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Monday, Jul 15, 2002

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Osama's shadow on Sri Lanka?

B. Raman

MUSLIMS constitute 7.15 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 19 millions; 31.5 per cent of whom live in the Eastern Province, which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claims forms part of its concept of a separate Tamil Eelam.

The Muslims of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, though largely Tamil-speaking like their Hindu and other non-Muslim compatriots, have projected a distinct ethnic and cultural identity ever since the LTTE began its armed struggle for Tamil Eelam in 1983. In this, they were encouraged and instigated by successive Sinhalese governments in Colombo in the hope of weakening the LTTE's claim to the whole Eastern Province. As part of their policy of divide-and-rule, the Sinhalese governments encouraged the Muslim aspiration of a separate administrative unit for the Muslim-majority areas of the Eastern Province.

This led the LTTE to view the Muslims as Colombo's quislings. It ordered all Muslims to leave the Northern Province a decade ago and there were in the past periodic acts of violence directed against the Muslims in the Eastern Province.

Certain distinctive features of Islamic activism in the Eastern Province need to be highlighted:

  • It has generally taken an anti-LTTE and not an establishment (Colombo) turn.

  • It has remained, by and large, free of fundamentalist and pan-Islamic influences of Pakistani origin which stress the importance of trans-national Islamic solidarity as against national solidarity and loyalty to the Ummah as against loyalty to the nation of which a Muslim is a citizen or resident.

  • The pan-Islamic ill winds of Pakistani and Osama bin Laden inspiration, which have been blowing towards the East from the Pakistan-Afghanistan epicentre of Islamic extremism ever since the Taliban made its appearance in 1994, had till September 11, 2001, largely left the Muslims of Sri Lanka untouched. There was no significant influx of Sri Lankan Muslims into Pakistani madrasas to be trained in jehad compared to the sizable influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Southern Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Philippines. There were no reports of Sri Lankan Muslims fighting as members of the Pakistani jehadi organisations in Afghanistan, either against the Northern Alliance before October 7, 2001, or later against the US-led international coalition. In fact, many Muslims joined the Buddhists of Sri Lanka in condemning the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statue in Bamiyan early last year.

    A report submitted in 1995 to Mrs Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, by the Karachi Police had highlighted the threats to law and order in the city arising from the large-scale illegal migration of Muslims from Bangladesh and Myanmar's Arakan area. It also referred to the presence of some Sri Lankan Muslims in the illegal immigrant population of Karachi, but did not indicate their number. They had apparently fled to Karachi, fearing threats to their lives from the LTTE. However, there were no reports of any of them participating in jehadi activities.

    Delegations of Pakistani jehadi organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HUJI) periodically visit South-East Asian countries under the cover of volunteers of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) of Pakistan, but even they have generally been keeping away from Sri Lanka.

    The policy hitherto followed by the Pakistani jehadi organisations of keeping away from Sri Lanka could be largely attributed to the LTTE's good relations with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its assistance to organisations such as the HUM in clandestinely transporting arms and ammunition to the Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim separatist groups of Southern Philippines and narcotics to Western countries. The LTTE ship, in which the late Kittu was travelling in 1993, which was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard, was carrying a consignment of arms and ammunition loaded in the Karachi harbour with the connivance of the Pakistan Navy and the ISI.

    Despite the LTTE's anti-Muslim policies, the ISI helped it, possibly in gratitude for its action in eliminating Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Though there was no evidence of any ISI role in the assassination, it apparently saw it as having contributed to Pakistan's strategic objectives vis--vis India.

    Despite this keep-off-Sri Lanka-Muslims policy followed by the ISI and Pakistan's jehadi organisations in the past, pamphlets originating in Pakistan had been circulating through the Internet and other means describing Tamil Muslims as the Bhumiputras (sons of the soil) of the Eastern Province, calling for the creation of two homelands for the Muslims of Sri Lanka — one for those speaking Tamil and the other for those speaking Sinhalese — and stressing the importance of close co-operation among the Muslim activists of Sri Lanka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, such propaganda material did not appear to have originated from any of the known jehadi/extremist organisations. The use of the word Bhumiputras could also indicate a possible Malaysian extremist hand.

    Since the US-led international coalition started its so-called war against terrorism in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, there have been reports of expression of pro-Osama bin Laden sympathies and anti-US views by sections of the Muslim youth in Sri Lanka, including the Eastern Province. Since the agreement on a ceasefire reached with the Sri Lankan Government earlier this year, the LTTE has taken a number of steps to win back the support of Tamil-speaking Muslims, including an agreement reached on the subject with Mr Rauff Hakeem of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a Minister in the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe, to assure safeguards for the Muslims wanting to return to the Northern Province.

    Despite this, there were indications of growing unhappiness and concern among sections of the Muslim youth, who have been described as admirers of Osama bin Laden and constituting the hard-core of what has been called an Osama group, over the perceived willingness of the Prime Minister to concede at the planned talks with the LTTE in Thailand its demand for an interim administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be run by the LTTE even before it gave up its advocacy of an armed struggle and reached a final political solution of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem with the government. The leaders of this so-called Osama group have not so far been identified.

    There was considerable resentment among the Muslim population in Amparai and Batticaloa over what was perceived as the browbeating of the Muslim population by the LTTE political cadres re-inducted into the Province after the ceasefire and their action in allegedly extorting taxes from Muslim businessmen and shopkeepers. This so-called Osama group went about appealing to the Muslims to resist the LTTE's demands for money.

    The resulting tension led to violent incidents last week between Muslim youths and Hindu sympathisers of the LTTE, including its political cadres.

    The Government was forced to impose a curfew to bring the situation under control, which has since been lifted. However, the situation continues to be tense. The unrest began in Muthur, near Trincomalee, after the Osama group called for a general strike to protest against alleged extortion by the LTTE. During the strike, a local LTTE office was allegedly attacked by some Muslim youth. This led to violent retaliation by pro-LTTE elements, including its cadres. Violence then spread south to Valaichchenai, near Batticaloa, which was the worst-affected. Even though the Muslims initiated the attack, they were the ultimate sufferers. In the riots, 9 Muslims and 2 Hindus were killed and 61 Muslim and 35 Hindu business establishments were destroyed.

    (The author is former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.)

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