Muslim concerns

Print edition : August 24, 2007

The liberation of the east heightens the anxieties of the Muslim community about its role in the new scheme of things.

in Colombo

A Muslim woman cries as she and thousands of civilians evacuate from the Muthur battle front to a government-controlled safe area in Thoper village near Trincomalee. An August 2006 photograph.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

A Muslim woman

IT was a breezy July evening. At a seaside club close to the Presidential Palace in Colombo, the citys elite had gathered to enjoy the performance of a foreign cultural troupe. As the show ended, a Tamil businessman sighted a fellow Muslim entrepreneur and yelled across, Brother, didnt I tell you two months ago your turn would come sooner than later. The reference was to the cases of abduction of half a dozen prominent Muslim businessmen for ransom in the previous weeks.

The Muslim gentleman gathered his wits and shouted back: Yes, you proved right. But just wait and watch for the retribution. The revolution is round the corner and I mean it. On the face of it, it was merely spirited banter between two business friends. But unwittingly it brought to the fore the growing bitterness of the elite Muslim community towards the system. Abductions have been a regular feature since the escalation of hostilities between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) over a year ago.

Until recently, most of the victims were Tamils, which gave the act a racial twist. The tactic assumed a new dimension when the unidentified abductors began targeting the Muslim community. Fearful of their safety, some prominent business families chose to leave the country. According to conservative estimates, over two dozen Muslim businessmen have wound up their establishments and virtually fled the country. The panic in the community was so widespread that President Mahinda Rajapaksa not only made it a point to reach out with a promise of ensuring its safety but also fielded the Muslim Ministers in his government to address the fears of the community at large. The measure has not helped much in the wake of persistent reports about the plight of ordinary Muslims in the liberated east. The Tamil Tigers have been ousted by government forces from all their bases in the east but the vacuum has been allowed to be filled up by paramilitary forces (in Sri Lankan parlance this simply refers to forces wielding weapons illegally).

Ironically, the anxieties of the Muslims seem to have accentuated after the liberation of the east. Serious concerns have been voiced about the place of the community, which accounts for over 8 per cent of the countrys population, in the new scheme of things envisaged by the government in the Eastern province.

The crux of the problem lies in the failure of successive governments to factor in the aspirations of the Muslims in the quest for resolution of the strife between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The strife has been erroneously viewed through the prism of ethnicity, ignoring the serious tensions between the Muslims and the Sinhalese on the one hand, and the Muslims and the Tamils on the other.

Earlier Muslims were not counted as a separate category on the grounds that the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of them is Tamil. Unfortunately, this premise is no longer valid in view of the decades-long ethnic-cleansing operations, large-scale targeted killings, and abductions carried out largely by the LTTE and to some extent by the Sinhalese. It may be politically incorrect to add religious identity as a factor to the already volatile situation in the island nation, but the ground realities cannot be ignored.

The LTTEs terror tactics and the indifference of successive governments have led to a situation where Muslims, who once co-existed with the Sinhalese and the Tamils, have consciously started asserting their religious identity. The aftermath of 9/11, as in other parts of the world, has reinforced this attitude of Sri Lankan Muslims.

A recent report, titled Sri Lanka Muslims: Caught in the Cross Fire, by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a multinational non-governmental organisation engaged in reporting on conflict situations, says about the trials and tribulations of the community during the 20-odd years of ethnic strife: The views of the countrys Muslims, who are 8 per cent of the population and see themselves as a separate ethnic group, have largely been ignored. Understanding their role in the conflict and addressing their political aspirations are vital if there is to be a lasting peace settlement.

The ICG notes that Muslims need to be part of any renewed peace process. But with both the government and the LTTE intent on continuing the conflict, more immediate steps should be taken to ensure their security and involve them politically. These include control of the breakaway LTTE faction led by Col Karuna in the east, more responsive local and national governments, improved human rights mechanisms, and a serious political strategy that recognises minority concerns in the east.

