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Opinions vary on SL Muslim regiment

Sri Lanka has started recruiting people for a Muslim regiment in the army, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Mar 29, 2006 17:14 IST

The Muslims of Sri Lanka are divided on the establishment of a Muslim regiment in the Sri Lankan Army.

The Sinhalas see it as a positive step but the Tamils are resolutely opposed to it.  

The Sri Lankan Army has started recruiting Muslims for a Muslim regiment with the avowed purpose of giving a chance to the Muslims to enter the army and also give security to Muslim villages in the troubled Eastern districts of the island.

The 100,000 strong Sri Lankan Army is almost completely drawn from the majority Sinhala community.

One of the recommendations of conflict resolution experts has been that the army should be made multi-ethnic, with fair representation for the various communities living in the island.

Defence Ministry officials have been quoted as saying that the Army is hoping to recruit 500 to 800 Muslims in the first phase.

Muslim view

Some Muslims consider a separate Muslim regiment necessary for the protection of the Muslims in the troubled Eastern districts, where they are persecuted by the LTTE.

But others say that it will only increase the tension between the Muslims and the Tamils in those areas.

"It will exacerbate the problem, not help solve it," said Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the largest Muslim political party.

Many Muslims like Hakeem fear that the formation of such a regiment, meant for deployment in the Eastern districts, will raise the hackles among the Tamils and the LTTE, who see the Muslims as a threat to their movement for autonomy or independence for the Tamil-speaking North Eastern Province.

Tamil-Muslim differences had led to a lot of bloodshed and displacement in the North East since 1985.

Of late, the LTTE has been accusing the Muslims of having terrorist groups called "Osama" and "Jihad".

In the last peace talks with the Sri Lankan government in Geneva in February, the LTTE had given some information on "Jihad".

Of course, the Muslims have vehemently denied that there is any armed or terrorist group amidst them.   

"The Muslims had not demanded a Muslim regiment in the Army," Hakeem said.

"We had only demanded recruitment of Muslims to the police force so that the law and order situation in the Muslim majority areas in the East could be maintained with greater social and cultural sensitivity," he said.

"We are not opposed to greater recruitment of Muslims to the Sri Lankan Army. A national army has to be multi-ethnic and representative. Even a separate Muslim regiment may be necessary for the convenience of Muslim soldiers in view of their special religious needs. But this is not the time to establish such a regiment given the sensitivity of the issue," Hakeem maintained.

"A Muslim army regiment should be part of a final peace settlement of the ethnic question," he suggested.

"Government should have gone step by step. It should have consulted the Muslim political parties and the Ulema before taking a decision," the SLMC leader added.

Hakeem further said that the Muslims of Sri Lanka were a peaceful people who had never thought of fighting for their rights with arms.

"We have been asking for separate representation at the peace talks. But instead of conceding this, the government has given us a separate Muslim regiment which we never wanted!"

"The government seems to want our cooperation in war and not in peace!" he remarked.

IM Ibrahim, President of the Kalmunai Mosques Federation, said that the decision to set up a Muslim regiment was "not welcome".

"The Muslims had not demanded it. We suspect that it is meant to create tension between Muslims and Tamils," he said.

"The Muslims and Tamils of the East want to live together," he declared.

But MIM Mohideen, Secretary General of the North East Peace Assembly (NEPA), said that a Muslim Regiment was necessary because the Muslims of the East were defenceless.

"It is a very good decision and answers a felt need," he said.

"The Sinhalas have the Sri Lankan Army (which is mostly Sinhala). The Tamils have the LTTE and other militant groups. But the Muslims have no outfit to defend themselves," he pointed out.

"And it is better to have a well trained and well disciplined Muslim regiment in the regular army than a badly trained and ill-disciplined paramilitary group," he added.

Mohideen said that the need for a separate instrumentality for the defence of the Muslims had become necessary because   talks with the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups over the last two decades had not borne any fruit. Muslims continued to be killed and harassed with impunity, he said.

Tamils oppose

"The Tamils oppose the Muslim regiment on the grounds that it will create Tamil-Muslim conflict in the East and is a ploy to divide the Tami-speaking people on religious lines and de-merge the North and the East," said Suresh Premachandran, MP belonging to the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in Parliament.

"Tamil-Muslim tension began in the East only after the former Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali, established Muslim Home Guards to attack Tamil villages in the 1980s. The present step is part of this long standing strategy to divide the Tamil speaking people," he said.

"If there is Tamil-Muslim tension in the East, the demand for the separation of the Eastern districts from the Northern districts, now being made by the Sinhalas and the Muslims, will gather strength, and that will be used to break the unity of the Tamil-speaking people," Premachandran said.

"The LTTE's charge that a government-supported Muslim terrorist group called "Jehad", exists in the Eastern districts may have an element of truth in it. The decision to form a Muslim regiment in the army with recruits from the East may well be a ploy to regularise and legitimise the Jehad group," Premachandran said.

Third view

A third view has been expressed by Champika Liyanaarachchi, Associate editor of Daily Mirror.

In her column on Wednesday, she wondered what could stop the government from setting up a Tamil regiment also.

She said that a Tamil regiment could help the Eastern Tamils fight against the LTTE.

"Already there is considerable degree of support to the government from the anti-LTTE elements, especially in the Eastern province, and absorbing these into the main set up will benefit the government."

"While one could look at such a scenario purely from a militaristic point of view, such streamlining is likely to help the government's efforts towards bringing about a resolution of the conflict as well," Liyanaarachchi said.