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In the cross-fire of militarisation and Sinhalisation

by Shanie, 6 December 2008

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The Island, 6 December 2008

Muslims caught in the cross-fire

AM. A. Azeez was an outstanding Sri Lankan scholar and activist. Hailing from a leading a Muslim family in Jaffna, he had a brilliant academic record at the Jaffna Hindu College and at the then University College from which he graduated in 1933 with an honours degree in History. Winning the Arts Scholarship, he proceeded for post-graduate studies to Cambridge University but had to cut short his studies at Cambridge when he opted to join the Ceylon Civil Service to which he was selected through the open competitive examination as was then the practice. He was giving up a promising academic career to join the Public Service. Thirteen years later, he was to give up a promising Civil Service career to head the leading Muslim educational institution in the country. Azeez was persuaded (reportedly by his close friends Swami Vipulananda and Dr. T B. Jayah) to accept the offer of the Principalship of Zahira College, succeeding Jayah. Azeez proved an outstanding educationist and took Zahira to new heights in all areas of school life. The Marhoom A. M. A. Azeez Foundation keeps his legacy alive, one of which is to organise a Memorial Lecture which was delivered this year by academic and old student and family friend of Azeez - Dr A. C. L. Ameer Ali of the University of Western Australia.

One of the reports on Sri Lanka by the International Crisis Group was titled ‘Muslims – Caught in the Cross-Fire’. Ameer Ali’s subject for his lecture was different but he was referring to the same predicament of the Muslims caught in the middle of a cross-fire between the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist forces. He quoted from the ICG report that the Muslims of the Eastern Province had lost 63,000 acres of land since 1995, owing mainly to LTTE atrocities. However, Ameer Ali said, ‘one should also add to this figure the loss they have incurred due to the government’s land policies under false pretensions. For example, the failed sugar plantation in Ampara in the nineteen sixties, the Digawapi Buddhist cultural precincts scheme in the 1990s, the so-called archaeological excavation in Pottuvil to resurrect an ancient Buddhist temple in post-2000, and the designation of 600 acres in Mutur for a Special Economic Zone, are all projects that have intentionally or unintentionally taken away lands belonging to Muslims. One should not forget that it was the loss of land more than the threat to their language that actually provoked the Tamils to cry for a separate state.’ The ICG’s figure did not include the land lost by the Muslims as a result of the ethnic cleansing in the North by the LTTE. Ethnic cleaning of another sort is now being attempted in the East by nationalist elements who are part of the present Government. Even in the South Eastern University, ostensibly opened for the Muslims (all Universities are national ones but owing to the ethnic conflict in the country, Tamils and Muslims are only a small minority in many of the southern Universities –– the majority are compelled to go for their higher education to the north/east universities), under the guise of security, there is growing militarisation and Sinhalisation.

Militarisation of the Eastern Universities

The Coalition of Muslims and Tamils is a Sri Lanka based organisation committed to pluralism and social justice for the country. They issued a statement last week commenting on the deteriorating situation in the East. They have also referred to the militarisation of the two Universities. We quote from their statement: ‘Eastern University has been a site of conflict and battleground for long years now. Over the years various armed groups attempted to establish their presence in the university, with the LTTE taking extreme measures to control the expression of staff and students. ……Prof. Santhanam, former Vice Chancellor was abducted by the LTTE and later released But the University continued to function, limping along with depleted resources. With the establishment of control by the army and police and TMVP, the University has come under increased surveillance from the quarters aligned to the state. Today, TMVP continues to exert its coercive measures on the community. In an effort to establish control of the Eastern University the TMVP abducted the Dean of the Arts Faculty in late 2006. Then the Vice Chancellor Prof. V. Raveendranath disappeared in broad daylight from the heart of Colombo city, from an area marked for its high security check points. The TMVP is believed to be behind this abduction. The Vice Chancellor is widely believed to be dead today.

The South Eastern University is also facing a similar problem. The University has a 90% Muslim majority student population. During the Ramadan holiday in September, the Government placed a new unprecedented security system in the university. Many complaints have been made to the UGC and other related administrative bodies in relation to normalisation of University functions, especially with regard to establishment of police checkpoints within the university premises, but to no avail. In this pathetically oppressive situation, the two universities function with the barest minimum of security, when it comes to aggression by forces allied to the government. It is within this miserably disempowering situation that on August 22 of this year Sucharitha Pasan Samarasinghe, a 4th year Sinhalese student at Eastern University, was killed, purportedly by a force from outside the university.

There is a serious concern among many from the two university communities that certain sections of the students are being used for surveillance purposes, regardless of their ethnicity. This increases the sense of fear widespread among the student body; increasing the sense of being hemmed in from all sides; increasing the sense of sheer hopelessness. These measures of the state are counter productive and destructive of any possible contribution that civil society could make to social cohesion and initiative, leading to greater democratisation. The two university communities are under great strain and feel a sense of being besieged.’

Obviously, those who direct security operations seem only to have a narrow military logic. They have little understanding of the need for a political strategy that will win the cooperation of the civilians of all ethnic communities.

Violence in the East

Two soldiers were killed by a claymore mine explosion in a village near Kaluthawalai in the southern Batticaloa District. This was followed by the members of two innocent families including children being shot dead at Kaluthawalai. A few days later in Padaviya in the northern Vavuniya district, another innocent family which also included children were killed. Apparently a member of the family was serving in the Sri Lanka Army. We can only speculate as to who was responsible for which.

These tit-for-tat killings targeting innocent people, abducting family members of wanted suspects, etc add to the sense of fear and helplessness in the people. Our decision makers are unable to earn the lessons of the past or even to have the political sense that a war cannot be won by alienating civilians who do not know where to turn when they are caught in the cross-fire. Those who have a long term interest for the country should not accept short term fixes. If a political solution with justice and dignity for all had been offered at the start of this conflict, the senseless loss of thousands of innocent lives could have been prevented. Even now, that is the only way to halt the continuing loss of young lives.

Azeez’s Prophetic Vision

We began this week’s column with A M A Azeez. Let us end also with a reference to his political activities. Azeez, while Principal at Zahira, had been persuaded to join the UNP. In 1952, he was nominated to the Senate. A perusal of his Senate speeches, released this year in book form, show him to be a person, like Senator Tiruchelvam, with a remarkably clear political mind, free of prejudices and committed to social justice. In 1955, when the UNP somersaulted on the language issue and adopted J R Jayewardene’s Sinhala Only resolution, Azeez resigned from the UNP and went on to oppose and vote against the Sinhala Only Bill, when it was presented in the Senate.

A senior legal officer (later elevated to the Supreme Court Bench) delivering the Azeez Memorial Lecture six years ago, referred to Azeez’s stand on the language issue which was similar to Colvin R de Silva’s assertion: ‘Two languages one nation; One language two nations.’ Tracing the beginnings of the present conflict to that short-sighted policy over fifty years ago, the speaker stated: ‘Unfortunately, the events that unfolded after 1956 have proved the predictions of Senator Azeez to be very prophetic indeed. Not only did the implementation of the Official Languages Act cause the two major communities of our country to drift far apart, it also has resulted in a deadly civil war bringing with it utter misery and hardships to the people of this country, some of whom are still refugees in and out of the country.’