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Any Solution Addressing the Concerns of Tamils and Muslims must not be at the expense of the Sinhalese

Javid Yusuf
To gain an accurate understanding of the Muslim community’s approach to the rebuilding of Society it is necessary to first comprehend a Muslim’s outlook to life itself.  For Muslims, religion is the most important aspect in life and hence the approach to public affairs would be premised upon a system of values that Islam embraces.

Religion for Muslims is more than a mere system of beliefs and practices that govern their private lives. Rather, it is an ideology that embraces all spheres of human life and living, both public and private. In a nutshell, it is both a way of life and living.

Logically following on, politics and political issues then become important to Muslims to the extent that it facilitates the pursuit and practice of their religion. This is manifested in the somewhat pacifist role of Muslims that is evident in their political behaviour and the absence of political militancy in the national arena in post-independence Sri Lanka.

The developments since the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 is examined below within such a contextual backdrop. The comprehensive defeat of the LTTE has provided an opportunity to address the task of nation building unhindered by the pre-occupation of a debilitating armed struggle which has been a drain on national resources.

The neutralisation of the LTTE has ipso facto created a vacuum that long dormant economic forces have moved into fill. Even if the State did nothing on the economic front, I dare say that the economy will take off with the removal of the brakes on development that the armed conflict effected. However with the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to ensure large infrastructure development in the past two years, healthy growth rates have been achieved.

That said, much remains to be done and the impressive economic achievements ought to be translated into meaningful and equitable benefits that will impact on the ordinary man’s day to day life.

Recently I came across an Indian remarking that while India is doing well economically not so the Indian people. I do not know whether this is true or not of India.

In Sri Lanka’s case, however, it is closer to the truth because despite rapid infrastructure and other development, the less privileged sections of the citizenry face a significant struggle to make ends meet.

However, the most challenging task at this point of time is undoubtedly the dealing with political issues that confront us in the post war context. Before addressing such issues, it is important to frame the discussion within accurate parameters and understand the context in which the conflict arose.

Many writers and thinkers both in Sri Lanka and abroad have used the label ‘ethnic conflict’ to describe the events of the past three to four decades without clearly explaining what they mean by the phrase ‘ethnic conflict’.

This has led to considerable confusion and misunderstanding as to the nature of the conflict and consequently the possible solutions that could be examined.

As a result of the conflict being loosely described as an ethnic one, many Sri Lanka watchers, particularly those living abroad have come to believe that it arose due to the majority Sinhalese oppressing the minority Tamils and that the LTTE’s armed struggle was to liberate the Tamil community from such oppression.

Such a perception in my view is in variance with reality. The Tamil community’s campaign was against State structures and policies that were considered discriminatory of the Tamils rather than one against the Sinhala majority.

The failure of the dominant sections of the Sinhala polity to address these grievances, the lack of a rigorous examination of policy formulation by governments of the day that would have identified possible adverse impacts on minorities (e.g. the Sinhala Only Act which elevated Sinhala to official language status without conferring a similar status to the Tamil language, Standardisation of admissions to Universities which required Tamil medium students to obtain higher marks than their Sinhala counterparts), and the Tamil political leadership creating unrealistic expectations among the Tamil youth contributed to the birth of Tamil militancy.

Finally the democratic Tamil political leadership lost control and the LTTE hijacked the Tamil struggle with disastrous consequences.

With an emergence of armed groups in support of Tamil demands, the entire conflict assumed a new complexion with attacks and counter attacks resulting in the death of large numbers of civilians. With the LTTE often targeting innocent civilians they earned the label of ‘terrorists’ thus blurring the distinction between the cause and the tactics and providing a handle for spoilers to dub it a ‘terrorist problem’.

Attitudes began to harden in certain sections of society on both sides of the communal divide making it difficult for the moderates to advocate for a just solution through negotiations.

The self-defeating nature of the LTTE’s strategy and its military defeat has left Tamils worse off than when the conflict assumed a violent nature.. Their grievances remain and have in fact increased due to the consequences of the armed struggle with many of their kith and kin maimed or killed, their homes and livelihoods destroyed and faced with the daunting task of rebuilding their lives from next to nothing.

Internally, Tamil society is brutalized, Tamil culture has been destroyed and the LTTE’s intolerance of dissent and democracy has weakened the proud intellectual spirit of Tamil society.

Accordingly, in the post-war environment it is necessary then for the Tamil community to engage in serious introspection with regard to their role and place in Sri Lanka and the strategies they need to adopt to ensure their rightful place in the rebuilding of the country.

They have to learn lessons from the experiences of their past and re-integrate within the Sri Lankan society. Dissatisfaction with treatment meted out to the Tamil community by the Sri Lankan State should not motivate the former to the position of withdrawing from mainstream political activity that will in the long run prove to be detrimental to its own interests.

The Tamil community is an important and integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. However in recent times its preoccupation with the struggle to address the community grievances vis a vis the Sri Lankan State has resulted in them opting out of the national mainstream and not participating in discussions and activities relating to matters affecting the country as a whole.

While the Tamil political leadership will vigorously debate in the National Legislature the importance of ensuring that Tamil regions secure its share of economic development it will make little or if at all only a lukewarm contribution to the discussion on how to ensure the formulation of policies that affect the economic growth in the country.

