Ultra ethno-religious nationalism, government ignorance and betrayal of own leadership disturb the existence of Muslims in Sri Lanka
The Muslim ethnic minority of Sri Lanka has been facing an existential threat today that the community has ever encountered in recent times. The history points to that Muslim community of the country has been sporadically vulnerably targeted by recurrently surfacing ultra ethno-religious nationalism (whether Sinhala-Buddhist one incubated by those in political power or Tamil one actively practiced by Tamil militancy (LTTE) at the time of armed conflict in the country), ignored by governments and equally betrayed by their political leadership also when the leadership prioritised filling its own pockets and stomachs with perks and posts from successive governments at the expense of its people’s interests.
In 1987, when India’s and Sri Lanka’s governments signed an Indo-Lanka accord to settle Sri Lanka’s prolonged ethnic question, Muslims the second largest ethnic minority in the country after Tamils were systematically ignored by Sri Lanka’s government in the accord submerging their existence, aspirations, interests and problems under the guise of Tamil-speaking people. When Muslim community went to their political leaders for this injustice, leaders of the time were unreasonably muted.
In 1990s, when ultra Tamil nationalism pursued with Kalashnikovs by Tamil Tigers in the north and east carried out an ethnic cleansing against Muslim community forcibly expelling tens of thousands of Muslims from the north despite the north being Muslims’ traditional homeland too, when the same Tamil nationalism massacred Muslims in the east at homes, mosques, rice fields and markets, the government of Sri Lanka simply disregarded its inherent obligation of protecting these innocent Muslims from these painful events. The response of Muslim political leaders to this vulnerability against their own community was nothing but some senseless rhetoric.
In 2002, when the LTTE that was led by ultra Tamil nationalist forces who never accepted the existence of Muslims particularly in the North and East and Sri Lanka’s government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe began peace talks to end the decades of armed conflict and settle the country’s prolonged national ethnic question, the government systematically denied Muslims their rightful position at talks to represent themselves simply yielding to a demand from LTTE not to recognise Muslims as a separate entity at talks. When Muslims who became frustrated by this went to their political leadership for this ignorance, Muslim political leadership that was key political partner of Ranil’s government holding at least four key portfolios in his cabinet could not get government to accept Muslims as an independent group in the talks. The leadership rather than winning a separate delegation for its people misled its community falsely claiming that the leader participated at talks as a separate representative of Muslim community even though every Muslim in the country was well aware that he was representing the government itself at talks and that therefore he could not address the problems and legitimate aspirations of his community at talks independently.
In Rajapaksa regime, ultra Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism emerged in various forms as organisations such as BBS and Sinhala Ravaya in the country. Extremist Buddhist monks who publicly sowed anti-Muslim sentiment across the country led these organisations. When this ethno-religious nationalism targeted Muslims, destroyed their businesses and attacked their mosques and desecrated them smearing the blood of pig forbidden in Islam on mosque walls and putting its head inside mosques, the government instead of thwarting this infamous nationalism that could plunge the country into another ruin granted every access for it to continue its work against Muslims. Sadly, the role of Muslim political leaders in this was merely spectator.
Today, in the good governance of Maithripala Sirisena, the same ethno-religious nationalism continues unabated in another form of Sinha-Le. The nationalism calls on the good governance to outlaw slaughtering cow, and re-draw the existing national flag of the country removing the symbols that represent the existence of minorities in the country. The government still remains unresponsive over this despite it having unequivocally understood dire consequences of this call. On their part, Muslim political leaders repeat what they were in the past as just betrayers in addressing the issues affecting their community.
Today, the country under Sirisena –Ranil government is preparing to bring a new constitution to accommodate interests and aspirations of all communities in the country by a viable political arrangement. At this crucial juncture, Muslim political leaders rather than seriously studying the matter to submit suitable recommendations to be incorporated into the proposed constitution for their people are extremely busy distributing patronages they acquired from government, appointing their cronies and followers to their party national list, departments and other executive boards under their respective ministries offered by the government for betraying community.
Now that various discussions and debates concerning the upcoming constitution are being held by those from other communities, particularly Tamils in the country and abroad, The ACMC party leader and minister Rishard bathiudeen recently announced that he was ready to work with the SLMC leader and minister Rauff Hakeem together on issues and other important matters associated with Muslim community for its interests. Hakeem had summarily rejected Risard’s invitation. The SLMC leader in his reasons for rejecting said that he did find any need to work jointly with one who got opportunity in politics by him and his party (SLMC) and made him Muslim political leader. The leader also said that there was not any need for him to align with a so-called political leader whose politics would end soon.
In a difficult time in which Muslims in the country are living with fear and threat being posed by ethno-religious nationalism and government ignorance today, Hakeem’s rejection was totally disappointing Muslim masses. Muslims want their political leaders to be united to speak in one voice for them to address their problems and win their legitimate aspirations and rightful position in politics. Muslims’ political priorities today constitute security and co-existence with other communities in peace and harmony. To achieve these, they desperately need one united political leadership. SLMC leader should understand this fact enough. Hakeem should remember that the late founder leader and his predecessor M.H.M. Ashraff established the SLMC to unite not only Muslim people throughout the country but also all Muslim politicians to work in one platform for community’s political successes. Mr. Hakeem should remember that he is the leader of a party that was underpinned by his predecessor Ashraff on an Islamic value “don’t disunite but firmly grasp the rope of unity.”
If SLMC leader Hakeem could join hand with Rishard in the last Uva Provincial Council election to enjoy more perks and posts from government, why only now can’t he do it for his community’s interests at this crucial time? If he could re-embrace those who on many occasions conspired to destroy his leadership and SLMC into the party and offer them most senior political positions in the party as well as in the Eastern Provincial council after its election, why only now can’t he do it with Rishard for their community political progress?
Mr. Hakeem speaking about others’ political end should remember that his politics also already started to decline. The SLMC’s politics under his leadership lost its legitimacy in Vanni and Trincomalee districts in the last general elections. The SLMC under his leadership would have lost its legitimacy even in Batticaloa District had the NFGG led by Rahman not jointly contested the same election in his party in the district. In last parliamentary elections, even in his Kandy District, his leadership has not been a matter for the Muslims in the district since Muslims there preferred more UNP’s Haleem and Kiriella than Hakeem of SLMC. All these facts point to that his political leadership survives only within Ampara District. This bitter reality requires SLMC leader to alter his political course and accommodate other political forces in the society to represent Muslim community in one voice.
*Dr. Salithamby Abdul Rauff teaches at Dhofar University, Sultanate of Oman