Sri Lanka.

Gamini Jayaratne - a local Singhalese with four children - lost his brother and sister in the tsunami. He believes that putting people of different cultures in the same place could be disastrous. "There will be serious social and culture differences which can't be overcome," he said. "At the moment we all live in harmony, but separately. In addition the new settlement is right in the middle of a Singhalese-dominated area. You can't suddenly move 10,000 Muslim people there."

The "multi-religious centre" planned for the new town is equally contentious. Remarkably, Hambantota's mosque survived. But the government is now planning to demolish it.

"This is where we've always worshipped," said one local who has lived in the now destroyed village for 44 years. "We don't want that to change. The mosque is still there so we want to live near by. It forms the centre of our community."

Mohammed Khalid, 55, a local fisherman living in a tent near the beach, said: "The idea of Siribopura is absolutely ridiculous. Everything about it is wrong. It's going to turn into a slum within a year.

"We really don't want to go but what choice do we have? What's annoyed us the most is not once have we been asked how or where we want to live."

A local government planning officer, Nisam Shyiam, was just as sceptical. "People don't want to live on top of each other. We're used to having our own homes with gardens. You just have to look at Colombo to see the social consequences of living in flats." He suggested that the move was another attempt by the government to save money. The government claims the new settlement will be built within a year. At present Mr Khalid and his neighbours are living in donated tents.

He said that on arriving in the area to lay the foundation stone of the new town, President Bandaranaike went straight to the new site and carefully avoided stopping off at the refugee camps near the beach.

"If she'd come down here, she'd only be met with fierce opposition. Hambantota is supposed to be the flagship for the reconstruction of this broken country. If the others are handled like this, it's going to be a disaster."

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