BY Zahrah lmtidz
A. H. M. Azwer, a firebrand personality in Parliament for the last 25 years recently retired to make way for Amir Ali of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress. As the government tries to balance the ‘Muslim factor’ before the upcoming elections, the former MP and present senior advisor to the President on Parliamentary Affairs, Mass Media and Information, said it was time for the Muslims to make the wise decision to back President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming election, in order to avoid a severe backlash of ‘Sinhala chauvinistic’ elements if the President were not to come back into power.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
There have been many crossovers from one party to another, do you think there should be a provision to stop this occurring in Parliament as it is a violation of the mandate given by the people to their politicians?
A. This is a malady introduced into the Constitution in 1978 by J. R. Jayewardene. He planned it this way, he said that if anyone were to crossover, he would be sacked and then he could challenge it in the Supreme Court. However, there is a provision in the Constitution which says that if he is given a portfolio, he could remain in Parliament. That was a ploy.
It is universally accepted by all parties that the Constitution needs to be changed but this cannot be done easily, we are stuck in a vault built by JR. To change things, Parliament must give the directive, then we move a resolution backed by a 2/3 majority and then we must seek a referendum to make the changes. This has to be done.
So we should find the remedies for all these ailments.
Six people from the government left and then they said that over 20 would follow but where are those numbers now? There has been a sudden turnaround of events with Mahinda Rajapaksa handing over his nomination; a lot of people are visiting Temple Trees these days.
When speaking of the Constitution, the Opposition talks of abolishing the Executive Presidency and changing the electoral system. The President has said it is up to the Parliamentary Select Committee to do that. Why has Parliament not implemented the changes even with a 2/3 majority it enjoys in last few years?
A. No one has asked for it so far. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been bungling things so far. He says he will keep the Executive Presidency and will also have an Executive Prime Minister; that is worse than JR. Sirisena says he will keep the portfolios of defence and police under him, which means he would enjoy half of executive power. It is a mangled state of mind.
The President has informed the Parliamentary Select Committee to inform him of the changes that need to be made and he would do it.
Even Chandrika promised to abolish it in a year but she did not do it. They all like power. We even had a massive demonstration at the end of the first year asking for it, she used her goons to attack us. She never abolished it.
We don’t trust Maithri to do so either.
But does the Mahinda Chinthana not have the promise of the abolishment of the Executive Presidency too? The President promised it both times?
A. Yes it does. But no one asked for it, not even the Opposition.
Why should he wait for someone to ask? He promised it in his manifesto and he has a 2/3 majority in Parliament?
A. He cannot do it alone though he promised that. No one asked and he went along with it.
The problem of the Executive Presidency only came after the defeat of Prabhakaran. This made the West go mad. They introduced the Arab Spring and destroyed the Arab countries. We had a very good and close friend Gaddafi in Libiya, he was destroyed. Then Iraq had Saddam Hussein, another great socialist who was also destroyed. Now Syria, and then Yemen. All this type of brazen killings, have become the work of the international community.
Then there is the Diaspora (Tamil) which started in 1983, manipulated by JR. So these people and the West want to take revenge. The West thinks, we were able to bring down the great leaders of the Arab world, so who is this podda who is standing against us?
Mahinda Rajapaksa is very patriotic so they want to bring him down with the help of the diaspora.
You say that Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing a similar fate as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, would you compare them with Mahinda Rajapaksa then?
A. Very much so.
The people have the power to choose which ever leader they want. But the international community and diaspora do not like Mahinda and want to destroy him.
Former LTTE leader Elilen’s wife, now in the Northern Provincial Council, Anandi Saseedaran has said that we will help Maithri to come to power, because on the day that he comes into power, “we will start where Prabhakaran left off, until we form an Eelam”. The same thing is voiced by the people in Tamil Nadu, “We will get our Eelam very soon”. International conspiracies have been hatched. This is why the President said, “even though they have done this to all other leaders, I will still stand against them”.
They have also said the day he loses, they will take him to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
But they have not said that. Maithripala Sirisena has clearly made a statement refuting such claims and has said he would not take anyone to a Criminal Court and the UNP too passed a resolution in Parliament saying no one would be tried in an International Court?
A. Yes, but Suren Surendiran said that, he said he will take him. This was supported by Dr. Harsha de Silva in a television programme.
Though they say something different now, we cannot trust them.
You speak for the Muslims and now you also have the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) too saying that they support the President, but you also have groups like the BBS, an openly extremist group supporting the President. How can these two opposing forces stay together?
A. The President has always supported Muslims; he was a backbencher when he supported the Palestine cause. I have been in Parliament since 1989, raising points of order and I am hell bent sometimes, but I only follow the leader, truthfully and genuinely. I never criticized him. In one of the speeches I had made in Parliament long ago, I told Mahinda, for all your trouble, marching from Kataragama, you will be the President of this country one day. In another place I had said, the SLFP leadership will come from the South and that too came to pass.
This still does not explain the fact that the President has extremist Buddhist groups supporting him?
A. He is a friend of the Muslims. In Medamulana when he wakes up in the morning, he hears the Azan (call to prayer). He has many Muslim friends from all over the country.
In the meantime, the JHU came forward to help him get votes. Now, the course of Champika has had a summersault.
He knew that these Buddhist people will try to damage the government at some point, so he helped them (BBS) perhaps, I don’t know, he says he never helped them for that purpose, but I don’t know, why would they jeopardize the future of their own brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Who is this ‘he’ you are referring to?
A. I mean Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. But he had challenged and said he never did that. In order to build another bumper, if the JHU were to pull their leg in the last scene, which they did now, then these people (BBS) would go into the Buddhist areas and get the vote.
