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The Tamil-Muslim question – again.

An ever present component of the ongoing tensions in Sri Lanka’s restive east is the relationship between the island’s Muslim community and the Tamils – more specifically the Liberation Tigers. To many critics of the LTTE, the organisation is essentially hostile to the Muslim community to the point of chauvinism, a baseline assumption that is one of many underpinning the claim that its values are at odds with those espousing liberal democratic ones. Critics and opponents frequently point to the sometimes volatile relationship between the LTTE and the non-Tamil minorities residing within the Northeast to argue that the Tigers are not fit to govern. Sri Lankan propaganda routinely lays the blame for friction between Muslims and Tamils on LTTE provocations. The LTTE instigates communal violence, the argument goes, to advance its ethno-centric agenda.



A closer inspection of the relationships between the LTTE, Tamils and Muslim communities of the Northeast suggests this line of thought is an inaccurate representation of ongoing dynamics. If analysts approach the Tamil-Muslim question without a prejudicial assumption of inflexible LTTE hostility to the Muslims, then an alternative hypothesis becomes increasingly plausible. The dynamics around the Tamil-Muslim question in Sri Lanka has, for a long time, been insufficiently examined. And this has, in a perverse paradox, fuelled violence and communal tension.



Undeniably, relations between the Tamil and Muslim communities have been strained over the past few decades. The worst inter-communal animosity existed in the early to mid-nineties. The state created armed Muslim paramilitary groups which it utilized to fuel communal violence and open a third front in the bloody war. The LTTE’s counter-violence led to a spiral which devastated the fabric of communal relations. In a particular low point of communal relations, the LTTE expelled several thousand Muslims from Jaffna. The movement has since apologised for this infamous action and urged Muslims to resettle without fear. However there are other vested interests preventing this, a point returned to below.



One central – albeit changing and changeable - aspect of Tamil-Muslim relations that is often ignored amidst the critical and narrow focus on the Tigers are the sentiments of ordinary Tamils and Muslims towards each other. Communal animosities pre-date the LTTE and have continued separately, though clearly not independently, of the LTTE’s armed struggle. Apart from conflict-related violence, local resource competitions, state-sponsored (and violent) colonisation in the Northeast, and discrepancies in economic and other opportunities have all contributed to communal hostilities.



However, the fundamental question invoked today ought to be who, exactly, benefits from instability and communal tension between the two communities, and who does not.



To begin with, the LTTE’s interests, not least given its undisguised ambitions to govern the Northeast, lie in promoting stability and winning legitimacy amongst the residents of the region it is aspiring to administer. Efforts to fit the LTTE within the role of ‘conflict entrepreneur’ is no longer compatible with the organization’s position as one of the two state-like actors on the island. If it was a conflict entrepreneur as is argued, LTTE would unleash violence to promote instability and tensions to compel (Tamil) victims of the resultant turmoil to rally to the organization for protection. However a counter supposition could be the organization has grown to state like functionality and its imminent ambitions to govern means it prefers cultivate legitimacy to its rule in the target area. A close examination of the conduct of the LTTE and its associated organisations since the February 2002 ceasefire reveals a sustained effort in this regard to rebuild bridges with the Muslim community.



The most revealing – and undeniably most important – aspect is the LTTE’s response to outbreaks of communal violence. Senior LTTE political wing officials meet promptly with Muslim community and religious leaders to discuss and resolve the issue and to jointly urge calm and restraint on all sides. Contrary to the emotive and provocative rhetoric deployed by government officials and some Muslim political leaders, LTTE officials strive to avoid exacerbating tensions.



On a wider note, Tamil charitable organizations such as the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) also engage in projects in predominantly Muslim areas. The TRO, for example, has been involved in post-tsunami building shelters and homes in Muslim dominated parts of Amparai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai. There are also stirrings of cross-ethnic civil society relations: the TRO has donated computers and other material to Muslim Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), for example. This is not merely a question of assimilating Tamil-speaking Muslims. A notable effort has been to encourage the Muslim religion and identity in the Northeast. The TRO, for example, stepped in to fund the reconstruction of Ladies Arabic College, even as the Sri Lankan state ignored the destruction of the iconic institution.



In many ways, last year’s tsunami was an acid test for the LTTE’s conduct towards other communities within its areas of control – as was the Sri Lankan state’s. The results have been visible to both international and domestic audiences – and have been starkly different for both actors – but are frequently discounted by analysts who begin by assuming ongoing hostility and then setting out to find the evidence to fit, ignoring that which does not. It is not clear why, for example, the LTTE media (local and especially Diaspora) saw fit to highlight the acute damage in Amparai when raising the case for Northeastern suffering – as opposed to the state which blanked out the Northeast and concentrated on highlighting the south.



Within three days of the tsunami – even as Colombo blocked aid from reaching the Northeast - the Liberation Tigers sent six lorries to Amparai from Kilinochchi with emergency supplies and a lorry load of medicine along with fifty doctors for relief operations. As the death toll in that coastal areas rose steeply, LTTE cadres crossed enmasse into government-controlled areas to undertake relief efforts. As the LTTE’s top commander in the region, Colonel Banu told the gathered Tamil press, “we are not looking at this disaster in terms of Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese. Our concern is only with people hit by the tsunami.”



Compare the speed and scale of the LTTE’s response to the tsunami with that of the Sri Lankan state which is unproblematically taken, in contrast to the LTTE, to be seeking to build communal harmony. Two months after the waves struck thousands of Muslims demonstrated in the main coastal towns of the Amparai against the government for denying them tsunami aid.