Various parties to the conflict have done precious little to allay the apprehensions of the Muslim community. Mass expulsion of the community from Jaffna in 1990 by the LTTE best illustrates the point. Over 75,000 Muslims were forced out of the Northern province at 48 hours notice; in Jaffna they were asked to leave in two hours with permission to take just 150 Sri Lankan rupees with them. After 17 years, most of them continue to live in makeshift refugee camps in Puttalam district.

The Muslims hopes of a new dawn in the east following the emergence of the Karuna faction in 2004 were dashed. Some leaders of the community have gone to the extent of saying that the Karuna group is a carbon copy of the LTTE in respect of the Muslim community. The Rajapaksa governments lenient attitude towards the Karuna group has left the community with little choice but to fend for itself. Ground reports talk of rancorous disputes between the Tamils and Muslims over land and resources, particularly in the past few months.

LTTE leader S.P. Tamilselvan with Muslim leaders of eastern Sri Lanka at a meeting in 2006 to discuss the issue of access to land in LTTE-controlled areas.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

LTTE leader S.P. Tamilselvan

A report on June 29 by the Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Peace and Coexistence (CMTPC), an NGO committed to pluralism and social justice, raised some disturbing questions on some of the operations of the Rajapaksa government in the name of development and resettlement after the liberation of the east from the LTTE. The report, titled Territorial Claims, Conquests and Dispossession in the New East: The growing concerns of the Muslims of Ampara, drew attention to the new flag for the Eastern province hoisted by the Governor, Rear-Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, in May and described as terrifying the use of the lion symbol to signify the Muslim-dominated Ampara district.

According to the CMTPC, the use of the lion suggests a continuation of the post-independence Sinhalisation of the Eastern province. It further alleged that state agencies were continuing the dispossession of Muslims in Pottuvil through land acquisition and demarcation. The Governor denied the charge and said the flag was retained as it existed prior to the merger of the north and the east. The merger was nullified by the Supreme Court.

The Norway-brokered 2002 Cease Fire agreement (CFA) between the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the LTTE is yet another example of how the Muslim community has been relegated to the background. Muslim concerns figure merely as a footnote in the CFA. The parties further recognise that groups that are not directly party to the conflict are also suffering the consequences of it. This is particularly the case as regards the Muslim population, it said.

Within weeks of the CFA, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Rauf Hakeem, signed a significant agreement with LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran. The Tigers recognised the right of return of Muslims to LTTE-controlled areas and promised an end to extortion of Muslim businesses in the east and access for Muslims to their lands in LTTE-controlled areas. At the second round of peace talks in Thailand (October 31-November 3, 2002), the LTTE announced that it would return land and property to Muslim owners in the north and east. With the withdrawal of the LTTE from the peace talks in the latter part of 2003, the Hakeem-Prabakaran agreement remained a dead letter.

Since the resumption of large-scale military action in mid-2006, Muslims have again been caught in the crossfire in the east. Dozens of them have been killed and thousands displaced. Part of the problem lies in the divisions within the community leadership.

The ICG report notes: Muslims have never resorted to armed rebellion to assert their political position, although some have worked with the security forces, and a few were members of early Tamil militant groups. Fears of an armed movement emerging among Muslims, perhaps with a facade of Islamist ideology, have been present since the early 1990s, but most have remained committed to channelling their frustrations through the political process and negotiating with the government and Tamil militants at different times.

There is no guarantee that this commitment to non-violence will continue, particularly given the frustration noticeable among younger Muslims in the Eastern province. In some areas there are Muslim armed groups but they are small and not a major security threat. Fears of armed Islamist movements emerging seem to be exaggerated, often for political ends. Small gangs have been engaged in semi-criminal activities and intra-religious disputes, but there is a danger they will take on a role in inter-communal disputes if the conflict continues to impinge upon the security of co-religionists.

In the assessment of the ICG, which is shared by several independent observers, only a full political settlement of the conflict can allow historical injustices against the Muslims to be addressed and begin a process of reconciliation.

Further, the LTTE, in particular, needs to revisit its dealings with the Muslims if it is to gain any credibility in a future peace process in which Muslims are involved. Only an equitable settlement, in which Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim community concerns are adequately addressed, can really contain the growing disillusionment among a new generation of Sri Lankan Muslims, says the ICG.

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