'A timely and prudent step by the LTTE'

Print edition : June 08, 2002

A thaw has set in in the relationship between Muslims in Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a meeting between LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem at Kilinochchi on April 13. Hakeem said after the meeting that the LTTE had assured him that the harassment of Muslims would stop. On April 10, at a press conference addressed by Prabakaran in Kilinochchi district, LTTE's political adviser A.S. Balasingham said: "I made an apology to the Muslim people that what has happened in the past has to be forgotten, that we are willing to talk to them and resolve their problems." Balasingham also assured Muslims that they could return to their homes in the North. He said that the Tamil homeland and the Tamil territory in the North and East "belonged to the Muslim people also".

K. PICHUMANI

The relationship was fractured after the LTTE's attacks on Muslims, especially after it shot dead 103 Muslims on August 3, 1990 in simultaneous attacks on two mosques at Kathangudi in Batticaloa district in the Eastern province (Frontline, December 20, 1991). The LTTE also drove out about 80,000 Muslims from the North, including the Jaffna peninsula. They are now living as refugees at places such as Puttalam and Kurunagela. It was in this background that Hakeem met Prabakaran and Balasingham. The meeting took place after a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

Forty-two-year-old Hakeem is Minister for Port Development, Shipping, Eastern Development and Muslim Religious Affairs in the United National Front Government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickrema-singhe's United National Party (UNP). He was elected to the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1994.

Hakeem was in Chennai on May 23. In an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian and Professor V. Suryanarayan he spoke elaborately on the proposed interim administration for the Tamil areas in the North-East. "We are also willing to forgive what had happened in the past in the hope that they (the LTTE) will be sincere in their attitude towards Muslims," he said.

Excerpts from the interview:

There has been a qualitative change in the Sri Lankan situation as far as the Muslim community is concerned. The LTTE, for the first time, has said that it is sensitive to the aspirations of Muslims and has asked them to forget the past. What has brought about this change of heart?

The rapprochement between the LTTE and the SLMC has certain significant elements which are very progressive. They have realised the inevitable need to engage the SLMC in order to resolve their problems. That is somewhat comforting, although we have not made an emotional response to the statement they have made of late. We have told them unequivocally that we are prepared to forgive and not forget (the past)... We have bitter memories of the past. But it is time we contended with the ground realities. That would mean that the LTTE also has to look at Muslims and their separate political identity as something that has become quite pronounced over a period of time.

It is significant that the SLMC has won eight of the 16 parliamentary seats from the Eastern province. We hold 50 per cent of political power in the legislature although we form only 35 per cent of the population of the East. This is significant. So they (the LTTE) have to be prudent and engage us in a productive dialogue. That is what is happening.

When the interim administration is set up, Prabakaran will demand more powers for the North-East than the other provinces and would like to have complete control over the departments of police and rehabilitation. Will he share power with the SLMC in the interim administration? As the representative of Muslims what kind of safeguards do you expect?

Principally, they will have to display unequivocally their commitment to pluralism.

There is a desire among the Muslim families to go back and settle in Jaffna. There have been droves of people trying to get back and see their abandoned homes and smell the air of freedom. With the assurance given by the LTTE that they will not do anything in future to harm Muslims and that they are willing to recognise that Muslims have got a distinct political identity, I thought it was a timely and prudent step by the LTTE to mend fences with Muslims.

But talking of the interim administration, we need to be satisfied that proper, institutional arrangements will be in place so that the will of the majority will not be imposed...

What concrete safeguards would you like to have?

We are working on various formulas that would be put forward as our ideas about the interim administration. What is important is that there must be an escape clause as far as Muslims are concerned.

Would you like to have veto power in terms of administrative procedure on issues affecting Muslims?

The interim administration must be a time-bound arrangement. At the end of it, there must a right bestowed on Muslims that they can vote in the referendum to be part of the framework.

You mean the referendum on the issue of the merger of the East with the North...

Yes, on the issue of merger. This merger and referendum have been looked at so suspiciously by the Tigers, by all the Tamil parties, that we will rather not talk about that aspect of it. But beyond the merger, looking at the Muslim-dominated pockets, proper checks and balances have to be put in place to provide for greater representation, to provide for double-majority safeguards and the sharing of political power both in the executive and the legislature that will be set up. If some acceptable arrangement can be put in place and once the interim administration rules for a period of time, Muslims must have the right to express their willingness to continue in such an arrangement so that the Tigers and whoever else will be playing the decisive and dominant role will be forced to work along. There should be a structural mechanism in which they will have to satisfy and build confidence among Muslims.

