An Open Letter to The National Shoora Council of Sri Lanka

The National Shoora Council (NSC)  describes itself as “… a consultative body comprising several Muslim Organisations and individuals which was formed to address the challenges currently faced by the Muslims in Sri Lanka in a proactive manner.” The NSC identified the “… sudden surge in anti-Muslim activity through hate websites, public meetings, press conferences, demonstrations, media publications, attacks on places of religious worship, business places belonging to Muslims, dress code of Muslim females, the freedom to make available in the open market Halal certified clean food and articles, as well as other more insidious actions” as being a matter of immediate concern towards which it would direct it’s full and undivided attention. The establishment of the NSC, an avowed apolitical Muslim Organization, in 2012 offered hope to the beleaguered Muslim Community that finally a leadership had emerged from among the ranks of Muslim Civil Society which would take the necessary measures to rectify the recent violation of the (Basic) Need of Muslims for (Physical) Safety.

Until the 08th of January 2015, the activities of the NSC to a large extent satisfied the aspirations and hopes of the Muslim Community in this regard. Since then however, it would appear to be the case that the NSC has become rudderless and has lost all sense of direction. Consider for instance the involvement of NSC in the collection of aid for the victims of the Earthquake tragedy in Nepal organized by a group of Muslim Organizations. Nobody questions the importance, value or usefulness of such a project, but to begin with does the NSC have the mandate to get involved in such extraneous matters ? Do we not have enough ‘Muslim Refugees’ in our own Motherland who deserve to be helped in the first instance ? What was the true objective of the Muslim Organizations in collecting aid for the Nepali people ? Was it an attempt at cheap one-upmanship over the other religious groups in Sri Lanka ? Why have we not heard of similar aid being collected for the Muslim Rohingyas by these Muslim Organizations ?

The clearest sign that the NSC is at this point completely at sea is reflected sharply by it’s response to the recently-announced 20th Amendment to the Constitution as reported in the Ceylon Today of 12th June 2015. The news item stated :

The proposed 20th Amendment according to newspaper reports is falling short by way of representation for minority parties and the ethnic minorities, the President of the National Shoora Council (NSC), Tariq Mahmud said. He also praised the government’s effort to foster reconciliation between communities which was almost non-existent in the immediate aftermath of the terrorism of three decades.
Whilst addressing press briefing yesterday he also said “The Muslims will be down by 50 p.c. of their representation in the country. We strongly state that to have meaningful reconciliation proper representation must be reflected in Parliament. A token representation is no representation. The national ethnic percentages must be reflected in Parliament. It will be a representative body where all opinion will be viewed. This is our demand; we would like the government to see to it.” He also spoke in favour of the two ballot systems, indicating that it will introduce a more flexible form of democracy. He said, “The idea of the two ballot system will be useful and more democratic where you will be able to choose your preferred party in the same district and diametrically opposite you vote for another person who you would consider is a better politician. The candidate does not necessarily have to be linked to the party you voted for.” Mahmud also said future elections must not contain the cutoff point.
The NSC also said Parliament should represent the real ethnic proportion of the country. It was the most plausible manner in which the Muslim community can participate in national development. “The campaign for fairness is not only for the Muslim community. As citizens of this country, the NSC also supports fair representation for all other minority communities as well. We are not concerned about the particular models as such, as long as fairness can be achieved in representing the minorities,” the NSC said.

What shocked all right-thinking, progressive Muslims to the core was the demand by the NSC that The national ethnic percentages must be reflected in Parliament.’  With this single pronouncement, the NSC has not only adopted a stance in direct contradiction to Clauses 2.1, 2,2 and 2.3 of it’s Constitution, but it has also revealed the fact that it is directly or otherwise dancing to the tunes of Muslim Political Parties. Does this mean that the NSC honestly believe that the interests of SL Muslims are best served by electing only Muslims as members of Parliament ? Has the NSC already forgotten the behavior of the then Muslim MP’s during the critical days following the tragic incidents at Aluthgama on the 15th  of June 2014 ? And has the NSC forgotten the support rendered to the Muslim Community by word and deed by some non-Muslim MP’s during those tragic days ? If at a time when the Muslim Community needed the Muslim Members of Parliament most, these MP’s failed miserably, how can the NSC rationalize and justify their demand for ‘national ethnic percentages’ on the basis that it will be beneficial to the Muslim Community?

A news item posted in the web-journal, Asian Mirror, of 13th June 2015, reads as follows :

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is demanding an assurance that minorities will be adequately represented through the new electoral system, its General Secretary Hasan Ali told Asian Mirror. He said that the government was building up a wrong impression that the minority parties are against the 20th Amendment. He totally rejected this notion and said that the SLMC only asks for proper representation.
Ali pointed out that the Muslim population in the country at present is nearly 10 percent. Therefore, this percentage should be represented in parliament, he argued. If the parliament should have 237 seats, the Muslim community should be assured of being able to elect 23 MPs, he said. However, the suggested system will not ensure this, Ali argued. He said that the SLMC is not concerned about the number of MPs in parliament and added that its main concern was ensuring a fair representation for minorities. This is why the SLMC also demanded for a double ballot where a voter will be able to cast his vote for a candidate and a party, Ali said. He pointed out that it is a system currently used by many democratic countries.

The fact that the President of the NSC and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are singing in harmony by making the identical two demands on behalf of the Muslims – 10% of Parliamentary seats for Muslims and the introduction of a ‘two-ballot’ system – would suggest some kind of collusion on the part of these two Organizations. Can the NSC therefore continue with the claim that it is ‘Apolitical’ ? Or, has the NSC been hijacked by the Muslim Political Parties ? Has the Leadership of the NSC failed to realize that any demand on the basis of ethnicity will only serve to exacerbate the ethnic divide and goes against the grain of contributing to the restitution of national harmony and reconciliation in our Motherland ? In fact this act violates Clause 2.3 of the NSC Constitution which states “To encourage and contribute towards nation building, social security, sustainable development and enforcement of the rule  of law in Sri Lanka”. And while the NSC is in the ‘Demand Mode’ why does it not go the whole hog and demand, inter alia, that 10% of Public Sector jobs, 10% of University admissions and 10% of beds in Government Hospitals be reserved for the Muslim Community in  the name of ‘Ethnic representation’. As quid-pro-quo, the NSC could persuade all Muslim-owned Business Houses to restrict the proportion of shares owned by Muslims in their Businesses to 10%. If this is deemed to be a stupid, ludicrous and impractical demand, then it is only a reflection of the imbecilic political demand being made by the NSC on behalf of the Muslim Political Parties.

The NSC must desist immediately from dabbling with such political matters. The NSC has failed to realize that, by their collective and independent decision not to support the candidature of Mahinda Rajapakse at any future Presidential Election made immediately after the tragedy at Aluthgama on the 15th of June 2014, an overwhelming majority of the Muslim Community displayed their utter contempt for and total rejection of the Muslim Political Parties as ‘Leaders’ of the Community. The NSC should have stepped into this Leadership Gap not by engaging in the dirty game of amateur politics – even in a supporting role, but rather as the ‘Statesmen of the Muslim Community’ by engaging in discourses with National Parties like the UNP, SLFP and the JVP, to impress upon the leaders of these National Political Parties of the acute need to have in their ranks potential candidates who can appeal to a cross-section of the multi-ethnic voters in our Motherland. Candidates who can convince the Minorities (not just the Muslims) that they will not tolerate any activity by groups that violate the basic safety needs of the Minorities. The NSC should have instilled in the leadership of the National Political Parties the importance of introducing and implementing without fear or favor stringent rules pertaining to Hate Speech – the single-most formidable weapon of anti-minority groups.

The NSC has a lot of work to do if it is to regain it’s credibility among the Muslim Community as the primary independent Muslim Civil Society group from it’s present perception as a puppet of the Muslim Political Parties.

