Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has ignored the problems of North East Muslims which are indivisibly intertwined in any solution to the Tamil problem.
Syed Ali Mujtaba
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has recently announced his intent to resolve the long-standing North-East Tamil national question, perhaps, at the behest of India. However, Wickremesinghe has ignored the problems of North East Muslims which are indivisibly intertwined in any solution to the Tamil problem. Muslims are a minority within the Tamil minority.
Any attempt to ignore the Muslim problem would negate any comprehensive solution to the North East issue where two major minorities reside in the island nation.
There has been a systematic persecution of Muslims since the country gained independence in 1948. For example, during Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike’s reign, Muslims were maltreated and their economy was crippled with the then Justice Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike ordering the detention of several prominent Muslim businessmen.
Then President J.R. Jayewardene forcibly merged the East with the North under Emergency Regulations in 1987. This was amidst widespread protests against the Indo-Lanka Treaty. Thereby, Jayewardene gave the Northern Tamils a statistically undue Tamil majority status in the East, though Tamils were a minority constituting 46 per cent in 1946 before independence and 42 per cent in 1981. There have been 39 per cent Muslims and the Sinhala population is ever increasing and reaching 25% in 1981.
The Jayewardene forced merger led to Muslims becoming a minority under another minority resulting in their much-misunderstood demand for autonomous status in the eastern province and separate from Tamil rule in the North East Province.
Muslims’ resistance to this merger led to a brutal expulsion of the Northern Muslims from the North and besides a massacre of Muslims in 1989 there were several mass killings of Muslims in the East. In 2005, LTTE Eastern leaders too broke away from the Northern-controlled LTTE signaling Eastern Tamil’s opposition to the merger. By 2006, the Supreme Court held the forced merger of North and East provinces as illegal.
There was an anti-Muslim campaign in 2012 and anti-Muslim riots broke out in 2014, 2017, and 2018. The Presidential Commission on the Easter attacks of April 2019 is blamed on the anti-Muslim violence resulting in the terrible Easter Sunday attacks on churches.
Tamils and Muslims have lived in Sri Lanka as equal citizens and with dignity alongside the Sinhala Buddhist majority. For example, Tamil Congress and Muslim League were integral parts of the United National Party governments, and Muslim leader, Dr. MCM Kaleel, served as United National Party treasurer and chairman.
However, discriminatory policies of the government forced Muslims to think in terms of separation. Frustrated Muslims formed the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, with the slogan of Islam and unity. However, Islam disappeared and Muslim Congress was divided into more than half a dozen splinter groups with a disgusting and well-known reputation for compromising the community’s interest for perks and positions.
The more recent one was the 20th amendment, where Muslim Minister Ali Sabry supported the amendment and several Muslim MPs voted in its favour making President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a dictator.
Earlier, President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated a move to sign a joint mechanism with the LTTE for the rehabilitation of tsunami victims. But the Muslim tsunami victims were ignored in the agreement to please the LTTE which opposed Muslim participation.
In negotiating and signing the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), President Kumaratunga did exactly what Ranil Wickremesinghe did when he signed the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in February 2002, when Muslim interests were summarily dismissed.
Saudi Arabia built 500 houses for tsunami-affected Muslim families, but Sinhala extremists, led by Buddhist monks, opposed it. Thus the houses were not allotted to Muslims.
Once the LTTE war ended in 2009, Muslims tried to rebuild their lives only to realise that government-sponsored violence against them has started anew. The state-backed rioters burnt Muslim homes, commercial and industrial properties, and even mosques where copies of the Holy Qur’an were first vandalised and burnt.
In this midst, there appeared Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a government-backed violent organisation that terrorised Muslims. Myanmar’s so-called Buddhist monk, Asin Wirathu, the face of Buddhist terror, was invited and accorded a welcome more than a head of state deserves.
In March 2018, during attacks in Central hills, Muslims were attacked and looted and their properties including mosques were burnt causing damage to assets worth billions.
Organised violence against Muslims proves that the racist policies of successive governments continue unabashedly. These attacks culminated in the Easter Sunday bombings on 21 April 2019 and plunged the country into chaos.
The Muslim community had nothing to do with this carnage. Yet Muslim men, women, and even children were treated with hatred. The government dispatched troops wearing boots and dogs to search mosques to frighten the Muslims. Muslim women were forced to remove their veils disregarding COVID-19 rules wherein wearing masks was compulsory for everyone.
Battered, beleaguered, and helpless Muslims have not taken up arms. Instead, they are raising their hands in their daily five times prayers and leaving it to the Creator to have mercy on them.
Now in the midst of political confusion and economic bankruptcy, nominated Member of Parliament Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was defeated in the elections and his party UNP wiped out, was appointed as prime minister and then as president. It was in this chaotic political environment that President Ranil Wickremesinghe offered peace talks to Tamils, ignoring Muslims. Thus the indifference towards Muslim grievances continues unabated and there is no one to listen to the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover photo: A file picture shows a Sri Lankan Muslim woman carries her daughter while standing outside her burnt house in Adhikarigoda , a village near Aluthgama town, south of Colombo. — AP