On September 18, 2006, 11 Muslim labourers, engaged in the clearing of a reservoir at Rattal Kulam in Pottuvil in the southern part of the Ampara district in the Eastern province, were found hacked to death. While immediate popular anger, in townships like Pottuvil and Ulla, was directed against the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police, who were said to be in control of the area during the incident, the lone survivor of the attack, Kareem Meera Mohideen, recuperating from grave injuries, identified the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the attackers. The LTTE tried its best, to wash its hands off the incident by blaming it on the STF.
The killings had come a month and half after the tragedy at Muttur in Trincomalee district. Amidst ground fighting between the LTTE and government forces to control the town and its surrounding areas, at least 10 displaced Muslim civilians, who had sought refuge in the Arabic College in Muttur, were killed and several others sustained shrapnel injuries when LTTE shelled the camp on August 3. On this occasion too, the pro-LTTE website Tamil Net had alleged that the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was responsible for the killings. A day later, on August 4, 17 aid workers attached to the French Aid agency, Action against Hunger were executed with bullets to their heads. On the same day, the LTTE killed over 100 Muslims, including women and children, after accusing them of collaborating with the Security Forces (SFs). The victims had been intercepted by the LTTE cadres at Pachchanoor, while fleeing Muttur. The LTTE, however, on August 6 denied the charges. "There is no massacre as alleged by the Sri Lankan government", the head of the LTTE peace secretariat, S. Puleedevan said, adding, "We have not killed any civilians. In fact, we gave them notice to quit the area before we launched our operation." The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s search for the bodies lasted only one hour on August 16 following the LTTE’s threat to "shoot any one who dared to approach the forest".
As the situation in Muttur worsened during weeks of heavy fighting and artillery assaults, the Muslim population fled to Kantale, a predominantly Sinhala town about 60 kilometres away. By August 8, there were over 40,000 internally displaced Muslims seeking shelter in tents and in Muslim schools in Kantale. It was exactly after a month that, on September 7, the government announced that the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) would return to Muttur. Many returned reluctantly for the holy month of Ramadan.
Their stay, after their return to Muttur, however, turned out to be a rather brief. On September 22 and 23, 700 to 800 families – 10 per cent of Muttur’s population – left the township after the Tigers warned that they were planning an offensive to reclaim the territory lost to government forces. The LTTE circulated leaflets in the area asking the people to leave the area as they could launch hostilities on Muttur "at any moment". Families boarded boats in Muttur and sailed for the nearby Muslim-majority island of Kinniyai, as government forces refused to let them pass by road. Roadblocks were, however, removed on September 23, after meetings between the government and local authorities. government ministers also travelled to the area to try to persuade people to stay. But the residents were just too afraid.
It is interesting to analyse whether the recent incidents of repeated victimization of the Muslims, constituting 7.15 per cent of the country’s population of 20 million, is the result of their being ‘caught in-between different manifestations of the conflict at different moments in history’ – a collateral fallout of the long and bloody war, or a part of the larger goal of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE. As the LTTE is finding it increasingly difficult to face one of the most determined efforts by government forces, the Muslims are turning out to be its easy prey. While each of these arguments contains elements of truth, there is significant evidence that the Muslims have also been the victims of opportunistic policies of successive regimes at Colombo, for whom they are a useful, yet dispensable demographic.
The Eastern province – once predominantly Tamil, is today a volatile mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations. More than 31 percent of the country’s Muslims live here, making them a distinct opposition group in the LTTE’s homeland campaign, the reason why the LTTE has been stubbornly opposed to Muslim participation in the peace talks. The East, in fact, remains the last Muslim bastion after the 1990s, ever since the LTTE purged the country’s Northern province of its substantial Muslim population through a systematic campaign of violence. The LTTE’s forcible expulsion of the entire Muslim community of the districts of the Northern Province, numbering an estimated 75,000 in October 1990, was part of this campaign. [A Report by the United States Department of State quotes a much smaller number of Muslims, 46,000, who were expelled from the Northern province. The Report, nevertheless, however, qualifies this observation, stating further: "Some Muslims returned to Jaffna in 1997, but did not remain there due to the continuing threat posed by the LTTE."
