Sri Lankan Politics & The Dilemma Of Muslim Community

An Appeal For A Change In The Political Climate

The Sri Lankan polity has become extremely polarized along ethnic and religious lines in the last few decades. It is more visibly evident in the last presidential election held in November 2019. A vast majority of Muslims and Tamils, for different reasons, voted against the candidate fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that was largely supported by the Sinhala Buddhist forces. It was openly admitted by the newly elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself and it is the first time after independence a cabinet is formed without a single Muslim member.

A virulent anti-Muslim campaign was carried out by the politicized extremist Sinhala Buddhist groups before the presidential election in order to maximize the Sinhala votes which they achieved. As a consequence, at the present moment some ministers openly claim in the public forums that they want to form the new government without the support of ‘fundamentalists and extremists’ referring to the Muslim political parties.

Historically anti-Muslim feeling prevailed from the late 19th century mainly because of commercial competition, but in general it was confined to an ultranationalist minority among the Sinhalese community and never openly and visibly expressed and exhibited in verbal and violent actions as happens now, with the exception of the 1915 riots. From 2012 this situation started to change and the unfortunate outburst of Easter Sunday attack in April 2019 culminated and paved the way for resentment, animosity and hatred to reach an unprecedented level in the history of Muslims in Sri Lanka. This feeling has pervaded the psychology not only of the hardline Sinhalese, but also that of a significant majority of the neutral minded Sinhalese who have taken to voice hardline hateful speech openly fueled by the Islamophobic Propaganda Machinery.

This is not a sudden development, but a gradual progression towards more polarized ethnic divide, and certain developments that happened in the social and political arena accelerated this process. We outline two of these developments which we consider contributed to the current situation. One was the emergence of Muslim political parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) first and its splinter groups later. SLMC emerged in the middle of the 1980s as a historical and inevitable consequence of ethnic polarization and the discrimination and violence that the Muslim community in the north and east faced at the hands of Tamil militant groups together with the feeling of being let down by the successive governments and the SLMC became a major political force among the Eastern Muslims after 1980s. SLMC also had a political impact on the Muslims in the Southern part of the country, though to a lesser extent and this had a negative impact on Muslim relations with the majority Sinhala Buddhist polity. Sinhala majority perceived it as yet another political threat from a second minority against them. This polarization on ethnic divide in politics became more acute when so many “Muslim labelled” political parties came into existence, mostly as splinter groups of the SLMC after the demise of Mr. M H M Ashraff, which began to move into Muslim enclaves outside of north and east too.

The second development is the introduction of Proportional Representative System in 1989 that provided more equitable distribution of Parliamentary seats to all segments but seriously affected both the major political parties that often winning their elections on chauvinistic promises. With this new system they couldn’t form government with comfortable majority without the support of minor parties, and always had to tie up with small parties of which the Muslim parties were found to be the most flexible and they had a role to play in forming governments from 1994 onwards, inflaming the Sinhala chauvinist section of the polity.

These were the main reasons for the anti-Muslim hate campaign carried out by the hardline Sinhala extremist groups including a section of major political parties from 2012 onwards, conveniently and convincingly undermining the historical contribution of Muslim community and Muslim leaders for the development of the country.

The hardliners attempted to portray the Muslims as opportunists, only concerned with their community affairs, always getting benefits from whatever government that comes into power. They also embrace on the Islamophobic propaganda unleased worldwide and claim that Muslims as a community conspire to become the majority in this country, quickly multiplying their population and plotting to reduce the Sinhala population secretly using unimaginable contraceptive methods. They also tried to marginalize the Muslims using the globalized anti-Muslim labels such as fundamentalists, extremist and terrorists who are a major threat to national security and unity.

The prevailing extreme political and ethnic polarization is not conducive to the nation building and national development. All the political parties and politicians and all the ethnic and religious communities in this country should realize the fact that Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multi-religious country. Although the Sinhalese and Buddhists constitute the majority, all the minority communities have equal rights as the citizens of this country as that confirmed by our constitution. This is also a fundamental norm of democracy. We should adhere to this inclusive ideology that leads us to prosperity rejecting the exclusivism that blindly leads us into the path of social destruction as we have seen happening in our recent history.

Although Sri Lanka has bad experiences of ethnic divide and conflicts after independence, we also have good experience of multi-party coalitions, multi-ethnic cabinets and successful collaborative governance. Multiple political parties and the PR system, even with their short comings, provide us with good opportunities to develop a culture of political coexistence and collaborative governance. However, unfortunately, our power hungry political leaderships and the communal elements within the polity with their short sighted approach propagate ethnic hatred and an exclusive political culture which are against peaceful coexistence, socio-economic development and the dignity of our country.

Unfortunately, there is no true national political parties in Sri Lanka. The major political parties are strongly biased on majority community interests and created political spaces for the emergence of minority political parties. All the other minor parties in this country, including the left parties, are variously ethnically biased. This communal politics is our historical legacy that we inherited from the British colonialism and we are cultivating it from the time of independence causing heavy loss to the country. We can’t continue like this and Sri Lankan politics needs a fundamental qualitative change at this juncture.

Therefore, in this context, we appeal to all the political parties and all the ethnic communities, religious and community leaders and individual politicians to put the country before all other interests and refrain from propagating ethnic and religious hatred and exclusive partisan politics before and after the forthcoming general election. We also appeal to them to promote peaceful coexistence among different ethnic and religious communities and to promote inclusive and collaborative governance in order to establish permanent peace, justice and social harmony in this country and to re-establish the pride and dignity of our country nationally and internationally.

We also wish to specifically appeal to the Muslim community and the Muslim political parties, to be in the forefront of this exercise to put the country first in all their matters and plan their political strategies on the long term, rejecting short term immediate benefits. They should develop an integrated policy framework for national and community development and social harmony.

Before the emergence of Muslim political parties, Muslims in this country wholeheartedly aligned with the two major political parties and even after the emergence of such Muslim parties a majority of them continue to support these major parties despite the ethnic hatred they face and we hope this trend will be continued leading to peaceful coexistence.

We appeal again to all the political parties, political and community leaderships and civil societies, as we approach a crucial parliamentary election, to work together to stop promoting hate politics and ethnic conflicts in this country and to work together to establish a harmoniously peaceful democratic Sri Lanka where all of its citizens, despite their ethnicity and religion, can enjoy equal rights, fearless and peaceful life and work for a prosperous future of Sri Lanka.

Signed by
Prof. M A Nuhman,
Mr. J M Niwas,
Prof. M A M Siddique,
Mr. M M Niyas,
Prof. M S M Anes,
Prof. M I M Mowjood,
Mr. A J M Mubarak,
Dr. A L M Mauroof,
Dr. M Z M Nafeel,
Dr. A S M Nawfal,
Mr. U M Fazil.