24th June 2001
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'Protecting Muslims my priority'

  • Ferial: SLMC was everything to me, but I'm nobody in it
  • Hisbullah walks a tightrope
  • Ferial gets step down call in the East
  • Interviews by Nilika de Silva
    The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem who was unceremoniously sacked from the Cabinet by President Chandrika Kumaratunga this week said it all happened due to a rumour. Mr. Hakeem in an interview with The Sunday Times said he would not make a move right now. He claimed that the People's Alliance government was in the habit of making promises and taking a swipe at others when they failed to deliver the goods.The former minister appeared to be in no mood to accommodate M. L. A. M. Hisbullah although he was willing to make Ferial Ashraff the party chairperson. Excerpts:

    Q: Can you explain the events that led up to your removal from the Cabinet since you met the President last week?

    A: My meeting with the President was to share some of my thoughts with her about the state of affairs as far as the national politics and the role of the SLMC are concerned. And I very categorically told her that there was some ill feeling within our ranks. There are some government-instigated moves to divide our party and statements made by S. B. Dissanayake have exacerbated that. They concede certain things at the start but subsequently they find they cannot fulfil them. When we remind them that they have to do certain things within a time frame, they take a swipe at you by saying they are extremist demands.

    Q: But your removal was not an immediate reaction. Isn't it?

    A: I have been told that the President believed in some rumours set afloat by the UNP. In any case, I was on the verge of resigning because things were getting a little difficult for me. 

    Q: Was there a meeting the night before at which you were given total authority either to go with the government or go with the opposition?

    A: No. I was given the authority to consider the options in the event we decide to go. Next morning I Rauf Hakeemfound myself stripped of all my portfolios. 

    Q: Do you deny signing a memorandum of understanding with the UNP?

    A: I have not signed any agreement. 

    Q: Did you meet anybody? 

    A: I have been meeting them about the independent commissions. I don't think anybody would be happy to face an election without these commissions. 

    Q: What will be your future strategy? 

    A: I would concentrate on the commissions because they are needed for good governance. Then only we can talk of changing the constitution. The idea that finding a solution to the ethnic problem is the most important issue has been sold to minority parties. Meanwhile, they subvert the democratic process by forming a government which does not have a proper mandate. We should not allow this to continue. 

    Q: Have you violated the collective responsibility of the Cabinet?

    A: I would never accept that I have violated the collective responsibility by pointing out the misdeeds of certain ministers like Mahipala Herath. Otherwise I would not be a credible leader of a party or a community. I need to be seen to be vocal at times when my community feels that its security is at stake. I feel very relieved that I am no longer a part of this Cabinet.

    Q: Were you removed because you were making too many demands?

    A: No. I did not insist on the other demands because it was obvious that they have all put them on the back burner. I was keen not to be seen as pushing a demand when the PA felt uncomfortable in giving it to us. 

    For instance, the equal opportunity bill too has suffered the same fate. Originally they think it is a noble idea and agree to it. 

    When they bring legislation to Parliament, some other extremist group takes to the streets and demonstrates against it. Then the government does not have the courage to go ahead with the legislation. Without apologising for their failure they call for a discussion and explain that it cannot be done. They instigate extremists elements within their own ranks and start attacking us.

    Q: It is said that various groups are supporting Ms. Ashraff's group. How far has that affected you?

    A I think some people are giving Ms. Ashraff the impression that her survival depends on keeping my leadership under control. But they find it difficult to oust me because the party rank and file is backing me. But they can always harass me by bringing a few busloads of demonstrators and then demanding positions for Ms. Ashraff or Mr. Hisbullah. They come to my humble abode and disturb its peace. Once I jokingly said the demands that come by buses go by buses. I know where the sentiments of the people lie. Unless they toe the party line they will become unpopular. 

    Q: Have you dropped the allegations on the election malpractices?

    A: I did not press the charges knowing well that it would not produce any tangible results. The PA will say that they will initiate an inquiry. 

