Muslims in Sri Lanka: Political Choices of a Smaller Minority

| by Farzana Haniffa
( January 18, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Muslims of Sri Lanka are currently 8.9% of the population. And in a country whose nation building project confined itself to the image of the Sinhala nation, and where its protracted, over three decade long conflict has been historically cast as one between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, narrative accounts of the country and the conflict often do not represent or grapple with the presence of this other minority other than through a cursory reference to their presence. However, the question of Sri Lanka’s plural polity is not one that is emerging only at this late stage in the conflict. It had troubled the colonial masters at the dawn of modern era, when modern forms of governance were being considered as suitable for the colonised as well. In fact, in the process of managing the affairs of state in Sri Lanka, the British, rather early on in their administration made provision for communal representation. All investigations into possible administrative structures for the country, the Colebrook – Cameron reforms, the Manning reforms, the Donoughmour reforms and finally the Soulbury reforms, acknowledged the complexity of the ethnic picture, and all, with the exception of the Donoughmour constitution, reluctantly accepted some form of “communal” or ethnicity based representation for the country. However, the trend towards liberal government in the colonial metropolis were reflected in the colony as a reluctance to foster communal sentiment and there was a move away from the customary communal representation in the donoughmour constitution of 1931. Uyangoda in his writings explores the manner in which this legacy, of liberal late colonial reluctance to communalise the administration, meshed well with the majoritarian impulses of the Sinhala elite.
Constitutionalism and minority rights in Sri Lanka are marked by minority anxieties regarding majority dominance through representative democracy, and the majority community’s absolute lack of sympathy or sensitivity to such anxieties. The assertion of Sinhala nationalism, was seen by and large as the only sustained critical local response to colonialism. Sinhala nationalist ideology has long seen itself as the flag bearers of a post – colonial indigenous consciousness. Underpinning this consciousness is the dual preoccupation that the minorities colluded with the colonial state, and that majority entitlement had an ethical basis endorsed as it was by representative democracy.
“Muslim political choices in the face
of the refusal of a predominantly
Sinhala state to consider minority rights,
 has been to render their distinct
 religio-ethnic identity invisible in
 the political realm.”
The constitution at independence, that is, the Soulbury constitution, had several minority rights guarantees. These included instructions to delimitation commissions to be mindful of adequate minority representation in the delimitation of electoral districts, and the injunction forbidding discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds. However, state making in the aftermath of independence was done very much in line with a Sinhala nationalist agenda, and the marginalisation of the minorities who were seen to have benefited under the colonial administration, was very much a part of this ideology.
In the two constitution-making exercises that the Sri Lankan state engaged in, after independence, both progressively did away with the minority rights guarantees in the constitutions. The first did away with Section 29(2) and the second with the instructions to delimitation commissions to be mindful of minority representation.
This paper is concerned with the Muslim community’s response to this process of minority marginalisation. As many writers have pointed out, the formidable political disadvantages that the Muslims as a collective have faced in Sri Lanka, have dictated their political choices. For instance, Muslims are less than 10% of the population of Sri Lanka and are widely dispersed in different parts of the island. The only two significant population concentrations are in the Ampara district of the Eastern Province and in the Colombo district of the western province. As such, mustering a significant vote base that was Muslim only is difficult, and assured only in the East.
Politics by Muslims
While the Tamil leadership reacted strongly to the Sinhalese refusal to guarantee minority rights constitutionally, Muslim leaders of the time adopted a different approach of working with the respective ‘national’ political parties that controlled the state. They resorted to linking their fate to the relationships that Muslim parliamentarians were able to forge with the respective national parties of which they were a part. This strategy has been critiqued in the narratives of Sinhala nationalist entitlement as well as the discourse of Tamil nationalist self-determination struggle. Muslims, bit players in both narratives, are seen as collaborating with whoever was in power, switching from one national party to another in keeping with political expediency and in denial of their ‘actual’ Tamil ethnicity. Curiously, scholarship on the issue, too, has not addressed the question of Muslim political engagement from a Muslim perspective and seriously interrogated what benefits, if any, accrued to Muslims in this choice to suspend a Muslim political voice. Muslim Politics at Independence: Strategy of Ethnic Blindness. 
