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
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
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
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
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
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
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.