Island's Muslim minority looking toward militancy to counter Tamils' growing power



VALAICHCHENAI, Sri Lanka, Aug. 18  On Fridays after

dusk, groups of young Muslim men gather in the

palm-fringed garden of the town's main mosque.  

Once they talked about work, or played carom  the

local version of pool  in an adjoining room of the

80-year-old mosque. These days they mostly talk about

how to counter the growing power of ethnic Tamil

rebels in the eastern part of this island nation off

India's southern tip. 

       In a worrisome development amid a truce aimed

at ending a nearly two-decade rebellion by Tamils in

this ethnic cauldron of a nation, police intelligence

reports say Muslim extremists are slowly prevailing

upon their previously quiet community to prepare for

armed resistance. 

       Most Muslims live in the east and they strongly

oppose a Tamil effort to include them in an autonomous

zone that the rebels are negotiating with the

government, which is dominated by the island's

Sinhalese majority. 

       Surrounded by the sea on one side and rebel

guns on the other, some among Sri Lanka's 1.3 million

Muslims are openly debating the need to take up arms

against the militants among the 3.2 million Tamils. 

       ''If you ask me whether I will pick up an AK-47

to fight for our rights, I may tell you, 'Not yet.'

But if I am pushed one inch further, I will,'' said

Abdul Naser, 29, who buys tuna from fishermen and

sells the catch to wholesale markets in Colombo, Sri

Lanka's capital. 

       Muslims, who are mostly businessmen and

traders, fear being made second-class citizens under a

Tamil administration. 

       They also don't trust the Tamils, who are

mostly Hindus. They say rebels have systematically

killed Muslims, including an August 1990 massacre of

130 people at two mosques on the same day, and point

to the guerrilla army's expulsion of 100,000 Muslims

from the Jaffna Peninsula that same year. 

       On the edge of some Muslim-majority villages,

armed Tamil guerrillas check every traveler and

collect taxes. In July, when the rebels called for a

strike to protest the arrest of eight of their men by

police, some Muslims traders ignored it and two

Muslim-owned shops were set on fire. 

       Some Muslims now want the government to create

a separate Muslim administrative district, an idea

opposed by the rebels. The government, worried about

alienating the Muslims, says it is trying to convince

the rebels that the Muslims be allowed to share power

with Tamils in the envisaged administration. 

       ''We have faith in our political leaders that

they will not allow'' Tamils to become the local

political rulers, said Mohammed Aliyar, 30, a teacher.

''But if they fail, many young Muslims will pick up

the gun.'' 

       A police intelligence report, part of which was

seen by The Associated Press, says Islamic militants

already have set up two training bases. 

       No one in the rice-growing area acknowledged

the bases, and many people looked away when asked

about them. 

       The report says there has not yet been any

serious weapons training at the bases, saying the

emphasis now is on raising the anger level of Muslims

and mentally prepare themselves for ''Jehad'' or holy


       A nation of 19 million people, Sri Lanka has

been relatively peaceful since February 2002, when

Norwegian mediators arranged a cease-fire after a

19-year insurgency by Tamils that has taken more than

65,000 lives. 

       The rebels and government have held six rounds

of peace talks, which have included a rebel promise to

drop its campaign for an independent state in return

for creation of an autonomous zone where Tamils would

have broad powers over their everyday lives. 

       But the rebels suspended talks in April  two

months before local elections were scheduled 

demanding to be recognized as the interim

administrators of the entire northeast pending a final


       Rebel maps of the proposed zone include all the

Muslim-majority areas in the east. 

       In Colombo, the leader of a key Muslim

political party said he opposes violence but worries

about young Muslims resorting to force if Muslims are

made to live in a Tamil-governed area. 

       ''We are aware of the risk. That is the reason

we want to use all our means to convince the

government that it should never sacrifice the interest

of the Muslims,'' said Hashan Ali, secretary-general

of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. 

       His party has 12 seats in the 225-member

Parliament and is a coalition partner of Prime

Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has only a two-seat

majority. The government could fall if Ali's party

withdrew its support. 

       That could be a blow to peace efforts.

Wickremesinghe's agreement to create a Tamil zone is

opposed by many among Sri Lanka's 14 million

Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists. 

       After British colonial rule ended in 1948,

sentiment rose among Sinhalese that their superior

numbers gave them the right to rule, and they have

dominated Parliament, government agencies and the army

ever since. Bloodshed erupted between Sinhalese and

Tamils in 1958, 1977 and 1983, when the Tamil

insurgency began. 

       Wickremesinghe's government says it is trying

to persuade the rebels to share power with Muslims by

allowing appropriate Muslim representation in the

proposed administration. 

       Rebel leaders say that they have nothing

against Muslims and that Tamils and Muslims should

coexist and live together in a rebel-run northeast. 

       Ali said Muslims would never allow the rebel

movement to run their affairs. ''We know them too

well,'' he said. 


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