Rise in Muslim discontent

By Col R Hariharan (retd.)

The political style of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his use of military option in handling the Tamil insurgency have split almost all political parties which have been compelled to make hard political choices. Starting with the United Nationl Party (UNP), the latest episode in the “split-story” is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).The smaller parties did not split but joined the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) bandwagon enjoying the perks of office. Those who have resisted have generally put paid for their demeanour. But the hardest hit in this political maelstrom is the Muslim political leadership, notably the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

With the fourth edition of the Eelam War raging in the north, the sharing of power between ethnic communities is as yet an undecided issue. With President Rajapaksa representing the larger section of Southern Sinhala viewpoint, Cheapest place to order estrace cream both the Tamil and Muslim communities need strong and unified leaderships to workout an equitable solution to power sharing.

Among Muslim leaders, particularly of the SLMC, the peace process 2002 created a feeling of disappointment. The peace talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) excluded direct and separate representation to the Muslim community, who inhabit large areas in the northeast. They feared the devolution process would bypass Muslim interests by default. Efforts of Rauff Hakeem to muscle into the process through direct deal with Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, resulted in empty words. The demand for equitable role for Muslms in the peace process on their own right was never taken seriously by other stakeholders including the international community.

Similar was the experience of the Muslim community which bore a major brunt of the devastation of the tsunami strike in December 2005. Their relief measures were slow in coming. And they were unhappy that their woes did not get the adequate attention they deserved. These experiences have glaringly showed the inadequacy of Muslim leadership to articulate their viewpoint.

These came on top of a similar experience in the past when India actively intervened in the period 1983 to 1987 in support of the Tamil cause that culminated in the India- Sri Lanka Agreement 1987. Then also the Muslim community felt their interests had been marginalised in the devolution stakes. At that time the Muslim polity had no independent articulation but had tried to find a place within the leadership of the two major national parties. And the elections taking place now in the east are only a resurgence of the very same form of provincial level devolution. So it will probably revive the old fears of alienation. And the Muslim population is politically more conscious than ever before. So the feeling of alienation could be stronger if the elections are not conducted fairly.

Muslim leadership and the PC elections

With the President talking of democratisation of the east, the time has come for Muslims to demand a share of the pie in the power structure. This would also set a precedence for their share in power in the national dispensations in the future as and when the war ends (!). If the Muslim leaders fail to achieve this they are likely to become non entities in the eyes of the people. This has created a crisis of sorts for the Muslim polity in participating in the forthcoming provincial council elections in the eastern province. The crisis has three major facets.

The first relates to handling President Rajapaksa’s desire to play an assertive role in the east, so that the ruling UPFA coalition (and as a corollary Sri Lanka Freedom Party A?a??a??SLFP) can gain a firm foothold cashing upon their military success against the LTTE. Rajapaksa has shown remarkable political savvy in understanding the weakness of Muslim leadership which is split and easily satisfied with political pickings. So he struck a deal with the community leaders (Jamaat) directly and that acted as a hidden persuader in working out support for the UPFA. Only Rauf Hakeem of the SLMC appears to be trying to be free of the “Rajapaksa embrace” perhaps to save his own identity as the true successor of MHM Ashraff.

Rauff Hakeem’s fears are not unjustified. The President’s new thrust lines of politics in the east involve coalition with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), who are still armed and have a dubious record of acts of violence and intimidation against Muslims. If TMVP establishes itself in the corridors of power, life could become difficult for Muslims. Moreover, in the near term, if the President succeeds it could end the carefully nuanced Muslim leadership’s tactics of “milking” maximum benefit out of the traditional antagonism between the SLFP and its bA?A?te noire the UNP. In some distant future it holds the potential to evolve a Tamil-Sinhala political coalition at the cost of Muslim interests in the power play. This unlikely happening could throw the Muslims into political wilderness.

The second facet relates to the importance the eastern provincial council elections hold for Muslim political identity. The fact that three senior Muslim members of parliament resigned their membership to participate in the provincial council poll shows this. This comes out of what they feel as justifiable claims to have an elected body of their choice with a Muslim chief minister. This is not an unrealistic thought. By most counts (though often unreliable) Muslims have emerged as the biggest population group in the east touching around 42 per cent of the total. It is this desire to capture power that has made two prominent Muslim leaders – Hizbullah and Rauff Hakeem – choose opposite political camps. Hizbullah has chosen to partner the UPFA while Hakeem is going along with the UNP agreeing to put up candidates of SLMC to contest with UNP symbol. His choice is probably driven by Gasex online dating the fear of Rajapaksa’s domination which he perceives as Southern Sinhala assertion.

Lastly, the success of the Muslim leaders in the election is going to determine the pecking order of Muslim leadership in the national sphere. But with the TMVP domination of the Batticaloa district and the uncertain dimensions of Sinhala support in what had been traditional UNP strongholds, any split in Muslim votes could result in the diminution of an independent Muslim political articulation. So far the Muslim politicians have been able to achieve much using their clout with whosoever is in power. But the moment the relevance of their support diminishes such achievements could become uncertain.

Some of the problems faced by Sri Lanka’s Muslim population are similar to those faced by Muslims in many countries where they are a minority. These are mostly related to the inherent contradictions within the Muslim Ummah in reconciling increased assertion of Islamic identity with that of national one. Thanks to the more accommodative Sufi beliefs of most of the Sri Lankan Muslims to a large extent this problem has been managed well despite periodic confrontation with the increasing spread of fundamentalist Wahabi influence.

Despite minor sectarian skirmishes between the two, so far the community has managed to keep them within manageable proportions, thanks to the pragmatic approach of Muslim population and its leaders. If there is a perceived threat to the Muslim identity the Wahabis are likely to take advantage and use it as a lever to spread their influence. And it is good to remember that unfettered spread of Wahabi influence has led to the growth of aggressive fundamentalism of the Taliban type in many countries. Similar potential exists in arming Muslim private militias which could come into being as a response to TMVP depredation if it continues after the elections. And political disillusionment is the first step to these unhealthy developments.

The observation of International Crisis Group on the subject in their report of May 29, 2007 aptly sums up the whole situation: 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.

Such a development should not be dismissed casually. The weakened Muslim leadership could well be swept aside if the community loses its confidence in the present scheme of things. (In this context, it is probably too early to comment on the impact of Paistan President Musharraf’s generous offer to help Sri Lanka’s fight against terror. But when such an offer comes from a leader, who had unhesitatingly used the same terror weapon in neighbouring countries in the past through proxies guided by the ISI machinery it has dangerous portends.) This should be the last thing all communities in this troubled province need. To avoid such a development, the work is cut out for all stakeholders in and out of power to ensure a fair representation for all communities. Specifically the needs of the hour are as follows –

The administration should run a free and fair election without stuffing of ballots or intimidation to keep voters away from exercising their franchise. The UPFA leadership in particular should run a tight ship avoiding the temptation to use the TMVP muscle power to ensure victory, as the opposition is already voicing their suspicion. One way of achieving this is to have international election observers present during the election process and providing unfettered media access during the run up to the elections and voting.

Have a proactive internal security plan in place to ensure communal confrontation does not erupt even accidentally.

Muslim leadership inside the coalitions should ensure the tradeoffs are not short term. It is high time the leadership united on major issues of community and national interests rather than think on personal considerations. A major weakness is the leadership’s inability to think and act proactively. This can come through if only the work out a larger consultative coalition outside party folds to serve the commom interests of the community.


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