The ethnic tangle
and the dilemma of Lankan Muslims
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.
live concentrated in the seven Southern Provinces. Similarly the
Sri Lankan Tamil community in the Northern Province, with the Tamil
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.
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.
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
1. Ensure provisions
for the adequate representation in Parliament for the Muslims. This
becomes really relevant when the new election systems is spelt out
2. Ensure constitutional
safeguards for the Muslims by restoring the positions that were
available under Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution.
ensure equality of treatment in all respects vis-a-vis other communities.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
should take the following two courses to help the country and themselves:
should be taken for a cross-party Muslim formation to meet the President
and the Premier for the purpose of:-
upon the two to work out a common stand to resolve the ethnic question,
(b) seek the
assistance of both to ensure the position of the Muslims in the
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.
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
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
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.
is the president of the National Muslim Movement.