@

 
   
   
   
   
   
NEWS  
NEWS FEATURES  
INTERVIEWS  
POLITICAL COLUMN  
EDITORIAL  
OPINION  
SPORTS  
CARTOON  
BUSINESS  
EYE - FEATURES  
LETTERS  
EVENTS  
SOUL - YOUTH MAG  
ENTERTAINMENT  
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   

 

 

Interviews

“Govt. desperate to swell its ranks”

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, after almost three long years in the opposition, is finally in serious negotiations to join the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. With the largest Muslim party under its belt, the hand of the government would be considerably strengthened, while it would also give them the numbers they require in the House.

SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem insists that this move, if it were to transpire, would not be a case of individuals moving into government benches but a principled stand that must be justifiable in the eyes of their electorate. The SLMC Chief is also cautiously optimistic that the party’s influence on the government may perhaps serve to soften its hawkish position on the ethnic problem and worries that the government’s moves to entice opposition MPs both from the UNP and other parties may have an adverse impact on the progress made at the All Party Representative Committee meetings.

“Mr. Mervyn Silva is an ‘interesting’ personality as you know. He is not the kind of representative with whom we desire to discuss issues. We would rather deal with a responsible team from the government. I am not trying to demean Mr. Mervyn Silva’s attempt to get us to join the government, but the less we talk about it the better.”

“We don’t want this to be an issue like the UNP and the SLFP MoU, which only turned out to be a marriage of convenience for both leaders. From the very outset, there was an obvious lack of sincerity in that pact. We wish that such considerations will not come into any understanding we may have if at all this works out. It is not like individuals joining. Our party has to justify our engagement with this government.”

By Dharisha Bastians
Q: Speculation is rife that the SLMC is about to join the government. How far is this true?
A:
Since the President assumed office there have been invitations during the discussions we have had on several occasions. We have always been keeping an open mind about supporting the government, up to now. We have been extending our support in parliament. It now appears that the government is somewhat desperate to swell their ranks, by accepting as many crossovers as possible from the United National Party. Obviously it is a politically immoral thing to do. It might also have implications for All Party talks.

We noticed in our discussions with the government yesterday that they were quite serious about getting their numbers. I must say it is a very uncomfortable position to be in. We do not want to be seen as a party that will make decisions based on political expediency. We have indicated to the government that first of all we must agree on a broader policy framework, through which the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the SLMC could develop a relationship. It stands there at the moment.

Q: How do you think the rest of your party, and by extension your electorate respond to these moves to join hands with the government at this juncture?
A:
The ground situation in the North- East has resulted in mixed reactions among Muslims. In our discussions with the government team, they conceded that the SLMC’s inclusion would give them an advantage to present an overall national formation, as they already have a few parties like the CWC and other smaller parties. But what is more important is to see whether we can effect a paradigm shift in their approach to resolving the national issue. We feel that we would create a favourable impact, in softening the hawkish attitude of the government. Given the ground situation as of today, it is questionable whether we would achieve that objective. There are some in the party who think that we would certainly be square pegs in round holes if we did ultimately join. But we are certainly not ruling out anything, but we want to discuss matters with regard to policy first and try to sustain a proper working relationship.

Q: You said that the government looked intent on swelling its numbers right now. Could you speculate on why this is the case? What was your impression?
A:
Unfortunately I think it is as a result of the dilemma they have created for themselves by adopting an approach throughout of enticing opposition MPs to join the government. When the government originally came into being, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had only 56 members; the rest of them are from other political formations. So in this background, they always had this difficulty with their principal ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Their love-hate relationship with them has now come to a virtual breaking point. They still seem to think that they must try and reduce the gap in the relationship with their radical allies, including the JVP. By pursuing a hardline policy against the LTTE, they were able to sustain the support of the South despite the precarious situation the economy is in. This is a vicious cycle, and they must understand that if they pursue the war option too long, they cannot sustain the economy. Now it appears that they may have to shift gear since international opinion is also turning against us now. So they may need to shift gear, but how and how soon will be the question. Our support, nevertheless, is partly to resolve the national problem and to sustain our economy.