A close examination of the conduct of the state and its institutions also challenges the assumption the state unquestioningly prefers communal harmony. Its role in resource competition is a case in point. The diversion of water from the Kantalai tank in Trincomalee away from Tamil and Muslim farmers toward Sinhalese farmers is a typical instance of resource manipulation undertaken with the knowledge that communal tensions would emerge and last. Tolerance of the provocative erection of unauthorised Buddhist statues in Trincomalee earlier this year and the subsequent civil unrest are further evidence state acceptance of communal antagonism in multi-ethnic regions. (The resulting civil strife provided the government with the cover to re-induct 2,000 troops into the port town under the guise of maintaining the peace, even though the ceasefire explicitly forbade such repositioning).



The pressing question now is however, who benefits from the violence and terror being stoked between Tamils and Muslims in the east? If the LTTE’s ambitions to govern the Northeast compel conduct to garner local and international legitimacy, then those opposed to the LTTE’s ambitions undoubtedly benefit from the frustration of its efforts to secure legitimacy.



Undoubtedly the overwhelmingly Sinhala armed forces are amongst those who do so. Apart from the regular redeployment of troops ‘compelled’ by potential communal clashes, the provocative construction of new bases are rationalised on the same basis: rising violence against the Muslim community in Batticaloa has, for example, been put forward as the justification of the establishment of the Navy’s first base in that district.



A glimpse into the role of the armed forces in instigating communal violence emerged last month when two cadres of an Army-backed paramilitary group defected to the LTTE. What was particularly revealing was the role of three ministers – an anti-LTTE Tamil, a Muslim and a Sinhalese – in arranging support and logistics for the Karuna Group.



On the other hand, there is the Muslim political leadership. Critics of the LTTE in the region often give credence to the inflammatory rhetoric of Muslim politicians – without subjecting the latter’s objectives and actions to the same critical scrutiny as the former’s.



At once stage, as part of its efforts to build communal stability and harmony, the LTTE briefly attempted to collaborate with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the mistaken assumption that the party and its leader, Rauf Hakeem, would both be able to speak unequivocally for his community and enjoy its confidence. However, it subsequently became increasingly apparent that the Muslim polity was deeply divided and embroiled in the patron-client politics and the SLMC-LTTE pact disintegrated, helped on the way by a relentless anti-LTTE tirade from Mr. Hakeem, around whom the SLMC, once the island’s largest Muslim party, was coming apart under internal tensions.



The LTTE has also been criticized by other Muslim political leader such as Mr. M. S. S Hisbullah and Ms. Ferial Ashraff. However, in a stark indication of their concern for communal harmony, both opted to share a platform with the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist supremacist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).



Interestingly, almost all leading Muslim politicians have opted to either back or remain silent on state-backing for the Karuna paramilitary group in the East - despite the fact that many of the hardships they vociferously accuse the LTTE of inflicting on the Muslim people having been inflicted during Karuna’s unusually long (17 years) term as LTTE commander of Batticaloa-Amparai.



A number of the major Muslim politicians have also been implicated in the misuse of tsunami rehabilitation funds. The Auditor General’s report criticized both state and local bureaucracies for widespread misappropriation of funds and the incompetence. Evidently Muslim leaders associated with the state, much like Tamil paramilitary organizations with political veneers, rely on patron-client networks developed through the (mis) use of state funds and resources to maintain their standing.



Conversely, the LTTE its efforts to assist the Muslim community have resulted in a productive network of alliances with local community leaders. A number of them have rallied round the organization over the past few months in the face of vehement accusations of anti-Muslim chauvinism. “Some sinister forces are spreading unfounded allegation in the South that LTTE is obstructing resettlement,” said Moulavi L. Shakil of the Muslim People’s Office in Jaffna, last month.



More pointedly, the Jaffna Masjid Mohamedia Jumma Mosque Committee declared in a press statement released a couple of months earlier: “we publicly appeal to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leadership not to use the resettled Muslim internally displaced families as pawns for its political purposes. If SLMC attempts to hold their general meeting in Jaffna we will launch a protest campaign on the same day.”



The point is simple: continuing Tamil-Muslim violence provides some Muslim political parties, including the SLMC, with a convenient bete-noir (the LTTE – and the Tamils) against which they can rally Muslim sentiments. In particular such violence and antagonism allows these actors to step forward as self-appointed defenders of Muslim interests against the ‘chauvinistic’ Tigers.



The theme has been appropriated by the Sri Lankan state and inadvertently boosted by the international community in demanding the inclusion of a ‘third’ negotiating panel at Norwegian-brokered talks to resolve the island’s ethnic conflict. The LTTE’s argument that Muslim interests must be catered for when substantive issues of representation are taken up and that would be a suitable point to ethnicise the talks was summarily rejected without consideration – again on the unquestioned assumption the movement is inherently chauvinistic.



However, there are inescapable signs, even if many analysts choose to ignore them, that this tension is becoming harder to sustain. The most promising sign of improving inter-communal relations between Tamils and Muslims and, in particular, the LTTE and Muslims, was the Centre for Policy Alternative’s survey last week which suggested that over fifty percent of Muslim respondents to their poll backed the establishment of the LTTE’s Interim Self-Governing Administration (ISGA) in the North-East.



In summary, the argument that the LTTE is determined to maintaining a state of tension in order to garner further support from Tamil community is incompatible with the organisation’s actions and policies and with unfolding dynamics. Were these to be reassessed against the LTTE’s political ambitions, its policies are demonstrably far more coherent in terms of building and improving Tamil-Muslim relations. The strategic value to the opponents of the LTTE of disrupting its efforts is also clearly apparent. The primary threat from state-sponsored paramilitaries is not their ability to threaten the LTTE militarily, but rather their capability to destabilize communal relations in the areas in which they are operating and thus derail this central pin in LTTE’s political ambitions.