Some Reflections on Muslims and the Peace Process
source : lines May 2006 /August 2006
Given the particular demographic that I represent I feel that I would most usefully contribute towards this discussion of human rights and the peace process if I talk a little bit not about the many human rights violations that occur on a daily basis almost, and continues to undermine the possibilities of a just peace, but on the larger more general issue of inclusiveness and the question of minorities. I believe such an intervention will help broaden our discussion on the peace process from a rights based perspective as well as identify some of its shortcomings that do not get adequate press.
From its inception the peace process, in the hands of both the UNF and the UPFA regimes has been significant in its practices of exclusion. These are troubling and go against many of the accepted principles of conflict transformation. The UNF regime was only minimally inclusive of the President and the opposition, marginalized Tamil representatives other than those sanctioned by the LTTE and reduced Muslims to a group “not directly party to the conflict.”[i] The current government too through the minimally transparent process by which the P-TOMS agreement was entered into continued this exclusionary practice. I would like to spend a little time on the issue of Muslims within the peace process, their exclusion in discussions on representation at talks, the discussion of human rights issues and the critique of war in general.
Now the Muslim issue is getting more press today and there is more of an attempt at Muslim consultation and there are more mechanisms in place to ensure that this is done than at any other time during the process. The P-TOMS for all its failings and the problematic processes through which it was formed must be recognized as a precendent of some importance. Therefore this presentation is not principally a litany of Muslim exclusion. I want to raise certain questions regarding the manner in which Muslim issues have been dealt with and make certain points about the peace process in general that I think might be useful for this discussion.
Many of the discussions that I have attended in the past three years on the peace process have featured one standard argument against Muslim participation in the negotiations. The argument is that Muslims do not “deserve” such participation. They do not deserve it because they did not participate in the armed struggle or did not join the Tamil political struggle for minority rights. The fact that this claim still has currency even at a time when the Muslim issue is on the peace process agenda is cause for concern and merits inquiry into the nature of inclusion. But I will not deal with that now. Muslim participants at such workshops address the issue variously through claiming that Muslims did in fact participate in the initial stages of the armed struggle, that Eastern Muslim politicians worked closely with the Tamil leadership on the language issue for instance, that they supported Tamil aspirations, that Muslim members of the Federal Party were amongst those that were beaten up during the Satyagraha at Galle Face and so on. Much of the above is valid and historically accurate and constitutes a part of the history of the conflict that is yet to be written. I want however to depart from that kind of back and forth and suggest that the very fact that we are viewing the current situation as a prelude to a sharing of spoils is problematic. While one is sympathetic to the arguments put forward by Tamil nationalism and the narrative of its long struggle, it is essential that we take a more long term view of the peace process. While conceding Tamil aspirations it is imperative that in refusing to recognize the deep feelings of anxiety and marginalization that are being shown by the Muslims, we do not set the groundwork for a future where conflict, again, is an inevitability. We owe it to the future to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
One other point is crucial here. We need to be self reflective and be critical of the valourising of armed struggle that is also implicit in this discussion. This is true not just of those celebrating the Tamil struggle but also those in the south that are calling for war in the aftermath of the assassination of foreign minister Kadirgamar. While there may be justifications for armed struggle in certain instances it must also be tempered by a recognition of the consequences of militarization. The brutalization of society that is a requirement of war, the undervaluing of humanity and the demonizing of a fellow human being that war entails, that becomes part of the everyday of any society at war, are not sufficiently considered in this discussion. The valourising of confrontation in everyday life, the proliferation of small arms, preferring confrontational methods of solving disputes rather than consultation and consensus, are all part of the everyday reality that we as a society at war for over twenty years have internalized. The fact that it is large numbers of civilians that sacrifice their lives, livelihoods and homes, and that women and children, and amongst those the poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable suffer the most heinous abuses of war we have come to recognize even if we do sometimes forget. But the larger impact of the war on the country is only discussed by us in Colombo in terms of the damage to the economy and infra structure. The brutalization of society even at a distance from the front and the depletion of our humanity we are yet to come to grips with and address adequately. Any discussion of human rights must be informed by such a realization.
The next point I want to address is that of minority aspirations in the context of the peace process. Minority political agitation in the context of ethnic majoritarianism has been the reality of the Sri Lankan situation. However the particular meaning that the term “minority” has accrued in Sri Lanka has not been conducive to rights based agitations by minority groups on the basis of their minority status.
