SLMC for ‘constructive dialogue’ with LTTE

by Amal Jayasinghe
— The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Saturday accepted talks with the LTTE, who have apologised for the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Muslims in their bid to create a separate state.

The SLMC said it was willing to engage in "constructive dialogue" with the LTTE as part of Norway’s initiative to broker peace.

The Tamil Tigers have evicted an estimated 100,000 Muslims from the northern peninsula of Jaffna in 1990.

Since then, there had been bitter acrimony between the Tamils and Muslims.

SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said his party welcomed the shift in the LTTE’s policy and was ready to open negotiations with the guerrillas next week to resolve their difference.

"A change of heart on the part of the LTTE is very welcome," Hakeem said. "We are willing to engage in a sincere dialogue with the LTTE."

Hakeem said all previous attempts to politically end the bloodshed failed because Muslims were ignored, but he hoped they would be consulted this time.

The SLMC in a statement Saturday announced Hakeem had been invited for a round of talks with the LTTE’s chief negotiator Anton Balasingham next week to resolve their differences.

Balasingham has acknowledged for the first time that the LTTE was wrong to have chased out hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990. Balasingham admitted that the ethnic cleansing could not be justified and that it was a political blunder, the website reported him as saying at a public meeting in the rebel-held Mullaitivu region Wednesday.

"Let us forget and forgive the mistakes in the past," Balasingham said, adding that Velupillai Prabhakaran was ready to meet with Muslim leaders.

He said the LTTE was willing to resettle the Muslims evicted from Jaffna as a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire stabilises.

Tamils make up 12.6 per cent of the 18.66 million population and the Muslims 7.5 per cent. Muslims in Sri Lanka consider themselves a distinct ethnic group in addition to being a religious minority and often speak both Tamil and Sinhalese.

"We do recognise the unique cultural identity of the Muslim community. Linguistically, economically and territorially the Muslims and the Tamils are inextricably inter-related and therefore have to co-exist as brothers in the northeast," Balasingham said.

Last month, the United States warned the LTTE not to jeopardise the truce that went into effect from February 23 and noted that the LTTE was harassing members of the Muslim community.

Both the government and the LTTE are set to enter Norwegian-arranged talks in Thailand next month to prepare the ground for a political settlement to the decades-old separatist conflict.