Eastern Province Muslims and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress

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Excerpted from volume ii of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography

The writer has included te following article om Muslim politics he published under a pseudonym:

“Sometime, late at night last week in Northern Ireland, the telephone rang in the hotel room occupied by Rauff Hakeem, MP and Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Hakeem was in Ireland, together with a group of Sri Lankan MPs who had, on the invitation of Kumar Rupesinghe’s NGO named International Alert, gone there to study the Irish ethnic and political conflict, which was now on the way to a satisfactory resolution. The caller was Cabinet Minister and SLMC President, Ashroff, who urged both Hakeem and Deputy Minister Hisbullah to return post haste to Colombo as ‘a major crisis) was developing between their party and the PA.

“The two SLMC representatives quickly packed their bags and flew home to strengthen the hand of their charismatic leader. When they arrived in Colombo they found their leader angry and threatening retaliatory action against the President and the PA government. The `casus belli’ was the President’s reactions to the minister’s proposal to set up a marine training school in Oluvil, the harbor for Ampara district, which is close to Ashraff’s heart.

“The Cabinet, opposing the diversion of scarce funds to an area, which was referred to in parliament as a ‘village without even an access road’, accepted a proposal by Fisheries Minister Indika Gunawardena to locate this training centre in Trincomalee. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, had instructed Minister Ashraff ‘to develop the Eastern Province, not only Amparai’. The peremptory dismissal of the Oluvil site had hurt the minister’s ‘amour propre’.

“Trouble has been brewing for some time also because the Ports Minister has ben dragging his feet on the P & O proposal to take over the Queen Elizabeth quay in the harbour – a pet project of the President. She has put P & O at the head of the ‘Fortune 500’ companies she claims would invest in Sri Lanka under her dispensation.

“On the other hand, Minister Ashraff as the ‘man on the spot’ was actually aware of the depth of feeling among the Ports Authority engineers, senior staff and workers against the P & O proposal. He is something of a hero to the staff there as they perceive him as a leader who is stalling the project and safeguarding their interests. It is this depth of feeling that the minister drew on when he boasted that he has kept the port free from strikes for two years – no mean fact when one considers the trouble given to both Mr. and Mrs. Bandaranaike by the port during their regimes.

“The SLMC leader who has no qualms about political patronage, knows that the port is a top patronage provider and is loath to hand it over to a private company well known for its ruthless management techniques and unwillingness to heed political pressures. Ashraff’s trump card is the crucial votes he commands in Parliament. Both the PA, and the UNP, made a bid for his support but he decided unequivocally to back the PA. Now he is claiming his pound of flesh.

“The series of demands are justified by him with the statement that they were promised when he joined the PA and he would, in ascetic style, forego everything rather than his ‘honour’ as a sincere partner to an agreement struck at a time crucial for the PA. The SLMC leader has always been an emotional and larger-than-life figure. In the short span of 10 years he has built up a strong organization which commands the respect of the Muslim community. The beginnings of his party can be seen in the indignation of the Eastern Province Muslims, who resented being a pawn in the game played between the Sinhalese and Tamils over their territory.

“Initially, the Jaffna Tamils were looked upon as colonisers of the east coast. The Tamils came to the Eastern Province, made money and grabbed their lands. The Federal Party resolutions based on a ‘Tamil speaking community’ papered over the real differences between the Jaffna Tamils and the Eastern Province Muslims. The latter felt, however, that both national parties – the UNP and the SLFP – did not adequately heed their claims and were treating them as an appendage of the Muslim elite in Colombo.

“In fact, a complaint of ‘out of town’ Muslims like A C S Hameed, Mustapha, and M H Majeed about Dudley Senanayake as leader of the UNP was that he consorted with Colombo ‘high class’ Muslims like the Caffoors, Caders and Macan Markars and did not open the doors of the establishment to the ‘village’ Muslims, who were then upwardly mobile. It was this group of ‘village’ Muslims who flocked in desperation to J.R. Jayewardene, who having come to power, proceeded to ignore the Colombo elite of Caffoors and Macan Markars, who were looked upon as members of the ‘Dudley Gang’.

“Even the then SLFP Muslim leader, Dr. Badi-ud-din Mahmud, contested a seat from the Eastern Province though he was Colombo and Gampola based and had no contact with that part of the country. He was soundly beaten.

“The immediate reason for the rise of the SLMC was the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, in which the Muslim ‘identity’ was not recognized in any way. They were left, at best, through a referendum and, at worst, by presidential fiat to either amalgamate with the Northern Province or join the Sinhalese in an agitation for a de-merger.

“When the UNP Muslims protested to JRJ, who was then assailed on all sides, they were asked to either accept the settlement or go elsewhere. Many went elsewhere – to form the SLMC, which had been a brainchild of Ashraff, who had forged strong links with the rich and powerful Islamic states of the Middle East and West Asia.

“The two national parties – the UNP and the SLFP – were compelled to take note of this communal party, now taking its place alongside the CWC of Thondaman and the TULF of the Tamil political leaders.

President Premadasa who knew his political arithmetic, pampered Ashraff and his fledging SLMC, and weaned them away from the SLFP, which at Anura Bandaranaike’s behest, had cosyed up to the opposition. President Wijetunga, who did not know his political arithmetic, brushed aside the overtures of the SLMC. As a result, the SLMC, which turned out to have the deciding votes in Parliament, came down heavily on the side of the PA.

“The Muslim leaders of the PA, like Fowzie and Alavi Moulana, were compelled to play a secondary role in Muslim affairs. Frantic efforts are now being made to repair the damage while the SLMC is drawing the maximum publicity by keeping away from PA group meetings and parliamentary sessions. The President has no choice but to accommodate dissident groups or dissolve parliament. The UNP, which claims it is ready to fight an election, is watching patiently whether Minister Ashraff will upset the PA apple cart and plunge the PA into a crisis on the eve of its third budget aimed at strengthening our economy, which is now wobbling for all to see.”

JRJ’s decision to develop the East coast for tourism gave an added fillip to the Muslims of the area who found that investors were now coming in large numbers to buy lands in Trinco, Kalkudah .and Pasikudah. Among the early investors in Pasikudah was Esmond Wickremesinghe who wickedly, and appropriately, named his hotel ‘Sun and Fun’. Following Esmond were several fun-loving Sinhala businessmen who also built hotels there.

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