Colombo-born Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, who is currently teaching in a US university, cautioned this week the SLMC in alliance with Rajapaksa that it “should be able to read political logic of the Rajapaksa regime.” The Tamil-speaking academic, while reasoning out the bargaining politics of the SLMC, and delineating on the areas of lacuna in Tamil–Muslim understanding, further cautioned the SLMC that “Any failure or any deception, would very likely trigger tensions and distrust between Tamils and Moors.” Using the term Moors in his responses to questions put forth by a TamilNet contact in North America, Dr. Imtiyaz commented on the SLMC decision that “ It is easy to win diamonds for elites and politicians in coalition politics, but what is hard is to effectively win rights and security for the masses”.
“As long as the island of Sri Lanka confronts tensions and conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese, it is very likely that the Moor politicians from the North and East will play a greater role in bargaining politics,” Dr. Imtiyaz observed in answering to a question on the ‘minority’ perspective of Muslim politics and said that the bargaining politics went very well in the past for Muslim politics.
On SLMC collaborating with a regime that has gone on record for anti-Muslim activities, Dr. Imtiyaz said that the SLMC is a political party, not a mass movement.
Power is the aim of any political party and Muslim politics think that the strategy of the past still holds good. But sadly the cooperation this time is not winning any substantial concessions for Moors with respect to security, land and autonomy. It is based only on political portfolios, the academic commented adding that he would be happy “if the SLMC would demand for the devolution of Land and Police powers to the Provincial Councils.”
Agreeing that there was a great opportunity that should have been used by the SLMC to build better relations between Tamils and Moors at popular level, Dr. Imtiyaz shared a communication he had from the SLMC hierarchy, reasoning out its decision.
“The SLMC’s top leaders share some concerns about the Rajapakse regime’s tricks. Some of the SLMC top members think that the regime in Colombo may spark further internal tensions, and thus the SLMC may face some difficulties. Also, there is a deep distrust toward the TNA, particularly it’s inability to come forward strongly against the recent developments pertaining to the returning Northern Moor refuges from Puttalam and other southern corners. Some thought that the SLMC-TNA controlled provincial administration would face severe difficulties from Colombo, and making the whole exercise futile. Combination of all of these factors contributed to the SLMC’s decision, and thus they missed the opportunity for better Tamil-Moor relations at popular level,” Imtiyaz said.
Colombo’s plans on demographic changes and political weakening of Tamil-Moor political representation could have been subverted, had the SLMC opted for SLMC-TNA administration of the East, Imtiyaz observed.
On building Tamil-Muslim relationship, the foremost suggestion of Imtiyaz was that “Tamils need to recognize the separate identity of Moors, and they should disclose this in unambiguous language.”
On this point the response of Tamil civil activists in the island was that Tamils shouldn’t have any hesitation in recognizing the separate identity of any people, when the people think that they should assert to it.
In the same spirit, the need that has come to Eezham Tamils to assert themselves a nation having the right to self-determination has to be understood by the Muslims. Academics of both Tamils and Muslims should work towards finding out a way for the national aspirations of Eezham Tamils and minority aspirations of Muslims accommodating each other for the synthesis and benefit of the both, the civil activists in the island further said.
The full text of the responses of Dr A.R.M. Imtiyaz to questions asked by a TamilNet contact in North America, follows:
Q: In the Eastern Provincial government elections, the Muslim political discourse was centered on the notion that the Muslims are “minorities” and therefore bargaining with the rulers would be the best way forward for the Muslims. What are your comments?
A: In deeply divided ethnic societies where more than two ethno-cultural groups compete for resources and positions, political elites and politicians belonging to non-major groups often seek alliance and political cooperation with the major/ dominant ethnic group to gain maximum political gains and positions. The policies, behaviors, and actions of Moors’ political establishment since 1948 in Sri Lanka affirms the point I am making about the functions of ethnic parties in deeply divided polities.
Such political collaboration in the name of Moor masses went very well, and Moor politicians did win significant concessions from the Sinhala polity. When you have a polarized society where two groups compete for political control, ethnic groups like Moors can maximize their interests. The recently concluded Eastern provincial elections confirm this theory. As long as the island of Sri Lanka confronts tensions and conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese, it is very likely that the Moor politicians from the North and East will play a greater role in bargaining politics, not winning.
Q: The Mahinda regime is guilty of appropriating lands belonging to Tamils and Muslims. The regime and its supporters are also guilty of attacks on mosques and systematically hindering business opportunities of Muslims. Could one justify the decision of the SLMC to support the regime to form the provincial government in the East?
A: The SLMC is well aware of the problems of Moors, particularly the North and Eastern Moors. The SLMC is a political party. It is not a mass-oriented political movement. In any political party the ultimate aim is power. Muslim cooperation with the Sinhala ruling class/political parties, mainly due to the ethnic conflict and war against the Tamils, helped the Moor politicians to maximize their interests. The SLMC and other Moor politicians think that such strategy is still good and would work. But, sadly, the SLMC’s political cooperation this time with the regime did not win any substantial concessions to the Eastern Moors with respect to their security, land, and regional autonomy. The cooperation was made possible mainly based on cabinet portfolios at the regional level, and political concessions at the center.
I would be happy to see the SLMC’s cooperation with the regime to form a government in the East if the SLMC would demand the devolution of Land and police Powers to the Provincial Councils.
Q: The elections for the Eastern provincial government and the results were a golden opportunity for building Tamil-Muslim relations. In fact, the TNA, the dominant Tamil political party offered to work with the SLMC. Why did the SLMC missed this opportunity?
A: Political parties often take decision to maximize their own interests. The SLMC is no exception. Yes, it was great opportunity, and the SLMC should have used it to build better relations between Tamils and Moors at popular level. My communications with the people associated with the SLMC hierarchy suggest a few interesting reasons for the SLMC’s decision:  the SLMC’s top leaders share some concerns about the Rajapakse regime’s tricks. Some of the SLMC top members think that the regime in Colombo may spark further internal tensions, and thus the SLMC may face some difficulties. Also, there is a deep distrust toward the TNA, particularly it’s inability to come forward strongly against the recent developments pertaining to the returning Northern Moor refuges from Puttalam and other southern corners. Some thought that the SLMC-TNA controlled provincial administration would face severe difficulties from Colombo, and making the whole exercise futile. Combination of all of these factors contributed to the SLMC’s decision, and thus they missed the opportunity for better Tamil-Moor relations at popular level.
Q: The Muslim perspective on the Tamil-Muslim relationship has always been critical of the early negative role played by Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan and later in the 80s and 90 s the atrocities by the Tamil militants against the Muslims that culminated in the expulsion of the Muslims from the North by the LTTE. While these are projected as grave historical errors on the part of Tamil politicians and militants, would you think the decision to support the Mahinda regime in the Eastern provincial government after campaigning against it is a grave mistake? What could be the reasons?
A: The answer is no. It is becoming a kind of style for Muslim political elites to use the brutal behavior of the Tamil militants, including the LTTE to justify their co-operation with the Sinhala political class. Yes, as you correctly said that the Tamil political and military actors had committed crimes against the Moors. But the Moors are no innocent parties either. In my studies on the Moors of the Northern and Eastern provinces, I have exposed the violence by the Moors against the Tamils. The Moor politicians are no angels. The point is that the SLMC, which campaigned aggressively against the Mahinda regime, committed a historical political error. In politics, every decision you make may have grave consequences. Such consequences may help trigger tensions at popular level, or may lead to widen distrust and hatred.
Q: The Eastern province will now have a council of ministers consisting of Sinhalese and Muslims only. Perhaps this is what the Mahinda regime wanted all along: to demonstrate that they can change the patterns of representation in the North and East if they want and east is just the beginning. What’s your take on this issue?
A: Colombo has been active in changing the patterns of representation in the North and East and demography for a while. It wanted to significantly weaken the Tamil-Moor political representations and population control of the region. Actually, Colombo’s plan could have been subverted if the SLMC had opted for SLMC-TNA administration. The SLMC should be able to read political logic of the Rajapakse regime. Any failure or any deception, would very likely trigger tensions and distrust between Tamils and Moors. It is easy to win diamonds for elites and politicians in coalition politics, but what is hard is to effectively win rights and security for the masses.
Q: What are your suggestions for progressive Tamil-Muslim relationships and programme?
A: Politicians have their game and moves to win power. They seldom think about the interests of masses. But political activists and scholars have a role in the society. That is, to educate the masses and to seek common ground for better future. In the context of Sri Lanka, both Tamils and Moors are being denied justice. Both communities have some deep-seated political as well as socio-economic problems. Just because these two communities have problems, would not make these two groups ideal to form a common front. There are political and social forces within and beyond these communities. These forces often run their own agendas to weaken any possible working relations among masses of these groups. These groups often employ distrust and divisions of Tamils and Moors to pursue their own agendas. But the fact is that there is a sense of distrust between Tamils and Moors. Moors of Sri Lanka have some reasonable concerns about the Tamils. These are legitimate concerns. Tamils need to recognize the separate identity of Moors, and they should disclose this in unambiguous language.
Groups seek their destination and claim their identity not only based on language, but also non-language factors such as religion. Also, Tamil polity should not take any measures against the Northern Moors returnees. Expulsion of Moors by the LTTE was a brutal error that the LTTE committed in their long struggle. Actually, such move progressively weakened the Moors’ trust against the Tamil struggle. On the other hand, Muslim activists and scholars need to acknowledge the errors and violence committed by the Moors against the Tamils. And we need to apply a lot of pressure on Moor politicians to seek better political choices. The politics of collaboration may help political elites and politicians, but its consequences would not put masses in any good position in the long run.
[Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz was born in Colombo. He studied political science at the University of Peradeniya and received his Ph.D in World history from Nanjing University in China. He currently teaches ethnic politics, Modern China and Modern India at the Asian Studies program/ Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia. His research studies cover two major aspects—the symbolic politics of elites and politicization of ethnic differences especially in Sri Lanka. His most recent research examines issues pertaining to Muslims in Middle East and in Xinjiang province, China.]