Muslims: Third Political Force?

22 Nov, 2000    ·   438

Zarin Ahmad analyses how the Sri Lankan Muslims are emerging themselves as a third force in the island politics

In the multi ethnic Sri Lankan society, Muslims form the second largest minority community with a population of 7.4 % as against Sri Lankan Tamils (11.6 %) and the majority Sinhalas (74 %). From a pliant minority they have emerged as a key political force in a country rocked by ethnic conflict. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has won ten seats in the recent elections and has chosen to support the People’s Alliance (PA) headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga, which is five short of the required majority of 113 seats. The SLMC, now National Unity Alliance (NUA), has put several conditions, including the resignation of Junior Defense Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte (on charges of rigging in Kandy ), and a 100 day deadline for implementation of the new Constitution. 



Traditionally, the Muslims were not a player in the island’s politics. They found it expedient to support either the UNP or the SLFP. Since the 1980s there has been a change in their stance with the emergence of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).  The fact that they have emerged politically is also an assertion of their distinct ethnic identity in plural society. Three distinct phases can be identified in the post independence period. (i) The passive phase, when they confined their interests to trade and business. (ii) The assertive phase of the 1980s to mid 1990s, when Ashraff spoke of jihad forces to counter the LTTE and (iii) the present phase when they are a key political actor and ardent advocate of the new Constitution. Ashraff asserted in an interview in June this year that the SLMC was not in favor of a separate state for the Muslims. He was, however, canvassing for carving out a south-eastern council out of the three majority electorates in his native Ampara district.



The island’s Muslims do not constitute a monolithic group. They can be categorized into Sri Lankan Moors (claiming an Arabic descent), Indian Moors, and Malays (from South East Asia ).  They generally speak Tamil at home but are bilingual in Sinhala dominated areas. Malays speak a different language. Muslims are dispersed throughout the island but have a sizeable concentration in the Northern and Eastern Province , and Colombo . Economically, they present a diverse picture. The Colombo Muslims are a rich business community, especially prominent in gem trading, whereas the Eastern Muslims are mostly in agriculture. There is a distinct gap between the North-East Muslims and the Colombo Muslims. The emergence of the SLMC under the leadership of MHM Ashraff represents the interests of the Eastern Muslims.



In the violent atmosphere of the North and East, it was realized that the Colombo Muslims were not adequately addressing their grievances. Talks on devolution heightened their fear of being reduced to a ‘minority within a minority’. The LTTE also realized that the sizeable population of Muslims  (ranging between 20 and 42 percent in Amparai district) could not be ignored. This resulted in violent clashes between the Tamils and the Muslims and the expulsion of 75,000 Muslims from Jaffna and Mannar and some parts of the Vanni by the LTTE. The situation was so tense and the sense of insecurity so high that the SLMC leader MHM Ashraff gave a call for jihad forces to counter the LTTE.






In the post election scenario newer realities have emerged. The National Unity Alliance, the new name of the party in the South, emphasizes a change in policy from being a party based in the N-E to becoming an all-island presence. The name suggests a secularization of policy, but it probably overlooks its initial aim to represent the interests of the N-E Muslims. There are strains within the party to acquire Ministerial posts. The untimely death of MHM Ashraff in a helicopter crash on the eve of the elections has left a void, which has resulted in the absence of a rigorous leadership.



However, a cause of concern for the Muslims and minorities in general is the clarion call given by the Buddhist clergy for the Sinhala parties—the UNP and the SLFP—to work out their differences and come together. The question of thousands of displaced Muslims from Jaffna and Mannar, now living in Puttalam, is a cause of great anxiety to them. Any solution to the ethnic conflict will have to accommodate the interests of the displaced Muslims. To face the future challenges the Muslims will first have to resolve their own contradictions, but the fact remains that the presence of the Muslims as a powerful third force can no longer be ignored in Sri Lankan politics.