    Q: Have you decided to appoint Ferial Ashraff as general secretary and take Mr. Hisbullah into your fold? 

    A: No. I will not appoint her as the general secretary of the party. Those who are intimidating me and demanding these positions will never get them. They have to do it in a more civilised manner. 

    I have already offered Ms. Ashraff the chairmanship of the party provided she is willing to sign a pledge of loyalty. 

    All the other MPs except her have signed a pledge of loyalty to the SLMC leader. And I have told her that the party chairmanship is open for her. 

    Q: What about Mr. Hisbullah? 

    A: My late leader suspended Mr. Hisbullah from the party. So he cannot be considered immediately for a party position. I gave him a trial period. I told him that he should behave himself for about a year for me to consider his application. But before that time he tries to intimidate me

    Q: As the government still has a majority, what is your next move? 

    A: I will not make a move by myself. It is up to the government or the opposition to do something about it. 

    Q: In other words, are you willing to back the PA if it offers you a portfolio? 

    A: No. I am not going to accept a portfolio and back the PA. 

    Q: What will make you to back some party? 

    A: I have to be convinced that whatever arrangement I am getting into is towards ushering in lasting peace in this country. 

    Q: What do you think of the national list MPs?

    A: The government is trying to expel them on the basis that they have violated party discipline. But there is no such thing the PA discipline. The PA is not a political party. It is a coalition. Only the constituent parties within the PA can expel their members and inform the PA secretary that they have expelled some member. Thereafter the Elections Commissioner will take action to remove them.

    Q: With the no confidence motion and other proposed motions coming up in Parliament what do you plan to do? 

    A: I am keeping an open mind. Right now I'm not willing even to think of these motions. I want to see whether this interim period can be helpful in solving this impasse. This can result in some negotiations to put in place a broad coalition which can instill some stability to governance in this country. 

    Ferial: SLMC was everything to me, but I'm nobody in it

    Hours before the SLMC politburo issued an ultimatum to Ferial Ashraff to fall in line with the party decision, she told The Sunday Times in an interview that she would not be surprised if the party her husband found took disciplinary action against her for taking a decision in the interest of the country. She said that when she learnt there was no place for her in the SLMC, she decided to carve her own niche in the political landscape of Sri Lanka. Excerpts:

    Q: There seems to be some confusion with regard to your position in the SLMC/NUA. Could you clarify it?

    A: I stepped down as co-leader of the SLMC on February 5, after making an announcement at a party high command meeting. I told the members that I was handing over the leadership of the SLMC to Mr. Hakeem but I would remain as the leader of the NUA. I did so to salvage the party from a crisis. I also told them at that time that there was some problem in the constitution of the NUA and wanted it corrected. It was not a condition but an observation. I said if this constitutional problem was not rectified, one day some one could say that I was not even the leader of the NUA. The high command members then asked me to trust them, saying they would never let me down. So I trusted them.

    Q: How do you assess events in the party after you stepped down from the SLMC co-leadership?

    A: Five months have elapsed since I stepped down, but nothing has been offered to me in the SLMC. They have not done anything regarding the constitution problem I referred to. I decided to speak to the media after a long silence because, I have no place in the SLMC. It is merely because I am a woman. So I'll carve my own niche and start working. 

    Q: The SLMC/NUA took a decision to quit the government. But you and three MPs decided to back the government, though you have tendered your resignation from the ministership. How do you justify the stand you have taken?

    A: It is just that I feel that this is not the time to topple the government. We've had enough problems in this country. 

    Amidst such problems, we don't need any elections so early. Besides, I believe that President Kumaratunga is committed to peace. So I'm with her.

    Q: There were demonstrations in the east, protesting against your decision to back the government. Are you under some kind of pressure?

    A: I'm not surprised with such moves. The SLMC leadership is endowed with great powers. I never asked for the leadership. If I had been holding any position in the party, I wouldn't have been telling these things in an interview. I would have come under the disciplinary control of the party.