Muslim political choices in the face of the refusal of a predominantly Sinhala state to consider minority rights, has been to render their distinct religio-ethnic identity invisible in the political realm. Such a position meshed well with liberal claims that ‘we are all one’, but in the emergent ethnically polarized context, exacerbated by the electoral reforms of 1987, it resulted in the increased political marginalisation of Muslim interests. Many Muslim MPs of a previous era, embracing the principle of ethnic blindness, contested seats and won from mostly multi ethnic constituencies. There were many such persons including T.B.Jayah and Dr. M.C.M Kaleel, but the most significant example of such an engagement is the highly respected former M.P for Balangoda, M.L.M. Aboosally. He had the distinction of defeating the entrenched Kandyan Sinhala aristocrats, the Ratwattes.
These Muslim MPs, given their political dependence on constituencies other than the Muslim vote, did not think of themselves as Muslim MPs representing Muslim concerns. They rarely highlighted their ‘Muslimness’ or emphasised Muslim issues. Later, they were criticised for not paying adequate attention to Muslim community concerns. Muslims of this era were caught in the bind of not having Muslim specific political representation, but of having to resort to Muslim MPs to speak on behalf of Muslim concerns based on their ethnic affiliation. Such actions were ultimately of no political benefit to the MPs themselves. Little attention has been paid by scholars to this particular conundrum faced by Muslims. In the ethnicisation of politics, Muslims lost out as group that was the last to ethnicise its own politics. Little surprise then that the Muslim MPs—representing constituencies that were not necessarily Muslim– were ill equipped to address the urgent security concerns of Muslims in the North and East that emerged with the escalation of the conflict. While arguably the material consequences of such a marginalisation were negligible in the South, in the North and East the consequences were dire.
Two other political figures from the Muslim community that have gained an important place in the history of Muslim political engagement with the state are Badiuddeen Mahmood and Razik Fareed. In the meagre references to Muslim politics in the histories of Sri Lanka’s post colonial state, great prominence is given to these two Muslim figures as representing Muslims’ chosen strategy of political engagement.
Fareed hailed from a wealthy Colombo Muslim family and entered politics in 1930. He is famous for vociferously advocating a ‘standing by the majority’ position for Muslims, and in particular, of supporting the institutionalization of Sinhala as the country’s only national language, and backing the dominion status bill regardless of its inadequate minority safeguards. As member of the education committee of the government of 1936, Fareed encountered Tamil opposition to the promotion of Muslims as teachers in Tamil language schools serving Muslim communities. Fareed, born and raised in the south, in a Sinhala majority area, spoke all three languages, was most comfortable in English and felt no special affinity for the Tamil language. Also, encountering at a very early stage in his political career, what he construed as anti-Muslim and caste based sectarianism amongst Tamils, Fareed thought it far more politic for Muslims to cast their lot with the Sinhalese. Amongst the southern Muslims’ stereotypes of ‘the others’ – the Sinhalese are seen as genial and easy going, and the Tamils as industrious, crafty and manipulative. Such sentiments also seem to have had a part in motivating Fareed’s political choices. Perhaps, given that the wrath of the genial Sinhalese when aroused was quite ferocious—as Muslims of Fareed’s generation experienced in the 1915 anti Muslim riots — Fareed thought it more politic for Muslims to cast their lot with the Sinhalese.
Although Fareed, supported the Sinhala majority, he was arguably one of the more “communal” minded of the Muslim representatives in parliament. Fareed’s political career is marked by attempts to institutionalize ‘Muslim’ as an administrative category within the state and thereby to have their cultural practices recognized and legitimized institutionally. Fareed’s political achievements for the community were to gain concessions for Muslims like leave for Friday prayers and the recognition of Meelad-un-Nabi, the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday as a national holiday. During his time schools with a majority of Muslim students were institutionalized as Muslim schools with special calendars, syllabi and uniforms. Fareed’s actions greatly contributed to the institutionalization of a particular Muslim identity. However Fareed’s politics, were not those that garnered much status for him within the various governments of which he was a part. Indeed other than as a member of the three month long care- taker cabinet following the assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, he held no important positions within the governments.
Fareed as a prominent Muslim figure is seen as exemplary of Muslim political choices as well as political gains. His emphasis on gaining recognition from the fledgling state for Muslim religious and cultural practices, and having minimal say in questions of governance are seen as emblematic of politics by Muslims. However, this was hardly the case. Too much has been made of positions favoured by him and too little analysis has been done of his minimal political clout. There were many different positions and opinions among Muslims regarding the major issues of that time, and Fareed represented only one of these.
The Badiudeen Mahmood, an influential figure in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is another important figure in Muslim politics. A friend and close confidante of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Mahmood was founder secretary of the SLFP and after the death of Bandaranaike, was appointed member of the cabinet of two SLFP governments under Bandaranike’s widow, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Mahmood represents yet another way in which the Muslim leadership attempted to address their political marginalization within the Sri Lankan polity. Unconstrained by any need to win at elections—Mahmood was twice an appointed member– Mahmood had a very autocratic approach to the Muslim community and his plans for it. He identified the distinct educational disadvantages of the Muslim population, and focused on policies to get redress, and to that end Mahmood influenced first, the Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake and later, taking on the portfolio of Education himself, did much to influence the development of Muslim education.
At the political level, Mahmood was committed to the success of his party and manipulated Muslim vote banks to assure the SLFP’s victory in at least one instance. He did so by mobilizing large segments of the Muslim vernacular intelligentsia around ideas of Islamic Socialism. Forming the ‘Islamic Socialist Front’ (ISF), Mahmood successfully mobilized a generation of educated Muslim youth, giving voice to Muslim opinion on vital national issues for several years. Mahmood did this while in the opposition and ensured the shift of a substantial Muslim vote from the United National Party (UNP) that the Muslim trader elite was traditionally loyal to, to the SLFP. And after the SLFP victory of 1972, when the constitution was redrafted and Sri Lanka declared a republic, Mahmood organized a mammoth celebration of Muslims welcoming the government’s initiative. This was the same constitution that did away with section 29 of the independence constitution and was boycotted by the Tamil leadership. After the election and another cabinet appointment for himself, Mahmood lost interest in the ISF. It had served its purpose as far as he was concerned and there was no more use for it. The years of mobilization and organizing on ideas of Islamic Socialism and Muslims’ political place in Sri Lanka were to no avail. This was a cause of great resentment amongst a generation of the Muslim intelligentsia. Mahmood’s treatment of the ISF is indicative of the anti democratic nature of the Muslim leaders’ engagement with the community they claimed to represent.
Fareed and Mahmood, given their national stature, have become emblematic of Muslim engagement with the state. However, the special circumstances of their prominence, where Mahmood was important because of his place in the SLFP and his close ties with the Bandaranaike family, and Fareed because of his stature as part of an elite philanthropic family, did more than a little to influence their particular paths. This aspect of Muslim politics, where Muslim political leaders held the communities captive has not been adequately understood or appreciated by scholars of Muslim politics. These elisions speak to the inadequacy of studies undertaken into Muslim politics in Sri Lanka. Very significantly neither Fareed nor Mahmood were elected by the Muslims that they claimed to speak on behalf of.
The much more pedestrian political careers of Kaleel, Aboosally, M.H.Mohamed and the like, arguably are more typical of the place of Muslim political power within the state. It is a story of minimal personal clout and a dependence on good relations with the party leadership and a politics that embraced the plural nature of the Sri Lankan polity. . .. However, there was little overall gain in the sphere of Muslim political power. There were few that could publicly speak on behalf of Muslims in government, and none who could claim to represent a Muslim mandate during this time.
“Muslim” Politics in the Context of the Ethnic Conflict.
The proportional representation system introduced with the new constitution in 1978 did away with what little political power these MPs with their multiethnic constituencies had consolidated. It brought about an era of the small ethnic parties. Thereafter any party that initially could muster 12% of the vote of a district and later just 5% of that vote was eligible to be considered for a seat from the district. Additionally, voters were called upon to indicate their preference from the respective political parties’ list of names. Therefore, nomination to the list from the party, and additionally, mustering preferential votes from the entire district, was a challenge that individual politicians had to face and therefore, the competition amongst individual MPs from the same district became rather fierce. Those with erstwhile success, in selected areas, like Aboosally in Ratnapura, speedily lost their seats. Political leaders argue that the proportional representation system exacerbated ethnic tensions as politicians were compelled to appeal to a larger constituency and win their preference by any means possible. Ethnicity, then was the most readily available platform on which to mobilize masses.
