Minority dilemma

Print edition : January 01, 2010

Ethnic Muslim girls in Batticaloa. The Muslim community constitutes the oldest category of internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

THE Tamil and Muslim minorities, who account for almost 18 per cent of Sri Lankas population, are in a dilemma on the options before them for the January 26 presidential election. They have three distinct choices: cast their lot with President Mahinda Rajapaksa; vote General Sarath Fonseka, the recently retired former Army chief who is backed by prominent opposition parties; or field their own nominee.

Their predicament is understandable as it was their decision to stay away from the last election, albeit under orders from Velupillai Prabakaran, the slain chief of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), that placed Rajapaksa in the saddle. Once again, they are being coaxed and courted to take a call and be the kingmakers.

However, there is one fundamental difference between now and November 2005. Unlike during the previous election, today the minorities are theoretically agents of their own will. But, in reality it is a myth despite the best efforts of the parties that claim to represent them.

For the first time since the countrys independence 48 years ago, representatives of the Tamil and Muslim parties, including the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), met (between November 20 and 22) in Zurich, Switzerland, to take stock of the situation.

Although there was no fixed agenda, the objective of the conference was to arrive at a common ground and decide the future course of action. But it took place on an inauspicious note. The pro-LTTE TamilNet did not take kindly to the conference and denounced it as yet another conspiracy. In a feature titled Tamil, Muslim political parties find their table in Zurich, the website said: The move is said to be for extracting a joint proclamation of them necessary for further power manoeuvres in the island. A couple of years ago it was such a behind-the-scenes move of some powers that made most of these parties, except the TNA, rally behind Mahinda Rajapaksa and pledge support to him in the war that brought in disaster to the Tamils.

It mattered little to TamilNet that it was an extraordinary development. It is unfortunate given the unprecedented consensus arrived at in Zurich to develop an effective common programme to hold the government accountable for the protection of minorities and to act as a serious and dependable negotiating party representing the demands of the minorities in the development of meaningful proposals for reform in the island nation.

This has to be seen against the reality that the three minority communities (ethnic Tamils, Tamils of Indian origin and Muslims) have nursed grudges against the majority Sinhala community, the political establishment of the day, as well as between themselves. Political parties representing these groups are divided on many lines, and their affiliations vis-a-vis the majority parties are varied. Some are with the government, some with the opposition and others in-between.

Of the three communities, Muslims believe that they are the victims of majority as well as minority politics and for good reason. The minority Muslim community constitutes the oldest category of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka.

About 90,000 Muslim IDPs have been languishing in temporary government-run welfare centres in Puttalam since 1990. They were evicted forcibly from the North by the LTTE weeks after the last soldier of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) left Sri Lankan shores. Suspecting their loyalties, the Tigers robbed them of their land and valuables. An outfit championing the cause of the minorities treated a minority community living in the territory under its control in a callous manner.

The Puttalam refugees, who number one-third of those displaced in Eelam War IV, have so far figured as a footnote in the ongoing debate on post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka. The Tamil diaspora is silent on the subject and the international community behaves as if they do not exist.

Weeks after the Norway-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) between the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the LTTE, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Rauf Hakeem, signed a pact with Prabakaran that guaranteed the right of return for Muslims to LTTE-controlled areas. It remained on paper.

In its 2007 report titled Sri Lankas Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation think tank, said that immediate steps should be taken to ensure the security and political involvement of Muslims if a lasting peace settlement was to be achieved.

Developments thus far suggest that the spirit of Zurich evaporated even before the ink on the joint statement had dried. The joint statement said: We.., Affirm the historic meeting enabling an exchange of views, and express a full commitment to a common forum among representatives of all Tamil-speaking peoples;

Recognise Tamil-speaking peoples comprises three distinct peoples: Tamils, Muslims, and Tamils of Indian origin; Respect the distinct and separate identities, interests and positions of the parties;

Recognise and affirm the need for unity and consensus among the Tamil-speaking peoples while acknowledging differences with regard to some issues and the paths to pursue them. A press release said the parties agreed to a just and durable political solution in the island through a dignified, respectful and peaceful process and agreed to continue the discussions.

That the minorities are caught in a catch-22 situation became all the more evident when Mano Ganeshan, leader of Sri Lankas Western Peoples Front (WPF) and Member of Parliament from Colombo district, disclosed in a write-up on Groundviews, a Sri Lankan citizen journalism initiative, that his party had sent a questionnaire to General Fonseka and was awaiting his response. He said that as a party representing the oppressed Tamil minorities, the WPF maintained dialogue with all sources. We will be wiped off if we refuse to answer all the calls we receive. We cannot be another LTTE. We value engagements.

For right or wrong reasons, Ganeshan was the first to line up behind Fonseka and, of course, with adequate reasoning and safeguards, such as the decision of his party to keep the line of communication open with the TNA. He went a step further and beseeched the Tamils in the North and East to cast their second preferential vote to Fonseka.

Kumar David, an expatriate Sri Lankan, wondered in an article titled Rewriting history at breakneck speed:

It comes as no surprise that feral dogs have been unleashed to tear out throats and gouge out eyes; the surprise is that it has happened so quickly. Six months ago portraits of the heroic troika were carried through the nations streets in glorious victory pageants. After three years of murders, abductions, impunity in the criminal abuse of state power, and a civil war, the insanity has reached its apogee in the events of the last few weeks. Sri Lanka has become surreal; pinch yourself, wake-up, is all this really happening?

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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