January 21, 2021
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For An Equal Place In Peace

From the beginning of the peace process, representatives of the Muslim community have been asking for a place at the negotiating table.

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For An Equal Place In Peace

There is a sense of crisis in Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic eastern province, where there have been reports of renewed clashes between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Muslims. The Government appointed an overall security forces commander for the region on August 19, following the killing of five Muslims within a week, allegedly by the LTTE. Militant Muslim youth are reportedly receiving arms training as part of a strategy to defend the community against LTTE attacks. The Government's failure to offer the Muslims stronger assurances of safety is reported to have strengthened the idea of securing such training, with some reports even suggesting that hardliners within the community have established links with Muslim groups outside Sri Lanka.

The Muslim presence was very marked at the National Convention on 'Bridging the Gap between War and Peace' at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute last week. The Colombo convention followed dozens of meetings between citizens' groups that had been held earlier in different parts of the country. One of the key obstacles identified was the lack of Muslim representation at the peace talks that had been taking place between the Government and LTTE. The other was the killing of Muslims taking place in their areas of concentration in the east of the country, where the Muslims are the largest single community in many parts.

From the beginning of the peace process, representatives of the Muslim community have been asking for a place at the negotiating table. They have been arguing that being part of the Government delegation is not sufficient, as the Government has failed to give sufficient attention to Muslim concerns. The Muslims have little reason to believe that peace talks between the Government and LTTE, from which they are excluded, will meet their interests.

Virtually all Muslims support the present ceasefire and wish it to continue. In this sentiment they are on common ground with their Sinhalese and Tamil neighbors. But they also have a grievance against the ceasefire agreement that relegates them to the status of an affected party only, and does not make them a party to the peace talks. The Muslims have suffered directly and massively at the hands of the LTTE. The entirety of the Muslim population in the north of the country, numbering about 90,000, had been expelled by the LTTE in 1990 in an incident that has seared Muslim consciousness. The Muslims were given just two hours notice to leave their homes, and had to leave without their jewelry and valuables which were confiscated by the LTTE.

The current killing of Muslims in the East, and the Tamil-Muslim communal disturbances this is giving rise to, are counter productive to the Tamil cause that the LTTE is committed to promoting. LTTE leaders are currently in Paris trying to secure an interim North East regional administration for themselves. The ongoing alienation of the Muslims, who may constitute the largest single community in the East (the LTTE did not permit the last census of 2001 to be carried out in the region) can be a fatal blow to its viability.

A Muslim refusal to agree to an LTTE-dominated interim administration for the North East would make it difficult for the Government to deliver such an administration to the LTTE. If there is a groundswell of opposition to the interim arrangements from the Muslim community, the Muslim MPs in Parliament will be unable to acquiesce in it. This would also raise the possibility of a crossover of Muslim MPs into the ranks of the Opposition, if the Government goes ahead with the interim administration, regardless of Muslim opposition.

The rising tensions between the LTTE and the Muslims are counter productive to such a high degree that doubts may reasonably arise whether the LTTE is indeed responsible. In order to mend its fences with the Muslims, the LTTE has been returning land that they had taken from the Muslims in the years of war. A considerable proportion of the land has been returned and the process is continuing. This enlightened attitude is at variance with the killings and intimidation of the Muslims that is simultaneously taking place.

A possible explanation of this dual phenomenon is that the LTTE is following a two-tracked policy. It has a political track and a military track. The political track is currently epitomized by the deliberations in Paris regarding a response to the Government's proposed interim administration for the North East. Tamil intellectuals from Sri Lanka and abroad are attending these deliberations. These deliberations are expected to yield a demand from the LTTE that would ensure virtually total political control over the North East. The military track, however, operates on a parallel, and is not subordinate to political imperatives. The intimidation and coercion of the Muslims is part of the LTTE's strategy to physically dominate the North East.

