Violent Muslim Mobilization in Sri Lanka: Some Questions

by A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Ph.D.

"Why?"  That is the question that has swamped many non-Muslim Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans when they hear of both isolated and relatively organized Muslim armed intifada or violence in the eastern corner of Sri Lanka.  Theoretically speaking, conditions, including unequal treatment, oppression and discrimination either by the state or dominant groups, could lead to political or armed mobilization.  In the context of this violence, this short article will attempt to look at the various dimensions of Muslim extremism in the eastern corner of Sri Lanka.

Why are Muslims (1) in Sri Lanka ‘rebelling’?  Is their rebellion mainly targeting the state?  Can the Muslim rebellion consolidate effectively, if it really exists?  At the least, these three questions should be answered to understand the nature of Muslim rebellion in the eastern part of Sri Lanka and to identify the roots of the movement.

Answers to the first two questions are simple and uncomplicated.  The Sri Lankan Muslims, who actively identify themselves as distinct from the Tamil, Sinhalese and Burgher communities on the basis of religious differences, are considered to be a most peaceful community in Sri Lanka.  They live in a relative peaceful atmosphere both with the largest minority, the Tamils, who have been fighting to establish an independent state and institutions in the northeast of Sri Lanka, and the majority Sinhalese who seek domination over the minorities, particularly the Tamils. 

Then, why are Muslims rebelling?  Academically speaking, it is understood that social, political, and/or economic grievances encourage communities to use either political protests or violence as alternative means of expression.  In other words, groups rebel when the state or dominant groups oppress the less dominate groups.  The more the state or dominant group oppress minorities, the stronger the rebellion of those marginalized.  This theory can be applied to identify the motives of the Muslims' rebellion.

The significant fact is that the Muslim rebellion does not target the Sri Lanka state as the Tamil mobilization does.  This is not to suggest that Muslims receive good treatment from the Sinhala polity.  It is true that Muslims have been affected by the state’s discrimination in education and the public sectors.  Indeed, Muslims became the first victims of Sinhala nationalists’ domination of the minorities.  The 1915 violence against the Muslims exemplifies the cruel face of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. (2)

The state or the dominant Sinhalese majority has not made a serious threat to the Muslims' identity and the community's existence as the Tamil leadership has done since well before independence.  The political motivations and actions of Tamil leaders from P. Ramanathan, who argued that the Muslims were Tamils in ethnic calculations but Mohammedans or Muslims in religious identify, to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader V. Pirapakaran, who forcefully expelled northern Jaffna Muslims in October 1990 (3), and, Muslims widely believe, is responsible for the massacre of over 300 Muslims, more than 120 of them in one ghastly incident at prayer time inside the Katankudy mosque in Batticaloa district in 1991, significantly contributed to the Muslim violent protest or mobilization against the Tamil minority.  Muslims' frustration has been gaining momentum because the LTTE is perceived to continuously keep its tough hand on the eastern Muslims: the LTTE are believed to be abducting Muslims youth in the east and extorting money from other Muslims.  In addition, Muslim non-participation in the peace process galvanizes Muslim youth.  In point of fact, the domination of narrow Tamil nationalism has broken the back of Tamil-Muslim unity, sown Muslim ethno-religious nationalism and led to the current mobilization.

Muslim nationalism initially led to the organization of a Muslim political party for the expression of their own identity in Sri Lanka politics in the 1980s, well before the Tamil cultural assaults leveled against the Muslims.(4)  The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), formed in the mid 1980’s by the late M.H.M. Ashraff, contested for provincial and general elections with the tree symbol.  The SLMC, which utilized Islamic religious rhetoric and Muslim nationalism to win Muslim sympathy, gained the northeast Muslim votes.(5)  The fact is that the atrocities the northeast Muslims believe the LTTE committed against them progressed aggressively only after the formation of the SLMC, which maintained cordiality with both with the Sri Lankan and Indian ruling elites.

Some observers accept as true that the M.H.M. Ashraff-led SLMC did not do enough to alleviate the difficulties Muslims faced during the period.  In fact, as a political party, the SLMC’s major aim is to win Muslim votes, nothing more and nothing less.  But the oppressed and discriminated against Muslims innocently expected more from the SLMC.  They expected that the SLMC could accomplish the positive role the LTTE played for the Tamil community to win Tamil rights from the Sinhalese-dominated government.  But, as a political party established by the business and educated elites, the SLMC itself had its own constraints and winning strategies to survive in the democratic system.  More to the point, the SLMC is neither a cadre-based political party to dedicatedly work with the oppressed Muslims in the northeast, nor is it a party to stick with Muslim democratic populism to campaign for northeast Muslim rights.  The SLMC’s narrow focus and myopia frustrated Muslims, particularly the youth, and their trust faded in the SLMC’s ability to deliver.  Cracks started to appear in the party following the mysterious death of its leader M.H.M. Ashraff.