    But I'm not there and of course they have to tell the world why I'm not there. So I'm not surprised that protests took place or that they were demanding disciplinary action against me.

    Q: How do you see the sacking of Mr. Hakeem from the cabinet?

    A: That was quite unfortunate. The party is everything to me. I felt the party leadership had been insulted. 

    But the party very party which I defended does not want me in. So I'm wondering what I'm doing having quit my portfolio.

    Q: The Constitution says when you give the letter of resignation, you have resigned. But the President says she has not accepted it. What is the position with regard to your resignation?

    A: It is just that the President has not accepted it. But if she had accepted it in the first place,things may have been different. But now I'm seriously wondering, if I am nobody in the party, and if the party can do very well without me, what have I done, having gone and resigned for Hakeem, for the party. I mean not him personally, but for the leadership. When I think of the SLMC leadership, it reminds me of Ashraff. When the party leader was insulted, I felt Ashraff was insulted. 

    It was not a matter of the Minister handing over the resignation to the President and the President accepting it. Maybe she thought that she could persuade me because we have a good friendship.

    Q: You met the President on Friday. Is she offering you anything?

    A: There was no deal. I went there to discuss with her about my resignation. She told me she could not accept it and asked me to change my decision.

    Hisbullah walks a tightrope

    M. L. A. M. Hisbullah who crossed swords with SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem says he never aspired to be the party leader.

    In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr. Hisbullah denied organising the SLMC supporters to protest in front of Mr. Hakeem's residence last week.


    Q: Does Rauf Hakeem hold you responsible for the demonstration outside his residence? He sometimes says you brought the demonstrators. 

    A: No. I am not responsible for it. They are his supporters. We knew that they were coming. We did not plan this. They came on their own. 

    Q: Did those who came from Batticaloa ask for a prior appointment to meet Mr. Hakeem?

    A: No, they didn't. They came there to meet Mr. Hakeem as there was a politburo meeting. 

    Q: Do you have proof to say that Mr. Hakeem was going to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the UNP?

    A: We heard that they had discussed about it. We came to know that the details were similar to the '94 election pact. In the Ampara district only Sri Lanka Muslim Congress members can contest on the UNP list. In Kandy no Muslims can contest on the UNP list. Mr. Hakeem is the only Muslim candidate. Cader Hajiar will be accommodated in the national list. We hear that the understanding is between Mr. Hakeem and Ranil Wickremesinghe. They had been discussing it at the Hilton Jaic Tower for three days. 

    Q: What will be the NUA strategy now?

    A: We have one problem regarding the NUA. Mr. Hakeem did not invite Ms. Ashraff and me for the party high command and the politburo meetings. Pradeshiya Sabha chairmen, vice chairmen, members and ordinary people and active members of the SLMC came to meet the leader. But he did not make his appearance.

    Q: Were you persuaded to remain in the PA? 

    A: No. The President did not accept Ms. Ashraff's resignation. 

    Q: Were you there when Ms. Ashraff met the President?

    A: Yes.

    Q: Did the UNP approach you or your party at any time?

    A: There were indications that they wanted to meet us.

    Q: If there is fresh elections which party will you support?

    A: Mr. Hakeem will have to decide that. We have requested him to accommodate us in the party. However, there is still no response. 

    Q: Did Ms. Ashraff write a letter to the Elections Commissioner about the party leadership? 

    A: I think so. Mr. Hakeem has agreed that Ms. Ashraff is the leader of the NUA. During the election time Mr. Hakeem, as the general secretary of the NUA, informed the Elections Commissioner that she is the leader of the party and issued a media statement. 

    Q: With the no confidence motion coming up in Parliament how wills the NUA vote?

    A: For the time being we are with the government. 

    Q: There are allegations that you have violated the SLMC policies. Any comments?

    A: No. I have not violated any SLMC policies. 

    Q: Do you think you are a threat to his leadership?

