Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Chairman and Deputy Minister of Cooperatives and Internal Trade, Basheer Segudawood told the Sunday Observer in an interview that their party considers the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) comprising members of all political parties represented in the parliament as the right forum to evolve a solution to the Tamils’ grievances and they are continuing to persuade the (TNA) to join the talks.
The SLMC wants to contest the upcoming Eastern PC polls in alliance with the Government and anticipates the government’s recognition of its political standing, he said. Their party and the entire Muslim community have their reservations over the Government’s decision to establish the Embassy of Israel in Colombo and hoped that the government would respect the sentiments of the Muslim community on the matter, he said.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: The Government has decided to dissolve the Eastern PC and hold polls. Being government’s ally, do you welcome this decision?
A: Although the SLMC’s official stand is that dissolution of the Council before the end of its full term would be detrimental to the power devolution process, we are obliged to endorse President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision because he would only have taken such a decision in the best interests of the country, considering the current political situation as well as the international political trends.
Q: Your party had expressed the desire that party leader Minister Rauff Hakeem should be nominated named as the UPFA’s Chief Minister candidate. But the government has announced that no chief minister candidate will be nominated until the polls are over. What is your party position on this ?
A: I read Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s announcement to this effect appearing in a Tamil language daily. Our party high command is of the view that setting off two minority communities to run a ‘horse-race’ to decide who should be the Chief Minister is not a desirable precedent at the polls. The SLMC has political standing among the Tamil-speaking community of the country. The SLMC is the biggest UPFA ally with eight parliamentarians. We have eight parliamentarians in all. In the East we are on an equal footing with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the biggest political party of the Tamils, which also has five parliamentarians representing the province. The SLFP coalition also has five parliamentarians in the East. The All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) has three parliamentarians while the National Congress (NC) has one. So, naturally the party anticipates recognition of its political standing and, I believe, there is nothing wrong in anticipating recognition.
Q: Are you content over what you have been able to achieve towards the welfare of your community as UPFA ally?
A: It is only one year since we joined the UPFA and it is difficult to list out what we have achieved. But I can tell you that we contributed substantially for the socio-economic welfare of our people much more than what we have been able to do while in the alliance of the UNP.
Q: Your party Secretary General Nizam Kariappar recently made a media statement that party leader Minister Rauff Hakeem cannot be permitted to be nominated as Chief Minister candidate. . Does it imply contentions within the party?
A: The party High Command (HC) did not consider it as a serious issue because it was a sentiment expressed with some personal ambitions. Minister Hakeem is leader of the party throughout the country and I do not think it is right for any individual office bearer to tell what he should do .
Q: Has your support base increased in the East since the last PC polls?
A: Our past experience in contesting polls in alliance with either of the two major national political parties is that they had benefited and we had benefited as well. We have consistently voiced for the grievances of all Tamil-speaking people and all oppressed people. Some voters among the majority community in the Ampara constituency had voted for us and a considerable number of Tamil voters in Batticaloa had also voted for us. Our vote base certainly should have increased and, I hope, this will be proved in the upcoming PC polls.
Q: Is your party HC in favour of contesting the PC polls independently on your own party symbol?
A: The SLMC very much wants to contest the polls as a government ally and looks forward to the recognition of its political standing. But the party has other options as well. Contesting independently on our own symbol or contesting in alliance with other political parties of the minorities are some of the options.
Q: Your party had supported the demands of the TNA on many crucial issues. Will you rule out possibilities of contesting the polls in alliance with the TNA?
A: The first option of the SLMC is contesting in alliance with the Government. But if the government does not give the due recognition to the political standing of the SLMC and we are forced to take recourse to other options, an polls alliance with the TNA would also be one of the options.
Q: Do you consider the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) as the right forum for taking up the Tamils’ issue and working out a solution?
A: The unwavering stand of the SLMC from the inception has been that dialogue is the only way out for resolving the long-unresolved Tamils’ grievances. Certainly the PSC should be right forum to thrash out and evolve a solution because it consists of all political parties represented in the parliament. Our bitter experience of the past is that if the party in rule offered a solution, either the opposition opposed it or some of the constituents of ruling party opposed it. Post-independent history bears witness to the fact that this has been the case since the Banda-Chelva Agreement. So it was not possible to implement any solution that was reached PSC, on the other hand, consists of all political parties represented in the parliament and a similar situation as in the past will not arise.
An SLMC delegation led by our leader met the Indian Parliamentary Delegation, led by their opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, during its Sri Lankan visit last month. Ms Swaraj requested us to persuade the TNA to join the PSC talks since we are also for power devolution in line with the TNA. So we undertook that endeavour.
I would say that the Government -TNA talks so far have not been successful but the talks have not failed . We are persuading the TNA to join the PSC talks and keep telling them that ‘ the alternative to talks is ‘ another talks’ and nothing else. The SLMC plays the role as a bridge between the leaders of the two communities.
Q: What steps as your party taken to resettle the Muslim refugees from the North?
A: After the defeat of the LTTE, we had held a series of discussions with the Government leadership and the Ministries concerned, including the Ministry of Resettlement, on arrangements to move the desiring families back to their former places. We also held discussions with the representatives of the people , with the various organisations and NGOs involved in their welfare activities and with civil administrative authorities in the Northern province. We have repeatedly visited the people themselves to arrange whatever assistance they needed. A considerable number of them have already resettled in their former places through arrangements made by the SLMC and more people will be moving in the future. Infrastructure facilities need to be provided in many of their former places of domicile and we have brought this to the notice of the government.
Q: The Democratic Unity Alliance (DUA) recently joined the SLMC. Are there possibilities that all political parties representing the Muslim community will unite under the leadership of the SLMC for a common cause of the community?
A: Our doors are open for any party to join us, not necessarily Muslim parties only. We are very cautious that the slogan ‘Muslim Alliance’ should not lead to polarization of communities in the country. We voice for the oppressed people anywhere and we welcome any parties to join hands with us.
Q: Your party expressed reservations over the move to establish an Israeli Embassy in Colombo. What is your response to the Government’s stand that the embassy is explicitly for promoting bilateral trade although the government continues to remain steadfast in its stand for the cause of the Palestinian people?
A: Not only the stand of the SLMC but that of the entire Muslim community of Sri Lanka has not changed since 1985 when the then President J.R. Jayewardene took a decision to establish an Israeli embassy. The Muslims in the UNP opposed it and JR told them to ‘get out if they disliked the decision’. This is history. The entire Muslim community consider Israel as the representing Zionism and, as such, a common enemy. They expect the Government not to recognise Israel. I believe our President will take it into consideration. He was President of the Palestine – Sri Lanka Friendship Association and he supported the Palestinian people’s struggle. We anticipate the government to respect the sentiments of the Muslim community much more than any trade benefits.
Q: What are your views on the recent statement of some political leaders in Tamil Nadu, including the leader of the opposition DMK, campaigning for ‘Thamil Eelam’ in Sri Lanka ?
A: DMK leader Karunanidhi’s credibility among the Sri Lankan Tamils is similar to the metaphorical hunger strike that begins after breakfast and ends before lunch. His statements are only ‘ seasonal’. In the late seventies and early eighties, the ‘Tamil Eelam’ slogan took root in Tamil Nadu. After more than thirty long years everyone has realised what ultimately has been the bitter outcome of that rhetoric. An entire society has been led in a blind and wrong
path under promises of unrealistic goals. The Tamil Nadu political leaders are using the much languished Sri Lankan Tamils as pawns for their political popularity. I do not think they can any longer hoodwink the Tamils of this country with such foolish utterances.