Sri Lankan Muslims have also been encouraged and instigated by successive Sinhalese governments at Colombo in the hope of weakening the LTTE’s claim to the whole of the Eastern Province. Sinhalese governments have encouraged Muslim aspirations for a separate administrative unit for the Muslim-majority areas of the Eastern province. During the 1980s, it was the Sri Lankan government of the time – specifically the STF – that provided Muslims with weapons, ostensibly so that they could protect themselves against Tamil militant groups. By arming Muslims, sections in the Lankan government were also hoping to deepen the divide between the Tamils and the Muslims in the Eastern province. When the LTTE unleashed violence against Muslims from 1990 onwards, many Muslim youth picked up weapons, if only to protect their homes and villages from Tamil Tigers’ terror. This led the LTTE to view the Muslims as Colombo’s quislings. The close ties that the political organisations representing the Muslims, such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), enjoyed with the LTTE’s rival Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), further antagonised the Tigers. The LTTE ordered all Muslims to leave the Northern Province and periodic acts of violence were also directed against the Muslims in the Eastern Province. Thus,
In 1990 (August 3 and 11) 110 Muslim men at prayer in mosques in Kattankudy and 130 men, women and children in Eravur were massacred by a group of 50 LTTE cadres brandishing T-56 assault rifles, knives and razors..
In 1991, at Palliyagodella 109 Muslims including women and children were hacked and shot dead by the LTTE. Around 650 families were displaced in the incident.
In 1992, 24 Muslims were hacked to death in Kalmunai.
The BBC reports that, since 1996 and till the recent incidents in Muttur and Pottuvil, the LTTE executed over 30 attacks against the Muslims.
Even during the ceasefire period, beginning 2002, Muslims were being targeted through a systematic process of abduction, intimidation, seizure of land and property and economic restrictions, including 'taxation' by the LTTE. Muslims from Mannar and Jaffna who had returned to their old homes following the ceasefire, began to move away again to areas around Puttalam and Kalpitiya as early as first week of July 2006, following acts of intimidation by the LTTE.
While Muslims have been systematically targeted by the LTTE, the government has also failed to provide them the support that they need. Till recently, the government had pursued a line similar to that of the LTTE in excluding the Muslim representatives from the formal peace negotiations, thus contributing further to their sense of marginalization and alienation.
Responses of the Muslim political parties, such as the SLMC, have reflected their lack of faith in either of the two warring parties. In a statement on August 4, before the Muttur massacre was reported, the SLMC adopted a resolution that read:
"In the context of the fact that both the government and the LTTE <http://www.satp.org/tracking/Goto.asp?ID=24%20> are engaged in fighting, totally disregarding security of the civilian population, it is urged that the co-chairs to the donor countries should convene an urgent meeting to exert pressure on the two sides for immediate cessation of hostilities so that immediate humanitarian needs of the people could be provided… The fact that all appeals for urgent humanitarian assistance to the affected civilian population have been repeatedly rejected by both the government and the LTTE should be brought to the notice of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC)…."
Similarly, after the Pottuvil killings, the SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem called for an international probe with assistance from the United Nations to find out the actual perpetrators of the massacre. The demand was rejected by the Government, which said that Sri Lanka has the expertise to carry out a full probe. This has been a further cause of annoyance for the Muslims as the government had allowed foreign forensic scientists to carry out investigation into the August 4 killings of the 17 aid workers, of whom 16 were Tamils, attached to Action against Hunger.
It is in this context that the reported proliferation of armed Muslim militias in the Eastern province assumes importance. In fact, one of the theories that abound regarding the August 4 killing in Muttur, is that the hundred odd Muslim victims actually belonged to the Islamic organisation ‘Jihad’.
Indications do suggest that such periodic victimization is driving Muslims into the lap of existing extremist groups. Thus, unlike the past, when Muslims were by and large at the receiving end of violent attacks by Tamil Tiger militants, and of perceived official neglect, the Muslim militias now appear to be inclined to fight back. Islam in Sri Lanka – which had remained, by and large, free of fundamentalist and pan-Islamist influences of Pakistani origin – is now changing. districts like Batticaloa have becoming home to growing instances of Islamist extremism and have witnessed tensions between moderate and hardline Muslim factions. An unspecified number of people in the district have reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia for religious studies. In October 2004, followers of Sufi Islam in the town of Kattankudy near Batticaloa were attacked and their mosque demolished by mobs incited by orthodox Wahhabi clerics trained in Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that hundreds of Sufi Muslims were forcibly ‘converted’ to the orthodox faith. In the first week of April 2006, a policeman’s death in Batticoloa was linked to Islamist extremists. Women in burqa and hijab are increasingly seen in Muslim-populated areas from Kattankudy to the cosmopolitan capital, Colombo. Names such as Osama Group, the Muttur Jetty Group and the Knox Group, reportedly financed by ‘money from the Middle East’ figure increasingly in media reports.
While the September 22 decision of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to accept the Muslims as stakeholders in the country’s ethnic conflict, entitling them to be represented at future peace negotiations, could help meet some of the community’s political aspiration, it means little to the people on the ground, who continue to face the ire of the terrorists, with little support from the state.
Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow and Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal