- As country commemorates 11 years since end of war, Ali Zahir Moulana who played pivotal role in LTTE’s break up recounts the perilous journey from Batticaloa to Colombo with Karuna
- Says his actions and painstaking efforts were not to bring peace to a particular ethnic group or a community but for all fellow Sri Lankans
- Recalls how countless other Muslims too have sacrificed patriotically to preserve and protect the sovereignty of the country
- Opines there is no bright future for Sri Lanka if all communities do not strive for it in unison
By Chandani Kirinde
Former MP Ali Zahir Moulana who put his life on the line and made the perilous journey from Batticaloa to Colombo in April 2004 bringing with him the then Easter Commander of the LTTE Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna, a turning point in the war which ended with the military defeat of the group on 19 May 2009, feels let down today.
His sense of despondency is not to do with any recognition he seeks for himself but caused by the continuing alienation of members of the Muslim community in the country by various means, the latest being the Government’s decision to allow only cremation of bodies of those who succumb to COVID-19 by ignoring repeated requests from the community to allow for burials in keeping with their faith.
“We have done so much for our nation and overcome it all together, it is truly saddening now to witness the continued polarisation and stigmatisation of minorities in Sri Lanka, particularly the Muslim community, for the mere sake of political advantage and superiority,” Moulana said.
As the country commemorates the 11th anniversary of the end of the war victory, Moulana recounted to Daily FT the gripping story of his first encounter with the former LTTE Eastern Province Leader and how their close association resulted in him confiding in Moulana his desire to break away from the LTTE and how, on a day when luck was on their side, they made the perilous journey from Batticaloa to Colombo giving the slip to LTTE cadres who had been dispatched to ensure that they don’t escape the “Tigers’ Lair” alive.
Moulana first met Karuna in early 1990 when the then Minister for Higher Education and Justice A.C.S. Hameed under President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration was attempting to negotiate peace with the LTTE. With the two men hailing from villages close to each other, the former MP from Eravur and Karuna from Kiran in the Batticaloa District, they developed a close rapport immediately but peace talks were short-lived and the LTTE and Government forces were at war again by mid-1990.
What followed were many more years of bloody conflict, with the Muslim community in the east facing the wrath of the LTTE with the massacres of Muslims who were praying at the mosque in Kattankudy (August 1990) followed by the massacre of over 120 Muslims in Eravur (February 1991) among other such incidents.
The country held out hope that the election of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 would result in peace in the country but such hopes too were shattered shortly until a Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) came into force in February 2002 , two months after the UNP came to power in the General Election held in December 2001.
Formal peace talks between the Government and the LTTE began in September 2002 and with Karuna among those picked by the Group’s Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to attend the negotiation, contact between the two men was renewed. “We were in contact again and after the peace talks we would call me and ask me to come for a chat and over these conversations I gathered he was not happy with Prabhakaran because he felt the eastern cadres were being discriminated by the northern ones. He would tell me, ‘we started this war because we were discriminated by one community but now, we are discriminated within the group and the Eastern cadres are not being shown any respect,’” Moulana recalled.
As their close acquaintance grew and the peace negotiations continued, there began to emerge a refit within the two top men in the LTTE with Karuna keen to seriously negotiate with the Government so as to find a political settlement while Prabhakaran was using the opportunity to buy time to strengthen the military prowess of the group and recommence the armed struggle.
“Karuna was keen to give his children an education in English and sought my assistance to take them to Colombo and admit them to schools here, which I did. Then I knew he had a great deal of trust I me. I kept the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe informed of these developments and told him that Karuna was losing faith in Prabhakaran.”
It was in 2003 that Moulana suggested to Wickremesinghe that it would be a great relief to the people if the railway track between Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa was re-laid as the track in its entirety had been removed by the LTTE and the Army for bunkers, etc. as train services had stopped in 1996 due to intense fighting in the area. As the Government was short of the Rs. 400 million estimated by the Railway Department for the project, the availability of around Rs. 300 m through the NORAD-funded Batticaloa Integrated Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Project (BIRRP) was used for the work.
“While the work was in progress, an engineer who was working on the project complained to me that LTTE cadres were harassing them and demanding money. When I informed of this to Karuna, he said the LTTE cadres from the north who took 10% of all project money had come down to the east and had begun to harass people there as well and intervened to have them stopped.”
As the rift widened between the two LTTE leaders, on the political front too there were shocking developments with President Kumaratunga sacking the UNP-led Government in February 2004 and calling a General Election in April that year which resulted in the People’s Alliance winning a majority of seats in Parliament and Mahinda Rajapaksa being appointed Prime Minister. Despite the change in government, the CFA was in place and the uneasy peace remained.
However, the CFA did not stop Prabhakaran from moving armed cadres of the Sea Tigers to the eastern coast and with Karuna losing trust in the Norwegian mediators, who he felt sided with Prabhakaran, he approached Moulana and expressed his desire to leave the area and head to Colombo.
“There were around 2,000 cadres the LTTE had conscripted including children and Karuna wanted to release them to their parents before leaving. I suggested that he inform the UNICEF and do it in their presence, which is what he did and for which he won a lot of praise.”
On 12 April 2004, known only to a few in the Peace Secretariat that had been set up as part of the CFA, Moulana set off with Karuna in his vehicle as the latter did not trust anyone else to take him to safety in Colombo. Accompanying them were Karuna’s top lieutenants who had also chosen to break away from the LTTE.
“At that time, I did not realise the serious danger to my life, but it was only later I learnt that a team had been dispatched by Prabhakaran to make sure that we did not leave Batticaloa alive.”
After few days at a luxury apartment complex in Colombo, Karuna moved to a safe house and subsequently joined the Government and was sworn in as a National List MP in October 2008.
For Moulana, the threats from the LTTE continued. “The Government had to post 50 to 60 Policemen around my house and one day my children were followed on their way to school in what transpired to be a kidnap attempt.”
He resigned from his seat in Parliament in July 2004 and left the country and only returned after the war ended in 2009.
As the country commemorates the 11th anniversary of the end of the war, as someone who very nearly paid the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of bringing peace to the country, Moulana says it pains him to witness how the country has moved back in time and not forward.
“My actions and painstaking efforts were not to bring peace to a particular ethnicity or a community, but for all my fellow Sri Lankans. I did all of that with no expectation of reward or accolade. When I fled Sri Lanka, I never expected to return. But I found comfort in hope that my actions would somehow bring about a major change towards establishing a lasting peace in our country,” he said.
Moulana recalled the countless other Muslims who had sacrificed tremendously and patriotically to preserve and protect the sovereignty of the country.
“They served in our military, police, and civil service, and gallantly answered their call to duty when it was most needed. Thousands of Muslim civilians have laid down their lives for their country, as victims of harsh brutality, at the hands of terrorism. We stood by our nation, we fought for, bled for, and defended its sovereignty with all our might, alongside our fellow patriotic citizens. Having done so much for our nation and overcome it all together, it is truly saddening now to witness the continued polarisation and stigmatisation of minorities in Sri Lanka, particularly the Muslim community for the mere sake of political advantage and superiority,” he said.
Moulana added that be it terrorism, a pandemic, or economic self-sustenance and sustainable growth, there was no brighter future for Sri Lanka if all communities did not strive for it in unison.