Uyangoda states that unlike in India, minority status in Sri Lanka does not grant any community constitutionally accepted privileges or special entitlements. According to Uyangoda, the appellation “minority” has in fact meant a justifiable ground for discrimination. Therefore in Sri Lanka the political category of minority is deemed to entail political disabilities and a lower value to community self esteem. It is in this context Uyangoda argues that the Tamil nationalist claim that we are not a minority but a nation derives its meaning.[ii]
Such a devaluing of minorities have had consequences in other arenas. For instance Muslims are less than a foot note in the grand narratives of Sri Lankan history, and Sri Lankan Muslim minority self identity is based on constantly shifting ground that can find no strong widely sanctioned narrative of entitlement on which to stabilize itself. The Muslim psyche too has been pervaded by this sensibility to the extent that, in the ongoing religious revival and political reawakening, Muslims consciously distance themselves from the term “minority.” I argue elsewhere that the success of the piety movement in the country is attributable in part to the possibility of identifying with a larger global Muslim Umma that is profoundly exotic and not limited by the beleagured minority position that Muslims are forced to occupy. Recently, in a discussion on valuing minorities, one Muslim civil society actor from the east stated angrily that the term minority must be stricken from the dictionary. Eastern Muslims constantly assert their majority status in the eastern province and the Oluvil declaration mirrors Tamil nationalism in calling for recognition of Muslim nationhood.
Both the LTTE and the Government want the Muslims to take a back seat in the peace process and trust them to see that Muslim interest are looked after. Her Excellency the president’s address to the Muslims in the after math of the P-Toms in fact was a splendidly charismatic articulation of such a position. Is this any way to respond? She asked them. The problems with such a claim are the precedents. Neither the Ceasefire Agreement, the various rounds of the peace talks nor the recent P-Toms has articulated Muslim interests in a way that recognizes Muslim positions. And the paternalism that goes against all principles of inclusiveness that must inform such processes I think reflects a fundamental failure to understand Muslim aspirations. Earlier rounds of peace talks promised Muslim inclusion at the point of discussing “substantial political issues.” What “substantial political issues” might entail have not been clarified. Further the exclusion of Muslims from normalization talks must be queried as there are substantial areas of Muslim interest in any such discussion. The security and livelihood guarantees for the return of the expelled Muslim in the three districts of the North, and the issue of taxation have to be addressed at the highest levels. It is well known that Muslims have felt discriminated against and directly targeted in the aftermath of the CFA. Muslims feel that their livelihoods are being systematically undermined, that they have no freedom of movement and fear for their security. They feel threatened both by the LTTE as well as the mostly Tamil bureaucracy. The regardless of the veracity of some particular allegations these are concerns that merit inquiry. Such concerns and anxieties were not adequately taken account of in the history of the current peace process. In fact there is hardly any forum where Muslim human security concerns get an adequate hearing. In such a context Muslims struggle to articulate their discomfort with a process that sees them only as spoilers. While this failure by either the government or the LTTE to adequately comprehend the Muslim position is partly attributable a lack of information, it is rooted I suggest in this negative status accorded to minorities. The best argument for the inclusion of Muslims is the need for a peace that is acceptable to all and that as I stated earlier, will not lay the groundwork for conflicts in the future. However such an inclusion of Muslims can only happen after questioning of and shifting our internalized positions regarding minorities.
Let me conclude with one final point. In our post colonial nation building zeal not only did we internalize the marginal status of minorities we undermined the possibility of valuing our multiplicity. In pursuit of particular kinds of nation states we lost sight of the fact that our unusual and concentrated diversity within an Island state was a resource that could culturally enrich all our lives. The fact of plural perspectives enhancing any discussion, a notion that most of us subscribe to we have not been able to translate to a valuing of our ethnic others. We have lost all knowledge of our shared pasts. For instance, the census as recently as the end of the 19th Century had a category of Tamil Buddhist, and todate, we have Muslims in the Hill country that have Sinhala ge names. We have lost this history today and the ghettoisation of communities continues. In the aftermath of a conflict that has fractured our polity along a variety of ethnic and regional fault lines there are no shortcuts to reversing this process. This is a sad trend that we must address in the peace process as well. We have to consciously work towards reversing the value laden labels of minority and majority. For instance, it is essential that any power sharing agreement be adequately cognizant of local minorities. Tamils and Muslims in the South, Sinhalese in the North and East, Muslims in the North, and Tamils and Sinhalese in any Muslim South Eastern Unit. I suggest that the issue of preventing minority marginalization is made a priority discussion agenda at the peace talks in order to shift the conversation atleast briefly away from the issues of majority entitlement.[iii] If this is done I think we will take a small step towards ensuring a future plural polity that can at a minimum ensure human rights and human security for its citizens.
[i] The Preamble to the Cease Fire Agreement refers to Muslims as a group not directly party to the conflict.
[ii] Uyangoda Jayadeva. (2001) Questions of Sri Lanka’s Minority Rights. Colombo. ICES p.05
[iii] This is a suggestion that was made in the consultative process to the document on a National Vision for Multicultural Sri Lanka more than two years ago.