By Aboobacker Rameez –
The recent months of Sri Lankan politics have witnessed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) sweeping overwhelmingly the Northern Provincial election (NPC) held for the first time in the history of Sri Lankan politics. Surprisingly, the new chief minister, CV Wigneswaran, recently taking oath before the president sent shockwaves to rabbles and those who opposed the NPC election in the South, while displaying a potent political gesture to the Southern political leaders, especially the government.
The appointment of Mr Azmin Ayoob, a member of People Movement for Good Governance’s (PMGG) party under the bonus seat of the TNA and his inclusion as an advisory council member of a ministry of NPC and the first visit that the NPC Chief Minster took along with his TNA delegation to Jaffna Mohammadiya Mosque yesterday underlines an unprecedented symbolic political gesture extended towards the Muslims by the TNA to build bridges between the Tamils and Muslims in the North and the East. It was reported that CM highlighted the urgent need of the Tamil Muslim rapprochement at the meeting. Violence against Muslims including their forceful eviction from Northern Province, the intermittent killings of Muslims even at the Mosques in the Eastern province committed by the Tamil armed rebels and the resultant reaction of Muslims with the support of government forces in1990s served to drive a wedge between the Tamils and Muslims during the height of the war. This has deepened the Tamil and Muslim political schism at the national and regional level. However, the latest turn of events that occurred in the post war era heralded a scenario that posited the renewal of Tamil and Muslim rapprochement in the North and East.
Anti-Muslim campaign in the post war era
All Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language and so on, anticipated a decent and peaceful life free from violence, bomb explosion, and ethnic strife immediately after the elimination of war in 2009, however, to their utter disappointment, what they witnessed, on the contrary, was a virulently strident anti-minority campaign, particularly against Muslims targeting their places of religious worship, dietary practices and their costumes by the extremist fringe with the blessing of rulers. While majority of Muslim politicians in the government were seen helpless or vulnerable because of the perks and privileges they were endowed with to stand up against the growing anti-Muslim campaign in the country, minority politicians including Azath Salley, some leftist politicians, and Tamil politicians like Mano Ganesen have firmly stood up raising this ghastly injustice against Muslims in many political and civil forums. More importantly, TNA parliamentarians like Sumanthiran and Sampanthan showing their courage and empathy towards their brethren have raised this issue in the parliament and taken up this matter with Navi Pillay when she recently visited to the country on a fact-finding mission, while Muslim politicians kept a low profile without raising this corrosive issue when meeting her. This manoeuvre of TNA has been considered a significant symbolic gesture to renew their relationship with Muslims and to address issues confronting the minorities, regardless their ethnic and religious differences.
Formation of Eastern Provincial Council
As there was an ample opportunity presented to form the Eastern Provincial Council at its last election held in 2012 with the coalition of Tamil and Muslim minority administration, it was swiftly turned down with Minister Rauf Hakeem subsequently deciding to back the government to form its administration with only few ministerial portfolios to his party members. Interestingly, to garner the support of SLMC, the TNA went to the extent of proposing the Chief Ministerial Post of the council to SLMC in the event of the council being formed as a coalition, but it was inadvertently slipped away. Section of people from minority communities faulted Mr Hakeem for slipping away the historical moment presented to form a minority coalition and thereby pressing the government to devolve more powers to the province, but such effort of the TNA resulted in vain. After a lapse of almost one and half years of the EPC administration, two week ago, the Eastern Provincial Council voted overwhelmingly to strengthen the 13th Amendment .The motion, asking the government to strengthen and not dilute the 13th Amendment, was tabled by the SLMC amidst the vociferous opposition of the SLFP Chief Minister. Majority of Tamil and Muslim members of the government party abstained from voting, while the provincial Minister of Education, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, and nominated Councillor, T. Navaratnarajah, voted in favour of the motion. The only ruling Party (UPFA) Councillor, Priyantha Pathirana, voted against the motion. With the strong support of The TNA, and the UNP, the motion tabled by the SLMC succeeded taking umbrage the government and those who vehemently oppose the 13th amendment to the constitution. Tamils extending their unstinted support in favour of a motion presented by the SLMC at the council has also been considered another positive step to the Tamil Muslim rapprochement in the North and the East. It was aptly noted by a member of TNA at the council that the SLMC has to reciprocate the same towards the TNA when it comes to them bringing a motion supportive to the cause of minorities in the future.
Apprehension of Muslims in the renewal of Tamil Muslim relationship
Unlike the Southern Muslims, the Muslims in the North and the East continue to share their linguistic and cultural affinity with Tamil brethren as they are interspersed with each other for centuries. Thus, there is a desperate need to re-establish the relationship between Tamils and Muslims, particularly in the wake of minority communities being targeted by the extremist fringe drawn with a majoritarian mindset in the post war context of Sri Lanka. However, there are some genuine apprehensions that Muslims have that beg clear-cut clarifications or answers from the Tamil polity. Some of them are:
1) The pursuit of TNA to merge the North East(NE) and thus reducing the percentage of North Eastern Muslim population
2) Political autonomy and social economic prosperity that the Eastern province has exercised over the years after the separate EPC may be stymied in the event of Tamils and Muslims being united.
3) The lack of candid attempt to resettle the forcefully evicted Muslims from Northern province
4) Fair play in the devolution of power
The current position of TNA to find a solution to the Tamil speaking people under united Sri Lanka in a merged NE is a cause of concern to the Muslims, especially the ones living in the Eastern province. Apart from Muslims becoming a minority under a dominant polity in the merged NE, Eastern Muslims may also be deprived of the socio, economic and political prosperity they have been enjoying under the EPC over the years in the event of being NE merged. Thus, there is a significant need to arrest such fear and alarm of those Muslims in the East by the Tamil polity. However, it needs to be noted that the demerger of NE would significantly be contingent on the Supreme Court ruling and in that case, it has to revoke the decision it made in 2008. It would be facile to note that revoking such a historical ruling of the Supreme Court is highly unlikely in the current context of Sri Lanka. Moreover, it also is naïve to argue that the Eastern people including the Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese would support of a referendum seeking the de-merger of the NE, depriving their socio, economic and political clout they have largely enjoyed in the wake of the establishment of EPC.
It is also important on the part of the Tamil polity in the North to address the administrative and institutional obstacles from resettling the forcefully evicted Muslims from the Northern Province in 1990s. The history has seen that the government has incubated the forceful eviction of Muslim by the LTTE as a fodder only during the election platform to appeal to the Muslims in the Northern electorates while doing nothing tangible to resettle them. Similarly, the Tamils politicians have done nothing constructive or appropriate to resettle those Muslims languishing in the thatched hut shelters in Puttalam and other areas over the years. Thus, it is significant for the NPC administration formed by the TNA to take appropriate measures to resettle them in the future closely working with the government mechanism. It is equally important for the TNA to spell out how they are supposed to treat the Muslims in the event of political solution being arrived at under the united Sri Lanka.
Therefore, what Muslims and Tamils living in the NE need now is trust and mutual understanding to re-establish the deformed relationship and cooperation between them. Politicians and civil society members from both Tamil and Muslim communities need to constantly engage with each other in matters of crucial importance concerning both communities. Rest assured that there is a glimmer of hope in the wake of NPC election to build bridges between these two brotherly communities in the NE.
*The writer is currently a PhD research scholar at the National University of Singapore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.