Will the pradeshiya sabha be the basis of devolution of power?

Definitely. The district proportion has to be applied in our administrative districts. Political units have been set up somewhat arbitrarily. As for the administrative units, although the Centre carved out the districts in a disproportionate manner, Muslims in the Eastern province will insist that the district proportion be maintained in land settlement and in sharing all resources. We would like the district proportion to be respected and we would like assurances to be given that equity will prevail.

May 24 marks "D plus 90 days" since the ceasefire agreement was signed by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. According to the agreement, the entire North and the East becomes politically accessible to the LTTE from that day. The LTTE will have de facto control over the region.

I don't think we should say that they will have de facto control of the North and the East. Their right to move into the government-controlled area is being legitimised. There will not be any restrictions on the number of people who come into the government-controlled areas for political activity. There are limitations to the political activity that they will be engaging in.

The LTTE will have to transform itself in such a way that Muslims will be comfortable in dealing with them. When we met Prabakaran it was apparent that he was keen that he should not be dealing with every Tom, Dick and Harry. He feels that it is important to respect the predominant position of the SLMC and continue to talk with us (SLMC). We welcome the situation where the LTTE does not have any restrictions any more. We would like them to impress sincerely on Muslims that they do not mean any harm (to them), that they are prepared to respect the human rights norms and the law and order machinery. You cannot impose your own law and order mechanism in areas that are controlled by the government. That will create a situation which will erode the confidence among Muslims because law and order is an important issue. The security of Muslims has been compromised so much in the past that we will not compromise our security (anymore) either with the government or with the LTTE.

After a detailed discussion about the interim administration takes place, they (the LTTE) will have to be legitimately empowered to do what they should do. But there must be a certain amount of autonomy as far as Muslims are concerned.

We should have one law and order machinery with an equitable proportion of Muslims in police stations and a share in important positions in the regional police. This is happening in Northern Ireland. They are trying to reform the policing arrangements, sensitise the police force and bring in a proper mix of people.

It is a question of Muslims having confidence in the law and order machinery. If it is going to be run solely by the LTTE, it is not going to work in the short term. They (the LTTE) will have to go a long way in convincing us that we can work in such an arrangement. The (benefits of) devolution have got to be enjoyed by Muslims as well. If it is law and order devolution, it is not merely going down to the territory but to the community. There are practical difficulties in the non-contiguity of the Tamil and Muslim areas (that is, Tamil and Muslim villages alternating). It is going to be a double-edged sword. Just as Muslims do not enjoy a contiguous territory in the East, Tamils do not enjoy a contiguous territory in the region. So it is imperative for us to work together. We should have some coordinating mechanism where these can be resolved if we are to work together in the interim administration and share power. We have to share power effectively in the law and order machinery.

The old idea of having a province for Muslims...

The Tigers say that they are prepared to consider an alternative to our role in the East. We are saying that our role is for fully autonomous Muslim areas in the North and the East. Of course, we are prepared to consider alternatives... They will have to propose those alternatives. As much as they want the Sri Lankan government to give them a viable alternative, we want them also to suggest a viable alternative.

Will it be a coalition of the LTTE and the SLMC in the interim administration?

We have not gone into details about that. We did not go into details which will become contentious. In the interim administration, you cannot expect the government and the opposition to operate. It will be a caucus of political representatives who will run the administration without having a classic Westminster model with somebody sitting in the opposition. So it is inevitable that it has to be a joint effort to control the administration.

Is the LTTE willing to share power? It can bring in some Muslims into the interim administration.

That is something Prabakaran clarified. He said it very significantly. Suggestions were made that other parties too want to come to speak to the Tigers and exchange views on how this problem can be solved on behalf of Muslims. He categorically and emphatically told Anton Balasingham and others that they should not commit the mistake as had been done in the case of Tamils. The divide-and-rule policy. "We must respect the SLMC. We must deal with them." This is what he said. We hope that this approach will be sincerely adhered to; that they will discuss matters with us and deal with one party rather than adopt a divide-and-rule policy. Such a policy is suicidal because the moment mundane politics gets into it and people realise that the LTTE's agenda is simply to spread its hegemony all over, it will have far-reaching implications for sustained peace.

