By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, August 14: In his just published book entitled: ‘We are a part, not apart’ Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem deals with a number issues facing Muslims in Sri Lanka, among which is the marginalization of the community at critical junctures in the island’s recent history and what that led to.
The founding of the SLMC in 1981 was the result of the marginalization of the Muslims of the Eastern province. The Federal Party and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), of which SLMC founder M.H.M.Ashraff was a star speaker, had refused to allow Muslim candidates to contest on the TULF ticket in the May 1981 District Development Council elections which resulted in Ashraff’s ending his relationship with the TULF.
The Muslims’ case was ignored when the India-Sri Lanka Accord on the ethnic question was drafted in 1987. This was followed by their marginalization during the peace process involving the Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the Norwegians as mediators in the early 2002.
However, marginalization of Muslims had its beginnings way back in the early years of the 20 th.Century. The Buddhist revivalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, verbalized the Sinhala-Buddhist-Muslim divide thus: “The Muhammadans, an alien people… by Shylockians methods, became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese son of the soil whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country from alien invaders ….are, in the idea of the British, only vagabonds….The alien South Indian Muhammadan comes to Ceylon, sees the neglected villagers without any experience in trade. The result is that the Muhammadan thrives and the son of the soil goes to the wall…”
The “othering” of Muslims led to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and other areas between May 29 and June 5, 2015 in which 29 were killed. Though the trigger was the Coastal (Indian) Moors’ objections to Buddhists playing music in front of their mosques, the underlying cause was the Sinhalese’s jealousy over the Muslims’ success in business.
After independence, the declaration that the official language of Sri Lanka will be Sinhala Only in 1956, affected the Tamil-speaking Muslims adversely as it did the Tamils. In the initial stages of the Tamil separatist movement, some Muslim youths joined separatist groups. M.H.M.Ashraff supported the TULF’s separatist agenda in 1976-77. But by 1981, he was convinced that separatism would be harmful to the Muslims. He “severed all links with Tamil politics,” Hakeem says. Ashraff gave an alternative set of goals to the Muslim youth who would have otherwise been “beguiled by the romanticism and macho militancy of the LTTE.”
But the Muslims felt trapped between two warring groups -the Tamil militants and the government forces. “Sinhala-dominant State used the Muslims of the North and East as a convenient asset on the front. It used trained Muslim youth as informants and clandestine operatives behind the lines,” Hakeem says and adds that this led to horrible reprisals from the LTTE.
The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987, was another setback for the Muslims. The Accord provided for a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces into a united North Eastern province of Tamil-speaking people. The Muslims had been kept out of the decision making process. North-East merger would have emasculated the Muslims politically. In Hakeem’s words, the Muslims were “mute spectators watching from the sidelines.”
The SLMC was not consulted before the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the government and the LTTE was signed in 2002, though the SLMC was a part of the United National Party (UNP)-led coalition government and Hakeem was a cabinet minister.
With the LTTE enjoying parity with the government under the CFA, and the government sidelining its coalition partner, the SLMC, the Muslims were at a total loss. The Wickremesinghe government had in fact reneged from the MOU it had signed with the LTTE which had provided for Muslim participation. Eventually, the SLMC was admitted to the talks, despite the LTTE’s objections.
However, participation did not make much of a difference because the LTTE tried to keep the SLMC out of the envisaged economic development mechanisms. The LTTE insisted on parity with the government and the government was giving up its commitments to meet the demands of the LTTE. The Muslims were helpless spectators as the LTTE brazenly flouted the CFA to strengthen itself in the North and East often forcibly encroaching on the assets of the Muslims.
The LTTE proposed an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). According to Hakeem, the ISGA was negotiated secretly between the government and the LTTE in 2003. Hakeem was not informed though he was a cabinet minister and a member of the government negotiating team. “Milinda Moragoda and Prof.G.L.Peiris were engaged in dealing with Anton Balasingham along with Eric Solheim as facilitator,” Hakeem writes.
When Hakeem demanded to know the details of the ISGA, the government reluctantly allowed him to talk to Balasingham in London. The draft ISGA had no leverage for the Muslims. “I was furious that they had kept me in the dark while such an important document compromising our interests was being finalized. Thankfully, it (the ISGA) never saw the light of day with strong objections all round, particularly from the (Sinhala) South of the nation.”
Balasingham told Hakeem that the LTTE would meet a Muslim delegation separately. But later, the LTTE reneged from it. “Fellow members of the government delegation along with the Norwegians were acceding to the LTTE strategy discreetly to my dismay and disgust,” Hakeem recalls.
After the breakdown of talks, hostilities were resumed and the Muslims had to undergo great hardships once again. Despite Muslim officers playing a heroic role in the government’s military campaigns, the community secured no recognition or benefits from it. In fact, in September 2013, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa “framed the Muslim community as one that breeds terrorism.”
Hakeem says that it is significant that Gotabaya made this charge six years before the Easter Sunday blasts on April 21, 2019. After the Eelam War ended in 2009 with the total annihilation of the military machine of the LTTE, radical elements in the Sinhala Buddhist majority, turned their attention to the “Marakkala Menace” (Muslim menace). The “othering” of the Muslims became a major campaign. Under this, a variety of issues, with religious, cultural and economic dimensions, were taken up with the support of the mainstream media.
It was systematically alleged that the Muslims were planning to produce more children and even limit the Sinhalese Buddhist population by mixing contraceptives with food served in Muslim eateries and making Sinhalese women barren through surgical intervention. The face covering veil was branded as a security threat and Halal certification by the All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ulema (ACJU) was dubbed as a move to collect money for terrorist activites.
There was massive destruction of Muslim properties in the riots in Althugama and later in Digana in 2018. Eyewitnesses alleged that the police were either mute spectators or were facilitators of the violence.
Hakeem feels that all this might have contributed to the growth of extremist elements among Muslims which finally led to the horrendous events of April 20, 2019 when hundreds of civilians were killed in suicide bombings.
“We now realize that indeed our community has harbored extremist elements that actually produced some terrorists amidst us, who have gone unchecked. Is it the experience of youth, growing amidst the systemic violence of the 30-year war and the violence thereafter specifically targeting Muslim communities at regular intervals, that produced such ruthless terrorists or were they carrying out some other agenda? This question baffles me to date,” Hakeen writes.
(The image at the top shows LTTE negotiators Tamilchelvan and Balasinghsm, Norwegian negotiator Erik Solheim, and the Sri Lankan government representatives in talks)