King Senerath, who in 1626 settled nearly 4,000 Muslims in the East of Sri Lanka following their expulsion from the island’s Western coastal belt by the Portuguese led by Captain de Saa, must be the most delighted to hear, if the dead king could, that the descendants of those whom he settled in the then Batticaloa regions had reciprocated to their motherland his benevolent gesture.
The ‘Island’ in an editorial comment on 19 June 2008 had this to say
"The Portuguese, in the name of their royalty, committed heinous crimes against Sri Lankans. Places of worship were destroyed and their assets removed by the cartload. Wanton destruction of life and property characterised their rule. The persecution of Muslims was so brutal that King Senerath had to intervene to shelter the victims in the Kandyan Kingdom and later settle them in the Eastern Province. (Thus, it may be seen that Sri Lankan kings practised some kind of R2P centuries ago against the invading armies of the Occident to protect human rights.)"
It is undoubtedly one in a millennium event, for any organized armed group to launch a terror struggle in a quest to divide by force one’s country . That they failed in Sri Lanka is now history. King Senerath probably never dreamt when he saved the Muslims from the marauding invaders and resettled them in the East, that he was investing on protecting the territorial integrity of the island nation, in a historical crisis that would occur within four centuries of his rewarding move.
Muslim resistance from East Sri Lanka to the terror outfit, the LTTE, became the first major obstacle to the ‘Eelam’ project. The Muslims of the East paid a heavy price, for their stubborn resistance to the LTTE’s plans to eelamise the East. No section of the Muslim community of Sri Lanka had at any time or in any manner supported the LTTE. It is only the Muslim community that can take legitimate pride in the fact that its entire community had stood with the majority community to resist terrorism.
Muslims’ resistance to Eelam had to be primarily blamed on the LTTE itself to which I shall revert later on, for its failure to anticipate the impossibility of marketing any Eelam package amongst the Muslims. As it eventually turned out, Prabhakaran’s package could not be marketed even amongst the majority of Tamils in the East, though they provided the cannon-fodder to the LTTE, in ever larger numbers, prior to the defection of Karuna Amman alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralidaran in 2006.
But what must not be forgotten is that in the early stages of the LTTE, particularly after the 1983 riots, not only were the Tamils in exceptionally large numbers coalescing with the LTTE but by 1985 - 86, a large number of Muslim youths from the east were also joining the LTTE in noticeable numbers.
Though Muslims of the East had traditionally supported the UNP and the SLFP at all elections as opposed to the then Federal Party (FP), they had during this time begun to loose faith in both the UNP and the SLFP, for many reasons.
The Tamil speaking Eastern Muslims were complaining in the eighties of having hardly any access either to public sector employment in the country or to Sinhala education in their village schools, even after 30 years of Sinhala only! Of course, at this time unemployment was a problem amongst all communities.
They also saw that their elected representatives in Parliament were keeping the government in power while the Eastern electorates remained neglected without even basic needs such as proper roadways or irrigation facilities. The only relief was that a larger number were able to enter the Universities from the Amapara and Trincomalee districts, thanks to the standardization for University admission introduced by Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud, Minister of Education during the 1970 - 77 SLFP regime of Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike, much to the anger of the Tamils. But then these graduates too ended up unemployed!
It was in this backdrop that the Tamil struggle for autonomy sweeping through the Tamil areas of the North and the East, found increasing support amongst sections of the Muslim youth. This support was perilously expanding, notwithstanding the resistance of mosques, teachers, businessmen, farmers and the fishermen from the Muslim community.
The LTTE was quick to appoint several young Muslims as area leaders. I can never forget Advocate Hashim of Akkaraipathu, who could not reconcile to the fact that his youthful son had been appointed the LTTE’s area leader for Akkaraipathu and was angry with himself that he could not do anything to stop it. The spread of the LTTE in Muslim areas in the East, at least amongst the youth at this point of time, was fraught with dangers, both short term and long term. The most obvious of these dangers would have been against the Muslims, nearly 2/3 rd of whom lived outside the Eastern Province. The fear was that any attempt at aiding the LTTE’s divisive agenda by the Muslims in the East , would have engendered a repeat of the 1983 riots, this time directed against the Muslims everywhere.