The Eastern province has traditionally been the home of Muslim and Tamil villages often situated next to one another or of Muslim villages surrounded by Tamils. Historically, according to local residents, Tamil Muslim coexistence in the Eastern province included incidents of sporadic localized altercations between the two communities. These were mainly specific to the neighbouring villages among whom they took place and would generally end within the course of the day due to the need for amicable interaction for daily business. However in the mid to late 1980s the polarization between communities became more marked with the involvement of outside elements.the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, and Tamil militants and later, Muslim “home guards” armed by the state were all instrumental in manipulating ethnic differences and exacerbating enmity between the two communities.
The Tamil Muslim Riots in Batticaloa in 1985 were allegedly orchestrated by the state in a manner similar to the events of July 1983. ,the 8 day siege of Kattankudi by the LTTE in 1987, the IPKF bombing of Ottamavadi, the massacres of Muslim at prayer by the LTTE in Kattankudi and Eravur (1990), the disappearance of the Haj pilgrims from Kurukkal Madam the same year are all pivotal moments for Muslims in recounting their victimization due to the conflict. Additionally inhabitants of 33 Muslim villages in the Batticaloa district were displaced during the conflict. Most of these people moved to the densely populated town of Kattankudi further swelling the population of that town. The 1990 expulsion of Muslim in the North by the LTTE and the resulting 16 year displacement of the Northern Muslims have often been attributed, in discussions, to the disturbances in the East. Certain small scale reprisal killings of Tamils by Muslims in the aftermath of militant attacks have also been recorded. These were largely by Muslim Home Guards with overt and cover support from the Special Task Force (STF). Later these Home Guards were systematically hunted down and killed by the LTTE. Further, Muslims in the East are accused of questionable land acquisitions and are perceived as taking advantage of Tamil misfortune. Muslim purchasing of paddy land from Tamil absentee landlords, buying up Tamil owned shops, the creeping spread of Muslim villages into Tamil villages is part of the contemporary reality of the Eastern province. Any illegality in this process is not yet established, however Tamil and specifically LTTE resentment of this process has been recorded, and Muslims are seen to have indirectly benefited from the depletion suffered by Tamil society.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) emerged in the context of the escalation of the conflict between the Sinhala state and Tamil militant groups, the exacerbation of ethnic tensions in the Eastern Province and the state aided enmity between the Muslims and the Tamils. In the 1980s the Muslim MPs in parliament struggled to articulate Muslim issues, and given the polarization between the Tamil and Muslim communities in the East the time was ripe for the emergence of a Muslim identified party representing Muslim interests. Therefore, we see the emergence of the SLMC with a publicly stated Muslim political agenda and a powerful base in Amparai and Batticaloa districts in the Eastern Province.
While the SLMC under the leadership of its founder M.H.M Ashraff was successful in giving voice to Muslim aspirations of the North and East, after his death the party has been plagued with difficulties. For instance, there was a significant split in the party after his death with his wife, Ferial Ashraff taking the leadership of the National Unity Alliance that Ashraff had formulated before his death. Previously an umbrella body of which the SLMC was a part, today the NUA functions as a Muslim led National party in the Eastern Province. More recently, there have been further schisms in the party with M. Athaullah, Rishard Bathiuddeen, and several others leaving to formulate their own breakaway parties. Further, while the proportional representation system allows for minority representation, and makes minority seats crucial for the formation of a majority government, in practice there is much that is done to undermine minority strength. For instance, the practice of MPs crossing over from the various parties is common.
