The wages of passivity

Sri Lanka’s Muslims have long kept quiet while Tamil militancy has made its own demands. Now they are becoming restive, fearing that silence may have cost them too much.

By | Dilrukshi Handunnetti

If you were to go by the international headlines, the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict appears to engage only the two main communities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Yet when the conflict exploded into war in 1983, and in the more than two decades following, it was not just the two communities locked in battle that suffered. The impact of the internal war on the island’s Muslim community has been massive – and severely overlooked.

In Colombo, when issues of politics or peace deliberations arise, the ‘Muslim question’ has long been confined to intellectual debates and dinner-table discussions. This continues to this day, despite the fact that representatives of the Muslim community have for decades worked with the country’s majority-led governments. This has included the premier Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which reached a position of veritable kingmaker during the early 1990s. Nonetheless, Muslim concerns today appear as invisible at the national level as they ever have.

“There is a great disconnect,” admits veteran Muslim politician and current governor of the Western Province, Alavi Moulana. “Somehow, even combining forces has not helped provide powerful representation to Muslims.” Moulana says that Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is a peaceful one, and has regularly sought to adopt a conciliatory position on the ongoing conflict. As such, the seniormost Muslim politicians were always identified with the country’s two main political parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – before the need for separate Muslim-only political parties became an overt requirement.

The political landscape in Sri Lanka has changed drastically since 1983. “The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was the answer to a huge political void created by the previous Muslim political leaders, who allowed themselves to be completely absorbed into mainstream political parties that had little sympathy for the Muslim cause,” recalls the SLMC’s head, Rauff Hakeem. The SLMC is the country’s largest Muslim party, enjoying significant support in eastern Sri Lanka, where Muslims make up about one-third of the population.

Hakeem emphasises that these historical wrongs have contributed significantly to the present plight of Sri Lanka’s Muslims: “We are sandwiched between two communities. We are also victims of ethnic violence that was neither our creation nor our seeking. As a community, we have little hope. We opt to work with governments, hoping to give expression to the Muslim concerns, but we do this as a separate political entity.”

In late January, Hakeem and his group of four parliamentarians formally joined Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration, claiming that the new alliance sought to draw attention to a “community that is politically denied” – and, hopefully, to do so from a stronger political vantage. “By being in the opposition, we cannot positively influence change,” says Hakeem, who, on 28 January, was appointed Minister of Posts and Telecommunication. “We joined the government primarily with a wish to pressurise the government to resume peace talks. Secondly, we want to be accommodated as a separate Muslim delegation at future peace talks.”

Other Muslim politicians and activists – including National Unity Alliance (NUA) leader Ferial Ashraff and the head of an SLMC splittist group, A L M Athaulla – are similarly adamant that their community needs “special facilitation”. Notes Athaulla, now the Minister of Water Supply and Drainage: “The war has impacted terribly on the Muslim community. We have been systematically driven out from the northeastern areas we traditionally occupied. Originally, colonisation brought in large numbers of Sinhalese to the east. Then the LTTE evicted us from the north. Is it because we as a community did not believe in wielding guns and demand for a separate state?”

If the gun has fortunately not yet become an exercisable option, the push for a separate Muslim ‘unit’ certainly has. Even detractors of the SLMC acknowledge that the party’s creation in September 1981 (under the powerful leadership of the late M H M Ashraff) was a turning point in Muslim politics in Sri Lanka. The key achievement has been the party’s articulation of the need for a separate Muslim administrative unit in the east.

Administrative homeland
The relationship between Tamils and Muslims had been strained ever since the Muslim trading community first arrived in Sri Lanka – this tension has increased significantly since the outbreak of war. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers evicted over 16,000 Muslim families from their ancestral homes in the north. Some 6000 more were thrown out following the outbreak of war in 2006. Thousands of Muslims continue to live in refugee camps, with resettlement being a slow or nonexistent process. These systematic evictions and rights-violations, Hakeem says, stoked the Muslim community’s desire for a political party to speak on its behalf.

The Muslims of the northeast now constitute 38 percent of the island’s total Muslim population, while 62 percent make the south and central areas their home. Muslims constitute only eight percent of Sri Lanka’s nearly 20 million-strong population. “Unlike the Tamil community, Muslims do not flee as refugees to South India. This increases the number of internally displaced Muslims,” notes Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister Abdul Risath Bathiyutheen. “We may be just eight percent of the country’s total population. We have always lived as a separate community. And although we speak Tamil, it is only fair to acknowledge our separate identity.”

“The LTTE would not willingly share power with the Muslims in the northeast,” SLMC’s Hakeem agrees. “Though speaking Tamil, we are a separate community with a defined identity. The LTTE had little tolerance of our desire to have a separate Muslim delegation during the peace talks that followed the 2002 truce. As such, a separate administrative unit became a must, in order to protect our political interests.”

Many Sinhala political leaders acknowledge that Muslim views have often been excluded in Sri Lankan peace-making efforts. “This happened primarily because the conflict was and still is between the two main communities,” says a senior UNP politician close to the peace talks, who was unwilling to give his name. “It takes a while to become so inclusive, especially with the LTTE strongly objecting to the inclusion of other parties [in the peace negotiations since 2002]”.

Tracing a certain political desperation underlying Muslim decision-making, political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda insists that, from the commencement of a political phase geared towards a solution, the Muslim dimension was conspicuous by its sheer absence. “Since the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987, the Muslim question was never given due consideration. Muslims were largely victims of communal violence, despite having no direct role in the conflict.”

What has perhaps hurt the Muslim community the most in recent years has been the merging of the northern and eastern provinces following the signing of the 1987 accord. That agreement paved the way for the Tamil community to claim the merged provinces as its collective homeland, a position strongly opposed by the Muslims. “There is no denying that the Muslims were overlooked from the very first. We strongly feel that the eastern province should be treated as separate. It is a multi-ethnic province,” claims Hakeem, who continues to urge immediate political action to change the situation.

Having joined with the administration, Hakeem now hopes to be able to act more forcefully on the issue. “We included certain conditions in our memorandum of understanding, including a separate Muslim delegation at future rounds of peace talks, a renewed call for a separate Muslim unit to be carved out in the eastern district of Kalmunai, and a special mechanism to ensure human security of the Muslims making the northeast their home.”

At the moment, those hopes seem a long way off. “The east is now a pot boiler,” says Sunanda Deshapriya, an activist. “The violence has spilled over. Muslim politicians and thousands of civilians suffered at the LTTE’s hands, and due to the military engagements between government forces and the LTTE. Muslim communities remain passive victims.” Others warn that that passivity may be waning. Many observers, including Risath Bathiyutheen and A L M Athaulla, worry that with the increasing insecurity, Muslim youths may soon feel compelled to arm themselves – both in self-defence, and as a way to be heard. Such a move would be a significant and unfortunate change from the peaceful politics in which the older generations have for so long placed their faith.

Reproduced with the authors permission. First published in Himal Southasian here.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti is a political correspondent cum investigative journalist attached to The Sunday Leader, an English weekly in Sri Lanka. She has won awards for environmental journalism, and contributes to several regional publications.