By MYM Siddeek –
The government has released a document called Interim Report of The Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka. However, some political parties and groups with vested interests misinterpret this document as an ‘Interim Constitution’ and mislead the innocent mass. There have been a number of debate sessions and seminars even among the academics and professionals from the time the government released the interim report. It should be clear that what is released by the government is not an interim constitution or a draft constitution! It is a proposal with some alternatives and summaries of representations made by various political parties and groups. In nutshell it is a summary of the discussions. Therefore, it is not the ‘end of the world’ and there is much room for negotiations before a new constitution is drafted. Since this proposal does not reflect the aspirations of the Muslims and does not guarantee their rights and security, the Muslim politicians, leaders and civil societies should continue their negotiations and agitations with the relevant parties and the government before the final draft is submitted. The Muslims have a ‘second’ chance to push for what they want to be included in the final draft of the constitution. Since the Muslim parliamentarians regret for the mistakes they made in the recent past in the parliament by not opposing a number of legislations and amendments to the existing constitution which have badly affected the Muslims, I hope they will not make another mistake by missing to do this.
The aspiration of the majority of the Tamils living in the North is a federal type of solution within a merged Northern and Eastern provinces for the ethnic issue. On the other hand, the Muslims have put forwarded a number of counter proposals that they think could ensure their safety and security and guarantee their other rights. One of the proposals of the Muslims is to find a solution for the problems they face within the current demerged geographical boundaries of the two provinces. The Muslims who demand this know very well that their opposition to a North-East merged solution is one of the main factors which antagonised the Northern Tamils and they faced the consequences during the LTTE tyranny. Then they were silent on this issue for some time by gun power and now they have started to express their opposition openly from the time the government started to talk about drafting a new constitution. It should also be noted here that the government did not get a mandate for a new constitution in the presidential election or parliament elections. The mandate was only to amend the existing constitution. Now the Muslims have been expressing their fear that if there is a new constitution and the two provinces are merged they will be left out without fulfilling their aspirations from the time the government published its interim report of the Steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka.
I always questioned within myself as to whether the Muslims genuinely want a solution with demerged Northern and Eastern provinces. This question arises because the Muslims also know very well that if the government finally decides to remerge the Northern and Eastern provinces it is not going to stop it just because the Muslims are going to oppose it unless the majority Sinhalese in the two provinces and the other seven provinces oppose it. In order to satisfy the opposing Sinhalese, the government will have to ignore the pressure from the international communities and institutions. If the merger materialises, ignoring the wishes of the Muslims, due to the international pressure and with the blessings of the majority Sinhalese for political reasons, the ultimate result will be that the Muslims in the two provinces will have to live forever with the antagonised Tamils and face the consequences from all spectrum of their daily life politically, socially, economically etc. The Muslims know this fact very well but still they oppose a solution within the merged Northern and Eastern provinces. They also know that if the government decides not to merge the two provinces due to acute opposition from the Sinhalese ignoring the international pressure and the demand from the Tamils, it can put the blame on the Muslims and make them scapegoats. Then Tamils and the Muslims will continue to live as permanent enemies to each other in the two provinces. This enmity can prevail even if the two provinces are merged while the Muslims oppose it. Therefore, whatever the final outcome (remerged or demerged solution), the consequences may be severe and harmful to the Muslims. Then there is a pertinent question to ask at this juncture. Are the Muslims involved in a dangerous exercise by opposing the North and East merger? The answer is ‘No’! The Muslims know very well the consequences if the two provinces are remerged or left demerged as it is now while they oppose the merger. The Muslims also know that the government will not listen to them in the event it decides to remerge the two provinces. But what the Muslims are trying to demonstrate by opposing the merger is that the fear that they have in their mind if the two provinces are remerged. The fear about the serious consequences they and their future generations are going to face.
How can the fear of the Muslims be alleviated? Making constitutional and institutional arrangements to ensure their safety and security and guaranteeing their rights may contribute to this. This is what lacking now in the proposals. This cannot be achieved by the Muslims alone. There is a need for establishing an understanding between the Tamils and the Muslims. This should lead to mutually recognising the rights, the security needs and aspirations of each community. The Tamils should recognise the Muslims as a separate entity for historical and cultural reasons although they speak the same language. They should understand their genuine concerns. This understanding can only be achieved as I believe by agreeing on a joint proposal by the Tamils and Muslims. This could lead to peaceful co-existence of the communities in the two provinces. Otherwise a long lasting solution to the Northern and Eastern issues could turn out to be a distant dream.
I believe the demised LTTE had realised the aspirations of the Muslims during the peace talks between the then Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE. Even if the notorious LTTE could understand the fear of the Muslims and recognise their rights and security needs, why cannot the moderate Tamil leadership do that? We all well remember there were a number of important rounds of peace talks between the government and the LTTE during the height of the communal tension in Sri Lanka at the beginning of this century and continued for about an half a decade. In the 3rd round, the LTTE and the government representatives agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of ‘internal self-determination’ in areas of historical habitation of the ‘Tamil-speaking peoples’, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities. I believed that this was a great achievement in the peace process because the LTTE which vehemently denied the rights of the Muslims at the beginning and later recognised them as a separate entity and recognised their rights and security needs. I hope the Tami community and the current moderate Tamil leadership too will realise this.