The national parties have no compunctions about ‘“acquiring” additional seats from the minority parties by soliciting individual crossovers. And party representatives, especially though not only from the Muslim parties, have been only too willing to be bought over. While there are provisions for parties to go to courts to expel such MPs and thereby deprive them of their seats, the courts have no history of granting judgments in favour of the complaining parties. Therefore, the minority parties, especially the SLMC has seen extremely damaging crossovers in the recent past that has challenged the party’s structure and discipline, and also fuelled questions about Muslim political competence by the state and the LTTE. And the SLMC’s reference to itself as the Sole Representative of the Muslims of the North and East has failed to impress either the breakaway factions or the larger Muslim community.
The SLMC’s failure to hold the party together has been attributed to Rauf Hakeem’s reportedly authoritarian leadership style. Additionally the Northern Muslim position as understood by the SLMC has been critiqued by many Northern Muslims who experienced the expulsion. The SLMC position on a solution to the ethnic conflict has long been Eastern Province centric and based on Tamil Muslim enmity, and a non contiguous administrative area based mostly on the South East. Such an arrangement, does not address the specific concerns of the Northern Muslims expelled by the LTTE in 1990. The Northern Muslims do not consider the Tamil people as a whole to be their enemies and hold only the LTTE responsible. In the East the distinction is not that clear. Fruther, given the fact that the Muslims of the northern province are only 5% of the population and live dispersed in small communities through out the province with only one significant area of concentration in Musali in Mannar, such highly ethnicised solutions will not be able to guarantee Muslim safety and security. They understand that it is a pattern of coexistence that will be beneficial to them.
Further complicating the emergence of an autonomous and unified Muslim politics, is the fact that only 30% of the Muslim population of the country is from the North and East. The larger number of Muslims that reside outside the North and East see no real need for a Muslim political voice outside of the Eastern Province. Southern Muslim politicians, in particular, resent the SLMC’s attempts to reformulate itself as a national party. They continue to practice the system of resting their trust on their allegiance to the leadership of the national parties and do not necessarily support the SLMC’s call for separate Muslim representation at the peace negotiations.
Today, the SLMC, together with its breakaway factions are struggling to assert their claim to articulate Muslim political needs. They compete fiercely amongst one another and their personal enmities are strong while there is little discernable difference on issues. Unfortunately their factionalism plays into the hands of the state and the LTTE’s long entrenched stereotyping of the Muslims as being in political disarray. As many have argued, and I have illustrated elsewhere, historically Sri Lanka does not have a culture of recognizing minority rights. The Sinhala state, supported by certain Muslim political actors from the south, and in keeping with a long history of Muslim political absence considers it presumptuous of Muslims to claim a seat at the negotiating table. They are called upon to trust the state to look after their interests. But the state has no history of doing so.
Additionally, Tamil nationalism has a particular place for Muslims in its narrative of emergence. Sri Lankan Muslims are largely Tamil speaking and Tamil nationalists generally see Muslims as fellow ethnics that refused their ‘Tamilness’ for narrow political ends. They see Muslims as traitors to the Tamil cause. For Muslims, militant Tamil nationalism has meant a constant threat of violence in the East, an undermining of their livelihood activities and steadily deteriorating relations with neighboring Tamil communities. Muslims consider the oft brought out concept of the ‘Tamil speaking peoples’ a ruse by which Tamil nationalists have tried to benefit from the advantage of Muslim numbers. However, Tamil nationalism has had little real interest in incorporating Muslim representation or in addressing Muslim specific concerns. The LTTE’s act of ethnic cleansing – the group systematically expelled all Muslims from the Northern Province in October 1990—forever sealed the enmity, as far as the Muslims were concerned, between them and the Tamil speaking Tamil people.
In 2004 the Peace Secretariat for Muslims (PSM) was formulated on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding between the SLMC and the National Unity Alliance. Its role was to build a consensus between the various political and civil society actors within the community and to provide an institutional base from which the Muslim position or positions could be articulated. Although created with massive donor support the success of the PSM within the community itself was negligible. More than four years after its establishment, the institution remained a body run mainly by the SLMC and the NUA. It has concentrated its energies on developing regional linkages and the ability to provide technical support to Muslim delegations traveling abroad. The institution struggles to maintain its legitimacy among the community.
The Situation Today The Rajapaksa regime gambled on bringing about its victory through an appeal to the ethnic Sinhala majority. The combined minority vote of the Muslims and Tamil communities should have guaranteed a victory for UNP (United National Party) and its candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe, who was perceived to be pro peace and pro federalist. Instead, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, came to power in November 2005 in an election which the LTTE compelled Tamil citizens of the North and East to boycott. The victorious coalition included a party of Buddhist Monks (JHU) and the ostensibly left leaning but Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The coalition also included the traditional Sri Lankan left, long time allies of the SLFP. Some progressive forces hoped that the Rajapaksa regime would usher peace with justice, that the UNP had not been successful in doing.
Since the presidential elections of November 2005 the country has experienced a drastic turnaround as the new regime adopted a distinct orientation towards resolving the conflict through military means. Public support for a negotiated settlement declined and there was a steady deterioration in the institutions of governance and law and order. Whereas, all regimes in power since 1994, had publicly accepted that Tamil grievances were legitimate, and that power sharing under a federalist mode was to be the solution to the conflict, the Rajapaksa regime successfully projected the conflict not as an ethnic conflict but as a terrorist problem to be dealt with in the style of the US led “War on Terror.” Earlier, these sentiments had been publicly expressed by the JVP and the JHU. However, what were considered fringe ideas by progressive forces in the country were rendered mainstream by the Rajapaksa regime. Moreover, support for the war went hand in hand with strong anti minority sentiments that justified the targeting of all Tamils as possible terrorists and marginalized other minorities like the Muslims in the economic and political sphere.
The ceasefire was abrogated in January 2008. The escalation of the war meant the escalation of human rights abuses and impunity as has been evident in intense conflict situations throughout Sri Lanka’s post colonial history. The current Sri Lankan regime conducts itself in violation of all international human rights norms in the name of fighting terrorism. It pays lip service to the need to deal with the political dimension of the problem, but its treatment of the All Party Representatives Committee, convened to formulate proposals for a political solution, has rendered that process false. After nearly two years of deliberations the APRC produced a disappointing two page document recommending the ‘proper implementation’ of the 13th amendment.
The 13th amendment to the constitution brought into force in the aftermath of the Indo- Lanka accord of 1987, has long been considered an unsuccessful attempt at the devolution of power with the centre maintaining its control despite the creation of a provincial administrative structure. In the process of devolution certain powers were put on a concurrent list with the center reserving the right to intervene. Many see it as an added burden on the state finances with little real benefit to the people. The resurfacing of the minimalist 13th amendment is an insult to Tamil nationalist thinking. Thirteenth Amendment. Under the current regime, it remains the only permitted discussion option on power sharing.
The defense secretary and powerful members of the government coalition maintain that the problem is a terrorist problem and not a political problem. The war has been fought with little regard to human rights norms, and the law and order situation has steadily deteriorated in keeping with the systematic terror tactics adopted by the state. In the deeply entrenched culture of impunity for human rights violations in Sri lanka, the minorities have become even more vulnerable targets. Minority rights have no purchase with the Rajapaksa regime. Many of those powerful in the regime have gone on record making anti minority sentiments. Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has stated openly that “ the country belongs to the Sinhalese” and minorities should know their place. Champaka Ranawaka, member of the JHU and a powerful cabinet minister has called all those other than the Sinhalese “visitors” to the country. The Military and the JHU are enormously powerful within the current regime
Eastern Province ‘Liberated’ In early 2008 the government entered into a military operation in the Eastern Province, took over the previously LTTE controlled area of Vakarai and declared a military victory in the Eastern Province. The process itself was more a publicity stunt than a victory, Batticaloa residents claim that there was no significant LTTE military presence in the Vakarai area, that the government forces fired over people’s homes, schools and markets, displacing thousands. Having “liberated” the Eastern Province, local government elections were held. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the governing coalition in an alliance with the TMVP won the Eastern Provincial Council elections and the leader of the Provincial Council is currently the head of the TMVP, a former LTTE cadre and child soldier Pillayan or Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan as he is known today.
