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All for Tamils, nothing for Muslims?

The community?s aspirations are thwarted and security threatened by the LTTE, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2006 19:39 IST

Sri Lanka’s Muslim parties and leaders are rallying round President Mahinda Rajapaksa, given his growing popularity and the weakening of the opposition United National Party (UNP).

The most significant development is that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which is currently with the opposition, has decided to give "issue-based" support to the government from outside. In effect, it is going to be an ally.

But the consolidation of the Muslims behind the Rajapaksa government is unlikely to result in solutions for the basic issues confronting the community.

These issues relate to the political aspirations and the security of the Muslims in the eastern districts of Sri Lanka, namely, Amparai, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

Here, the community’s aspirations are thwarted and its security is threatened by the Tamil militant group, the LTTE.

Participation in the government in Colombo or being an ally of the government in the Sri Lankan parliament, may help solve bread and butter issues, but not the "core" issues of political aspirations and security, political observers feel.

To solve the core questions, the Muslims and the government will have to interact with the LTTE, either engage it in meaningful talks or fight with it militarily.

Since a military solution is becoming impossible, given the internationalisation of the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, peace negotiations have become imperative.

But the negotiations held since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002, have been bumpy. They have moved in fits and starts.

Six rounds of talks ended in April 2003, with the LTTE withdrawing from the process, albeit temporarily.

Muslim issue not discussed

At any rate, the Muslim issue was not “discussed” at the talks, though the Muslim member of the government’s delegation, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem “voiced” the Muslims’ concerns in his interventions.

The LTTE said that it was not in favour of discussing the Muslim issue at that point of time because the talks were primarily on the Tamil problem, the crux of the ethnic question in Sri Lanka.

The talks were also primarily between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE, the “sole representative” of the Tamil people.

The LTTE did grant that the Muslims had issues, but said that these would be taken up later, after the Tamil-GOSL problems were resolved.

The LTTE also refused to give in to the Muslims’ demand for separate representation at the peace talks.

The militant group said that the peace talks were only between the LTTE and the GOSL. When issues relating to the Muslims were being taken up, the Muslims could send a delegation of their own, the LTTE said.

The talks were resumed in February 2006. But they were only on the “smooth implementation” of the CFA, involving the militaries of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

At the talks in Geneva, the government delegation did have a Muslim, cabinet minister Ferial Ashraff, but like Hakeem, she too could not go beyond stating her community’s problem.

The next round of talks is to take place in April, but that is also going to be on the implementation of the CFA in the light of the agreement entered into at the February meeting. The issues relating to the Muslims are not going to be taken up.

Core issues: Security

Security is the most immediate issue facing the Muslims of the Eastern districts. This issue is important because one-third of Sri Lanka’s Muslim population lives in the Eastern districts.

The Muslims of the East are land owners, transporters and traders. They have been upwardly mobile since the 1980s and have outstripped the Tamil majority in many walks of life.

Unlike the Muslims of other areas, they have been a political force. The SLMC is based there.

Muslim advancement is attributed to their consistent participation in Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics.

The Tamils’ relative backwardness is attributed to their involvement in separatist movements led by the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups.

The problem of growing economic disparities between the Tamils and the Muslims has been compounded by the Muslims’ resolute stand against separatism.

Such a stand had led to the Tamils feeling that the Muslims living in their midst were a security threat. The Muslims either had to be expelled or subdued by force of arms.

This attitude of the Tamil militants led to a series of actions against the Muslims from the mid-1980s onwards.

Says MIM Mohideen, of the Muslim National Peoples’ Alliance: “Hundreds of Muslims, men, women and children, have been killed and injured in the Eastern and Northern Province of Sri Lanka by the Tamil Eelam separatists.”

“Since the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord on 29th July 1987, more than 100,000 Muslims have been forced to leave their homes and billions of rupees worth of properties belonging to the Muslims have been pillaged and destroyed by the Tamils.”

In October 1990, the Muslims of Jaffna were asked to leave at gun point on 48 hours notice.

Today, 65,000 of them languish in refugee camps in Puttalam, north of Colombo. The loss to the Muslim community is estimated to be SLRs 5048 million (USD 50 million).

In his monograph, Position paper on the Muslim question Mohideen says that the LTTE has seized 45,000 acres of paddy lands from the Muslims.

Agricultural produce, cattle and vehicles had been regularly confiscated. Muslims were abducted and ransoms sought.

On the Amparai coast, in the South East, the LTTE had seized boats and fishing gear belonging to the Muslims.

“The politico-military strategy of the LTTE has been to weaken the economic power of the Muslim community,” Mohideen points out.

The LTTE has shown scant regard for the religion and culture of the Muslims, says the researcher-activist.

“The grenade attack on a mosque in Akkarapattu and the massacre of Muslims at congregations in mosques at Kattankudy and Eravur, as well as the cold-blooded murder of Hajj pilgrims in 1990 demonstrate the extent of intolerance shown towards the religion and culture of the Muslims,” Mohideen points out.

According to him, the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1987 and 1990, only made matters worse for the Muslims.

He accuses the IPKF of blindly supporting the Tamil militants or turning a blind eye to the anti-Muslim atrocities of the Tamil militants.

