By Dr. H.M. Mauroof


The ethnic tangle and the dilemma of Lankan Muslims
The ethnic imbroglio which was mainly a two-community affair has now been transformed into a three-way tangle; it involves all three communities, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, equally and intimately. Therefore, the success of a peace initiative has to depend on a satisfactory resolution of the problems and concerns, actual and perceived, of the three communities.

The Sinhalese live concentrated in the seven Southern Provinces. Similarly the Sri Lankan Tamil community in the Northern Province, with the Tamil

community of Indian origin living in heavy concentrations in the central regions.
In contrast, the vast body of the Muslim community lives scattered throughout the island. The Eastern Province is an exception; unlike in any other, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims live there in almost equal proportions.

It is evident that peace is the common platform of both the President and the Premier; the departure between the two is only in the methodology employed and the question of sequences.

Their objects and their commitment to peace are as solid as rock. Many observers are convinced that it is those who have encircled the two leaders who have so far successfully scuttled the emergence of a common stand by both.

The core positions of the UNP and the SLFP are not too far apart as to remain unbridgeable. Both parties remain wedded to the central position that devolution to the North and East are pre-requisites for the establishment of ethnic peace. What is therefore the prime need of the hour is for Premier Wickremesinghe to convince his colleagues to accept the reality that no one party can rightfully gain sole credit for the successful winning of ethnic peace to the exclusion of the other. President Kumaratunga has publicly extended her hand of co-operation, and, it would appear that Premier Wickremesinghe should grab it with both hands; then the hand of a statesman would have met the hand of a stateswoman.

There is no need for the two parties to coalesce, compromise or even co-operate on their respective stands on economic, political, social or other issues. But on the question of solving the ethnic problem the two have to work out a common stand; left to the two leaders, with their experiences, backgrounds and depth, they will be quite capable of producing the magic.

The Muslims
Now the Muslims. It is the Muslims who are, so to say, finding themselves in a soup. The primary reason for their precarious position today is because of their dispersed distribution. The vast majority of the Muslims live in the seven provinces among the Sinhalese. The relationship between these two communities, except for occasional hiccups, has been excellent though they speak different languages. Except for a few larger concentrations as in Akurana, Puttalam and Beruwela, Muslims live widely distributed among the Sinhalese.

In the prevailing environment of friendship and with the goodwill of the political leadership, Muslim concerns regarding the following could be easily ironed out:

1. Ensure provisions for the adequate representation in Parliament for the Muslims. This becomes really relevant when the new election systems is spelt out soon.

2. Ensure constitutional safeguards for the Muslims by restoring the positions that were available under Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution.

3. Constitutionally ensure equality of treatment in all respects vis-a-vis other communities.

Minimum yet genuine effort could bring consensus in these. It is noteworthy that direct Muslim participation at the highest levels especially with the UNP, and also with the SLFP had been of a high degree in the past.

The East
The real problem for the Muslims is regarding their future in the Eastern Province and also in the Northern Province. It is in the East that Muslims live in large concentrations. Although only 25% of the Muslims live in the East it is only from the East that the Muslims have been able to obtain authentic representation in Parliament. It is only from the East that the respective Delimitation Commissions were able to carve out electorates with a Muslim majority. Demographic facts were such that nowhere else were they able to mark out electorates with a Muslim majority; the Commissioners have repeatedly expressed their frustrations about the failure in this respect in their reports.

On account of the manner in which events have started to take place the Muslims of the East are suddenly finding themselves stranded and are in a state of helplessness; the reason is the threat the Eastern Muslims are facing due to their comparative post-Ashraff eminence in the East, a threat of being reduced to slaves. The provisions provided for in the ceasefire agreement have taken no account of them although they account for a third of the Eastern Province, and, together with the Sinhalese constitute two thirds of the population.

It has to be understood and recognized that the era beginning from the 1978 Constitution had been distinctly disadvantageous to the Muslims. During this period, President J.R. Jayewardene chose to wash his hands of the problems that had been created for the Muslims; the beleaguered Muslims were asked then to negotiate their future with the LTTE and seek the solution themselves; for the Muslims it was a position in many ways similar to the position they are in today.

The situation then resulted in a cross-party Muslim conglomerate led by Dr. Badi-ud-din Mahmud to travel to Madras, run from pillar to post, and conduct talks with the LTTE and others to extract some accommodation. But today unfortunately neither is there an outstanding personality like Dr. Mahmud nor an Eastern leader with the commitment and capacity of M.H.M. Ashraff.

After 1994 Mr. Ashraf was able to convince President Kumaratunga the need to offer adequate recognition and protection to the Eastern Muslims by appropriate constitutional provisions. These were contained in the draft proposals presented to parliament last year before the present Government assumed power.