The Muslim parties too won a considerable amount of seats in the provincial council elections. The government had struck parallel deals with the TMVP and the Muslim parties with the promise of the chief minister position for the winner. Although the Muslim parties claim to have won the largest number of seats the government gave the position to Pillayan and placated the Muslim Hisbullah with the position of provincial health minister. The state has also demarcated certain sections of the newly liberated area as high security zones and resettled people in areas different from those from which they fled. The government currently has plans for economic development zones for those areas. The government is also engaged in massive infrastructure development projects in the region. The region remains unstable with ethnic tensions mounting and killings taking place on a daily basis.
Muslim community leaders that were interviewed recently claimed that there is a JHU driven campaign to undermine Muslims’ economic activity in Colombo and the government has openly set in motion the Sinhalisation process of the East. Under such a dispensation basing one’s arguments on human rights norms and calling for preservation of minority rights have no hopes of success. The SLMC under the current regime has consistently aligned itself with the UNP (other than for a brief period where it joined the government allegedly under pressure from Presidential sibling and advisor Basil Rajapaksa.) The party left the government to vote with the UNP during the budget debate of 2007, and seems to be placing its bets on an election victory for the UNP. However, the UNP itself is in disarray and any such victory will require some serious reform of its own internal problems. For the Eastern Province elections the SLMC had three of its members resign their parliament seats and contest as UNP candidates. Rauf Hakeem, leader of the SLMC was the UNP candidate for the Chief minister position. Unfortunately the UNP did not make an adequate showing. The UNP won 15 seats while the UPFA won 18. The UNP also won a greater number of seats in the Trincomalee district where Rauf Hakeem won the largest number of preferential votes. Of course the election itself was considered highly flawed, but the fact remains that the SLMC’s gamble again failed to pay off. However, the SLMC has consistently maintained its position as a UNP ally.
The All Ceylon Muslim Congress that currently consists of a section of powerful Muslim MPs outside of the SLMC and the NUA is close to the regime and seems willing to support the regime for certain compromised gains for the Muslim community. Both Risharth Bathiyuddeen and Hisbulla are members of the party and maintain good relations with the regime. While they seem to be working with a strategy of engagement different from the SLMC’s position of opposition, the political gains from such an engagement are still to be seen.
Muslims then, remain caught within a state system that has historically done little to grant them legitimate political rights, but instead, has encouraged an economy of collusion; and an anti state movement that holds them culpable for just such a collusion and has systematically perpetrated acts of violence against them. Today Muslim political parties continue to struggle against a system loaded against minority political representation or minority political power in general. Muslims therefore have much to gain in any reorganization of the state in the aftermath of the conflict. Muslim political representatives have much to do in any lead up to such a reorganization of the state.
Bibliography >>> Ali, A. 1986. Politics of Survival: Past Strategies and Present Predicament of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka. Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 7:147-170. >> Haniffa, F. 2005. P-TOMS or The Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure: a wakeup call to the Muslim Leadership. Lines 4. >>> Haniffa, F. F. 2007. In Search of an Ethical Self in a Beleagured Context: Middle Class Muslims in Contemporary Sri Lanka, Columbia University. >>> Ismail, Q. 1995. “Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Muslim Self Representation,” in Unmaking the Nation. Edited by P.Jeganathan and Q. Ismail. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.Mahroof, M. M. 1990. Muslims in Sri Lanka: the Long Road to Accomodation. Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 11:88-99. >>> McGilvray, Dennis and Mirak Raheem. 2007. Muslim Perspectives on the Sri Lankan Conflict. Policy Studies 41. East-West Center, Washington. >>> Saminathan, D. 2005. “Tamil Perspectives from the East,” in Dealing with Diversity: Sri Lankan Discourses on Peace and Conflict. Edited by G. Frerks and B. Klem, pp. 113-129. The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
1. While the debate on whether the British, or the two other colonial powers that were in Sri Lanka prior to the British, created the ethnic/racial/religious categorizations through their structures of governmentality, still remains to be resolved, the fact remains that differences of various sorts were potentially ripe for political exploitation at the time of independence.
2. Jayadeva Uyangoda (2001), Questions of Sri Lanka’s Minority Rights, Colombo, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, p29 Ibid.
3. Section 29(2) (b) and (c) of the Soulbury Constitution provided that no law enacted by Parliament could (b) make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or (c) confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions.