Advertisements

The Impact of Electoral Reforms on the SL Muslim Community

“Electoral reforms are not meant to satisfy political parties. They are meant to strengthen people’s representation” – Kusal Perera in ‘20A must have a Referendum’ (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/20a-must-have-a-referendum/)

The process of alienation between the two largest Communities in Sri Lanka, driven by the hegemonistic aspirations of the Upper-caste Tamils,  was set in motion in the 1940’s with the establishment of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944 and the Federal Party in 1949. During the decades that followed, the political ambitions of stake-holders on both sides of this ethnic divide resulted in the creation of space that was quickly filled by those who believed that that which could not be achieved by words, could only be achieved by deeds. These ‘militants’ were provided with all the necessary encouragement, advice, training, arms and financial support by various external forces which had their own agendas regarding the future of Sri Lanka.  The following 30-year period of violence conducted on a scale never before experienced by Sri Lankans ensured that the chasm in Sinhalese – Tamil relations continued to deepen and widen to such an extent that bridging it will always remain an elusive dream. During this same period of time, the vast majority of Tamil Professionals and Businesspersons had by choice or circumstances re-located to different Western Countries, which readily welcomed the infusion of top-end human capital to their own systems – human capital for which such Countries did not have to spend a single cent as investment. After the total destruction of the Tamil Terrorist groups in May 2009, the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in Western Countries and their off-spring began to exert socio-economic and political pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, aided and abetted once again by external forces. The Tamil Diaspora, as it is now referred to, were so well organized in their collective efforts against the Sri Lankan Government that today it is said that the Tamil Lobby has the dubious honour of being second only to the Jewish Lobby worldwide in terms of efficacy.

The Muslim Community on the other hand had integrated to a greater degree with the Majority Community in Sri Lanka over a 1000 year period. Other than for one aberration in 1915 instigated apparently by some visiting Muslim Traders from India, Sinhalese – Muslim relations have always been more-or-less harmonious. This was amply borne out by the fact that prior to 1978, many Muslim Politicians representing National Parties have been elected in pre-dominantly Sinhalese electorates, while Muslim voters readily lent their support to non-Muslim Politicians in all electorates. It was definitely not the case of Muslims voting for a Candidate merely because he is a Muslim. Unlike the Tamils, the Muslims did not demonstrate a tendency to vote along communal lines.

The new Constitution enacted by the UNP in 1978 did irreparable damage to Sinhalese – Muslim relations, the effects of which are continuing to reverberate even today, primarily due to the introduction of the ‘Preference Vote’. From a situation where a Candidate had to impress upon a cross-section of multi-ethnic Voters that the policies of his Party are more beneficial to the Country at large than that of a rival Party, he had to now further convince Voters that of all the Candidates of his Party contesting a specific area, he is the one best suited to represent them. In other words, the Candidate had to project himself as being significantly different from the rest of the flock. To use a common marketing term, he had to possess a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), something that gives him a competitive edge over the other Candidates.

Consciously or sub-consciously, many Candidates began to play the ethnic card and/or the religious card as they directed their efforts and limited (cognitive and financial) resources at the group that constitute over 70% of Voters – the Sinhala Buddhists – in their desperate bid to possess this much-sought after USP. At the end of the day, the cost of marketing themselves to Sinhala Buddhist voters was considerably less than marketing themselves to a target group of multi-ethnic Voters.

Quite naturally, the range of options available to Muslim Voters was thereby reduced considerably by this phenomenon. Into this emerging void, stepped in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 1986, in the misplaced belief that it could capture these floating Muslim Votes. The fact that the progress of the SLMC during it’s formative years and the growing conservatism among the Muslim Community, especially in the Eastern Province – the heartland of the SLMC, were somewhat parallel led many to perceive a causal relationship between the two phenomena. Quite naturally, the years that followed witnessed the birth of many more ‘copy-cat’ Muslim Political Parties.

The performance of these Muslim Political Parties since 1989 is summarized below.

1989 General Elections

SLMC won a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in 13 districts.

SLMC garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province. This suggests that even at that time, 1 in 2 Muslim Adults in the EP did not favour a Muslim Political Party.

1994 General Elections

SLMC continued to garner a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province.

2004 General Elections

SLMC won about 66% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province. Does this indicate an increase in popularity or reflect the sympathy votes after Mr Ashraff’s tragic demise in 2000 ?

2012 Eastern Provincial Council Elections

Only an estimated 37% of Muslim Voters cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around 2 in every 3 Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC favored a National Political Party (UNP/SLFP) or did not cast their votes at a National Election.

2014 Western Provincial Council Elections

All the Muslim Parties that contested, collectively accounted  for only an estimated 17% of Muslim votes. Five years previously, in 2009, the corresponding level of support was 18%. The number of Muslim Voters had increased by nearly 6%, but the SLMC were able to increase their Voter base by a mere 127 votes in 2014. This suggests that even at the height of anti-Muslim agitations, 5 out of every 6 Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim Political Party.