The LTTE realises that the dominance they have gained through guns is not anywhere near the legitimacy they can gain through people's participation. They will use the "D plus 90 days" and beyond to gain that legitimacy through people's participation. It will be ideal for us to have a situation where Muslims will have a chance down the line, after the interim administration is put in place, to say 'yes' or 'no' to a working arrangement.

The East, where Muslims form one third of the population, seems to be in a ferment. UTHR (University Teachers for Human Rights) has alleged that the LTTE is forcibly conscripting boys, extorting money from businessmen and so forth. How has it affected the Muslim community?

That is where the control over law and order machinery comes into focus. We are not a politico-military organisation like the LTTE. We are a political party. We will insist that as far as the Muslim areas are concerned, control over security cannot be compromised.

What exact guarantees would you like to have to protect the interests of Muslims?

Guarantees have to come to ensure that the interim administration will consult the Muslim constituencies when it comes to implementing law and order reforms and ensuring the security of the Muslim population. There is a credibility factor they have to worry about. For the first time, they have held out an olive branch to Muslims and also given us assurances. These assurances have to be made to work on the ground.

They have realised that it is important to deal with Muslims.

We are also willing to forgive what happened in the past in the hope that they will be sincere in their attitude towards Muslims.

There is no other option. We have run out of options. We have to co-exist. Initially you may have to respect the situation where Muslims are feeling anxious about what will happen beyond plus 90 (days), and beyond the interim administration being installed. This is an important credibility issue. I am sure they will not go back to their former ways and use violence against...

Ranil Wickremasinghe spoke enthusiastically about what Prabakaran said at the press conference. However, Wickremasinghe seems to have second thoughts about an interim administration for the North-East. He has said that the entire Sri Lanka, and not merely the North and the East, is the homeland of all people who live in the island. Did Wickremasinghe say that to appease the extremist Sinhala opinion in the South?

He perhaps has not altered any of his positions as such. He has gone to the extent of trying to reiterate the earlier position as far as this homeland theory is concerned. In fact, in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, they finally used the term "areas of historical habitation" as a compromise.

Ideological positions and public postures should not be taken as the private convictions of people. We have to differentiate between public postures of a political leader and his private convictions. I feel, therefore, that he has taken this position because that is the prudent thing to do at the moment rather than being seen to be throwing all eggs in one basket. He is trying to instil confidence in the south that the Prime Minister is not going to be carried away and that he will strike a good bargain. That augurs well for the negotiations. It is important for him to emerge as somebody who has strong views on some of these matters. As I told you, these may not be his private convictions.

The relationship between Muslims and Sinhalese in the Sinhala-speaking areas was not all that good during the last months of the People's Alliance government. The riots that took place at Mawanella, near Kandy, had a fallout in Colombo. If the hardline Sinhalese view the coming together of the LTTE and the SLMC with suspicion, how will it affect the majority of Muslims living in the Sinhala areas?

This is a bogey that is sometimes brought about to instil a fear psychosis among the southern Sinhalese. The Sinhala nationalists have been, over a period of time, trying to whip up feelings among Muslims in such a way that if you (Muslims) seek accommodation and reach an arrangement on co-existence with the Tamils, it will impact on the south and that your (Muslims') security will be at stake. What we have got to realise is that there has been violence against Muslims from 1915. From Independence, all minorities have been subjected to violence at different times. More often than not, Muslims have been at the receiving end in many of these areas. But there is a tendency to use these incidents and create an impression among Muslims that it is not possible for them to co-exist with the majority.

As a responsible political leader, I will say that whatever incidents that had happened are typical of the times we live in. Communities are so polarised that there is no sense in pointing an accusing finger and saying, "You did this to me and when we are able to, we will also do this to you one day." The strength of the Muslim community is that there is a strong concentration of Muslims in the East. There is a growing mandate in the south for a force like the SLMC. In fact, my campaign slogan in the Colombo municipal elections was to ask Muslims to give us the mandate to thrash out respectable, dignifiable solutions on behalf of the eastern Muslims.

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