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Paper no. 1090                16. 05. 2004

Guest Column-by Col R Hariharan (retd.)

Muslims, officially called Moors, in Sri Lanka are a hardworking community who form a sizeable minority in the East. Unlike the majority Sinhala or the more numerous Tamil population, they have been by and large peaceful members of society. Muslims though Tamil speaking, have not been identifying themselves as members of the Tamil polity. They had not taken part in the Tamil armed struggle against Sinhala chauvinism, despite some sections of their population sympathizing with the Tamil cause.  LTTE during its struggle for Eelam repeatedly carried out ‘cleansing’ operations directed against the Muslim population, particularly in Jaffna peninsula and in the East. These actions further alienated the Muslims from joining the LTTE dominated Eelam struggle. 

Sri Lankan Muslims have carved their own distinct political identity in Sri Lanka. In fact the late M.H.M.Ashraff, who founded the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), had unified their act to a large extent, making them an important segment in national politics. However, after the death of Ashraff, the SLMC had been plagued by factionalism, with Mr Rauf Hakeem leading the main party.  In spite of factionalism, Muslims form an important and politically conscious minority. Like minority groups in any democracy, they had been performing a careful balancing act generally siding with those in power. Their importance had always been considerably more than their numbers in the Parliament would indicate because their support had been crucial in fight between the two political contenders for power in Sri Lanka – UNP and SLFP. Muslim parliamentarians had not hesitated to change sides, if power sharing was the issue. In one such ‘migrations’, last week three SLMC parliamentarians broke from the ranks of their party and joined the ruling alliance.  

Undoubtedly, Muslims in North and East suffered  in the conflict between LTTE and Colombo. But the current round of peace talks, with LTTE dominating the show and dictating terms have not given much comfort to the Muslims. Their latent fear is based on two distinct possibilities – LTTE coming to power as the sole arbiter in a unified Northeast and the loss of Muslim influence as a smaller minority in a united Northeast.  Moreover, in the stalled peace talks muddled by the power struggle in Colombo, Muslims are facing a distinct possibility of being sidelined. When the peace process started things were not so bad for them. In fact the LTTE apologized to Muslims for expelling them from Jaffna in 1990. The LTTE leader Prabhakaran even said, “the Tamil homeland belongs to the Muslim people,” in a bid to placate them. There are two reasons for this. Muslims are an important minority in the East, which Mr Prabhakaran regards as part of his realm. Without their co-operation, Mr Prabhakaran would have found it difficult to cobble out a settlement for a unified Northeast.  Moreover, at that time SLMC was a pillar of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government. In a meeting with Mr Rauf Hakeem the LTTE had even agreed to allow Muslim representatives a say in the peace talks. Muslim parliamentarians of all hues had even formed the North East Muslim Parliamentarians' Alliance (NEMPA) to consolidate their position in the peace process. But it all came to naught when no Muslim representative was invited for the talks. LTTE’s Interim Self Governing Administration (ISGA) proposal also came as a dampener to the Muslims as it is silent on their concerns.  

Ever since the peace process started, Muslim leaders had been articulating their voice against a unified Northeast. In fact last year, Mr. A.L.M. Athaulla, a leader of one of the breakaway factions of SLMC (the then Member of Parliament from the Ampara district and Minister in the UNP Government then in power) had cautioned against such a move. He said that the Tamil people were forced to have recourse to an armed struggle as a result of the oppressive policies of the Sinhala political leadership; while finding a political solution to this problem, “we are clear that a similar situation should not be created for the Muslim minority in the merged North East, and that is why we have told the Sri Lankan President that we want the North and East to be separate”. He was very clear how it should be. “That there should be Tamil-speaking leadership in the North is not in dispute. The North and East should be separate, however, with a separate Tamil Chief Minister for the North and a Muslim Chief Minister for the East. Only in such an administrative structure could differences in opinion in the future between Muslims and Tamils be resolved.”

Sections of Muslim leadership, which do not oppose the unification of North and East, have a viewpoint different from that of the LTTE. Last August, M.L.A.M.Hisbullah, General Secretary of the NEMPA (and member of the National Unity Alliance led by Mrs. Ferial Ashraff, wife of the late M.H.M.Ashraff) had said, "We cannot find solutions to the problems of our community by dividing the merged northeast province." His view was that Muslim areas should be brought under a separate interim administration in the merged Northeast. "Tamil areas should be brought under one interim administration. Likewise, Muslim areas should be brought under separate interim administration. Both interim administrations should be within the merged northeast province. Any future talks should be held on this basis. We are very clear in our stand," he had said.

If the present Muslim leadership is not able to get a foothold for Muslims in the peace settlement –whether interim or final - they stand to lose their credibility. Then their fate could be similar to that of TULF in the 80s when its democratic struggles failed, paving the way for Tamil militancy. If the democratic leadership of Muslims is sidelined as a political expediency to quickly usher in an interim administration dominated by LTTE for a unified Northeast (as distinct from North East), the current leadership of the community will be swept aside as irrelevant. Karuna’s break with Prabhakaran by itself may not bring comfort to Muslims because of the bitter memories of killings and extortions carried out against Muslims in the past under Karuna’s leadership. Thus when the community comes under such stress, there could be a power vaccum waiting to be exploited by Islamic radical elements. It is in this context the recent reports of increased activity of such element in Batticaloa District become important. Police in Eravur attribute the murder of a woman and bomb attacks on two houses in areas North of Batticaloa to one such radical Islamic group. The group, which had used T-56 rifle in the killing, had been issuing leaflets warning Muslims in Batticaloa North not to indulge in 'immoral' and un-Islamic activities. 

When compared with India or Bangladesh, the level of radical Muslim activity had been minimal in Sri Lanka. Except for minor aberrations two years ago, the community has a fairly clean record as far as Jihadi terrorism is concerned. However, if Muslim political leadership is emasculated, then the rise of Islamic fundamentalists influence is a distinct possibility. It is a short hop from Islamic fundamentalism to Jihadi terrorism. That is a situation nobody – not even LTTE – would like to happen. Right now such radical Islamic groups can be dismissed as of no consequence because they are few in numbers. They are also not too well armed to be effective. However, all this could change because the new Pakistan High Commissioner in Colombo has solid credentials as an agent provocateur for inciting Jihadi violence. Based on his past record, Colombo instead of Katmandu (his earlier place of operation) may well become the alternate cockpit of ISI directed operations against India. In this scenario any growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka becomes a matter of great concern to all. It portends ill for both Indian and Sri Lankan security, if not for all those who are fighting Jihadi terrorism all over the world.

(Col R Hariharan retired from the Intelligence Corps after 28 years of service in the Army. He had been a specialist in counter-insurgency intelligence. He had seen active staff and field service in counter-insurgency operations in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab,Tripura and lastly in Sri Lanka with the IPKF as Head of Intelligence. e-mail: