Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Does Sri Lanka Need A Muslim Infantry Battalion?

by Dr. Victor Rajakulendran, Sydney, Australia

If such a proposal comes to fruition, the Sri Lankan government could come up with the idea of creating a Tamil battalion with the intention of absorbing the Tamil paramilitary groups that are presently deployed by the security forces in the east of the country to fill up the spaces vacated by deserting soldiers.  If and when these regiments become available for combat and, if war breaks out again between the security forces and the LTTE, God only could tell which side these battalions will be fighting on.

Yeah, that is a dangerous thing.  But the Sri Lankan government has a very good relationship with Pakistan and China, that is our worry.  Because Sri Lanka has been getting military assistance and training from Pakistan. And also they have very close relationship with China.  So, we are seriously worried whether the intervention of Pakistan in this matter, in training and providing assistance to the Jihad movement, will have serious repercussions. It may have serious repercussions in India, if India comes to know more about these Jihad groups.Dr. Anton Balasingam, in an interview on the Australian ABC TV, “Asia Pacific Focus” program on 24.03.2006.

Colombo: Sri Lanka is setting up its first infantry battalion made of only Muslims, the country’s third largest community, to protect Muslim residents in the east from Tamil rebels, the first ever exclusive battalion for any community, the government said.

Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said interviews for recruitment to this battalion will start tomorrow, Tuesday, and held for seven days up to April 5 at the army’s Combat Training School in Ampara.

The battalion will protect the district of Ampara which has the largest concentration of Muslims in Sri Lanka and whose residents have often been under attack from Tamil guerrillas.  Feizal Samath reported in “The Peninsula” Website on  28.03.2006


Muslims in Sri Lanka are linguistically Tamils and live predominantly in the Eastern region of the island.  They are the descendants of Arab traders who visited the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka for trade and took Tamil Hindu women as their wives after converting them to Islam.  The Tamil Muslims and Hindus lived in this part of the country without any conflict until the ethnic conflict started in the island between the Singhalese and Tamils.  In the East of the island Tamil Muslim villages are sandwiched between Tamil Hindu and Christian villages.  Before the ethnic conflict started, there were only Muslim-Singhalese riots and not Muslim-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka.  After the ethnic conflict began in Sri Lanka, political forces have sown the seeds of doubt and suspicion between the Tamil Muslims and the rest of the Tamil community for their own benefit.  As a result, there have been minor sporadic clashes between both the communities in the East, and, unfortunately, Tamil Muslims at one time had to flee the Northern region of Sri Lanka and become internally displaced people.

Creating a Muslim Battalion in the Sri Lankan armed forces has been mooted in Sri Lanka as early as 20 years ago, by the then Minister of National Security Hon. Lalith Athulathmuthali in the late President J.R.Jayawardana's government.  Although Athulathmuthali solicited and received support from the founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the late Mr M.H.M. Ashraff, President Jayawardana did not allow Athulathmuthali to proceed with this idea. Even though Mr Ashraff maintained that, if the State failed to protect Muslims, the community should be armed to protect itself from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is fighting the Sri Lankan security forces for the right to self-determination of the Tamils), he did not make any particular reference to a ‘Muslim regiment’ in the speeches he made during his eleven long years in parliament.

The late President Premadasa, who followed Jayawardana, thought that one way to checkmate the LTTE in the East of the country was to arm the Muslims as home guards.  During Premadasa’s time 500 Muslim youths were trained in the same Konduwattuwan Combat Training College in Ampara where the interviews are being conducted for the Muslim regiment now.  These home guards were deployed to work side by side with the Sri Lankan security forces as a paramilitary force in fighting the LTTE.  As a result, they ended up committing atrocities against innocent Tamil civilians, following the footsteps of their masters who trained them.  This in turn resulted in more misunderstanding between the two communities and lead to more killings and counter killings on both sides.

The Colombo media have quoted the Military spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe as having said that the interviews for this new proposed infantry battalion would commence on the 29th of March and continue till April 5.  He also said that these Muslim soldiers would be only deployed to protect Ampara district Muslim villages, which have often come under LTTE attack. Brigadier Samarasinghe has been quoted to have said that mobile recruitment units were dispatched to Muslim villages in the district and those interested in joining the new battalion could also report to the Combat Training School at Konduwattuwan Army Camp in Ampara.  He is quoted to have said that during the first stage the army will recruit some 500 Muslim youth and they will be given military training like any other recruit.  “The Muslim battalion will consist of commissioned officers, non commissioned officers and other ranks like any other battalion”, the Brigadier is supposed to have said.

Timing of this decision

Although Tamil Muslims rarely complained, nor struggled for that matter, about any alleged discrimination by the Colombo government, from the time the 2002 cease-fire agreement was signed between the Sri Lankan government (GoSL) and the LTTE, the main Eastern Muslim political party, the SLMC, has been clamouring for including a separate Muslim delegation at negotiations between the LTTE and the GoSL.  Although Ranil Wickramasinghe vacillated on this issue, President Rajapakse has openly declined to accept this request. 

Lately, the SLMC, which is in the political wilderness at the moment without enjoying the usual political perks it is used to enjoying as part of every government, has been complaining that the Muslim population of the east is not safe.  Although there have not been any violent threats against the Muslim community in the east recently, the SLMC has been raising its voice to seek government attention to them.  At the same time, President Rajapaksa, who would like to and is preparing to get rid of his dependency on the JVP to continue to govern the country in a meaningful manner, needs to bring the SLMC into his coalition to maintain a majority in parliament for his government.  The proposed Muslim battalion may be the carrot the President is dangling in front of the SLMC to attract it into his fold.  If the SLMC joins Rajapaksa's government, it could go and boast to its supporters in the community that they only brought the Muslim Infantry Battalion into existence through President Rajapaksa 

In the protracted ethnic war in Sri Lanka, both Singhalese and Tamil youths have sacrificed their lives in thousands, while few Muslims are yet to serve in the front line.  Therefore, in the same way the late President J.R. Jeyawardana got the Indian army that came for peace-keeping in Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE, President Rajapaksa may be thinking of using Muslim youths to sacrifice their lives in defending their country from the LTTE if and when the war breaks out again.  One cannot ignore the fact that several recruitment drives carried out by the Sri Lankan security forces to compensate for the mass desertions (some estimates put it to be more than 40,000) havw ended in failure.

The government’s announcement to create a Muslim battalion just a few days before President Rajapaksa sets out to visit Pakistan cannot be lightly taken.  These two events happening within a span of few days cannot be considered as mere coincidence.

The government’s announcement that it will create a Muslim infantry battalion, just a few days after the LTTE’s chief negotiator alleged in an Australian TV broadcast that a Jihad movement is being created amongst the eastern Muslims by the Sri lankan government with Pakistani connections, may be to distract the attention of the US, India and other interested parties from this Jihad movement.  The creation of such a battalion may fizzle out quietly if it faces the same fate as the last few recruitment drives of the security forces.

Possible Repercussions

No civilized nation has a particular regiment for a specific community or a race.  Any multi-ethnic nation would like to have all its communities represented in its security forces.  A national security force with separate infantry battalions for different communities could only encourage dissension within the organisation and encourage separatism.  Therefore, at this time when, for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka, some Muslim politicians are talking about a need for an autonomous Muslim region in Sri Lanka; creation of a Muslim regiment could strengthen such a demand and destabilise the nation further.

If such a proposal comes to fruition, the Sri Lankan government could come up with the idea of creating a Tamil battalion with the intention of absorbing the Tamil paramilitary groups that are presently deployed by the security forces in the east of the country to fill up the spaces vacated by deserting soldiers.  If and when these regiments become available for combat and, if war breaks out again between the security forces and the LTTE, God only could tell which side these battalions will be fighting on.

The Scandinavian Monitoring Mission has confirmed that Tamil paramilitary groups operate in the government-controlled areas in the east.  Under such a situation, the creation of another unit (a Tamil Muslim battalion) to perform the same functions will create enmity between these two groups, which could result in polarising further the communities these groups represent, and could cause more bloodshed.

President Rajapaksa, the commander in chief of the armed services, who was elected to power advocating the so called “Mahinda Chinthanya” has been paying close attention to the needs of the JVP and JHU up to now, ignoring the consequences of his actions.  Even the Sinhala nationalistic JHU has rejected the government’s proposal to set up a Muslim infantry battalion.   The JHU, which believes in the supremacy of the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka, views this government move as a threat to Sinhala supremacy.  Obviously, the JHU would prefer to maintain the status quo of a 99.9% Sinhalese manned security force.

More importantly, Muslim leaders have already warned that the move to create a separate regiment for Muslims is a ruse to split communities.  "Government of Sri Lanka is launching a Muslim regiment in Sri Lanka Army to widen the split between Muslims and Tamils. Muslim community should not fall prey to this sabotage scheme," was the unanimous voice of the speakers at the Muslim Council's Eastern Conference held Saturday the 1st of April in Lloyds Hall in Akkaraipattu, Adalaichenai, Batticaloa, chaired by its president N. M. Ameen.  More than 300 people, consisting of Eastern Muslim organisations, ullamas, educationists and political leaders participated in the conference.

In a letter addressed to President Rajapaksa, the All Ceylon Moors Association, a Muslim organisation in Colombo and other areas outside the NorthEast, has said that "no Nation’s Army in the world, defending its territorial integrity, has a particular regiment for a specific community or race, and members of our community are disinclined for the Sri Lanka Army to recruit Muslims youths to protect the Muslim community."


Whenever the Sri Lankan government has been compelled to come to an agreement with the Tamils to settle the longstanding ethnic crisis, the Sinhalese elite in the government has been instrumental in scuttling that process.  Therefore, at a time when the Sri Lankan government’s double game vis-à-vis the cease-fire agreement and the peace process is being exposed and it is coming under more and more pressure from the International Community to commit itself to a negotiated settlement, it is not unexpected for the Sri Lankan administration to rather desperately try new approaches; this one in the form of a Muslim infantry battalion.

The only consolation is that at least the wider Muslim community has the common sense to think with foresight and warn the government not to plunge into another disaster.  The only hope for the people who want to see a just peace on this resplendent island is for the President Rajapaksa, the Commander in Chief of the Security Forces, to prevail on those who are plotting to stage this coup, for whatever reason, and keep his country from another disaster.   

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