As such, it becomes imperative that the Tamil political leadership launch on a course of rethinking its actions of the past coupled with clarifying its role in ensuring that the Tamil community is reintegrated into national life with dignity and honour.

Resolution of political issues as a means of national reconciliation and nation building. The addressing and resolution of political issues affecting the minorities is a crucial aspect of a strategy to achieve national reconciliation leading to nation building. In this task, the Sri Lankan State ought to perform a critical, if not a lead, role. It must be realized that although the majority of the Tamils did not support and approve the LTTE’s resort to an armed struggle, the defeat of the LTTE and the fallout of the military campaign has left the Tamils a demoralized and wounded community.

The Muslims on the other hand are uncertain as to how any actions of the State in addressing Tamil grievances will affect them. This has been the perennial dilemma facing the Muslims through the years when the LTTE waged war against the Sri Lankan State. The failure of large sections of the Muslim political leadership, often characterized by opportunistic self interest rather than the needs of the community, further exacerbated this dilemma.

In contrast with the Tamil community which challenged State structures as a means of addressing its grievances, the Muslims strode a separate political path opting to engage with the State and work within the mainstream of Sri Lankan politics. This resulted in a great deal of misunderstanding by the Tamils of the Muslims strategy and caused a strain in relationships between the two communities.

The Muslim political leadership either failed or made no attempt to explain the reasons for the difference in strategy of the Muslim community in contrast to that adopted by the Tamils. Therefore, the former was unable to make the latter realize that such a strategy was adopted from a perspective of what was considered best for the Muslims and was in no way designed to deliberately undermine the Tamil struggle.

The opportunism of Muslim political leaders from the conflict areas forsaking Muslim community interests in return for Cabinet posts and other incentives compounded the perception that the Muslim community was seeking to undermine the Tamil cause.

The Muslims, despite not being direct protagonists in the armed conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan State, have undergone considerable suffering during the years of fighting in the North and East.

The forcible eviction of the entire Muslim community from the Northern Province by the LTTE, the massacre of hundreds of Muslims who were engaged in worship in mosques in Kattankudy and Eravur, the taking over of lands belonging to the Muslims by the LTTE in the Eastern Province, the deprivation of the livelihoods of the Muslims in the conflict areas and the failure of the Sri Lankan State to provide adequate security to the Muslims are among the factors that contributed greatly to the sense of insecurity and unease that the Muslims faced as a result of the armed struggle waged by the LTTE.

Thus as stated earlier in this paper, the State ought to play the significant role and take pro active measures in order to rebuild society in the post LTTE period. The State must reach out and embrace the Tamil community making them feel that they are as important a segment of Sri Lankan society as the Sinhalese and Muslims.

Such an effort must not be limited to smooth rhetoric but rather be combined with specific steps that make the Tamils feel that the Sri Lankan State sincerely cares and will ensure political, economic and social justice for all communities.

Moreover, in the post war context, it is paramount that the Sri Lankan State demonstrates by its actions that the Tamil community is trusted and shall enjoy a dignified existence in post-war Sri Lanka. Further, sensitivity to fears and apprehensions of the Tamil community, even if at times considered misplaced or exaggerated, becomes imperative to achieving the aforementioned. For instance, certain Tamil politicians have labelled the Sri Lankan Army a ‘Sinhala Army of occupation.’

This in this writer’s view is a misguided description of the Sri Lankan State’s official Army. That said, the concerns arising out of this misperception must be taken into account in formulating post-war policy for the North and the East.

The Army’s dominance of the higher levels of administration in the North and East as well as its intense visible presence at ground-level is not conducive to creating an environment of re integration and reconciliation for the Tamil community with the rest of the country.

If an assessment of the security situation leaves no option except to ensure the presence of the Army in the region, it must then recede to the background for the present and eventually work towards withdrawal from the region in a phased manner.

Moreover, it is critical that the State intervenes to dispel doubts and uncertainties of the Muslims with regard to the nature and content of a solution that may finally emerge. In the deliberations and negotiations that precede the crystallization of such a solution, the State will be well advised to ensure that the Muslims are provided an opportunity to participate and shape the outcome of talks. The issue of the Forcibly Evicted Muslims of the Northern Province and the livelihood and security issues of the Muslims of the Eastern Province must be central to any solution that is finally forged to resolve the issues which has cost the country and its people dear.

Moreover, in its resolve to forge a solution, the Sri Lankan State must not lose sight of the need to allay the fears and anxieties of the Sinhalese people who despite being a majority have their own share of concerns, both real and imagined. Any solution that is meant to address the concerns of the Tamils and Muslims must not be at the expense of the Sinhalese.

This will not only be fair and just but ensure the sustainability of the solution in the long run.

Finally, the three communities must work tirelessly to establish governance, administration and social structures that foster interdependence among themselves. This will help cultivate the feeling in each of the communities that the progress or downfall of each of them is inextricably linked with the progress or downfall of all other communities and the nation. This in turn will be invaluable in inculcating a strong sense of nationhood among the members of the different communities in Sri Lanka.

(This is an edited version of a paper’ titled “A National Perspective through Muslim Eyes’” presented by the writer, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and principal of Zahira College, Colombo at a recent seminar in Colombo organised by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies and the Chennai-based Centre for Security Analysis on Post-Conflict Sri Lanka )


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