For not so easily explicable reasons and despite the fact that they speak the same language the relations between the Tamils and the Muslims have not been satisfactory.

The LTTE had resorted to perform ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the North in the early 1990s and continued to murder and pillage the Northern and Eastern Muslims - a treatment in many ways comparable to the treatment of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Jewish treatment of Muslims in Palestine.

The ceasefire agreement, if continued in the form it is today, leaves the Muslims stranded in the North-East at the mercy of the very Tigers who have up until now done everything to decimate the Muslims in numbers, disturb their demographic status, damage their economic standing and try to demolish their day-to-day living modes.

It is the bounden duty of the UNF Government to provide for the safety of the Muslims for many reasons, the least of which is that more than 80 percent of the Muslims cast their votes to the formation called the UNF; the Government cannot get away from its responsibility by inveigling one of its appendages in Government to understate the task and later make the appendage a scapegoat. It was Premier Wickremesinghe who as the sole leader, signed the agreement with the Tigers and it is he who should take the responsibility to make unequivocal provision in it to ensure safeguarding the rights of the Muslims.

The Premier should not lend credibility to suspicions that he is endeavoring to pass the responsibility to negotiate the safety of the Muslim community to the SLMC or the UNP Muslim members of Parliament. The Government should officially take over the primary responsibility on itself and then seek that solution with the assistance of the above groupings. This assumes urgent importance because if the ceasefire agreement, as it is today, reaches fruition in Bangkok there will be in place in the North-East an "Interim Administration" under the LTTE.

It must be understood that if an "Interim Administration" is set up, there will be two administrations in the country - one in the seven southern provinces under the government and another in the North-East under the LTTE.

It is claimed that the LTTE is metamorphosing from a military outfit into a political one. There is no reason to reject this idea and disbelieve it totally. Anything is possible. But could the future of a most important and historic sector of the Muslim population in the East be consigned to great and permanent risk.

The Tigers have grown up deeply imbued with a terrorist mindset. It is not going to be easy for the Tigers to effect a smooth change into a democratic organization overnight. They are likely to face many internal problems with the Tamil public whose culture in Sri Lanka is deeply rooted in liberal and democratic traditions. However, it is a choice the Tamils in the North-East are making knowing full well the risks they will be facing.

But for the Muslims, taking into account the way things have been going on in the area a choice similar to that of the Tamils is absolutely unthinkable. Anyway, eventually the Muslims in the area have to live peacefully with the Tamils but with due dignity. Time will certainly help to heal the wounds but only in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not from a master-slave relationship. Also usage of a common language will help catalyse the process of reconciliation.

The Tamils have come out as a united body ready to negotiate because of the three Sri Lankan communities it is the Tamils who have suffered the most. As for the Sinhalese, both the SLFP and the UNP have accepted that devolution to the North and East is central to the solution of the ethnic question. All patriotic leaders should help the UNP and the SLFP to resolve the superficial differences they now have on the ethnic issue.

The Muslims should take the following two courses to help the country and themselves:

(i) Action should be taken for a cross-party Muslim formation to meet the President and the Premier for the purpose of:-

(a) calling upon the two to work out a common stand to resolve the ethnic question, and,

(b) seek the assistance of both to ensure the position of the Muslims in the country.

(ii) Accept the idea themselves and then to cause the LTTE to admit the need for a set of devolution proposals for the North and another set for the East thereby recognizing the differences between the two; the composition of the population in the two Provinces the North and the East is absolutely different.

As a result of provisions spelt out in the ceasefire agreement, it is the Muslims of the East and the North who will be at the receiving end. It is paramount for their immediate future that they help the emergence of a cross-party Muslim formation with the North/East Muslim MPs as the core.

This authentic body should, on the one hand establish relations and rapport with the LTTE and the TNA, and on the other, establish and maintain rapport with the Government in Colombo by themselves and in combination with the Muslims in the southern provinces. Such an arrangement will ensure that the issues and problems faced by them in the North and the East will be their utmost priority as was when Mr. Ashraf was alive.

To the North-East Muslims, loyalty to this party or the other is barely of any relevance today. Their local leaders should get galvanized and push their parliamentary representatives to take cognizance of the dangers right at their doorstep and take appropriate action immediately. Time is not on their side; they should act with a deep sense of urgency.

Asymmetry in Devolution is the key approach of the new proposals by the Premier. The demographic composition of the Eastern Province is completely different from that of the South and of the North. The facts and the ground situation in the East demands that asymmetric in devolution be extended appropriately to the East as distinct from the North.

The writer is the president of the National Muslim Movement.

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