The SLMC’s inability or its own limitations as a political party, directly or indirectly, deeply irritated Muslim youth.  Muslim expectations met obvious collapse, especially when the SLMC has been rocked by factionalism, with the mainstream section led by Rauf Hakeem and a powerful splinter group led by Ferial Ashraff, widow of the late M.H.M. Ashraff.  The more the oppressed group divides, the less they are able to win any rights from their oppressors.  This hypothesis has been well proved and is what led a section of the disgruntled Muslim youth to take a stand with the possible developing armed campaign in the east using Islamic religious rhetoric. 

In my opinion, the Muslim insurgency is made possible because of two significant political ingredients: first and foremost, the LTTE’s oppression of and discrimination against the northeast Muslims; second, the SLMC’s failure to carry out a nationalist agenda.  With respect to the second point, the recent study on the Islamist political agenda by Vali Nasar ('The Rise of Muslim Democracy,' Journal of Democracy, vol, 16 (2) April 2005, pp, 13-26) suggests that Islamic radicals movements’ political programs can be effectively challenged if the Muslim moderate parties or Muslim democrats formulate policies to balance the Islamists' agenda.  This suggestion is truly fascinating.  In fact, in this regard, the SLMC thoroughly failed to advance any sort of Muslim nationalism, beyond its election aims, to isolate the Muslim radicals' voice.  Sadly, its present precarious condition will not do any good to vehemently challenge the Muslim radicals’ aspirations, if the Muslim rebels exist in the eastern corner of Sri Lanka.

Our last question is: can any Muslim rebellion consolidate effectively, if it exists?  Actually, there is no hard evidence to confirm violent Muslim mobilization in the eastern territory of Sri Lanka.  It is also true that there are some frustrated Muslim elements that have been actively ‘engaging,’ particularly in the eastern province.(6)  Diplomats and military officials say there are links between these groups and Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the nature of these relationships is not yet clear.  Some Tamils have reported the presence of an 'Osama group' in the east; one group most sources insist exists is the so-called Muslim Defence Group.  One such Islamist group has opened an office at Kinniya in Trincomalee, north of Batticaloa.  A Muslim trader in Batticaloa admitted over the telephone the external links of the Islamist groups, but argued these links are 'purely religious' and confined to inviting religious scholars from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  However, ‘organized’ Muslim mobilization, in my opinion, still lies within the parameter of academic discussion.

It is not my intention to seek a clear picture of the existence of violent Muslim mobilization. The major purpose of this section is to share some preconditions for the survival of the Muslim mobilization. 

There are several domestic and external factors which have played significant roles in the LTTE’s consolidation.  In Sri Lanka Tamils predominantly live in the northeast of Sri Lanka, which has direct access to the sea.  This fact has played a big role in shaping Tamil mobilization.  The Tamil-dominated northeast is also home to rich deep jungle and other resources that are crucial components to any guerrilla struggle.  Significantly, Tamils had their own economy, largely based on agriculture, to support the mobilization.  In addition, the LTTE’s solid propaganda and information unit played an excellent role in advancing Tamil mobilization.  All these crucial internal factors helped the LTTE to have effective consolidation in the northeast, even bringing some parts of the northeast under their direct administration and challenging state control in the rest of the northeast. 

Needless to say, these domestic factors do not give any comfort to the Muslim youth who have ideas of Muslim militancy.  Any serious politico-military movement at least requires a geographical-military base and a solid economy to challenge the oppressive actors.  Though Muslims (41.6%) dominate in the Amparai district of the East, still both Tamils and Sinhalese occupy the rest of the population (59%).  Consequently, Muslims merely lose the strong base for their prospective struggle.  The LTTE’s biggest advantage is the strong Tamil presence and domination in the entire Northern arena.  This has led to the consolidation of their major politico-military base in the north.  In fact, the LTTE’s primary aim is to bring the majority and strategic parts of the north under its control, not the east.  They succeeded and later they gradually concentrated on the east where Muslims claim a large share. 

With respect to economic factors, it is true that the Muslims’ economy is reasonably strong in the east region.  Their influence in agriculture and small business is remarkable.  However, the eastern Muslims' economy largely mixes with the Tamil-dominated parts of the region.  Muslims would enjoy no economic progress if deep conflict builds up between the Tamils and Muslims.  Amparai district is a clear example of this fact.  Muslims will have to lose a large portion of their agriculture land and other benefits if any Muslim rebellion targets the Tamils.  Hence, rich Muslim farmers and traders would hesitate to back any Muslim insurgency; as a result, the Muslim rebellion would face its early collapse.  This is contrary to the Tamil mobilization, which benefited both from the farmers and the business sectors.  Moreover, any Muslim rebellion also will not enjoy strong external support as the LTTE once received from India thanks to cold war politics.  The LTTE still enjoys moral and other assistance from Tamils in India and around the world, including Tamil diasporas, and maintain good relations with key international actors.

There is a strong set of opinions that Muslims would obtain Arab and Middle East Muslim countries' finance and military support to strength the Muslim cause.  This theory does not sound rational, primarily due to the post 9/11 international political climate.  The point is that both India and the US will not license any free flow of financial and moral support to the illiberal and violent Muslim mobilization under any pretext.  That is to say, consolidation of the Muslim mobilization, in my understanding, would face grave obstacles both from domestically and internationally.