    A: May be. But I have no wish to be the party leader. 

    Ferial gets step down call in the East

    By Chris Kamalendran
    Supporters of former Minister Rauf Hakeem on Friday demonstrated in the eastern province demanding Ms. Ferial Ashraff and three other parliamentarians to sever their connections with the government.

    After the Jumma prayers on Friday protesters in Kalmunai, Sainthamaruthu, Ninthavur, Addalachchenai and Marthamunai carried placards chanting slogans calling Ms. Ashraff to fall in line with the party policies and give up ties with the People's Alliance.

    Although Ms. Ashraff had handed in her resignation, the protesters said they were not convinced that she had resigned from the portfolio.

    The demonstrators also called for the resignation of U. L. M. Mohideen, Mahdur Guny and N. R. Dissanayake, the three parliamentarians representing the eastern province. They also burnt effigies of the three MPs.

    Demonstrators said their protests would continue until the four of them quit the government. In the event of their failure to resign, protesters said they would mount a Hartal campaign.

    No-faith linked to no peace –Tamil parties

    By Chris Kamalendran
    Three Tamil parties said yesterday that they were backing the UNP-initiated no confidence motion against the government solely because the Kumaratunga administration had failed to resolve the ethnic conflict. TULF Vice President V. Anandasangaree told The Sunday Times that his party along with the TELO and the ACTC had serious doubts about the government's sincerity in resolving the ethnic crisis and it was this perception that led them to sign the no-faith motion. 

    "Our aim is not to support the UNP, but to topple the government which has failed to resolve the ethnic conflict by peaceful means," he said .

    TELO leader Selvam Adaikalanathan said though they had signed the no-confidence motion, they were willing to withdraw their support for it, only if the government took tangible measures such as setting a date for peace talks. 

    ACTC President A. Vinayagamoorthy said the government had not taken any keen interest in resolving the hardships of the Tamil speaking people. Meanwhile EPDP leader Douglas Devananda said the party would not support the no confidence motion, but in the event of the formation of a UNP government his party would consider supporting it depending on the situation.

    Powerful backing for invisible child traffickers 

    By Faraza Farook
    Sri Lankan children are pushed into the worst forms of abuse through organised network of traffickers who even operate through the internet, but so far no case has been detected or tried in courts, a child rights activist has said. 

    Shyama Salgado, National Coordinator of the ILO sponsored International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour, told a news conference that the main cause for children being used in labour and sex trade was the authorities failure to crack down on the 'invisible trafficker.'

    Speaking on the similar vein, National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Harendra de Silva said the invisible trafficker would supply the commodity and disappear, but it was the abuser who suffered.

    He said these traffickers escaped the long arm of the law, largely because their connections with the powerful people. 

    He said the invisibility of the trafficker intensified when he runs operations through the Internet. 

    He said traffickers took advantage of the poverty of rural families and the war situation to run their lucrative trade. 

    Meanwhile, a national policy and action plan to combat the trafficking of children for exploitative labour is being drawn up by the National Task Force comprising representatives from child welfare organisations, NGOs, the government, the private sectors and civil society. 

    People's distress service goes to Vavuniya

    By M. Ismeth
    Taking the government service to the people, the Northern Rehabilitation Ministry will hold the People's Distress Service at the Vavuniya Kachcheri next month. 

    The mobile People's Distress Service held in various parts of the Northern Province has solved more than 3,000 problems of various nature out of 9000 cases presented by people, Northern Rehabilitation Minister Douglas Devananda said. He said that about 2600 National Identity cards had also been issued at the mobile services.

    When the service was held in Jaffna, the Immigration and Emigration office issued 1000 passports.

    According to Immigration and Emigration Controller, N. Bambarawanage, more than 600 applicants from Vavuniya had applied for passports which would be issued during the mobile service.

    Meanwhile, Mr. Devananda had requested Fisheries Minister Mahinda Rajapakse to issue 2500 first aid boxes to fishermen in the north.

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