Mohideen says that the Tamil National Army (TNA) formed by the Varatharajaperumal administration, with IPKF’s blessings, had killed Muslims.

Over a 100 people were killed when the TNA attacked police posts in Muslim areas in Amparai district. In Karaithivu, 45 Muslim Reserve policemen were separated and killed in cold blood.

"The Muslims have been the most vulnerable community without protection and security," Mohideen says.

While the Tamils have the LTTE, and the Sinhalas have the government, the Muslims have none to protect them with weapons, he points out.

“It is unfortunate that the protection of human rights and the minorities has not been built into the MOU signed by the government and the LTTE (in February 2002). It is essential that human rights protection and minority safeguards are built into the provisions of any Interim Adminstrative Arrangements,” Mohideen pleads.

Political issues

Following the Tamils’ demand for autonomy for the Tamil-speaking North East, the Muslims also asked for autonomy for areas in which they were dominant numerically.

The Muslims were against the merger of the North and East to form one Tamil-speaking province, because they would become a very small minority in a merged North East.

They then asked for a Pondicherry type of arrangement in which Muslim areas spread across the length and breadth of the island could be brought under one Muslim administration.

With the worsening of the security situation from mid-1980s onwards, the demand for a separate political unit of the conventional type or the Pondicherry type, gathered support among the community.

The Muslims’ struggle to break free from the stranglehold of the Tamils and get separate representation, began in the early decades of the 20th century.

MC Abdul Rahman was the first Muslim representative in the pre-independence Legislative Council.

Following agitations, the Manning Reforms increased Muslim representation to three members in 1924.

But the Donoughmore reforms in 1931 did away with communal representation. This hurt the Muslims badly.

The Soulbury Reforms of 1945 gave much protection to the minorities. But the 1972 and 1978 constitutions drafted after independence, took away all the protective provisions. Both the Tamils and the Muslims suffered.

But while the Tamils began to agitate for an autonomous Tamil speaking North East and Tamil militants took to armed struggle to achieve an independent Tamil Eelam, the Muslims merely kept grumbling.

It was only in the mid 1980s that they began to make representations and that too in a constitutional manner.

On August 9, 1986 the “East Sri Lanka Muslim Front” wrote a letter to Sri Lankan President JR.Jayewardene seeking a Muslim Majority Provincial Council on the grounds that Muslims should have a share in power.

The council would comprise the Muslim majority electorates in East Sri Lanka.Muslim areas outside this province were to have separate local bodies.

The India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 shocked the Muslims of the North East because it united the Northern and Eastern Provinces to make a single Tamil dominated province. It gave no protection for the Muslims. Their demand for autonomy went unrecognized.

The merger had made the Muslims a small minority.

Though the Northern and Eastern Provinces have remained merged, the North Eastern Provincial Council (NEPC) did not last long.

After the elected Tamil Chief Minister A Varatharajaperumal declared independence unilaterally, the NEPC was dissolved and has not been revived till now.

This helped the Muslims. But the problems with the Tamil militants continued, increasing in intensity, in fact.

In the meanwhile, the Muslims of the East continued to participate in mainstream Sri Lankan politics with gusto.

The SLMC founded by MHM Ashraff became a major force in the struggle for power in Colombo.

Ministerial and political power under a unitary constitution enabled Ashraff and his successors to do a lot for the Muslim community in bread and butter matters.

There were political gains too. Local bodies were re-demarcated to create Muslim majority units.

But the need for a separate political council was badly felt. Ashraff pressed for a South Eastern Council.

But this left out the Muslims outside the South East. Ashraff then toyed with the idea of having a Pondicherry type of arrangement in which even non-contiguous Muslim areas could be brought under one Muslim council located in the South East.

Tamils’ objections

But the Tamils, moderates as well as extremists, rejected these ideas. They would not brook any tampering of the North East, which had been united after much struggle and bloodshed.

The Tamils also say that the Muslims are entitled to autonomy in cultural and religious matters but not political matters.

The Muslims, who are Tamil-speaking, must consider themselves as being part of Tamil polity.

The Tamils reject the idea of separate local bodies on administrative grounds. As one Tamil MP said: “You cannot divide these areas on communal lines because Tamil and Muslim villages exist side by side. You cannot have one village under a Muslim Pradeshiya Sabha and the next village under a Tamil Sabha.”

Sinhala stand

The stand of the majority community, the Sinhalas, is ambivalent.

At this point of time, they seem to support the Muslims’ demand for autonomy. But according to political observers, this is only to drive a wedge between the Tamils and the Muslims, the LTTE and the Muslims.

Going by their track record in dealing with the Tamils’ demand for autonomy, there is little or no chance of the Muslims getting an autonomous enclave.

On the security issue too, the Muslims complain that they have not got the support due to them from successive Sinhala-dominated governments in Colombo. They have been defenceless in the face of attacks by the LTTE.

However, Muslim leaders should also share the blame. By general reckoning they have not put enough pressure on the state to protect them. Extreme factionalism among them is not the only reason for this.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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First Published: Mar 16, 2006 19:39 IST