Once again talks are underway to deal with minority issues which had turned this paradise island, a proud role model for the third world during independence in 1948, into Asia’s worst killing field.
However, despite all destruction and killings, even today, talks are confined to issues facing the Tamils, ignoring the plight of the Muslims, the third largest community living scattered all over the island. This indicates even today the minority issue is not clearly understood.
The defeat of the LTTE has provided a rare chance to solve the ethnic problem in a peaceful, give-and-take and live-and-let-live atmosphere. Such a move will certainly help remove deep-seated suspicion, enmity and bitterness and bring about unity. The ordinary Tamils are not asking what the LTTE had demanded while the Muslims, who suffered immensely due to the ethnic war and shunned violence, are seeking a dignified peaceful solution to their legitimate grievances.
The minorities seek equal rights and equal opportunities to live in dignity and safety. These are legitimate demands in a country where all communities once lived in peace and harmony until communal politics, both in the south and the north raised its ugly head, leading to the pathetic state where we find ourselves in today. One of the obstacles is hard line politics.
Veteran leftist politician and National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara in the course of his Bakeer Markar Memorial Lecture last year said:
“In the aftermath of the defeat of the LTTE, the majority community is entrusted with a great responsibility to address the grievances of the minorities. There are two groups of people in the majority community. One group which is, the large majority, wanted to settle the minority problem and restore peace and harmony. The other group, though a minority, claims that this country should remain a pure Sinhala Buddhist nation and the minorities should learn to live with this reality”.
A few years ago, there were even suggestions that Tamils should go to South India and the Muslims to Saudi Arabia. Such hard line positions are a recipe for disaster. The people who advocate such ideologies have learnt no lesson from the three decades of war which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, cost a staggering Rs 23 trillion, and caused economic destruction, untold misery and sufferings to all alike.
We cannot deny the reality that Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, multiracial, multi-language and multicultural society. However, what’s past is past and whatever happened had happened. The need of the hour is to learn lessons from past mistakes and explore every possible avenue to undo the damage to avoid yet another calamity which the country cannot afford.
Under the circumstances, a comprehensive package genuinely addressing minority grievances will certainly end outside interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, restore its dignity and even weaken the pro-LTTE elements of the Tamil diaspora. The delay in coming out with such a package has created opportunities for external elements -- of course there are plenty of them -- to interfere and even preach on good governance. For example India, responsible for much of Sri Lanka’s misery and suffering, is insisting on the implementation of 13th Amendment as if it is a divine document.
In fact, more than the Tamil issue, India is keen on opening the Sri Lankan market for Indian big businesses under its long entrenched policy of political subjugation through economic expansion.
Time and again, Indian leaders from Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to ministers and top government officials have emphasized on the grievances of Tamils.
However they all conveniently ignore the rights of the other minority -- the Muslims. Perhaps this stems from the Indian governments’ policy of ignoring around 160 million dehumanized, terrorized and brutalized Indian Muslims. Indian interference is something which Sri Lanka has brought upon itself.
India and Sri Lanka maintained excellent relations during the time of Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Srima Bandaranaike. Those were the days when Sri Lanka’s voice was highly respected at international level, especially at Third World forums. The two countries peacefully sorted out disputes over Kachchativu and the Indian plantation workers’ citizenship issue. The relationship was so warm that there were even talks that Mrs. Bandaranaike’s proposal to declare the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace in the early 1970s was an Indian proposal spearheaded by Sri Lanka.
These glowing relations were shattered by late President J.R. Jayewardene whose policies put the two countries at unnecessary loggerheads. To prick Jayewardene’s pride, Mrs. Gandhi, on return to power in 1979, financed, armed and trained Tamil militants.
What happened subsequently is common knowledge. The country was devastated by an unwanted ethnic war which led to a situation where India dictated terms to Sri Lanka, once an independent country. It is worth mentioning that politicians who created the ethnic havoc did not pay the price. Instead some of them flourished while innocent people paid for it with their lives while the country suffered.
In the midst, the Tamil National Alliance spokesman Suresh Premachandran stated the TNA planned to request Russia and China to urge the Sri Lankan government to work out a lasting political solution to the national question. This potentially devastating move may further internationalize the country’s minority issue.
Meanwhile the Muslim community today is not represented by any party or group as the Muslim political leadership has virtually collapsed. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a by product of communal politics, came with the slogan of unity. However, almost a quarter century later today the SLMC, divided into numerous splinter groups and absorbed individually and collectively by the government, has ended up like the Greek Tragedy. Muslim parliamentarians toe the government’s line and do not wish to take up issues faced by the community. Thus the Muslim community is like a ship without a captain in a stormy sea. Now that almost all Muslim parliamentarians are with the government what is preventing them from getting together and jointly seeking to enter the talks as equal partners?
Meanwhile Premachandran’s statement to the Daily Mirror Tamil online edition that the SLMC can talk to the TNA leadership, rather than participating in the current talks between the government and the TNA, not only is ridiculous but insults the Muslim community. The audacity to make such a remark is shocking. It shows that the TNA’s mindset is no different from that of the LTTE. This is a clear indication why the 13th Amendment cannot be delivered.
The home truth is that the Muslims are a separate ethnic community and memories of the past few decades remain fresh in their minds. It is the duty and obligation of the government to pay heed to the grievances of Muslims whose steadfast refusal to support the LTTE prevented the division of the country. Muslims paid a heavy price with their lives and property. They underwent ethnic cleansing in the North for not siding with LTTE in its effort to divide the country.
Where were the Tamil parliamentarians, civil society and the Tamil community as a whole then? Unfortunately this fact has been conveniently forgotten by all.
The country is missing the golden opportunity to solve the burning minority issue and lay the foundation for a genuinely democratic and liberal society. Isn’t it time that we sort out the minority issue, with a comprehensive solution which will address the problems of all ethnic and religious groups and help develop the nation?