Suspension of peace talks bad news for Sri Lankan Muslims

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Our Special Correspondent

Safar 29, 1424 2003-05-01


by Our Special Correspondent (World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 5, Safar, 1424)

The peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have hit a snag: the Tigers have boycotted the meeting to be held in Japan in June to solicit financial support from donors. A ceasefire in effect since February 2002 is now in jeopardy because of an announcement on April 21 by Anton Balasingham, the Tigers’ representative.

A letter from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), addressed to Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, stated: "In accordance with the decision of our leadership, I am advised to bring to your urgent attention the deep displeasure and dismay of our organisation on some critical issues relating to the ...peace process." One of the "critical" issues is the Tigers’ being left out of talks in Washington a week earlier. "In spite of our goodwill and trust, your government has opted to marginalise our organisation in approaching the international community for economic assistance. We refer to the exclusion of the LTTE from the crucial international donor conference held in Washington on 14 preparation for the...conference to be June," the letter said. Aware that they may be accused of sabotaging the peace process, the LTTE said "While we regret...this painful decision, we wish to reiterate our commitment to seek a negotiated political solution to the ethnic question."

Wickeremesinghe responded the next day, but his government was taking no chances. On April 23 all security forces were put on alert. Roadblocks sprang up in Colombo and other cities, with vehicles being checked for explosives and suicide-bombers.

The LTTE’s suspension of peace talks came a few days after the Tigers attacked Muslims in Muthur within earshot of army and police units. "Hundreds of policemen and Sri Lankan Army soldiers watched and did nothing as LTTE mobs armed with light machine guns, automatic assault rifles and grenades rampaged through a Muslim village in the Muthur area on Friday evening (April 18), as thirty journalists from the local and international media photographed the assault," the Sunday Island newspaper reported (April 20). A group of Muslims who had armed themselves with pistols, shotguns and rocks were no match for the heavily-armed, well-trained Tigers, who streamed past Kattaparichchan army camp in full view of soldiers and policemen, who were instructed not to interfere. "The mob was clearly from the LTTE, and it came from an LTTE-controlled area into the government area," according to the Sunday Island.

The Tigers attacked while Sri Lankan defence minister Tilak Marapana, accompanied by chiefs of the army, navy and police, hosted a conference of Muslim and Tamil leaders in the camp. A curfew was already in place, but the Tigers ignored it and the government refused to enforce it. Tamil sources in Muthur admitted having mobilized a thousand armed men for a possible showdown with the military, should it intervene. No intervention took place, despite the fact that Muslims were terrorized and army units as far away as Minneriya and Maha Oya had been placed on standby just for such an eventuality. Angered by government inaction, Muslims hurled stones at the army camp after the defence minister had left. The LTTE retaliated by burning fishing boats belonging to Muslims. Hundreds of Muslims were forced to flee the area.

Trouble had erupted in Muthur a week before the attack on April 18 by the Tigers, when they abducted two young Muslims. On April 16 the mother of one of the abducted youths committed suicide, and Muslim leaders vowed to take revenge. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leaders Rauff Hakeem, A. H. M. Azwer and A. R. M. Cader, all government ministers, and retired general Tryggve Teleffsen of Norway, head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), flew in and held urgent meetings to defuse tensions, without success. Several Tamil-owned properties were attacked, and one Tamil was killed. Despite a curfew and the use of teargas by police, the trouble escalated. The Tamils struck back, destroying Muslim properties and killing four Muslims. By April 18 the death-toll was seven; more than 50 had been injured, and hundreds had fled.

The army and police refused to intervene, fearing that the LTTE might break off the peace talks. There appeared to be a total para-lysis of political leadership: no orders to stop the LTTE mobs were issued from Colombo; the LTTE suspended the talks anyway. The government is so desperate to appease the Tamils that it is completely ignoring the rights and peril of Muslims in the Eastern Province. Muslim leaders also appear to have realised this; the SLMC has held several rounds of direct talks with the Tigers in the past year in areas under LTTE control. The Muslims’ overtures have been met with more violence.

LTTE violence in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts continued even after the ceasefire of February 2002. The LTTE threat to turn such incidents into full-scale war has paralysed the Sri Lankan government, which holds that the "Muslim question" cannot be allowed to disrupt the peace process. Muslim leaders regard this as an abdication of government responsibility, as well as a betrayal of the Muslims’ interests; Muslims are now demanding their own autonomous regions. Muslims have also been forced to arm themselves because the government simply refuses to protect them.

Publicly the LTTE has said that Muslims are welcome to live in the East and North, but in reality the Tigers have a long history of "ethnic cleansing", starting in the mid-eighties with Jaffna and continuing with several Muslim and Sinhala districts in the nineties.

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