“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whenever the issue of IDPs was discussed by the Tamil politicians amongst themselves or with the government or with India or with NGOs etc. the resettlement of the displaced northern Muslims was never given the place it deserved. They continued to live with host families where several households crowded under a single roof, without adequate sanitation or water supply. Most lived in refugee camps. In this lot were women, children, the disabled, those chronically ill and many who were economically vulnerable. No one cared for them for the past disgraceful 25 years.
In this state of affairs, it is indeed heartening to read in various columns so much being written about Muslims in the aftermath of the UNHCR Resolution. I say it is heartening not because these writings referred to the plight of Muslims but marvelling at the scholarship, intellectualism and liberality in the pens through which these thoughts flowed. The indomitable spirit of justice and the conscience of feeling towards fellow humans were the manifestation of these civic minded citizens.
Nationally, this is a favourable sign that Sri Lanka is returning towards a free, liberal and civil society. Not that these were not there in the past. They were indeed there but at the beck and call of the establishment. The steady exodus of the daring journalists and the untimely death of the not so fortunate scribes bear grim testimony to the extent of the freedom prevalent at that time.
Turn of the tide
Those who contributed to these various columns were not politicians. They were folks who looked at the issue with equanimity and proffered their opinions sans prejudices – be it religious, racial or political. Their writings have now been the catalyst to create a ripple effect in arousing public opinion about the plight of the hitherto neglected Muslim IDPs.
In the recently concluded event in Jaffna titled, “Forum for Tamil Muslim Relations – Justice, Equality, Relations,” TNA Parliamentarian, M.A. Sumanthiran inter alia referred to the forced eviction of the Muslims of Jaffna by the LTTE as ethnic cleansing. A much needed reflection of goodwill from a person in the thick of the imbroglio. Among the several positivities in his speech must be included his magnanimous understanding of the need to help the displaced and desperate Muslims. This was an acknowledgement that was long overdue from the voices of the Northern Tamil representatives. Nevertheless, the Muslims would be pleased to hear the statement of large-heartedness.
Riding on this public opinion, we heard the speech in Parliament by Minister Rishard Bathiudeen at the adjournment debate (22nd/23rd October) on the UNHCR Resolution. The citations of the Minister, who is an IDP himself, was charged with emotion but his plea was passionate. He invited the attention and assistance of the Opposition Leader, affectionately addressing him as, Sambandan Aiya and the Chief Minister of the North, Justice Vigneswaran on the resettlement issue. During his speech he apprised the House of the various instances of the massacres perpetrated against the Muslims like the 168 killed in Kattankudy in July 1990 and again in August 1990 the 147 killed while praying in the mosque. In Eravur 126 more killed in the same month of August 1990 and so on. In addition, he cited the several instances of attacks on Muslim settlements and mosques; the unabated kidnapping and killing of wealthy civilians; the clearance and encroachment into the lands belonging to the Muslims by the LTTE and later by the government to establish security zones and naval/army camps.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was also quick to organize a high powered panel to discuss the issue of the IDPs. The highlight of this event is the presence of the people who matter and their expression of commitment in resolving this long outstanding issue.
The dismal record of the Muslim politicians and the Muslim political parties is greatly responsible for their wretched condition. Political disunity, horse trading with the powers that be and self aggrandizement have all been at the expense of the community especially those who have been victims of the war. Some alluded to their inability to do anything while being in the
Vice-like grip of the then President. Sadly, the past has seen the Muslim community as a whole being ignored by their own people in the higher echelons. Add to this woe the predicament of the IDPs. The vicissitudes of the IDPs life have been marked by them being socially ostracized, economically deprived, educationally backward, dispossessed, destitute and in a state of poverty. Having crossed the 25th year, it is a matter of deep concern for how long will this yet unresolved saga be on the anvil.
In this milieu, the Muslims, apart from a few activists, have held themselves aloof from the mainstream of almost every activity. Their distinct religious needs compel them to live in community. Historically, they were a contended people with their main focus on business, religion and their community life. The Muslim community is not organized and matured enough to engage in civil activities. Most are indifferent to their civic roles or those who are knowledgeable keep away without attracting trouble to themselves. These factors have contributed to the failure by the Muslim community to demonstrate their presence in society effectively. The Muslims are cocooned within the confines of their community resulting in alienating themselves from inter-communal interaction and on national issues.
The time has come for the Muslims to shift their mindset to be inclusive and, if they are as some may argue, then to be more inclusive. Little wonder they have been mistreated not only by the majority community but by the Tamil minorities too. Their cocooned disposition has not brought to them any positive yield except disappointment and hopelessness. “Come out of your cocoons, the tide is turning”, is the call for them.
The Muslims must be grateful to those ‘soldiers’ in robes who masqueraded as the guardians of Buddhism and the Sinhala race with the tacit blessings of the previous regime. The emergence of this notorious group woke up the Muslims from their deep slumber and indifference. Muslim intellectuals, professionals, diplomats and several organizations grouped up to create the now functioning civic body the National Shoora Council. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka which was already in existence, too, sprung into action. Both played a vital role as civil bodies in looking after the interest of the community at a time when the Muslim politicians woefully failed. Civil activities and civic mindedness is gradually seeping into the fabric of the Muslim community. The emergence of the National Front for Good Governance (NFGG) which also has been focusing on the political education of the Muslim community and instilling principles of good governance etc. has had some measure of influence. There is also the RRT, Rapid Response Team, which has been discharging a yeoman service in the legal field. Their legal assistance to the victims of the Aluthgama riots, the victims of attacks on several mosques etc. have received the commendation of the community. If all these happen successfully, the Muslim politicians will be better advised to change the usual records that they play. They will be forced to take into consideration the existence of another force in whatever decisions they take. The Muslim voters in the future would be more circumspect, diligent and informed.
The Muslim community over the past half a century was lacking a proper leader with visionary thinking. A leader capable of evaluating the status of the community in the contemporary society and to mould it to suit the existing and changing conditions. Any takers ?