The international community also appears to be losing patience. The humanitarian issue is a matter of concern and obviously that has implications for India because of its southern flank. This is where the need to achieve the so-called southern consensus, through the all party conference, becomes important. Unfortunately this attempt to entice opposition MPs may result in scuttling the positive engagement of the UNP and others in the APRC. This is something the government must seriously take into consideration. It is not for us to be suggesting this, but we are doing so as a party concerned with the resolution of the national ethnic problem. When we see the good work that has so far been done being dismantled, it is distressing.

Q: You spoke of enticements by the government to Opposition MPs. What are the ‘enticements’ on offer for the SLMC?
A:
We have not spoken of any positions as such. Right now we are only worried about principles. Basically we have only spoken of formulating policy on which both parties can sustain a working relationship.

Q: What about an enticement in terms of addressing the issues of the Muslims?
A:
We have not gone into details yet. Maybe in the coming days. Those matters will have to be clarified and discussed. We don’t want this to be an issue like the UNP and the SLFP MoU, which only turned out to be a marriage of convenience for both leaders. From the very outset, there was an obvious lack of sincerity in that pact. We wish that such considerations will not come into any understanding we may have if at all this works out. It is just not like individuals joining. Our party has to justify our engagement with this government.

Q: Did you have a meeting with UPFA Colombo District MP, Mervyn Silva, on Friday (12) night?
A:
Mr. Mervyn Silva is an ‘interesting’ personality as you know. He is not the kind of representative with whom we desire to discuss issues. We would rather deal with a responsible team from the government. I am not trying to demean Mr. Mervyn Silva’s attempt to get us to join the government, but the less we talk about it the better.

Q: Was there any attempt at intimidation during his discussions with you last night?
A:
I can never be intimidated. He did come here and talk to me about his ‘heroics’ in Nugegoda last week which I just listened to.

Q: What, in your opinion is the biggest problem faced by the Muslims today?
A:
The Muslims have many problems that they have to contend with. I would say, economic survival together with attempts to marginalise the Muslims when the North and East was merged and even now with the de-merger, which I think is a case of going from the frying pan to the fire. Mature Muslim politicians would realise the integrity of our argument, but there are some people who want to do politics on emotions and sentiments. We are not altogether happy with the way in which the de-merger took place. These are areas in which we will require assurances from the government.

Q: Are you saying that the SLMC does not support the de-merger?
A:
We were never for the merger or the de-merger. Our issues are different. In both situations, the Muslim community can be made to suffer. Particularly now that it has happened in this fashion, the political implications of this are yet to be realised. And the government and the opposition will now have to resolve the issue through a formula reached and legislated.

Q: Do you support the concept of ethnic enclaves, mooted in the Majority Report of the APRC?
A:
It is wrong to call them ethnic enclaves. Whether the North and East is merged or de-merged, the concentration of a community in large pockets is going to give rise to political demands and with the kind of experience the Muslims have, where they have suffered at the hands of both the Tamil militants and the government, we insist on some degree of autonomy for us in the North and East. And this is something the Tamil leadership conceded from the very early stages of their struggle. But after the Indo-Lanka accord, the Tamil leadership appear to be conveniently forgetting about the assurances they gave the Muslims. India too will have to realise their past mistakes in not taking into consideration the Muslim political aspirations and look for a viable alternative, which is possible within the so-called Indian model that is being espoused.

Q: In terms of the APRC Expert Committee Reports, which of these does the SLMC support or endorse?
A:
Obviously we will support the committee ‘A’ report. The ‘B’ report is virtually a counter to the ‘A’ report. Now Mr. Tissa Vitharana has come out with an abridged version regarding which we have our own reservations. At the last sitting, we have indicated some amendments and we would like to discuss it further in the coming months. Similarly in our discussions with the UNP too we have asked them to very clearly spell out their position when it comes to the North East, if at all the APC survives this turbulent period. So we will have to keep our fingers crossed that this ‘crossover saga’ as it unfolds, will not have implications for the All Party Conference.