If truth be told, nothing would come from heaven to support or rescue the Muslim mobilization.  Those frustrated Muslims need to think comprehensively before they take any organized, drastic, violent measures to challenge their oppressors.  As an ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Zi put in his famous work on the ‘Art of War,’ "war (or insurgency) is the road to survival or ruin.  Hence, it is a subject which calls for careful study."  For that reason, in my opinion, perusing the idea of a Muslim mobilization or violent intifada to primarily confront the Tamil rebellion or to secure protection is not a preferable choice, therefore.  Any destructive Muslim attempts would meet a suicidal end.

Nevertheless, Muslims' legitimate concerns need more careful attention, and such concern should go beyond academic interests.  In fact, Muslim fear of LTTE domination is not imaginary.  It has been proved and, in my opinion, the LTTE is still continuing their narrow policies concerning the Muslim minority.  The LTTE’s unwillingness to allow expelled Muslims to resettle in the north, their inflexibility in handing over captured Muslim lands, the ban prohibiting Muslims cultivating their own lands and abduction, as well as extortion, raise Muslim concerns and escalate their fear.  Above all, the LTTE‘s tactical refusal to accommodate a Muslim group in the peace negotiations aggravates Muslim fear over Tamil or LTTE domination.

Then, what should be done to alleviate Muslim fears or to weaken the Muslim mobilization?  As a committed student of political science, I would not subscribe to the idea of the ‘destructive method’ to counter Muslim mobilization.  I think the situation can get better if both local and international actors act responsibly.  There should be a sufficient pressure on the LTTE to behave with the Muslims.  International leverage also should be raised on both the LTTE and Sri Lankan leaders to permit a Muslim group to actively participate in any future peace negotiations.  For the meantime, the SLMC needs to play ‘genuine and responsible’ political roles in the national affairs concerning Tamils and Muslims.  In this regard, Muslim political forces need to formulate their policies, not only simply to win Muslim votes, but also to support the reasonable Tamil nationalist aspirations.  In my opinion, violent Islamist or Muslim mobilization can be disheartened or weakened if the SLMC and/or other Muslim political forces do serious political business, which goes beyond mere political power dreams.  Also, the LTTE has a bigger job to erase Muslim fears and concerns caused by their policies which are seen as selfish and narrow.  The LTTE theoretically cannot gain much if the Muslims pose a serious threat to their development.  In fact, the narrow practices of the LTTE not only dismantle Tamil-Muslim relations, but also could shove the Muslim reactionary forces to control Muslim politics.  In other words, these narrow practices could seriously hamper the efforts of progressive Muslim forces or any forces pro-Tamil-Muslim unity to challenge the illiberal and narrow nationalist Muslim forces.

Briefly, the narrow and opportunistic policies of the parties in the conflict in Sri Lanka not only would encourage Muslim youth to lose their trust in their leadership, but also would lead them putting their hopes in the illiberal activities (based on politico-religious rhetoric), which would eventually lead to a disasterous end.  Sri Lanka already has shed lots of blood.  Therefore, our "leaders" need to think beyond their public office.

Footnotes -------------------------

1. In Sri Lanka, Muslims whose mother tongue considered being a Tamil are second largest minority group; make up over 7 percent of the total population. The Muslims in Sri Lanka populated the Eastern Province {(Amparai (41.6), Batticalao (36.1) and Trincomalee (49.6)}, particularly Ampara District, despite the fact that the majority of the Muslims are concentrated in the rest of the Eastern Province and are engaged in a variety of occupations such as fishing, agriculture, and trading.

2. Tamil political leader P. Ramanathan went to London to defend those Sinhalese leaders who were detained by the British authorities in connection with the violence against the Muslims. When P. Ramamnathan landed in Sri Lanka after his successful mission to London, he received a victorious welcome by the Sinhalese people and leaders all along the road that runs from Air Port of Colombo to the Legislative Council.

3. The mass expulsion of the Muslims from the north was carried out in the following manner. On 22nd October 1990, quite unexpectedly, the LTTE announced over loudspeakers in the streets of the Muslim settlements in the Northern Province that the Muslims must leave their homes, villages and towns, leaving all their valuables behind or face death. The ultimatum was that Muslims should leave this region within 48 hours from the 22nd of October 1990. In Jaffna town the time given was only two hours.

4. The vacuum for the Muslim nationalist party was filled in mid of 1980’s with the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by charismatic M.H.M. Ashraaf.

5. The SLMC leader Ashraff claimed that over 75 per cent of the Muslims had voted for his party. Many political observers pointed that this was clearly an exaggeration. It was nevertheless true that reasonable amount of Muslims in the conflict-ridden east had voted for his party, In fact, it was still a remarkable political achievement.

6. Suspected Islamic fundamentalists killed a young Muslim in Eravur, in the eastern Sri Lankan district of Batticaloa on Tuesday, apparently because he and his cohorts were indulging in "un-Islamic" activities, reports in the local media said. Prior to this, some Islamic vigilante organizations had issued a warning that they would not tolerate un-Islamic activities like consuming alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and misbehaving with women.

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Posted May 18, 2005