2014 Uva Provincial Council Elections

The final nail in the coffin was the performance of these Muslim Parties at the Uva Provincial Council Elections in 2014 for which all the Muslim Parties had decided to join forces and contest under one umbrella Party for maximum results. At the end of the day, out of an estimated 40,000 Muslim Voters , only 5045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim Parties. This meant that about 7 out of every 8 Muslim Voters in this region had rejected the Muslim Parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.

What is clearly evident in the above voting patterns of Muslims is the rejection of Muslim Political Parties and a burgeoning shift towards truly National Political Parties. This is only to be expected. During the period 2012 – 2014, the anti-Muslim groups had effectively destroyed a Basic Need of the Muslim Community – the Need for Physical Safety (A Second-level Need according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory). This need was felt by Muslims from all parts of the Island. It was not confined only to Muslims residing in a specific area or region. It was a truly ‘national’ need and one that could only be provided most effectively by a true National Political Party. Hence the significant shift in preference for such Parties.

The voting pattern also highlights the following features :

The claim that Muslims vote along communal lines is a canard perpetuated by self-serving politicians.

The claim that Muslim Political Parties ‘represent’ the Muslim Community is a fallacy of the highest order.

The claim that the Muslim Community will benefit from amendments to the Electoral System along communal lines is a total misconception on the part of it’s advocates. Such amendments will only benefit the Muslim Political Parties.

The perpetuation of these fallacies will only serve to widen and deepen the cracks that have appeared in Sinhalese – Muslim relations during 2012 – 2014.

As in the pre-1978 era, the Muslims have begun to demonstrate their willingness to cast their votes for Candidates who in their opinion will look after the interests of the Muslim Community – specifically, the non-violation of the basic need of Muslims for Physical Safety. The ethnicity and religion of such candidates are of secondary importance to a Minority Group which constitutes less than 10% of the total population. It is time for the National Parties to once again, as in the pre-1978 period, ensure that there are in their ranks men and women of standing who can, regardless of their race or religion, win the confidence of the Muslim Community.  The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution will go a long way towards meeting this need. The responsibility now devolves on the National Political Parties to ensure that  their policies and strategies encompass all Sri Lankans in theory and practice.

The Muslims must learn from the experiences of the Tamil Community resulting from the words and actions of their ambitious Political Leaders. It is estimated that, had the terrible events spanning 30 years of our recent history NOT occurred, in 2012 the SL Tamils would have accounted for a little over 16% of the total population. One has to only compare this with the corresponding 2012 Census figure of 11.2% to realize the extent and scope of the  ‘Tragedy of the SL Tamils’. Is it the desire of the Muslim Community to travel along a similar path ? A journey which may result in quantitative and qualitative losses to the shape and size of their Community ?

It therefore behoves the SL Muslims to demonstrate without any ambiguity their support for the restoration of the maximum possible number of seats under the First-Pass-The-Post system in any future Electoral Reform. We should not be misled or blinded by the actions of various self-styled ‘Muslim Civil Society’ groups and organizations purportedly acting on behalf of our Community with regard to such reforms . Many of these groups have been hijacked by the Muslim Political Parties who see the proposed Electoral Reforms as a vehicle to ensure  their maximum representation in future Parliaments. Have we already forgotten the post-Aluthgama behavior of these Muslim Political Parties ? As George Santayana the Philosopher once observed “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Will Electoral Reforms benefit the Muslim Community or the Muslim Political Parties ?

A striking feature of the First-Pass-The-Post (FPTP) system of electing Members of Parliament, that existed until the introduction of the new Constitution in 1978, was the election of Muslim MP’s from predominantly Non-Muslim Electorates and the ready support extended to Non-Muslim Candidates by Muslim Voters in all electorates. Muslims voted for Candidates, irrespective of race or religion,  who won their confidence of being able to safeguard and protect the interests of their Community inside and outside the Legislature. Muslims voted with their heads in the belief that ‘What is good for the Country, is good for me’.

