Sri Lanka Program
Excerpts from papers presented at two meetings of the South Asian Muslim Studies segment of the Association of Asian Studies in Chicago, Il. (1996), and in West Chester PA. (October 1997).
A. Muhammad Ma`ruf,
Sri Lanka: Islam and NGOs in the context of the ongoing crisis.
A SRI LANKAN ISLAMIC COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT PLANNING PROGRAM
Rather than represent a country with huge and complex problems in this brief presentation, I'd like to address representation problems of work connected with a program of activity, initially called an Islamic Community Development Planning Program, that I was instrumental in initiating in the mid 1980s. This activity sponsored by an international Islamic organization with offices located the US, and by Sri Lankan Muslims resident in the US, which began with a summers work for me in Sri Lanka in 1987, sought to obtain opinions from Sri Lankan Muslim leadership on how they may be helped in dealing with the crisis that had by then begun to take a big place on the front pages of most world newspapers. All of the information I will share with you has come to my attention because I try to keep up with a very large amount of news, analyses, and most of all propaganda, that has been produced on Sri Lanka since the beginning of the "Islamic Community Development Program". In this and subsequent reports the activity will be referred to as the Sri Lanka Program (SLP).
In addition to the information that I have myself collected during subsequent visits, most recently during the summer of 1997, my sources include other Sri Lankans who are resident in the US, UK, and elsewhere with whom I have developed a steady practice of exchanging news and views regarding the Sri Lankan situation since I began working on this project.
The Sri Lanka Dialogue Group, which has met in and around New York city during 1993 – 1995, has been among my other sources. This “Dialogue” - a multi national, multi religious, and multi ethnic group discussion process - was organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The meetings of this group also generated opportunities for a number of informal exchanges amongst the participants unrelated to the AFSC program and its goals1. My participation in that process was in response to a request channeled through the Sri Lankan American Muslim Association, then based among Sri Lankan Muslim individuals and families residing in New York City.
It should surprise no one that there are many internationally sponsored voluntary group activities going on in regard to the Sri Lanka situation in Sri Lanka, in the US, in the UK, as well as in other countries. Even within New York City there are several non governmental organizations pursuing their separate studies of, and assistance activities in, the island. Some of these organizations are local Christian churches of various denominations. Others are supported by descendants of Sri Lankans now resident in and around New York City.
In rapidly increasing numbers Sri Lankan have begun to seek domicile in the US especially since the mid 1980s when the political crisis and violence in the country started to get worse.
My personal involvement in the Islamic consultation activity has undergone many changes since it began2. In spite of enormous, unexpected difficulties and misunderstandings I have tried to hold onto a piece of it. Apart from that the Muslim contacts made during my consultation meetings have provided me with a “real life” basis for engaging in my own evaluative and theoretical re-examinations of the roles I have played in relation to this crisis.
NEWS AND IDEOLOGY.
The "facts and figures", in our case pertain to a situation which is on going, and constantly changing so fast that it is not always easy to make evaluations regarding the relative significance of each piece of information as it becomes available. Many of the “facts and figures” are themselves matters of controversy and debate. The conflict in Sri Lanka is not only about ethnicity and political power: it has also been about what is true and false in the available and published information about what is going on in the current events and politics of the country. The information problem cannot be easily separated from the ideological and propaganda conflicts. They are also an aspect of the vicious armed conflicts.
3 of the 5 papers in a Sri Lanka focused session of the American Anthropological Association meeting that I attended a few years ago were about rumors about facts rather than the facts which the rumors attempted to cover. Rumors, it is said, like the news that one is constantly barraged with these days through the newspapers, tv, and other media have both political and scientific significance. The importance that something as flimsy as a "source unknown" rumor can have, in this situation is truly amazing.
If you've been in Sri Lanka recently and spent time with the good Muslims who reside there you will find many stories of global Islamic philanthropic assistance. Some of it must be true. There are many visible signs of it in the form of the enlargement and renovation of mosques and the building of new ones. The routes by which such funds are channeled are no doubt, ngo routes.