The formation of the SLMC under the late M.H.M. Ashroff, became the political response of the Muslims of the East to the emerging challenges of the LTTE. Muslim elders of the East, supported by some of us in Colombo, understood the urgency of giving a new political leadership to the Muslims in the East to absorb the Muslim youths and prevent the LTTE spreading amongst the Muslims.
The SLMC under Ashroff played a difficult but unique role to ensure that the representation of Muslim interests was seen neither as anti-Tamil nor as anti-Sinhala.
Though misunderstood in many quarters, he gave an authoritative voice to the Muslims of the East based on the overwhelming mandate of his people, and steadily weaned away the Muslim youths from the LTTE. These youths already frustrated with mainstream politics saw in Ashroff’s SLMC a reliable alternative and a better opportunity to redeem their hopes than by joining the LTTE. This could not have been achieved by Muslim M.P.s in mainstream politics.
More importantly, Ashroff politically defeated the LTTE’s attempts to give leadership to the Tamil speaking Muslims of the East, by successfully promoting the SLMC as the voice of the Muslims of the East.
The LTTE’s attempts to showcase the North and the entirety of the East as the homeland of the Tamils suffered an irreversible defeat, due to the thankless campaign of this leader. Thousands of his people paid a heavy price including the supreme penalty. Ashroff himself paid the supreme penalty by being destroyed by the only force that would have wanted him destroyed- the LTTE. That too at the relatively young age of 50!
Muslims of the East are culturally distinct and politically independent people. Their resistance to the LTTE was the first major obstacle to ‘Eelam’ and this resistance must have had a devastating effect on the then Eastern leaders of the LTTE. There is a strong case for Sri Lanka to recognize this contribution of the Muslims as much as it does of the LTTE’s breakaway leader Mr. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, whose split from the LTTE played a crucial role indeed, in the defeat of the LTTE. If not for the Muslims’ resistance, Eelam may have become a reality much easier, much earlier! And perhaps the break away leaders of the LTTE would have still remained with Prabakaran!
In as much as the LTTE or for that matter even the then TULF, failed to give recognition to the political integrity of the Eastern Muslims but were prepared to recognize only the cultural distinctions and religious freedoms in a future autonomous state, contrary to what they were seeking to achieve for the Tamil people from the Sinhala majority; the Tamil leadership must blame only itself for alienating the Muslims of the East.
When the late Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud, soon after the expulsion of the Muslims from the North, led a delegation of Muslims, in which I too was a member to represent the plight of the Northern Muslims to the then President Mr. J.R. Jayawardane, the President advised the delegation to go to Chennai and meet with the LTTE and TULF leaders who were then in Chennai.
Accordingly, a delegation led by Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud, comprising of former Deputy Minister of Broadcasting Mr. A.L.M. Abdul Majeed, M.P., later killed by the LTTE, Consul General for Dominican Republic late Sir Abdul W. M. Ameer, former Minister of Justice Mr. M.M. Musthapha, former Senator Alhaj S.Z.M. Mashoor Moulana, Attorney-at-Law Mr. Zam Akbar, retired Civil Servant, Dr. M.S. Shahabdeen with myself as the Secretary of the delegation, went to Chennai to discuss the plight and the future of the Muslims in the North. The delegation met with all the Tamil Party Leaders as well as an LTTE delegation then in Chennai but it became evident at the end of the several meetings that the Muslim refugees will have to continue to languish in camps and that they would concede to the Muslims nothing more than cultural rights in a future autonomous region!
TULF MP Mr. R. Sampanthan, who was in the TULF delegation that met us in Chennai, knows that it was the Tamil leadership that sent us back sine die.
Mr. Bernard Goonetilleke, former Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka and the then Ambassador to the U.S. in an address on 31st October, 2006 on ‘Sri Lanka Today’ at the US Foreign Service Institute said: "Sri Lankan Tamils began to populate the Eastern Province in significant numbers during the early British times, and even then they inhabited only the coastal areas of the East, whereas the Moors made the East their home during the Kandyan King Senerath’s time, following the expulsion of Moors from the areas by the Portuguese 1626".
The die was cast by the Tamil leadership but it was King Senarath who earned his reward from the progeny of those whom he had settled 400 years earlier.
(The writer is a former Member of Parliament: 1994 - 2000) caption /pic saved as muslim (September 5)