The matter that has notably occupied the political spectrums of Tamil and Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka today seems about whether to merge or demerge the already demerged Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. The talks of North-East merger/demerger have been a political exercise perennially brandished by Tamil political leaders and at times their Muslim counterparts when they have nothing in their hands to deliver to their respective communities. In their bid to please their own people by attempting to conclude these two provinces’ political power based future, these leaders simply overlook local multi-facet social realities and regional geo-political factors that decisively influence any decision of whether merger or demerger.
We do hear via numerous media reports in recent days that Tamil leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R. Sampanthan have passed a resolution in a formal gathering that North and East should remain one province in future with a merger. In effect, these Tamil leaders predominantly didn’t hail from the east. The question arising in our mind is: then who are these non-eastern leaders to decide for the people in the east because it is the people of the east to write whatsoever their fate for themselves? These leaders may claim they have absolute mandate from their Tamil people in the east to decide for them. Yet, the Eastern Province is belonging not only to Tamils, but it is home to Muslims and Sinhalese also. Muslims and Sinhalese are both a joint majority in the province. Muslims are living in the East as equal or at times they are slightly more than Tamils in their size. Another question disturbing us here is: then how can these leaders from a community living as minority in the province determine the political will of other communities living as majority in that province?
Relations between Tamils and Muslims have been still strained in recent times. Mutual misperception and hatred are the ingredients of Tamil-Muslim relations today. For Muslims, They have virtually totally lost their faith placed onetime in Tamils today. They have legitimate fears of Tamils. Many campaigns well calculated and pursued by Tamils in the past against Muslims have fed today’s Muslim fears and distrust. In every peace talk that took place in the past between government and Tamils to find a political settlement to a prolonged ethnic question that badly batted the country, when Muslims wanted to be included as a separate group in such talks to represent themselves for their legitimate grievances, aspiration and interests, Tamils summarily rejected such independent Muslim participation in any peace talks claiming that Muslims were a small segment of Tamils.
Back In 2003, when Tamils introduced a power-sharing based administrative structure the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) following the ongoing peace talks of the time to run governance for people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, they had carefully marginalised the uniqueness, legitimate political aspirations and interests of Muslims of the North and East in their ISGA. The ISGA has not given rightful place to Muslims in it. Instead, it had submerged Muslims as a subgroup with Tamils not involved the ethnic problem.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, when Sri Lankan government set up a Tsunami recovery mechanism of PTOMS and wanted to include Tamils and Muslims in that PTOMS as its stakeholders to rebuild the life of Tamil and Muslim people affected by Tsunami, Tamils were intransigent and unjustifiably inhibited Muslim inclusion in the PTOMS despite Muslims being the most affected community of the Tsunami.
Today, in this post-war context, people mainly from the North who were voluntarily or involuntarily displaced by the local armed conflict of the country were steadily returning to their places of origin to continue their life. Unfortunately, several thousands of Muslims from the north who were forcibly displaced by Tamils during the same armed conflict have still not been able to return to their homes even in this no more war context. It is none other than Tamils to block their return. Tamils, Muslims grieve, effectively use their power in the Northern Provincial Council and their leverage at centre as a tool to halt Muslim return.
Meanwhile, Muslims of the north faced an ethnic cleansing in 1990s when Tamils irrationally expelled at least 60,000 Muslims from their homes within two hours or so only allowing a pair of cloth to take with them at the time of expulsion. This ethnic cleansing is uncritically a flagrant human right violation and a serious crime against humanity committed by Tamils. This is therefore an ethnic cleansing that is indefensible at all. Unfortunately, Tamils have not issued at least an apology for this to Muslims even about 30 years after this unfortunate incident occurred.
The economic interests of the Muslims living in the North and East, as Ameer Ali observed, lie in the land. Tens of thousands acres of Muslim lands have been illegally occupied by Tamils since the armed conflict. These occupied lands have yet to be returned to Muslims even in this post-conflict context. This illegal occupation has not only affected Muslims’ economic life, it has effectively hampered their return also. So, any north and east merger, Muslims feel, will put their economies at risk.
Finally, the TNA leader R. Sampanthan had attended the 19th national convention of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) at Palamunai in May 2016 as an honourable guest. Mr. Sampanthan in his speech uttered not a single word on how Muslims’ existence and interests would be guaranteed if both Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged in future.
For many of these reasons, Muslims distrust Tamils and have serious questions over merging north and east in future. They perceive any merger of north and east as another Kalashnikov to cleanse their existence and interests from their historical homeland of north and east. Muslims therefore apparently ask: how can we co-exist with those who still do not have heart to recognise our existence and appreciate our legitimate grievances and interests in a merged north and east?
*The writer teaches at Dhofar University of Sultanate of Oman