There was a principle followed by R. Premadasa when I was with him. They told Premadasa, don’t go to these shanty areas, these people are criminals and they are bad. He said in reply, it is not our job to see who is a murderer and who is not, I only want his vote, he can be hanged the following day. So leave it to me, he said he would even go the lowest rungs of the community and get their vote, he did not care what job they did.
This is the point I want to drive home. Mahinda Rajapaksa, after the nomination day’s show of strength and loyalty and admiration showered by him on the people at the election office, will win. Then, if he wins with the Buddhist, as we Muslims drag their feet, he will get more votes from the Buddhists. That would not be good for us if he comes back into power and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is going to be a very important member of a future government too. He has told a Memon Association which went and met him under Faizer Mustapha, “I did not promote them for anything like that but it so happened that if they vote for me, I can’t say no”.
Where will we get our demands fulfilled, we cannot run to Jayalalithaa or Modi? How will the Muslims get what they want? It is Rajapaksa who is going to help, so we must be more balanced.
I will tell you a story, when Sirimavo was Prime Minister, Badiuddeen Mahmoud was Education Minister and he felt at Cabinet meetings that the government was becoming chauvinistic. Taking over the trades of the Muslims and all and he saw the dangers faced by the Muslim community then.
He approached the All Ceylon Muslim League and told them of the danger. The Muslim League comprised UNPers and he told them, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket because if one is spoilt, all is gone”. Therefore, he asked them to balance it as Bandaranaike was coming to power and if the chauvinistic attitude were to continue, the Muslims would lose their rights. “I am a SLFPer and you are a UNPers, that is fine, but the future of Muslims has to be saved. Catch hold of Anura Bandaranaike as he is an upcoming man”, he told them. These are words of wisdom.
The following Sunday, one of them leaked that news to the papers; it was a betrayal of Badiuddeen Mahmoud. But somehow, Mahmoud brought in the socialist leaders like Dr. N. M. Perera, Peter Keuneman and balanced it all.
It is the same thing we must follow when we think of the future; if the BBS gets the votes for the President, we Muslims are going to be isolated.
What Badiuddeen Mahmoud did saved the three fourths of Muslims living in Sinhala areas; only one fourth live in the North and the East.
Another example I want to tell you is that is that when President Premadasa was facing an impeachment motion, M. H. M. Ashraff was not with him; he was criticizing him and when the motion was moved, Ashraff went to Premadasa and said, “Sir, I have a lot of problems with you but this is not the hour to show my feelings against you as this is the hour to safeguard the Executive Presidency and your government, as the executive presidency gives us protection’.
He understood that with the executive presidency, the man from Pt. Pedro to Dondra had to vote for him. Earlier with the Prime Minister, he was voted in by the man either in Dedigama, Mirigama, Kelaniya, Colombo South or Central. So he said, he will help Premadasa and got together with M. M. Zuhair, a good presidential counsel and offered legal advice on how to get out of the issue.
That must be borne in mind by the SLMC now, particularly by Rauff Hakeem. We have to protect the Executive Presidency as the Presidency will safeguard us in this country.
So would you say that you are against the abolishment of the Executive Presidency?
A. No I am not against it but it must come through Parliament.
You just said the Executive Presidency is good for the minorities?
A. Yes it is good
So then why would you stand to abolish it?
A. Because that is what everyone wants
Would you then compromise the minorities?
A. Well then we can put forward our arguments, get together and discuss it. We cannot discuss things with the TNA when they have hidden agendas. All opinions are represented in Parliament, all should come together and give a mandate.
The JVP is now saying don’t vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa, but they are not saying whom to vote for. Anura Kumara is playing with words. In Parliament, he keeps talking of family rule and corruption and how the President’s sons are driving Lamborghinis. I told him in Parliament, sons and young fellows who have the strength, do drive around in motor cars, it is not the fault of the President if you do not have sons.
. On the ground however, it seems that the President has lost the minority vote?
A. Not at all. The CWC stands as one body and has the vote of the Estate Tamil population. The President defeated the LTTE which harassed the Muslims and saved us. We need to be thankful to him.
Nevertheless during his reign the Muslims had to endure situations like the ‘Halal’ issue and ‘Aluthgama’?
A. That was the doing of the BBS. Even the BBS says, we are not against the Muslims but against these Tawheed people. The Tawheed also went an insulted the Buddha. If you are to arrest Gnanasara Thera, you also have arrest the Tawheed fellow. As a leader of the country, the President played it down by saying that Muslim countries were helping them. The President has also opened five new mosques in this country. He is a leader, not a fool and he won’t like to lose a single vote.
We must not ourselves get isolated or we will suffer after the next election.
Are you saying the Muslims should compromise now so that the more chauvinistic forces in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government won’t get the upper hand next time?
A. Not in the government but there are forces. He told them, that he needs the international support of the Muslim countries and he is trying to silence them.
Would you say the Muslims have to forget their rights and play safe?
A. No. I am not saying that, when the Aluthgama incidents happened, I said in Parliament that the BBS should be banned, it was my view.
And yet it was not banned?
A. Yes, because then we have to also take action against the Tawheed and other Muslim groups.
So why not ban all extremist groups regardless of religion?
A. You cannot do that. That would create all kinds of other problems. Balancing of power is one of the most tactful things adopted by the leaders. The President has tamed the BBS and now they say they are not against the Muslims.
But was it not the President who brought them in the first place?
A. As I told you earlier, they came to help with the JHU problem and the President simply said go ahead. But now the President has assured the Muslim community that he would ensure their safety.
Do you think the Muslims in this country would vote for the President?
A. Definitely, that is very much evident now. When the Tamils are voting for him and other communities too are voting for him, we cannot falter and face the consequences.