Frank and upfront with Zuhair

Sri-Lanka-Muslim-CongressFrank and upfront with Zuhair

While many point out that the manifesto of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena does not address the issues of the minorities specifically, National United Front, Leader M. M. Zuhair who is part of the common opposition said, such mention was left out on purpose, as it was time to move beyond ‘100 years of communal politics’. He advocated that a country with good governance and rule of law would solve the problems of all regardless of ethnicity and that was more important than the interests of communal parties that fired up ethnic differences amongst the people for their own personal gains.Following are excerpts of an interview CT had with him…

Q.

You were one of the founding members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), what is your opinion of its current leader Rauff Hakeem?

A. When we compare the leadership of Ashraff to that of Hakeem, the differences are immense. Ashraff pooled the votes of the Muslim community and brought back two Presidents into power; R. Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga. These were two Presidents who acknowledged that Ashraff’s SLMC contributed to their success. He also prevented the Muslim youth from joining the LTTE at the time. Prior to the SLMC being formed, the Muslim youth who had lost faith in the majority parties were moving towards the LTTE and he stopped that. That support was brought to the central government. If not for that, the LTTE would have been successful in establishing Eelam in the early 80s.
Hakeem’s SLMC today however has been dilly dallying over the decision to support the common candidate and has been hesitating to leave the Mahinda Rajapaksa government while I think he should have left a long time ago.

Especially after the 15-16 June attack on Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwela. Being in government, they should have assured that the perpetrators would be prosecuted. We saw Gnansara Thera of the BBS openly inciting violence against the Muslim community. Not that we want to see Buddhist monks in jail but there has to be some accountability to what happened. In all these cases, the President has been silent he has not said any action would be taken against the perpetrators. It was at that stage that Hakeem should have left. We have now welcomed him (Hakeem) and the ACMC of Rishad Bathiudeen. These are matters of principle you leave on a matter of principle, not too late, after having seen which side is most likely to win. This should not be the criteria of a party that represents the interests of the minorities.
Q.
In that context, do you think the SLMC has achieved anything substantial for the Muslim community after the death of Ashraff?

A. I hope they will achieve hereafter having joined Maithripala Sirisena. At least they are on the right side, maybe a little too late but they are on track.
Q.
The SLMC split with the death of Ashraff and his wife formed the National Unity Alliance, but the party seems quite dormant, what happened to its members?

A. I really don’t know. One thing is clear, most of our (Muslim) elected representatives, have allowed themselves to be bought and sold at a price. This has reduced the ability of these peoples’ representatives to influence the course of action in government. When you are bought over or sold, you become ineffective, not respected, not taken seriously, and I think that was what happened to these parties. The emerging view point among all communities now is that all these communal parties, be it the SLMC, ACMC, or the JHU, and even groups like BBS, they should not have any major role in the future. Maithripala Sirisena is offering that.
He has provided a solution for the ethnic problem by the removal of the District Party Representative (PR) system. In my view, the District PR system is the playground where all these communal parties flourish.
You remove that and they will not have that. I am not saying that these parties will go out of the picture. Even under the First-Past the-Post system, smaller parties like the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party had a place. They will be able to function, but they will not have a huge role which they now have abused, in selling themselves, rather than to protect the greater interest of the community they represent.
Q.
When President Premadasa faced an impeachment motion, you were one of the senior lawyers who helped him keep his Executive Presidency but now you are asking for its abolishment?

A. President Premadasa did not have a serious record of abusing it and the only instance that you could cite against him is when he genuinely thought he could talk to the LTTE. The Executive Presidency, if well managed can be a good system but in the hands of the wrong person, it can lead to misuse, abuse and bloodshed. This has happened in the last three to four years. I am in the view that we should not abolish the Executive Presidency as a whole, it should be tied down and we can go back to the First-Past-the –Post system plus limited PR system in line with the Dinesh Gunawardene report.
You need a head of State and that would be the President but you reduce his powers so they are not misused. When we talk of abolishing the Executive Presidency, we are talking of the Executive part and not the Presidency as a whole. Powers will be curtailed, he will be in charge of Defence and National Security and other powers will be divested to the Prime Minister and Parliament, in that arrangement parliament would be supreme.
Q.
It is argued that the Executive Presidential system is beneficial to the minorities?

