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The Eastern Factor in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 05, 2006

    A flare-up in the fighting in the East, particularly in Trincomalee District, has put a question mark on the prospects of peace in the island nation. The Eastern province of Sri Lanka has been a theatre of war for more than 20 years, and, since the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement it has particularly been the stage for continued local level conflict due to its multiethnic nature. All three communities, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, continue to face severe threats to their human security such as loss of livelihood and internal displacement. Lars Solvberg, the newly appointed chief of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), recently pointed out that since July 22 when the conflict over the Maavilaru waterway broke out, "over 200 civilians have been killed and several thousand … internally displaced."

    Although the situation in the East, like in the North, has seen much violence, developments like the first ever internal split in the LTTE on the basis of region, the emergence of other Tamil paramilitary groups and the persistence of violence along with the assertion of a separate identity by the Muslim community have underscored the significance of the Eastern Province in the future of Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. Further, the emergence of the Eastern Province as a vital strategic point in view of the significance of Trincomalee Harbour, Naval Base, Oil Tank Farm of Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) and China Bay Air Force Base, further highlight its importance in any resolution of the ethnic question. As a result, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have given a great deal of attention to the armed struggle in the region.

    The Eastern Province is seen as more fragile than the Northern Province due to its complex ethno-religious character. The demographic profile of the Eastern Province makes it interesting, as it is critically balanced between Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. According to the 1981 census, Tamils constitute 36 per cent, Sinhalese 33 per cent, and Muslims 29 per cent of the region's population. Other than the regular infighting between the Tamils and Sinhalese, of late there has been an increase in Sinhala-Mulsim tension as well, partly because of the rise of Sinhala radical groups in these areas. For instance, the efforts of some Sinhala radical groups to put up Buddha statues in Muslim localities have caused tension in Pottuvil in Amparai District.

    Despite the cohesion provided by a common language - Tamil as a mother tongue - the Tamils in this region are divided on the basis of religion. Although Muslims mainly speak Tamil, they seek their identity in terms of religion and not in terms of language. Since the nineties, their assertion of a separate identity has been reinforced by their political growth in the East under M. H. M Ashraf, founder of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, and later under the leadership of Rauf Hakeem. Besides, it also questions the LTTE's 'concept of homeland' and its claims of being the 'sole representative of Tamils'. Of late, Muslim leaders have begun demanding a separate territory within the northeast in case greater autonomy is granted to the northeast as a whole under any power-sharing model.

    Muslims, who are mostly businessmen and traders, fear being made "second class" citizens under a Tamil administration. Their distress has grown visibly after the Tigers began to target Muslims. A watershed in this regard was the August 1990 massacre of 130 people at two mosques and the subsequent expulsion of 100,000 Muslims from the Jaffna peninsula during the course of that year. Muslims are predominant especially in Amparai district and in the divisions of Kattankudy of Batticaloa and Muttur of Trincomalee, all in the Eastern province, as well as in Puttalam in North Western province.

    The issue of the East in the ethnic conflict gained further prominence after Karuna's split with the Tigers in March 2004. For the first time, differences between the Jaffna Tamils and Batticaloa Tamils came to the fore. The underdevelopment of the eastern Tamils vis-à-vis their northern counterparts has a political undercurrent, and Karuna cited this as the sole reason for his decision to operate independently. His decision found wide public support at that time in the East. This division has serious politico-military implications for the LTTE in the East. For instance, its strongholds like Sampur were lost to the Sri Lankan Army. Till recently, Sampur played a significant role in monitoring and controlling the Sri Lankan military presence in both land and sea. Karuna's split has also emerged as a hindrance to the resumption of the peace process, besides adding a new dimension to the messy ethnic conflict. The danger for the LTTE lies in this undercurrent of eastern Tamil regionalism combined with Muslim assertion.

    Another major factor that strengthens the importance of the East is the reported collaboration of other Tamil paramilitary groups like EPDP, PLOTE (Siddarthan) and EPRLF (Perumal) with the Karuna faction. Apart from weakening the LTTE's base, the Karuna faction has also attempted to bring other Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE in one forum with the reported support of the Sri Lankan Army. These paramilitary groups are consequently beginning to exercise constraints on the LTTE's strategic and operational space. They not only employ mainly hit and run tactics against the LTTE but also engage in sporadic violence designed to make it appear as if the Tigers were the perpetrators, which they hope would eventually result in an embargo being placed on the Tigers. The net result of all this is that the LTTE has not able to effectively manage the territories it operates from.

    It is no wonder that the LTTE is desperate to consolidate its base in the East. The Tigers are trying to grapple with the challenge thrown up by the Karuna faction and other paramilitary groups and their preferred option seems to be to decimate the groups and their loyalists through 'hit squads'. The killing of 'PLOTE' Mohan in Colombo is a classic instance in this regard. However, the Tigers' approach to dealing with Muslims has been different. To tackle Muslims, the Tigers are trying to minimize their hostility towards them by avoiding direct confrontation. And on the political front, the LTTE has repeatedly warned the Sri Lankan government that the provision of help to Karuna's faction and other paramilitary groups would be a hindrance to the peace talks.

    Though there is uncertainty over the future of the peace process, these developments in the East have raised certain fundamental questions about the nature of the negotiation for reaching a final settlement on the ethnic problem. One important question is how far the Government and the LTTE could go without the support of the East in finding a solution. Secondly, even if the LTTE agrees to settle for autonomy under an agreed power sharing method, it is doubtful that the Muslims would agree to a handover of the entire Tamil 'autonomous' territory to the Tigers. The future of the peace process and the ethnic question would thus crucially depend on addressing the wider question of the East.