By Umakanthan Packiyan
On March 7th 2001 AFP reported an offer by the then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga to finance a possible international operation to save the priceless Bambiyan Buddha statues threatened with destruction by the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan.
That was an altogether different world order. The Lankans were fighting a losing battle against the Tigers and the economy was running low yet it came forward to save the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. And the AFP had the last line of the report which read thus “Sri Lanka's minority Muslim groups have joined Buddhists in protesting against the destruction in Afghanistan”
Sri Lankan Moors as they are often referred to, are Muslims of Sri Lanka who speak, read and write Tamil in a segregated country where identity is a primary political and a geographical determiner too. Sri Lanka lying on the verge of the Arab-China trade routes has an established coastal Muslim community which claims Arab ancestry, but are referred to as Moors. They have a defined accent which identifies them as a distinct Tamil Muslim Nationality and also are geographically more in the Eastern province and significantly in the Northern and Central provinces. They are called as Ceylonese Moors and in recent years as Sri Lankan Moors.
The Indian Muslims who migrated following colonisation of Ceylon are referred to as Indian Moors. The Indian Moors are mostly Tamil/Malayalee Muslims from the erstwhile Madras Presidency, along with them the Gujarati Bohra and Kutchi Muslims also make up the number.
This is not the first time in history that the conflict erupted in Sri Lanka on ethnic lines, nor is this the first time that the Buddhists and Muslims clashed. In 1915 a riot took place beginning in the same historical Kandy town over the procession of the Buddhist Pageant on a lane where a Mosque belonging to the Indian Moors was situated. Another Mosque belonging to the Ceylonese Moors had no issues with the pageant passing down their lane.
The 1915 riot took place after a verdict by the Privy Council in favour of the Indian Moors. When the Buddhists procession in deference to the verdict went towards the lane where the Indian Moors Mosque was located, they were stopped by the British Commissioner of Police. A Muslims crowd hooted and jeered the Buddhist’s procession and this led to an attack on the Mosque at mid-night. The riots continued for over three months and spread to other provinces and came to an end with a brutal repression by the British colonial regime.
Sri Lanka has a recorded history of pogroms, riots and ethnic cleansing since the colonial era. Much of this lies in economic, cultural and political reasons. Sri Lanka has largely been a vassal state to the political powers ruling South India and their economy has always been controlled by imperial forces. The separation of Ceylon from British India made the Ceylonese feel free of Indian influence but unfortunately the economy of Ceylon was created on Tea and Rubber for which indentured labour came from Madras Presidency. The already established Moors who controlled the Arab and Straits trade along with the Indians controlled the economy of Sri Lanka. The Sinhala Buddhists had been side lined economically by the colonial power but the Sinhalese Buddhist got absolute power politically only after independence.
Sri Lanka devolved power through Provincial governments following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Muslims had a major say in the Eastern Province and also a deciding factor in a few other provinces This devolution of power was to answer the vexed Tamil national question and the armed campaign for separate Eelam by Tamil militants, but it indirectly paved way as dividends to peripheral elements of the Tamil Nationality question; the Upcountry Tamil (of Indian origin) and the Muslims of the Eastern Province. The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress was formed in 1986 under the leadership of M.H.M Ashraf. Both the Upcountry Tamil political leadership Ceylon Workers Congress under S Thondaman and the Muslim leadership under SLMC were able to play decisive roles in the formation of the Sri Lankan government in the years to come.
Following the Indo-Lanka accord the Muslims were able to gain economic, political as well as social and cultural prominence in Sri Lanka. The establishment of the Eastern University and being a neutral party to the civil war, Muslim youth’s education did not get interrupted and they were also advantaged as they were fluent in Tamil and Sinhala.
Since the end of Eelam war in 2008, there was a lull following the “silencing of guns” by the LTTE. This current violence against Muslims started with Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation spearheading a campaign against Halal certification and the 2014 anti-Muslim riots. In 2015 Mahinda Rajapaksa was overthrown by his own party man Maithripala Sirisena in the Presidential election of 2015. Maithripala Sirisena was a common candidate of the opposition parties and the dissidents from Rajapakse’s SLFP. Mahinda lost by a narrow margin due to the Tamil and Muslims voting in larger number in favour of Sirisena.
In 2016, Namal Rajapaksa son of Mahinda was accused of murdering a Muslim Rugby player Thajudeen and also arrested for money laundering. His brother Yoshitha Rajapaksa was also accused of money laundering and arrested. The extremist Sinhala Buddhists view this as a conspiracy against Mahinda who had won the war against the Tigers.
In the recently concluded election to local bodies Mahinda Rajapaksa’s budding political outfit Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna a breakaway group from SLFP, swept through the elections garnering over 40% of the votes. The SLMC contested the elections under the UNP symbol the current ruling party led by Ranil Wickermasinge. UNP got just under 30% of the votes.
The current state of emergency and the violence against Muslims by the Buddhists comes in the backdrop of the Sinhala community envious of the growth and control of Muslims economically and being a deciding factor politically. The Presidential elections may throw in more extremism and realignment of forces. The Muslim leadership might do some rethinking as they have been great survivors in a country where they are a minority and unlike the Tamils they do not have a supportive role of India to pull strings. At the same time the Sri Lankan government will try its best internationally not to get targeted by Muslim countries. The immunity that the Muslims enjoyed during Eelam war as a distinct ethnicity seems to have completely dried and they have to work a new solution that will safeguard their economic, political, social and cultural interests on the island.
(The author is a rights activist based in London, United Kingdom. He can be reached at email@example.com)