A. That is partly true but that is when you look at it through one angle. It is good for one reason and that is that the Executive President is elected by the whole country, including the Tamils and Muslims in the North and East.
The powers of the President was used to win the war which is commendable but thereafter we can see that the rule of law in the country has completely broken down, armed forces are being used for menial jobs, good governance has been throttled, all those in Parliament and in the public service are not allowed to act independently, the Judiciary too is tied down and they are all stifled by the Executive. We cannot blame these people, we need to blame the source, the Executive. For minorities, thus it is only partly beneficial, because if law and order in the country has broken down, that also affects the minorities, we cannot take the risk of having the Executive Presidency in the wrong hands.
I also support electoral reforms. We now have a hundred percent PR system, small parties and minorities who hold sway here but in the long run it is not in the best interest of the country. If the leadership is reflective of the view points of all communities and not necessarily that of one, then it is that leadership which is the solution to our problems. Ever since the 1978 constitution of J.R. Jayewardene, communal parties have flourished. For example if the BBS chose to come into Parliament, this would be possible under this system. This is why we are supporting abolishment of the Executive and going back to First-Past-the-Post with limited PR.
Q.
You were the Ambassador to Iran, what made you distance yourself from the President?

A. I have no personal issues with the President. My concerns were more drawn to the breakdown of law and order in the country, the role of the Police and the Attorney General’s Department which have been degraded. Conflicts between ethnic groups have been allowed to go on without any restraint imposed by the President. The President could have done as he should and stopped it all but didn’t.
We were deeply concerned by that, and we were not going to support anyone who allowed the community I come from to be insulted and downgraded. I am not one who thought in communal lines but we have been forced to think so, after the BBS came into the picture. I helped greatly during the war to get a credit line from Iran valued at US$ 689 million, which was crucial at the time.
But I won’t stand for my community to be treated in a shoddy way.
Q.
You are now a leader of new Muslim party, what are your policies?

A. It is not a party, more of a political organization. Presently we are in the process of formulating our future agenda. We are however more concerned with getting Maithripala Sirisena voted into power, similar to all parties in the opposition, like the JHU.
This country unfortunately has always been going on communal lines but when the majority community thinks in communal terms and they express unnecessary fears about the minorities, when they fail to trust the minorities and they themselves behave like another minority, then that leads to a sad situation for the future of this country.
I would like to commit myself through this political organization not only look into the interests of the Muslims but of all. Maithripala’s vision can be seen though the role Sobitha Thera and Rathana Thera played in it. They have come out to direct this country together with our support in the right direction, which is to build trust across all sectors and not presume that the minorities are there to create trouble. But if there are trouble makers, strict action would be taken against them. We need not punish a whole community for a few black sheep, but we need to get out of this communal animosity building up.
When you look at the MoU signed between the JHU and the common candidate that has been signed, they have not raised a single issue that is specific to the Sinhala community, and all of their points are in the greater interest of everyone.
Q.
The JHU however has been known for its nationalistic views?

A. It was because that was what was promoted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Having won the war, you do not become the leader of one community you need to be the leader of all. He however, only was catering to 2% of the majority community, the majority of the Sinhalese want to live in peace with all as one nation.
Q.
So would you say that the common opposition is diluting the communal politics of these parties?

A. Yes and that would happen with the limitation of the district PR system on which communalism thrives.
A President who thinks in terms of communal politics encourages it. A President like Maithripala who is prepared to rise above all this will give us a better future. The JHU is moving away from its communal past, they are concerned about territorial integrity of the country which we are too, as we are Sri Lankans. With a just and fair ruler, all parties can drop their communalism and trust the leader. That is the future we are envisaging. It is difficult, but that is the challenge, to rise above 100 years of communalism. The Sinhalese Sports club and the Moors Sports Club existed long before the SLMC, and then we had the Muslim, Missionary and Buddhist schools to complement them. We need to bring about a country where all are equal, and nobody looks at you only in terms of the community you come from but trusts the leader and works towards a better country.
I am unhappy with the approach of
Dr. Dayan Jayatillake who has expressed the view that the abolishment of the Executive Presidency is beneficial to the minorities. He has ignored the fact that the abolishment would go along with the removal of the District PR system as a whole and then restoration of the First-Past-the-Post system and limited PR. I feel that under this system and with a good leader we need not be worried about communal forces re-emerging. So, I am surprised to find that intellectuals like
Dr. Jayatillake operating from a position of distrust and drawing the attention of the majority community to it. He is raising communal fears based on a ‘majoritarian perspective’; this is something that you don’t expect from an intellectual such as him.