On the other hand, the Tamil leadership will be betraying the Tamil population too by accepting the proposals in the interim report. The report does not propose a federal solution on the principle of ‘internal self-determination’ and much below what was achieved by the LTTE negotiations. Therefore, the interim report does not satisfy the aspirations and expectations of neither of the Tamils nor the Muslims. Therefore, why should the Tamil speaking peoples in the North and the East accept the proposals in the interim report? What is happening now is that the Tamil leadership with the collusion with the government is trying to deceive and betray the Tamil speaking peoples. The Jaffna University community and some Tamil parliamentarians from the North have already realised this and have expressed their opposing views on the proposals in the Interim Report.
From the interim report it is understood that there is a possibility that the government will agree to merge the two provinces since it states that the ‘provisions relating to possible merger of Provinces require further consideration’. It does not say categorically the two provinces will be merged. The committee has also discussed the following options:
▪1. The existing provisions of the Constitution [Article.154A (3)] relating to the possibility of two or more Provinces forming a single unit, should be retained, with the additional requirement that a referendum of the people of each of the Provinces concerned should also be required.
▪2. The Constitution should not provide for merger.
▪3. The Constitution recognizes the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a single Province.
From what is happening in the government circle, it could be speculated that the government might agree with the Tamil leadership for the option 1 or 3. Even if the parties agree for the option 1, the government and the Tamil leadership can manipulate the situation and finally the people could be convinced to vote for the merger in the referendum. If the government agrees for the option 3 with a referendum, there might be a easy win in the referendum since the majority in the single new ‘North-East’ Province will be Tamils. This can only happen with some manipulations.
Need for dialogue between the communities
Whatever the outcome, the Muslims in the North and the East are going to live with the majority Tamils and the minority Sinhalese in the region. Therefore, the Muslims should start dialogue with the other communities. There are a number of discussion sessions, meetings, seminars and so on conducted within each community alone living in the East and the North. But these discussions should be extended beyond each community and the communities should interact with each other and have mixed discussions. It is important to remember that the Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese comprise almost equal proportion of the population of the Eastern province. These discussions should be held not only at academic and political leadership levels, but also at grassroots level. The Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim civil societies should start to interact and engage in dialogues and come to an understanding of the aspirations, fear and expectations of each community. This might pave the way for arriving at an amicable solution to the North-East issue. This is what lacking now. In the mean time the Muslims should unite within themselves.
Is RH Hindrance For The Muslim Unity in Sri Lanka?
My hypothesis is that ‘if RH gives up his SLMC leadership position, the splinter groups and individuals who left the party due to differences with RH will rejoin the party and strengthen it’. If this is a possibility, RH should sacrifice his leadership position in the best interest of the Muslim community. Then there won’t be a need for many political parties for the Muslims and they all can unite under one umbrella party which is SLMC. This might enhance the bargaining power of the Sri Lankan Muslims and restore their dignity and identity to protect their interests. I am also of the view that this might encourage the founder members of the party and academics and professionals who left the party after the demise of its founder leader to rejoin it.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formed in early 1980s as a non-political organisation and declared as a political party in 1986. Since then, there have been only two leaders in the party. The leadership of the party changed hand from late Ashroff to RH due to his demise in September 2000. Since then RH has been leading the party for the last very long 17 years. It is important to note here that during RH’s leadership, many prominent founder members, including prominent ‘moulavis’ and high rank members, have left the party.
Immediately after the sudden death of its founder leader M. H. M. Ashraff the power struggle started between his wife Ferial Ashraff and RH for control of the party. It should be noted that both of them are from outside the Eastern province although late Ashraff campaigned vigorously against ‘Colombo’ Muslim leadership and insisted that the Muslim leadership should come from the East, to sell his party among the Eastern Muslim youths. Therefore, the Eastern Muslims, even late Ashraff, would never have thought RH for the future leadership of the party.
Beginning of the demise of SLMC
In June 2001 RH, Mr. A. L. M. Athaullah and some other SLMC MPs left the governing People’s Alliance (PA). Ferial Ashraff remained in the PA as the leader of the National Unity Alliance. This is the starting point of the split in the party. If RH had given appropriate place to Ferial in the party, she would have not remained with PA according to many observers. Athaullah, then Chairman of SLMC, left the party in 2002. His accusation was that RH monopolises cabinet ministerial positions for himself. In fact, Athaullah was kicked out by RH along with the party Secretary General Dr. Hafrath and their supporters. This expulsion was made by him alone, RH, from Oslo even without consulting any of the top rank members or decision making body of the party. This is because the party’s constitution confers enormous power to its party leader. In fact Athavulla was the one with some others from the Eastern province helped RH to become the leader. Another prominent victim of RH was Myown Musthafa.
The last victim of betrayal in the top rank of the party was Mr. Hasen Ali, its Secretary General. It is also understood that there are more capable aspirants to lead the party in a way the party can win the rights of the people and fulfil their aspirations. However, many believe that there is no room within the party constitution for them to become the leaders of the party. There were many attempts made by some members of the main decision making body of the party to bring changes to the constitution and they miserably failed. It is very important for the Muslim voters too who continuously voted for the SLMC to rethink in the best interest of the entire Sri Lankan Muslim community whether they should allow continuing this undemocratic nature of the selection/election of the leader of the party which allows him to continue for such a long period of 17 years.
The Sri Lankan Muslims have a common view that if the Muslims do not unite and express their fear and aspirations in one strong voice in an effective manner before it becomes too late, the Muslims will be left out without any solution, when a new constitution is drafted and finally approved by the parliament! This is my opinion.