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All for Tamils, nothing for Muslims?

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

india Updated: Mar 13, 2006 19:22 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.

First Published: Mar 13, 2006 16:48 IST