By Camelia Nathaniel
Following are excerpts of the interview:-
Q: Some SLFP members want MP Mahinda Rajapaksa to be given the leadership of the SLFP, and there is division within the party. What is the Muslim Congress (SLMC) view of the current situation within the SLFP?
A: This is an internal division and it should be sorted out by them and I don’t think that outsiders passing remarks on their problems are not advisable or healthy. Anyway the division of small parties due to internal issues is not good. I don’t think that there are any serious issues within the party, but these minor differences of opinion will always be there. In the past parties had different ideologies but they worked together, but today all the parties are the same and they are only interested in grabbing power.
There are some who perhaps want to take revenge from President Maithripala. Those who scolded him at the last election are now with him in the government and some are holding ministerial portfolios too. This shows that there is no stark policy difference. Hence these differences are mainly due to personality clashes and I don’t think we should look into these matters on a different angle as these are purely personality clashes. This is what I feel.
Q: The Government has been criticised for targeting some members of the previous regime, and claim that it is politically motivated revenge. Does the SLMC share the same sentiment?
A: SLMC was not concentrating on those issues but I don’t think these are political revenge. The whole country voted for a change and gave them the mandate to bring the corrupt and fraudsters of the previous regime to book. All these things were told to the people at the political platforms and after listening to all these the people have given the verdict that they want the culprits to be punished. Therefore I don’t think that it is a political issue at any cost. The government is not simply punishing them without any proper inquiry, but they are following the proper law and order procedures of the country. Therefore if they have not done anything wrong, then they can fight it out.
Q: On the whole are you happy with the manner in which the new government is conducting themselves, especially with regard to the issues faced by the Muslims?
A: We expected a lot of good things to happen as far as the minority communities are concerned. Some of them are the change of the constitution and electoral reforms etc.
However we feel that all these promises are very slow and this is not what we expected. Even the Local Government elections are not likely to happen this year, I feel. Also they have still not taken a decision whether to bring in changes to the existing constitution, or to install a new constitution altogether without any amendments.
We were under the impression that we were going to have a totally fresh and complete constitution, but the government is wavering and has still not been able to come up with a firm decision in this regard. The different ministers are expressing differing views and everyone is confused as to what is going to happen. I feel that it is a non-starter and there is no firm stand where the government is concerned on what they need to do.
With regard to the minority issues, there are huge lapses and the government has still not decided on whether they want to opt for a federal approach or a unitary structure and the debate is still going on, between the Tamil and Sinhala communities.
As far as the Muslims are concerned we are not interested in the terminology and whatever you call it we want the North East to be conducive for the development and safety of the Muslims. With regard to the war ravaged areas if they are going to find a solution based on the demands of the Tamils, then the Muslims in the East too should be considered and recognised as a separate community living in the North Eastern areas.
Based on that structure, the Muslim community too should be given an equal stakeholder status in the whole process. That is our view and it doesn’t matter if you call it unitary or federal but our main demand is that the Muslims too should be recognised as a separate community.
Q: There are proposals to merge the North and the East and fully implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, where devolution of power is the main demand of the TNA. Does the SLMC agree with this solution?
A: Our late leader Ashraf said, whether you are going to merge or demerge the North and the East, there are concerns. We even said that even the demerger is conditional and the courts decided the outcome but the Muslim community was not consulted. At the time of the merger too they never consulted the Muslim community. There was an accord signed between India and Sri Lanka and they just did it safeguarding their interests. They never considered the Muslims as equal stakeholders.
Therefore now that demerger is out of the question as it has already been done, if they are planning on merging the two provinces, the Muslims should have an equal say. Even earlier when they were appointing a chief minister, there was a problem between the Muslim and Tamil community as to who should have the position of the chief minister. This situation was then completely manipulated by the Sinhala community, where they pitched one against the other. These types of problems should be avoided and that is why we are asking for a separate council where we want the Muslim provincial council for the interest of the Muslim community living in the North East. The areas can be connected, should have separate Muslim majority power-sharing structure comprising non-contiguous areas similar to the Pondicherry model in India.
Q: The SLMC was disgruntled with the Rajapaksa regime and felt that the issues of the Muslim community were not addressed. Has the situation changed for the better under the current regime?
A: No there is no improvement at all and all our land problems in the eastern province is still the same. Once we quit the government on these land issues. However we are back with the government and the people are very angry with us for these things. All the land issues are still prevalent and during the 100 day program, I gave a whole lot of files to the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and I suggested he appoint a special commission to look into the land problems of the Muslims, which has been prevailing for over 40 years. In the Kalmunai meeting he gave the Muslims a promise that these matters will be sorted out, but nothing has been done and they have failed the Muslim people.
Q: Do you think that with the internal conflicts and difference of opinions within the coalition, more important national issues are being side-tracked while petty politics is taking a more prominent place?
A: Yes definitely. The whole war issue came up because there were problems between the different ethnic groups in the country, mainly in the North East. But no government has properly addressed these issues. The governments change but the mind-set of the people who are handling these subjects has not changed. Only the colour of the party changes but the problems is still the same.