Arming Muslims threatens talks

Nearly two decades ago, there were wild rumours about Sri Lankan Muslims forming into paramilitary groups and taking on Tamil guerrillas. This was the time when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was just a few years old and formed as a party representing the minority Muslim community in the east, particularly the district of Ampara which has a sizable concentration of Muslims. Ever since the conflagration in 1983 the Muslims have found themselves trapped in the middle as a minority group that lives with the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the northeast.

Particularly vulnerable has been the Ampara and eastern Batticaloa districts where Muslims and Tamils live sandwiched in villages. On the eastern coast stretching towards Pottuvil from Batticaloa, Muslim villages are among Tamil villages. This often results in clashes between the two, particularly when Muslims are attacked by the rebels.

The Muslims are also pleading for the community to be represented by an independent delegation at peace talks due to resume next month in Geneva.

This is due to long-standing fears that the Muslims, the country’s third largest community, would be a minority within a Tamil-minority dominated administration if the Tamils succeed in winning their demand for autonomy in areas where they predominate.

Muslims continue to be threatened by the Tigers in the east and in the absence of arms these people are at the mercy of the rebels. Now comes the news that the government plans to create a special infantry battalion made up exclusively of Muslim youth. The youngsters are to be trained in combat and use of weapons and asked to protect their community in the eastern Ampara district. The initiative would be the first time that an infantry battalion of some 500 men would come from a minority community. Over the years of the conflict, Sri Lanka’s military hasn’t mobilised youngsters as soldiers on ethnic lines, though by virtue of being a majority community, the Sinhalese dominated the army and other forces. For young, unemployed Muslim youth, this could be a chance of a lifetime. The minimum qualification is having passed Grade 8 while the monthly wage is a package totalling $150 in addition to other benefits like free medical services, food and accommodation.

However, the new move — which appears to woo Muslims — is set to trigger a war of words and possible withdrawal from peace negotiations by the Tigers. Recently, the LTTE political chief complained about the government not keeping its promise — as apparently agreed in the joint statement issued at the end of peace talks last month — of disarming paramilitary groups in the east. The rebel leader also accused government troops of continuing to harass civilians and threatened that if the situation worsened, the rebels would be forced to pull

out of talks. That could eventually happen in coming days when the rebels get the full picture of the creation of the Muslim battalion and fire all cylinders at the government. Thus the coming weeks would be crucial and a ‘make-or-break’ period for the continuation of crucial peace talks.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo