Prabha, Rauff - On Road to Harmony
“Furthermore, the agreements reached this week mark the implicit recognition — by the non Sinhala political establishments of the LTTE as the preponderant political force in the north and east, the latter’s extra-parliamentary notwithstanding. The LTTE’s meeting with the SLMC is particularly important as it promises to defuse latent and long simmering tensions between the Tamil and Muslim communities, particularly in the eastern province. The Mutual recognition of the SLMC and the LTTE as the sole representatives of their respective communities is another important development in that context”.
— Tamil Guardian editorial of April 17, 2002
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Recent developments concerning Tamil-Muslim relations in the island are extremely satisfying to this column having argued consistently in the past for rapprochement and better understanding between both communities. It has been the position of this column that the LTTE should recognise the SLMC as the authentic representatives of the north - eastern Muslims and arrive at an understanding on resolving inter-ethnic problems. Moreover, this column felt that Velupillai Pirapaharan and Rauff Hakeem the ‘Thalaivers’ of the LTTE and SLMC respectively possessed potential to establish firm rapport that could pave the way for a concrete agreement on immediate problems.
April 13th this year would therefore be a significant date in contemporary Tamil-Muslim history as both Pirapaharan and Hakeem reached agreement on some vital issues after a healthy and cordial dialogue. The positive conclusions arrived at Kilinochchi after LTTE-SLMC confabulations were incorporated in a document and endorsed officially by Pirapaharan and Hakeem.
Technically it is not a memorandum of understanding but only an agreement of sorts. It is also not comprehensive and there are a lot of issues that need to be discussed in detail in the future by both parties. Nevertheless the agreement removes some immediate problems afflicting Muslims, sets up a mechanism to resolve possible problems through discussions and guarantees an ongoing dialogue that could ultimately pave the way for a permanent settlement.
It is indeed both amusing and sad to note the reaction among pseudo-national elements towards this laudable milestone in Tamil-Muslim relationship. It was only days ago that so many voices were raucously raised on behalf of the Muslim civilians in the east suffering under the iron heel of LTTE jackboots.
Hakeem was condemned by an assortment of critics for his perceived inaction or inability to stop this. His role as leader of his community was under threat within and outside his party. Hakeem however, refused to be rushed into extremist stances and worked quietly and constructively. Now, his meeting with the LTTE has been successful and there is every indication that the relationship between the Tamils and Muslims will improve harmoniously. Yet, there is very little publicity given in the non-Tamil media to this momentous development.
The rise of the LTTE as the dominant de facto and dejure entity in the north-east after the ceasefire and its consequences caused great anxiety and apprehension among Muslims. Hakeem’s cautiously responsible moderate approach led to several others trying to usurp his leadership. The ‘old guard’ UNP and PA Muslim leaders of the south, the anti-Hakeem SLMC faction now in the NUA and eastern segments within the SLMC all clambered aboard the anti-Tiger bandwagon in a bid to devalue Hakeem’s position.
The SLMC leader however worked quietly writing to Pirapaharan and seeking a meeting to iron out differences rather than engage in empty demagoguery. He was however not idle while waiting for a LTTE response.
Hakeem toured the north and east meeting troubled Muslims and soothing their feelings while promising solid action. He also worked behind the scenes and exerted pressure on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take necessary steps ensuring the safety and security of Muslim civilians in the east in the aftermath of the ceasefire.
Hakeem also interacted with the diplomatic community particularly the facilitator Norway. It is believed that some statements by diplomatic circles in Colombo were the results of Hakeem’s quiet diplomacy.
In the meantime, the LTTE was responding positively to Hakeem’s epistle. The Tiger hierarchy was amenable for a meeting but not with Hakeem initially as he was a cabinet minister. The LTTE felt that meeting a minister may create wrong impressions about a government-LTTE dialogue being on. So a meeting between Anton Balasingham and a SLMC delegation sans Hakeem was scheduled in London. This was postponed due to logistical reasons. With Balasingham returning to the Wanni the situation changed. A meeting with a SLMC delegation led by Hakeem himself and the LTTE under Pirapaharan was set up.
A seven member delegation led by Hakeem functioning in twin capacities as a cabinet minister and SLMC leader helicoptered to Kilinochchi on Saturday, April 13, around 9.35 am. The delegation comprised Hakeem, SLMC Ministers Athaullah, Mohideen Abdul Cader, Basheer Segu Dawood, Noordeen Mashoor, senior SLMC Vice President Uduma Lebbe and additional propaganda secretary Mashoor Moulana.
Interestingly, all SLMC delegates other than Hakeem hailing from the Central province were north-eastern Muslims. Significantly, Moulana and Dawood have a history of amicable relationship with Tamil political parties. They were at one time activists of the Federal Party and Eelam Revolutionary Organisation respectively.
The inclusion of Athaullah in the delegation was a shrewd move as he was allegedly spearheading the eastern dissidents within the SLMC against Hakeem and fomenting agitation against the ceasefire agreement. Athaulla apparently was strongly supportive of Hakeem in the post-Ashraff leadership stakes against Ferial Ashraff. Athaulla helped the SLMC win comfortably in the Amparai district in the last elections but was supposedly disappointed in not getting a cabinet portfolio. By taking him along to meet the LTTE, Hakeem was not only involving Athaulla in constructive negotiations but also binding him to any settlement reached.
The SLMC group was met at the Kilinochchi playgrounds doubling as a helipad by the LTTE chief of protocol Puli Thevan. The Muslim delegation was taken to a newly constructed ‘rest house’ to freshen up. This place with modern facilities had been set up primarily to accommodate the foreign ceasefire monitors and Norwegian delegations. Anton and Adele Balasingham were also staying here when in Kilinochchi. Thereafter, the SLMC team was taken to the LTTE Political Secretariat at Skanthapuram in Kilinochchi. Pirapaharan was waiting at the entrance to receive and greet Hakeem.
After an exchange of pleasantries and partaking of refreshments discussions began in earnest at about 10. 15 am. The LTTE was represented by Pirapaharan, Political Strategist Anton Balasingham, Political Wing Chief SP Thamilchelvan, Trincomalee special commander Col. Padhuman and Batticaloa - Amparai special commander Col. Karuna Amman. Adele functioned as secretary taking down minutes of the meeting. A conspicuous absentee was the controversial Eastern Province Political Commissar Karikalan. He had been summoned to the Wanni by Pirapaharan for a ‘dressing down.’ Though in the Wanni, Karikalan was not present at the conclave with the SLMC. Some of the sentiments expressed by Karikalan to the media had angered and upset the Muslims of the east.
The first round of talks ended at 12. 15 after two hours. The LTTE demonstrated great respect for the religious sensibilities of the SLMC and made arrangements for noon prayer known as ‘Luhar’ at 12. 20 pm.
It is well known that among prominent Muslim politicians Hakeem is reputed to be a truly devout practising Muslim. After prayers the SLMC members sat down for a sumptuous lunch. Hakeem evinced some hesitation about the meat being doubtful whether it was ‘halaal.’ Sensing Hakeem’s discomfiture Pirapaharan volunteered the information that slaughter of livestock had been done according to Islamic tenets and cooked also by a Muslim. The cook a native of Mannar was called and introduced. The Tigers had come a long way indeed from the outrageous massacre of praying Muslims at the Kattankudi Mosque.
Conversation at lunch was frank and informal. Pirapaharan reputed to be at ease in casual conversations as opposed to formal meetings opened up and revealed the softer side of his complex personality to Hakeem. He spoke about his children Charles Anthony, Thuvaraga and Balachanthiran to Hakeem and inquired about his family. Pirapaharan beamed as a proud ‘appa’ when talking about his elder children’s educational accomplishments. As is the case in most families there seemed no doubt that the apple of Pirapaharan’s eye was his first born. Charles Anthony was clever in studies, fluent in English and musically inclined being well versed in the “Miruthangam” said Pirapaharan. Also, the son had been very supportive of the current peace process Pirapaharan disclosed. Food for thought indeed!
The second round of talks began immediately after lunch and was quite brisk. The rapport achieved particularly between Pirapaharan and Hakeem paved the way for quick and harmonious results. The contents of decisions reached were incorporated as a single document in the form of a joint statement by Balasingham in consultation with SLMC members. Both parties particularly the LTTE and SLMC leaders approved of it. Thereafter, Pirapaharan and Hakeem initialled the pages and signed the document. An agreement was born. The SLMC then took leave of the LTTE and departed.
The post-lunch session lasted just about an hour. Helicoptering back to Colombo the SLMC delegation was in time for ‘Azar’ prayers at 3. 20 pm.
The agreement arrived at in Kilinochchi consisted of several aspects. The most important one was the assurance by Pirapaharan that Muslim civilians in the north and east will not be harassed by the LTTE demanding donations and taxes sometimes even abducting them for ransom.
Karikalan and Trincomalee Political chief Ainkaran had justified this by saying that eastern Muslims were also inhabitants of ‘Tamil Eelam’ and so were subject to taxes like Tamil citizens. Moreover, Muslim traders and landowners were allegedly exploiting Tamils and so had to pay their dues. This had caused much heartburn among Muslims.
The LTTE leadership displayed much understanding and sympathy towards the Muslim predicament. It was recognised that the north and east comprised a single Tamil linguistic region. The north - east was the traditional homeland of the Tamil speaking people and the Tamil linguistic homeland belonged to the Tamils as well as Muslims. The cultural differences and particular political aspirations of the Muslims were recognised and accepted. So the Muslims would not be pressed for taxes in the future.
At one point, Hakeem interjected and queried from Pirapaharan as to when this provision would become effective. A smiling Pirapaharan replied “from tomorrow. I will show you how my writ runs in the north - east. There won’t be any problems for Muslims from this April New Year (April 14).”
If that assurance provided immediate relief, there were two other decisions that promise much relief in the future. The LTTE leader expressed regret over past happenings to Hakeem and invited the displaced Muslims to return home. This comprises two categories. One is the northern Muslims from Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Mannar and Vavuniya who are now dispersed in several parts of the island and abroad. The most destitute among them numbering around 25, 000 are in Puttalam district refugee camps.
The second component is in the Eastern province and few are aware of these people. These are impoverished Muslim families essentially farmers and fishermen who lived in hamlets interspersed in Tamil majority areas. Unlike larger Muslim majority villages that mobilised and withstood the rise of armed Tamil militancy these weaker and numerically inferior Muslims were compelled to abandon their dwellings and seek refuge in other larger Muslim villages. Most of them are still in the east but not in refugee camps.
The LTTE leader declared that all displaced and chased out Muslims could return home. There were however practical problems in ensuring that return. For one thing, a more durable peace arrangement was needed. The logistics also had to be worked out and a staggered scheme of return had to be implemented. This was appreciated by Hakeem. So, while the return of Muslims has been accepted in principle actual implementation may take some time. A joint committee of LTTE and SLMC representatives from the north - east will be set up to plan and coordinate the return.
Meanwhile, thousands of Muslims are now undertaking temporary trips to their former homes to inspect the environment. Plans of actual return would be finalised later predicated perhaps on these scouting missions.
The visiting Muslims are being welcomed with great affection by their former Tamil neighbours. The LTTE also is providing every assistance. The mosques of Jaffna town for instance are now cleaned and cleared and are functioning as places of rest for Muslim women and children while the males rough it out elsewhere. In Kilinochchi returning Muslim traders were overwhelmed by the welcome given by Tamil traders. In Mankumban, Muslims were touched by the conduct of a Tamil family that had regularly cleaned and lit lamps at a Sufi influenced Islamic place of worship for twelve years.
The LTTE has also agreed to let Muslim landowners of the east visit their paddy lands and livestock grazing ranges in the Tamil dominated western hinterland known as ‘Paduvaankarai’ or shore of the setting sun.
A remarkable feature of the east is that many rich Muslims own lands and cattle in the Tamil areas. Most of these lands are now directly under the Tigers or occupied by squatters or are simply lying idle. Now the rightful owners are seeing them after years and depending on ground realities new arrangements will be made. The LTTE however has agreed in principle to Muslims repossessing their property wherever possible and being compensated where it is not possible.
Another measure agreed upon was the establishment of a special mechanism to protect Muslims in the north - east. This would be a committee comprising SLMC nominees consisting of representatives from each district in the north - east. These representatives will liaise with both the political and military commanders of the LTTE in each district. They will draw the attention of the LTTE to problems encountered by Muslims in each district and seek to alleviate them. If they are not resolved at a district level, the LTTE hierarchy will be informed through its SLMC counterpart.
In addition, the hierarchy of the LTTE and SLMC will also meet regularly on an ongoing basis to discuss contentious issues as well as future plans. The LTTE also agreed that the SLMC should be represented in the substantive discussions on working out a durable power sharing formula in the future.
Hakeem seemed very happy when addressing a press conference later on the outcome of his meeting with Pirapaharan. “As a result of Saturday’s talks, solutions to several problems faced by Muslims have been found,” Hakeem said. “This will calm the apprehension among our people about the peace process.” Asked specifically about his political rival Ferial Ashraff’s NUA opposing this agreement Hakeem replied, “We have not conceded or omitted anything to warrant any opposition. The LTTE has given favourable answers to questions and concerns raised by us.” Incidentally, Ferial ashraff had issued a statement prior to Hakeem’s meeting with Pirapaharan that “the ceasefire agreement was a charter of slavery written on the backs of Muslims.”
Later a newspaper quoted Hakeem referring glowingly to the accommodative flexibility displayed by Pirapaharan. Hakeem said that he never expected Pirapaharan to be so generous and concessionary. He had expected the LTTE leader to drive a hard bargain yielding to arrangements only on a reciprocatory basis. Instead, he had recognised the immediate problems instantly and provided relief and suitable arrangements without expecting anything in return.
The crux of the matter is that the LTTE leader and top circles had realised long ago that they had ‘blundered’ in dealing with the Muslims. Balasingham had acknowledged this on more than one occasion but what was required was an explicit response by Pirapaharan.
The ordinary Muslims too expected a comment by Pirapaharan. The phenomenon of thousands of Muslims journeying to their former homes is due to the confidence they gained after Pirapaharan’s public appeal. In the case of Pirapaharan, he was perhaps waiting for the correct time and suitable opportunity to come out openly on this issue.
It may be recalled that on April 10, at the press conference Muslim journalists requested Pirapaharan to publicly invite the Muslims back. He declined. The reason was that Pirapaharan had planned to do this three days later after meeting Hakeem. If Pirapaharan had announced these measures at the press conference Hakeem would have gained no kudos among Muslims. The whole meeting would have been pointlessly redundant. Instead, Pirapaharan bided his time and with dramatic flair accepted Muslim concerns in his meeting with Hakeem. This has raised Hakeem’s political stock high. The challenges to his leadership both internally and externally are virtually negligible now.
Recognising the bona fides and capabilities of Hakeem and accepting him as the accredited Muslim leader is no mean achievement for the LTTE. It has revised its earlier stance that Muslims are also ‘Tamils practising Islam’ or ‘Islamiyathamilar’ and instead accepted their unique identity and cultural differences.
The LTTE has also realised that no Tamil party can effectively represent the Muslims just as no Sinhala dominated party can represent Tamils. It now accepts the SLMC as the authentic Muslim representative organisation. The meeting and agreement with Hakeem therefore is a recognition of reality and also an empowerment of Hakeem’s leadership. There is no doubt that when an interim administrative council is formed for the north - east the LTTE, SLMC and UNP will supply the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala representatives on it respectively.
The rise of Hakeem as the Muslim national leader by the LTTE stems from two reasons. One is that Hakeem stands head and shoulders above any other Muslim leader visible in the political horizon right now. He is not sycophantic towards the Sinhala power elite like UNP and PA Muslim leaders. He is also not emotionally hostile to Tamil aspirations as embodied by the LTTE in the manner of his mentor and predecessor Ashraff. The LTTE also feels that being a Central province Muslim, Hakeem would not take up irrational stances on the Muslim Council concept for the north - east. Above all, Hakeem has come off well as a courageous yet cautious leader acting with responsibility in bettering the lot of his people.
The LTTE feels therefore that it can do business with him and hopes that he would become the undisputed leader of his community without a fractured leadership evolving. So it wants to promote and strike a better relationship with him.
The second reason for Hakeem’s success in the talks was the rapport struck with Pirapaharan. The LTTE leader is only five years elder to the SLMC leader and both being in their forties have no great generational gap. Hakeem is very fluent in Tamil and so converses directly and openly with Pirapaharan. The rare occurrence of Pirapaharan talking about his family was due to this. Incidentally, Pirapaharan also wanted Hakeem to be the SLMC representative at peace talks. This is an indicator of the trust he has in the latter. So now, Hakeem is likely to participate in official talks. Earlier, he had planned to send a leading Muslim lawyer.
Despite the rapport achieved and the preliminary agreement reached, there is no doubt that much remains to be achieved. The bone of contention is likely to be the power sharing arrangement in a final settlement. Tamil and Muslim aspirations are likely to collide then. But the current reality is that the premier Tamil and Muslim organisations have been able to reach some preliminary agreement that will pave the way for an improved environment where other outstanding issues could be resolved through discussion. On a national level the govt. - LTTE ceasefire has achieved the same result. A peaceful atmosphere is evolving. It may very well be that when substantive talks occur there may rise irreconcilable difference of positions.
This scenario may be true of the LTTE - SLMC relationship too. Moreover, the historical hostility between the communities in the east and the presence in the region of a diabolical third party that has exploited this issue successfully in the past may serve to jeopardise the fragile relationship. Nevertheless, the purposeful action of both Pirapaharan and Hakeem demonstrates that a meaningful process to remedy the situation may be possible.
The LTTE - SLMC agreement is only the first step in what may very well be a long, long journey. What is important however is the fact that Pirapaharan and Hakeem are now on the road to harmony.
Courtesy: Sunday Leader [28 April 2002]