Then came the Proportional Representation (PR) system which compelled many would-be MP’s to adopt a partial attitude towards the Majority Community in their desperate bid to attract and hold Preference votes. The National Parties abdicated their responsibilities to the Muslim Community leaving the Muslims with the feeling that their interests would be best looked after by Muslim Candidates. Into this breach stepped the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which was formed in September 1981 and formally inaugurated as a political party in November 1986. This was a defining moment in Buddhist – Muslim relations. Circumstances were pushing the Muslim Community towards supporting candidates from Muslim Political Parties which subsequently mushroomed. This was definitely not an inherent, dormant need of Muslims in Sri Lanka.

In it’s initial appearance at a General Election in 1989, the SLMC, which was then the only Muslim Political Party, contested for the first and last time in 13 electoral districts under it’s own brand name. It won the support of just a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in these 13 districts. In it’s heartland, comprising the three districts of the Eastern Province, it garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes. Five years later, at the 1994 General Elections, the popularity of the SLMC in the Eastern Province remained more-or-less the same. However, 10 years on, the SLMC reached the zenith of it’s popularity in the Eastern Province by attracting the support of around two-thirds of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in that region at the 2004 General Elections. The decline set in thereafter. The results of the Provincial Council elections conducted in the Eastern Province in 2012 revealed that only an estimated 37% of Muslim Voters had cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around 2 in every 3 Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC would either favor a non-Muslim Political Party or would not cast their votes at a National Election.

An examination of the combined performance of the Muslim Parties (not just the SLMC) in 2014 – at the height of the anti-Muslim agitations when the Muslim Community felt most vulnerable – throws into focus the perceptions of Muslims regarding these Muslim Political Parties. At the Western Provincial Council Elections in 2009 and in 2014, the estimated share of Muslim Votes garnered by all Muslim Parties decreased from 18% to 17%. This suggests that even at a time of great personal danger, 5 out of every 6 Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim Political Party. The final nail in the coffin was the performance of these Muslim Parties at the Uva Provincial Council Elections in 2014 for which all the Muslim Parties had decided to join forces and contest under one umbrella Party for maximum results. At the end of the day, out of an estimated 40,000 Muslim Voters , only 5045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim Parties. This meant that about 7 out of every 8 Muslim Voter in this region had rejected the Muslim Parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.

Under these circumstances, how correct is it for these Muslim Political Parties to claim that they ‘represent’ the interests of the Muslim Community?

Why are they adding their voice to the demand that the interests of the various ‘Minority Groups’ (which includes the Muslim Community) be safe-guarded in the proposed Electoral Reforms, when the vast majority of Muslims do not perceive these Muslim Political Parties as their ‘political guardians’ ?  

In doing so, are the Muslim Political Parties only attempting to ensure that they will be guaranteed of a specified number of seats in any future Parliament without expending too much political energy ?

With declining numbers of Muslims voting for such Muslim Parties, will this result in low-grade politicians being elected to Parliament on the Muslim ticket ?

The above analysis of voting patterns also gives lie to the popular belief that Muslims vote only for Muslim Candidates at National Elections. Ask any member of the Majority Community and he or she will promptly declare that this is true. Such thinking only serves to justify their decision to vote for candidates from their own Community. The perpetuation of this fallacy has benefited all Political Parties. The Muslim Political Parties have used it and are continuing to use it to boost their own flagging image nationally and internationally. The National Political Parties, specifically the UNP and the SLFP, are happy to accept this position so that their candidates are at liberty to bring the full force of their limited resources to bear on the non-Muslim voting Public – which is so essential to maximize their Preference votes.

The net result of all these phenomena is that the schism between the members of the Majority Community and the members of the Muslim Community continues to deepen and widen, sharpening further the ‘Us vs Them’ syndrome.

The Muslims have and will always vote for  candidates who, in their opinion, will look after the interests of the Muslim Community – specifically, the non-violation of the basic need of Muslims for Physical Safety. The ethnicity and religion of such candidates do not matter to a Minority Group which constitutes less than 10% of the total population. It is time for the National Parties to once again, as in the pre-1978 period, ensure that there are in their ranks, men and women of standing who can regardless of their race or religion, win the confidence of the Muslim Community.

Have the voting patterns of the Muslim Community to date indicated a felt need among the Sri Lankan Muslims for Electoral Reforms ?