The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka which led to the creation of provincial councils as well as making Sinhala and Tamil as official languages with English as the link language was passed in parliament on 14 November 1987. Since then, this amendment has been a vexed issue with its implementation being mired in controversy.
The Sunday Leader spoke to the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Hasan Ali, seeking the stance of the party, consequent to India stating that the 13th Amendment should be fully implemented.
Excerpts of the interview:
By Fathima Razik
Q: What is the SLMC’s current stand on the 13th Amendment?
A: We are very clear about our views on the 13th Amendment. We want a meaningful power sharing arrangement for the Northern and the Eastern Provinces as envisaged in the amendment. The 13th Amendment had been accepted, constitutionally, by the government at the time and therefore it should be fully implemented. The minority communities in the north and east are not confident with the local mechanisms in place. When a select committee was appointed to look into the issues, the Muslims were not considered as a stakeholder – the SLMC was kept away. That is why the Tamils are also reaching out to the international community.
Q: Could you comment on the government’s policies in this regard?
A: The government’s policies are controlled by the hardliners. The decision makers are hardliners. They will not give us a meaningful mechanism of power sharing. As such, the only possibility is to look towards the international community.
Q: Police powers and land sharing powers – how do you view them?
A: The majority communities in the two provinces are the Tamils and the Muslims. Therefore, their concerns should be addressed. Due to the late prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, introducing the Sinhala Only Act in the 1950s, the Tamils and the Muslims had to face many issues as their language, culture and religions are different to that of the majority community.
That is why these two communities want power sharing. For example, the Ampara district has 76 per cent of its population speaking Tamil. But the entire administration is overseen by the Sinhalese and the affairs of the district are conducted in Sinhala. By doing so, the government is alienating the minorities.
One must consider why a war started in the North and the East and not in other provinces. It happened because of the problems the people in these two provinces had been facing over a period of time. The lifestyles of the Tamils and the Muslims are different to the majority community – they also speak the same language.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had signed an affidavit in court that they are not for the division of the country. We, the Muslims, had never asked and we will never ask for a separate state. All we want is to share power.
Q: There is fear of Muslim terrorism in Sri Lanka. How do you respond?
A: They should prove that such terrorism exists and not make a blanket statement; they should identify the people involved so that steps can be taken to prevent any action by such persons. The SLMC was founded by the late leader, A.H.M. Ashroff, to prevent Muslim youths from taking to arms.
He gave them political leadership, and veered them away from engaging in arms. I too am a founder of the party, and we said it was wrong for the Muslim youth to take to arms. The youth in the North and East took to arms due to the lack of political leadership. The youths from both communities speak the same language – Tamil, and the Muslim youth were enticed to join the Tamils. But we stopped this from happening, and we will never allow that to happen. We are prepared to step in and prevent any Muslim youths from engaging in arms.
In 1990, Varatharaja Perumal made a Unilateral Declaration of Tamil Eelam. At the time, no one protested but the SLMC did. We said we will never support a separation of the country, and we walked out. It’s unfortunate that some people say we are radicals, which we are not.
If there is no meaningful power sharing, the friction between the communities will increase. Earlier, the Tamils only asked for district councils – nothing more. The leaders at the time refused to grant this request which led to the conflict.
Such mechanisms are in place in the US, Europe and even in India. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, this is important. There must be freedom for the minorities to lead their lives.