4. K M De Silva, (1998) Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Penguin Muslims, a largely Tamil speaking community in Sri Lanka have long resisted the Tamil ethnic label. The origins of the resistance can be traced to British colonial machinations regarding native representation.
5. The British decision to create a Muslim seat in the Legislative Council effectively institutionalized Tamil Muslim difference in the country.
6. The writers who have attempted an engagement, but have reproduced the same categories of Muslim collusion without attempting an alternative reading however are many. For the most sustained engagements on the subject see Ali, A. 1986. Politics of Survival: Past Strategies and Present Predicament of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka. Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 7:147-170., Mahroof, M. M. 1990. Muslims in Sri Lanka: the Long Road to Accomodation. Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 11:88-99.,and Ismail, Q. 1995. “Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Muslim Self Representation,” in Unmaking the Nation. Edited by P.Jeganathan and Q. Ismail. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.
7. See K.M. de Silva. Also, based on author’s interview with M.L.M Aboosally in May 2005, shortly before his death in December that year.
8. For a longer discussion of Mahmood, see my dissertation chapter Minority Politics in Haniffa, F. F. 2007. In Search of an Ethical Self in a Beleagured Context: Middle Class Muslims in Contemporary Sri Lanka, Columbia University.
9. A.C.S. Hameed, as foreign minister and diplomat, and stalwart of the UNP was a powerful minister in his time but quantifying his power as of particular benefit to Muslims is rather difficult. He is remembered for his skilled diplomacy outside the country, in connection with the LTTE as well as with regards to keeping the UNP together during difficult times.
10. The post of Foreign Minister was held by A.C.S Hameed, during the middle east oil boom and influenced their consequent generosity with development aid.
11. In fact, members of the SLMC believe that it was Ashraff who persuaded President Premadasa to revise the requirement of 12% of votes to 5%. Aboosally, a long standing MP for Balangoda, lost his seat when the constituency became the whole of the Ratnapura district. See Rajan Hoole Haniffa, F. 2005. P-TOMS or The Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure: a wakeup call to the Muslim Leadership. Lines 4.
12. Saminathan, D. 2005. “Tamil Perspectives from the East,” in Dealing with Diversity: Sri Lankan Discourses on Peace and Conflict. Edited by G. Frerks and B. Klem, pp. 113-129. The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
13. After the general elections of 2004,where the SLMC aligned with the losing national party, the UNP, it was compelled to sit in the opposition. It prompted several of its members to cross over to the UPFA or the ruling coalition. See the SLMC document “Resolution to the Conflict in the Northern and Eastern Province: The Muslim Dimension (no date). P6.
14. In the current political context the SLMC position regarding the Northern Muslims has shifted to an extent and the party seems willing to consider the specific concerns of Northern Muslims. The Peace Secretariat for Muslims, constituted upon an MOU between the SLMC and the National Unity Alliance recently conducted consultations regarding the specific concerns of the displaced Northern Muslim population in Puttalam. Also, Risharth Bathiyutheen, a Northern Muslims, has been recently appointed the leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress a party constituted of former members of the SLMC. And if the SLMC is to remain legitimate among Northern Muslims, the party needs to address the specific concerns of the community.
15. Haniffa, F. Human Rights and the Muslim Minority: Some Reflections. August 2005.
16. The British institutionalized Muslim Tamil difference through creating both a Tamil seat and later a Muslim seat in the Legislative Council. The Tamil member protested, saying that the Muslims, as ethnic Tamils did not need additional representation, Muslims on the other hand vociferously argued against this position claiming descent from Arabs and a separate ethnic history.
17. See Izeth Hussein “Sarath Fonseka’s statement reeks of Sinhala Trumphalism”
18. The statement was made on a TV talk show as well as in an interview “Hard Talk” in the Daily Mirror of October 16th 2008. Further JHU spokesperson when contacted for comment reiterated the position and called it historical fact and saw no problems with the statement. Infact it reflects what the local history books teach Sinhala medium students about minorities. See
19. The election itself, endorsed by foreign election monitors was considered by many local groups as flawed, and as conducted under conditions of militarisation among a terrorised population,
20. Eastern Provincial Council Election Results. Accessed from Lankapuvath news agency at


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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