Many Tamils from the East see validity in the theory that the killings of Muslims are the result of an internal power struggles within the Muslim community. Others see a hidden hand, possibly international, that is trying to destabilize the East, and thereby undermine the peace process. But the undeniable fact is that, over its three decades of existence, the LTTE has consistently used the weapon of violence and terror to achieve its objectives of total control. The representatives of the victims, and all Muslim leaders, even those politically opposed to one another, allege that the LTTE is the perpetrator.

There is also a sociological explanation of the LTTE's harsh treatment of the Muslims. The Muslims, who did not identify themselves with the Tamil struggle for a separate state, tended to ally themselves with the Sri Lankan Government and its military forces, and were able to obtain benefits from the Government because of their cooperative attitude. When the LTTE turned its guns on the Muslims in the time of war, the Government provided the Muslims with weapons to defend themselves. In turn, the homeguard units of the Muslims dealt harshly with their Tamil neighbors, who were unarmed. A vicious cycle was set in motion, whose reverberations continue to this day.

Most of the LTTE cadres have imbibed a crude form of Tamil nationalism. In their view, the North East is the traditional Tamil homeland stretching back into history. It is Tamil, and not Muslim or Sinhalese, land. LTTE cadres exact taxes from the Muslim peasantry on this basis, that the land the Muslims till is not their own, and therefore they owe taxes to the Tamil state-in-making. Some LTTE cadres reportedly tell the Muslims that the land is not theirs, and they will finally be evicted from it.

The recent Tamil-Muslim clashes in the East have brought to the fore the Muslim apprehensions about domination and ill treatment by a Tamil-majority in the merged North East. Time and again, the Muslims have expressed their fear of a Tamil plot, spearheaded by the LTTE, to destroy the economy of the Muslim community. They suspected that the Muslim economy could be destroyed by organizing riots, such as those that occurred at Valachchenai, which destroyed or damaged most of the Muslim business ventures there, a little over a year ago. Even worse, the Muslims of the East are fearful that the events taking place today may be harbingers of the type of ethnic cleansing that took place in the North in 1990.

Ironically, there is a sense that the present state of Muslim-Tamil relations is a repeat of the Tamil-Sinhalese relationship that existed three to five decades ago. State aided colonization by the Sinhalese in the East had then seen a Sinhalese takeover of land that Tamils considered to be theirs. In some areas, such as Manel Aru (now renamed in Sinhala as Weli Oya), Tamils were physically driven out. In turn, Tamils created an ideology that the land was exclusively theirs and no one else's, which is encapsulated in the doctrine of traditional Tamil homelands. The Muslims of the East are now fearful that they will become second-class citizens in a merged North East region dominated by Tamils.

Like the Tamils, the Muslims have also been physically driven out of their lands (in the North) by an oppressor (the LTTE). They fear being driven out of the rest of the North East as well. In order to guarantee their right to remain, it is reasonable that the Muslims should ask for a recognition by the Government and the LTTE, of their own claims to the land on which they were born, and which they till. This recognition will not only enable them to negotiate on an equal footing with the Tamils, it will also create the right of the Muslims to govern themselves in that lands in which they are a majority, within the framework of a federal state. The Muslims, no less than the Tamils, have the right to demand that this principle should be accepted.

Those who fear the fragmentation of Sri Lanka due to these ethnic claims to territory and autonomy may wish to oppose them. Those who are pragmatic enough to recognize that the Tamil demand, which is backed by LTTE firepower, cannot be resisted, might be prepared to grudgingly concede it, while continuing to oppose the Muslim demand. But pragmatism may not be the best answer in this instance.

Demarcation and separation of Tamil land, Muslim land or Sinhalese land on the island of Sri Lanka would be a disaster. Instead there should be recognition that there are local majorities of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese living in different concentrations in different parts of the country. They should have the power to decide matters for themselves, to the extent that these are regional matters and not national ones that affect all communities. This is the place called federalism.

Jehan Perera is Media Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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