This should be noted because one of the images of recent Sri Lanka and Muslims there is a dismal one in the throes of distress, refugees, and war. In fact, however, that is only part of the scene as can be seen if one visits there. I have seen many obvious signs of material prosperity as experienced by Muslims as well as other citizens in some parts of the country. In the meanwhile, as may be expected in a war time situation, prices have gone up for everything.
As we consider the news of the ongoing strife in the country we should not lose sight of the fact that all the Muslims who had inhabited the northern regions of the country for many centuries, were forcibly evicted out of their homes, villages, and towns, by the Eeelam terrorists, in 1993. As such the action of the US Secretary of State of October 8th 1997 in decalring the LTTE a terrorist organization may evince the response “better late than never”, from most Sri Lankan Muslims active in projects similar to mine. The forced ethnocide of the Muslims of the Jaffna and surrounding areas is an important fact about Islam and Muslims in Sri Lanka - likely to have long lasting consequences for the Muslims as well as for the whole country.
"PEACE" & NATIONAL RECONCILIATION.
Another important change in the political picture of the country has begun to take shape since the general election of 1994. It is the peace and reconcilement initiative of the Singhalese dominated government. It is still being pursued in spite of many set backs. Many minority voices have been added to that of the government of the country in the search for seeking an end to the armed conflict. A peace goal seems to be now (in 1998) firmly established.
The official governmental "peace" initiative has occasioned widespread discussions in the country at official and unofficial levels. Muslims are also participants in the discussions. One is tempted to ask whether a new national ideology is being debated.
A SRI LANKAN PAKISTAN?
An item of some concern to many is the proposal that has now become part of the agenda of the discussions that if a territorially based division of control takes place, the Muslim majority areas in the Eastern part of the country ought to be one of the units of control and autonomous governance. Opinions differ as to the advisability of such a move, as they differ on the advisability of any kind of territorial division of power. A centrally based sharing of power, building perhaps on the experience of the 1930s, when such a system existed under colonial supervision and authority, is preferred by others. Many believe that the country is physically too small to be divided among different geographical territory based governments, and that the relinquishing of the present de jure lines of territorial control as a solution to the problem, would leave the main government of the country too vulnerable. If a territorially based division of power becomes established and a Sri Lankan "Pakistan" is one of the eventual realities, it would make the Muslims more vulnerable and insecure minorities in two Sri Lankan countries, rather than one.
The proposed devolution of authority in the country, in its most recent wording, has had a wholesome effect giving further impetus to what seems to be the more progressive elements among the various contenders for future control of the island. The authoring and sponsorship of documents such as the new "devolution" package, and the widespread democratic expression of dissent regarding it, is to be counted as one of the progressive moves in recent years.
From about 10 years after the achievement of "Independence" on February 4th 1948, the politics of the country has been characterized by various types of exercises in constitution making. As such the debates surrounding the acceptance of the present version, have enlarged the theater within which various elements of the population may speak their piece in seeking positions from which they may be able to influence the next stage of the constitution and nation building process.
Other auguries of the possibility of peace and non-totalitarian government - such as relative governmental stability, freedom of the press, freedom to travel in most, but not all parts of the island - brought about after the 1994 island wide general election seem to continue to be maintained.
Many Muslims also find the continuation of extensive new trade and business possibilities resulting from the "open economy" policies of the previous regime - which held power for 17 years, until 1994 - a continuing basis for hope. For instance, some of the, too few, refugee Muslims who have settled in the south after being ethnocided (please forgive the expression) by the Eelam terrorists in 1993 are reported to have established themselves in reasonably successful business positions, much to the chagrin of some "locals" who have not been as successful.
Such trends indicating the possibility of freedom, individual initiative, and national reconciliation, are hopefully indications of a growing new culture and consciousness.
1. See the report by Lucinda Kaye, Chances for Peace in Sri Lanka. In Cambridge, MA. Peacework. Feb. 1996: 7-11.
2. One of many comparable projects that are now alive in the country. I have interviewed a leader of one other project originating among Sri Lankan Muslims resident in Japan. of many coOne of many comparable projects that are now alive in the country. I hav
e interviewed a leader of one other project originating among Sri Lankan Muslims resident in Japan.mparable projects that are now alive in the country. I have interviewed a leader of one other project originating among Sri Lankan Muslims resident in Japan.