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A stake in waging war against Tamils

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The announcement by the Sri Lanka Army last week that it is recruiting for a battalion comprising ethnic Muslims has drawn mixed reactions from a spectrum of observers of communal politics in the island’s contentious East.

Many Muslim community organisations have slammed the move as ethnically divisive, although the two main Muslim political parties, the National Unity Alliance (NUA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have both remained silent on the matter.

The militant Muslim United Liberation Front (MULF) welcomed the notion of a Muslim force, but was critical of its integration into the Sri Lankan armed forces. Some in the Muslim dominated Amparai district have welcomed the move, not least because it would provide the tsunami battered region with desperately needed employment opportunities.

The Sri Lanka military has been promoting the project as an effort to attract ethnic minorities into its overwhelmingly Sinhala ranks and as a ‘local’ force for the Amparai district. But the focus on only Muslim recuits, as opposed to Tamil speakers in general, or as residents of Amparai more widely have rightly raised suspicions about the military’s true motives. In either case, there is no obvious need for a specific Muslim battalion - the Sri Lankan military could expand it recruitment of members from ethnic communities and employ them within existing units.

Even the Sinhala-Buddhist monks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) have, without understanding the government’s subtle motives, criticized the move as an negation of the Sri Lankan national identity. The fiercely nationalistic party, which has a stake in the governing United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, is averse to formal recognition of non-Sinhala ethnicity in Sri Lanka.

The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has condemned the move as another effort to create a divide between the Muslim and Tamil communities. The TNA is basing its accusations on similar efforts by previous Sri Lankan governments to create Muslim armed units in the East and pit them against Tamil militants. The creation of the Muslim ‘Home Guard’ units in the early nineties was a key causal factor in the escalation of communal animosity and hostility in the east (a legacy of that era is the significant number of Muslims amongst the military intelligence commanders).

The benefit of Tamil speaking operatives has also been starkly evident in the ongoing ‘shadow war’ between the LTTE and the paramilitary units of the Sri Lankan Army. These organizations are able to carry out operations for which the military were able to plausibly assert deniability. With the beginning of the peace process, paramilitaries have been employed more than ever before in intelligence gathering activities and now the shadow war against the Tigers. Having a Muslim battalion will greatly assist the Sri Lankan military’s efforts to recruit and train Tamil speaking covert operatives - whilst preventing non-Sinhala infiltration into its wider body.

However, the formation of a Muslim battalion has repercussions beyond the use of Muslims in paramilitary activities. A less obvious but more dangerous implication of the formation of a Muslim battalion is the formal association of the Muslim community with the Sri Lankan military’s efforts to crush Tamil aspirations for autonomy for the Northeast.

To date, there has been no formal ideological opposition within the Muslim community to Tamil self-determination per se - only demands for its own self-determination. But the introduction of a Muslim battalion, with its own Muslim name, regimental colours and with recruits drawn explicitly from Muslims in the east, will bring with it a new political position for Muslims vis-a-vis the Tamil struggle: namely, Muslims become a participating community, rather than individuals.

As P. Sahadevan, an expert on South Asia at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, put it, ‘A Muslim unit is going to add to the communalisation of the Sri Lankan military. ... It is sure to create a divide between Tamils and Muslims.’

To begin with, this brings the Muslim community to have a practical stake in the conflict - on the state’s side. A similar politicisation took place in the Sinhala regions. The lower ranks of the Sri Lanka Army hail from rural areas in the south. Apart from integrating these areas into the war economy, this involvement has no doubt contributed to support for hardline positions on the ‘Tamil problem.’

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Tamil charities such as the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) reached out to the Muslim communities in the region as part of wider efforts to build communal relations. The LTTE also subsequently deployed political cadres and senior political leaders to the area to build Tamil-Muslim links.

With the formation of the Muslim battalion, the Sinhala government is seeking to create a structural obstacle to consolidation of Tamil-Muslim relations in the east and to begin to create structural cleavages in the region. Muslim political and community leaders have succeeded in maintaining a nominally neutral position for most of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhala dominated state. With a single stroke the Sri Lankan government and military have ensured this is no longer the case.

The introduction of ethnically constituted paramilitary organisations - particularly Sinhala and Muslim ‘Home Guards’ - during the early nineteen nineties led to a dramatic escalation of communal violence in the east. The state succeeded in pitting Muslims and Tamils against one another and the resulting massacres and counter-massacres left profound scars.

Over a decade later the LTTE, has enjoyed some successes in rebuilding communal relations. It is in recognition of these advances that organisations like the Muslim Peace Secretariat has condemned the Sri Lankan military’s move to create a Muslim battalion.

Many of the recruits from the tsunami-ravaged Amparai district to the new Muslim unit, drawn by the Rs. 15,000 monthly package, are unlikely to be reflect long on these aspects. But the Muslim battalion is, without question, going to undermine efforts to build Tamil-Muslim links. Like many of President Rajapakse’s other efforts to bolster the Sri Lankan military, his government claims it is merely a deterrent to prevent the LTTE from returning to war.

But whatever lofty rationale is presented, the Sinhala state is, as some, bitterly recalling the bloody nineties, quite rightly put it, positioning the Muslims as a buffer against the Tamils.

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