Who will listen to the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims

By Syed Ali Mujtaba

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced his intent to resolve the long-standing North-East Tamil national question. This perhaps he is doing at the behest of India. However, he has ignored the problem of problems of the North East Muslims which are indivisibly intertwined in any solution to the Tamil problem. Muslims are a minority within the Tamil minority.

Any attempt to ignore the Muslim problem would belie any comprehensive solution to the North East where two major minorities reside in Sri Lanka.

There has been a pattern since the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948. For example, during Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike’s government Muslims were persecuted and their economy was crippled. Her Justice Minister Felix R Dias Bandaranaike arrested and detained several prominent Muslim businessmen.

Then President JR Jayewardene forcibly merged the East with the North under Emergency Regulations in 1987. This was amidst widespread protests against the Indo-Lanka Treaty. He thereby gave the Northern Tamils a statistically undue Tamil majority in the East, though Tamils were a minority of 46% in 1946 before independence and 42% in 1981. There have been 39% Muslims and the Sinhala population is ever increasing and reaching 25% in 1981.

JR Jayewardene forced merger led to the Muslims becoming a minority under another minority resulting in their much-misunderstood demand for autonomous status in the eastern province and separate from Tamil rule in the North East Province.

Muslims’ resistance to JR’s merger led to the brutal expulsion of the Northern Muslims from the North and there was the massacre of   Muslims in 1989 and there were several mass killings of Muslims in the East. In 2005, LTTE Eastern leaders too broke away from the Northern-controlled LTTE signaling Eastern Tamil’s opposition to the merger. By 2006, the Supreme Court held the forced merger of North and East provinces as illegal.

There was an anti-Muslim campaign in 2012 and anti-Muslim riots in 2014, 2017, and 2018. The Presidential Commission on the Easter attacks of April 2019 is blamed on the anti-Muslim violence resulting in the terrible Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches.

There has been a tradition that Tamils and Muslims have lived in Sri Lanka as equal citizens and with dignity alongside the Sinhala Buddhist majority. For example, Tamil Congress and Muslim League were integral parts of the United National Party governments, and Muslim leader Dr. MCM Kaleel served as United National Party treasurer and chairman.

However discriminatory policies of the government forced Muslims to think in terms of separate terms.  Frustrated Muslims formed the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, with the slogan of Islam and unity. However, Islam disappeared and   Muslim Congress was divided into more than half a dozen splinter groups with a disgusting and well-known reputation for compromising the community’s interest for perks and positions.

The more recent one was the 20th amendment, where Muslim Minister Ali Sabry supported the amendment and several Muslim MPs voted in its favor making President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a dictator.

Earlier President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated a move to sign a joint mechanism with the LTTE for the rehabilitation of Tsunami victims. But the Muslim tsunami victims were ignored in the agreement to please the LTTE which opposed Muslim participation.

In negotiating and signing the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), President Kumaratunga did exactly what Ranil Wickremesinghe did when he signed the Ceasefire Agreement, with the LTTE on February 2002, when Muslim interests were summarily dismissed.

Saudi Arabia built 500 houses to Tsunami affected Muslim families. Sinhala extremists, led by Buddhist monks, opposed it. Thus the houses were not given to the Muslims.

Once the LTTE war ended in 2009, Muslims tried to rebuild their lives only to realize that government-sponsored violence started against them. They burnt Muslim-owned houses, commercial and industrial properties, and even mosques where Holy Quran was first urinated and then burnt.

In the midst, there appeared Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a government-backed violent organization that terrorized Muslims. Myanmar’s so-called Buddhist monk Asin Wirathu, the face of Buddhist Terror, was invited and accorded more than a head of state honor in Sri Lanka.

In March 2018, during attacks in Central hills, Muslims were attacked and looted and their properties including mosques were burnt causing billions of damage and depriving their livelihood.

Organized violence against Muslims proved that the racist policies continued. These attacks culminated in the Easter Sunday bombings on 21 April 2019 and plunged the country into chaos.

The Muslim community had nothing to do with this carnage. Yet Muslim men, women, and even children were treated with hatred. The government dispatched troops wearing boots and dogs to search the mosques to frighten the Muslims. Muslim women were asked to remove Burka/ even though Covid 19 rule forced everyone to wear masks.

Battered, beleaguered, and helpless Muslims have not taken up arms. Instead, they raised their hands in their daily five times prayers and left it to the Creator to have mercy on them.

Now in the midst of political confusion and economic bankruptcy nominated Member of Parliament Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was defeated in the elections and his party UNP wiped out, was appointed as prime minister and then as president. It was in this chaotic political environment President Ranil Wickremesinghe offered peace talks to Tamils, ignoring Muslims. Thus the indifference towards Muslim grievances continues unabated and there is none to listen to the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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