Sri Lanka- Muslim aspirations cannot be ignored
Syed Ali Mujtaba
As Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe are engaged in a continued feud over the handling of peace process with the LTTE, a new twist has emerged over the ethnic question in Island nation.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has constituted a high level committee to prepare a blueprint on behalf of the Muslims for an agreement with the Government as well as the LTTE to establish a separate regional administrative unit in the eastern province of the country.
The SLMC has alleged that the LTTE has failed to give them due importance in the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) which it had proposed to the Government as a counter-proposal to administer the eight districts of the North-East region. This has compelled them to spell out their own course of action.
In Sri Lanka’s ethnic profile, Muslims constitute about 7 per cent of the country’s 20 million population. They constitute about 33 per cent in the eastern province with higher concentration in Amparai and Batticaloa districts. They speak Tamil but would like to be recognised by their religious and cultural identity. The eastern districts are described as the weakest link in the Sri Lankan peace process being hammered out between LTTE rebels and the Government of Sri Lanka.
Muslims have made it clear that they will not like to be part of the LTTE controlled North-East territory which is sought by the rebels as "Elam" or homeland of the Tamils. They have taken a stand that in any compromise formula; Muslims should be given a similar guarantee by the LTTE in the areas dominated by them, as what they are demanding from the Government of Sri Lanka.
The SLMC, leader Rauff Hakim, who was recently in Chennai and is a minister in the Ranil Wickramasinghe’s Government, said that it was true that there was serious erosion of confidence among the Muslims in Sri Lanka as they were feeling marginalised in the peace process. He said that Muslims were angry with him because LTTE had flouted the commitment made to the SLMC to ensure the welfare of the community.
Hakim said it’s a reality that Sri Lanka is fast becoming a fertile ground of Muslim radicalisation. He reasons that the growing alienation among the Muslim youth is making them reactionary. He says the situation at the moment is not very alarming but do not rule out when it may go out of hand.
Hakim scotches off the rumour that Muslims are strengthening themselves militarily. He denied the existence of any Muslim Defence Force. He also said that there was no truth that Muslim Home Guards being armed to teeth. Hakim pointed out that they were merely civilians who were guarding the homes at night.
The SLMC leader says those engaged in the acts of extremism are not more than six to seven local groups and are not heavily armed. They have small following but warn that if they resolve to become human bomb then it’s going to be terrible scene out there. Hakim says that this dangerous trend should be stopped at once.
Commenting on peace negotiations, Hakim says that since the outset it had been specifically defined that Muslims would be represented in the talks as a separate delegation. However, this has not taken place. Hakim feels that there is a denial to the Muslims in the peace process as he has been attending the talks on behalf of the government and not as a leader of the SLMC. The Muslim leader said that peace talks are fast losing its credibility among the Muslims and appealed to the LTTE and the government that SLMC should be called separately for the talks when they resume.
The question of Muslim identity is well recognised in the Sri Lankan constitution, the Muslim leader said. Among the Tamil side of the divide, he said that moderate parties had always promised safeguards to the Muslims. The LTTE too had been of the same opinion and had specifically talked protecting Muslims interests at the Kilinochi news conference. This was further reinforced in an agreement with the LTTE chief V Prabhkran on April 30, 2002.
About India’s role in the Sri Lankan peace process, Hakim says Muslim felt betrayed by the Indo-Sri Lankan accord in 1987. The accord did not recognise the sentiments of the Muslims but he reasons that then Muslims themselves had to blame, as they did not had any political organisation to represent their case.
The SLMC leader adds that things have changed since then and India’s current stand that the interim solution should be the integral part of the final solution of any peace process is very balanced. India has made it clear that the de-facto status should not become de jure until it is acceptable to all section of Sri Lankan people.
Talking about the fall-out of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and India’s interest in Sri Lanka, Hakim says, it is true that India has lost its edge in Sri Lanka since that incident but there are two facets to this story. One that the LTTE has got emboldened that India would be reluctant to step into Sri Lanka. Secondly, it also feels threatened that India would never come to their side again. Notwithstanding these facts, India’s goodwill matters in the peace deal, says the SLMC leader, adding that it is New Delhi, which alone can bring the southern parties together and help kick-start the peace process.
As things stand in Sri Lanka, the LTTE has submitted a counter-proposal in response to government, which tantamount to asking for a de jure status of a separate homeland comprising north-east provinces of the island. The Sri Lankan Muslims-dominated eastern province has urged the Government to allow them to establish a unit exclusively by themselves with a view to maintain their identity.
All eyes are set on government’s response to the LTTE’s counter -proposal as well as to the Muslims’ demand. However, at the moment Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister are engaged in bitter feud over the handling of the peace process. The possibility of the dissolution of the Parliament looms large. Sri Lanka’s peace process has reached a critical stage.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contcted at firstname.lastname@example.org