Friday, November 23, 2007

The Muslim factor in Sri Lanka

The Muslim factor in Sri Lanka
Syed Ali Mujtaba

The talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers, the first round of which ended in Thailand recently, signal the end of two decades of armed conflict in the country. They took place in the background of several confidence building measures including the lifting of government embargo to Tamil-held territories and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) honouring the ceasefire for more than six months.

The talks, facilitated by the Norwegian peace brokers, agreed to move gradually in a structured manner to tackle the easier issues first and move on difficult ones later. The fact that they agreed to meet twice before the end of this year suggests that the realisation has dawned upon the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government that the path of conflict resolution lies only in dialogue.

The first round of talks mainly focused on the rehabilitation of the north and the east, resettlement of the internally-displaced people, de-mining and troops withdrawal. Though the finer details of the talks have not been made public, the cordial manner in which it concluded suggests that some agreement must have been reached in otherwise seemingly simplistic issues.

At the end of the talks LTTE' chief negotiator Anton Balasingham said that through the talks, the Tamils are seeking "autonomy and self governance" in North and East of Sri Lanka. This could be worked out "if both the parties agree to a particular political system and a model of government." Balasingham added that LTTE's demand for self-determination and homeland is not separatist.

He said the LTTE is only seeking international legitimacy for the administrative structure in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The Tamil ideologue added that if these demands were not met, then total separation from Sri Lanka would be the only option left for them.

Going by mood in the first round of talks in Thailand, it appears that the Sri Lankan government is showing a great degree of flexibility. After the talks, head of the government delegation, G L Pieris sounded cautiously optimistic when he said that it is possible to fulfil LTTE's aspiration maintaining the unity of the country. But how far the Sri Lankan government may actually go in assuaging the Tamil aspirations can only be known after the conclusion of the final rounds of talks.

The LTTE's demand of recognition of the North and East as their homeland is subject to its coming to terms with the Muslims who form a sizeable section of the population in Eastern province and if rehabilitated, in the Northern peninsula too. They feel they would be placed in a vulnerable situation if the Sri Lankan security forces pull out in the North and East, bringing them under LTTE rule and exposing them to harassment and extortion at hands of the rebels.

In Sri Lanka's ethnic profile, Sinhalese Buddhists make up for 70 per cent of country's 20 million people. Tamils, who are mainly Hindus, constitute about 15 per cent, while Muslims, forming about 7 per cent, are the third largest group. Christians, accounting for about 7 per cent of the total population, are found among both Tamils and Sinhalese.

Given the sensitive ethnic balance in Eastern Sri Lanka, the Muslim factor has become an important factor in the conflict resolution. As many as 31.5 per cent of them live in Eastern province concentrated in the Amparai and Batticaloa districts. They speak Tamil like their Hindu compatriots, but project themselves as a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. Muslim majority Eastern district have been described by analysts as the weakest link in the peace process.

Muslims, who had always voted for the Tamil Parties late till eighties, changed their stance since the LTTE started its armed struggle in 1983. Their insecurity has made them closer to successive governments in Colombo and led them to demand separate administrative units tantamount to what LTTE is demanding from the Sri Lankan government.

This earned them the wrath of the LTTE which, in 1990, ordered them to leave the Northern provinces. As a result, 50,000 Muslims were displaced from the Jaffna peninsula and they have been living in tents and shanty towns in other parts of the country. It may be made clear here that LTTE did not targeted the Muslims due to religious bigotry but only to eliminate elements unsympathetic to the cause of the Eelam.

But things are changing gradually. Ever since the ceasefire was announced earlier this year, the LTTE has taken a number of steps to win back support of Tamil-speaking Muslims. Those wanting to return to the Northern provinces have been guaranteed safety.

In an agreement signed on April 13 between Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem and LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE vowed not to harass Muslims in the East. But this promise proved to be shortlived as anti-Muslim violence erupted in Muttur town in the Eastern district of Trincomalee on May 6. Then in late in June, a communal conflagration erupted at Valaichchenai town and a few other places in the East. Although there has been no incident since then, a fear has set in among the Muslims raising the doubts about their safety under LTTE dominated administrative rule.

To alley their fears, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran has recognised Rauf Hakeem as the leader of Muslim community and agreed that SLMC should represent the interests of Muslims in the peace talks. Hakeem, who was part of the government delegation in the first round of talks, is reported to have said that there are implications for the Muslims in every issue that will figure in the future discussions. He is to represent his party and community in subsequent rounds of negotiations and is scheduled to meet Prabhakaran before the second round of talks to discuss the issue relating to Muslims in the unfolding peace process.

In the Sri Lankan ethnic jigsaw puzzle, there are two knots that have to opened: one between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, the second between the Tamils and the Muslims. How they are going to untied remains to be seen in the subsequent rounds of the peace talks.
Mujtaba is a television journalist based in Chennai

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