Where is SLMC heading for?
By Nilika Kasturisinghe
The premier Muslim party is split down the middle with a big question mark hanging over its leadership as well as it political future.

As the dispute went to courts last week, the leaders of the two factions staked a strong claim to the party that made its presence known in the political landscape of this country in the mid 1980s in the backdrop of the ethnic conflict in the North and East.

S. Subairdeen, head of a group that rebelled against the leadership of Minister Rauff Hakeem, claimed in three consecutive media conferences held at a five-star hotel that his leadership was legally valid. The rebel group was shut out of party headquarters Darussalam, which literally means 'house of peace', after an attempt by both the groups to take control of it while Mr. Hakeem was in Oslo for a crucial round of the peace talks between the government and the LTTE.

Sensing trouble that a section led by Party Chairman and Minister A. L. M. Athaullah, a party strongman from the East, Mr. Hakeem sent letters from Oslo suspending his membership along with that of General Secretary M. Hafrath. On Saturday, November 30, Mr. Hakeem, just before he left for Oslo, told The Sunday Times there were factions trying to create trouble within the party for their own ends.

The faction led by Mr. Athaullah and Dr. Hafrath then held what it described as the real high command meeting and elected Mr. Subairdeen as the new leader of the party, which was founded by M. H. M. Ashraff and which derives its strength largely from Muslims in the east.

The group also moved the District Court, obtaining a restraining order that prevented Mr. Hakeem from acting as the party leader.

Mr. Hakeem in a counter-petition succeeded in quashing the restraining order. In the wake of the latest court decision, Mr. Subairdeen told The Sunday Times they were studying the legal implications of the order, while not ruling out the possibility of amicably settling the dispute.

The crisis in the party prompted Mr. Hakeem to abandon the Oslo talks and fly back to Sri Lanka.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Hakeem loyalists gathered outside the airport and accorded him a hero's welcome. They escorted him to the party headquarters at Vauxhall Street in Colombo where a tough and confident Mr. Hakeem addressed a packed news conference, vowing to cleanse the party of troublemakers and accused the Athaullah faction of working against the interest of the Muslim community at a crucial juncture of the peace process.

The Athaullah-Subairdeen-Hafrath faction, meanwhile, claims that they had the backing of more than half the High Command members.

Besides, Mr. Athaullah and Mr. Hafrath, a national list MP, this group is also backed by four heavy weight SLMC parliamentarians - Deputy Minister Mohideen Abdul Cader and Deputy Minister Noordeen Mashoor, M.B.A. Aziz, and Senior Deputy Leader Dr. Udduman Lebbe.

Among other heavyweights who supported this group are Shipping Corporation Chairman A. J. M. Muzammil and Mashoor Mowlana who had made a complaint to the Police that Hakeem-faction supporters tried to kidnap him and got him to sign on blank sheets under threat.

The seven SLMC parliamentarians on Mr. Hakeem's side of the divide include Basheer Segu Dawood, Rishard Badiudeen, M.S.Thowfeek, Dr. T. Thowfeek, Anwer Ismail, and Harris.

At a media conference at the Galadari Hotel on Wednesday, Dr. Hafrath rebuffed charges that they were trying to torpedo the peace process and destabilise the government. He also vowed to continue their support for the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Similar sentiments were expressed by Mr. Athaullah when he attended parliament this week.

"The position regarding our part in the government as well as the peace process remains unchanged, though we maintain our independence."

Dr. Hafrath said they had requested both the President and the Prime Minister to withdraw the portfolio given to Mr. Hakeem, whom they claimed was no longer an SLMC member.

Troubles for Minister Hakeem began in October with seven MPs led by Mr. Athaullah staging a parliamentary boycott campaign, demanding a written assurance from the Prime Minister that a separate regional administrative unit would be created in the Muslim dominated areas in the Eastern Province when a final solution to the ethnic conflict was reached. The boycott was called off only after the Premier gave this assurance.

Athaullah wants his man in peace team
Minister A. L. M. Athaullah, the man who is spearheading the rebellion against the leadership of Rauff Hakeem, says they will demand a new Muslim representative be included in the government delegation at the next round of the peace talks. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you decide to challenge the leadership of Mr. Hakeem?

The Muslims no longer trust Mr. Hakeem. Their trust had been broken. Minister Hakeem was acting arbitrarily without consulting the high command. I along with the party general secretary and other high command members advised him on several occasions but he did not heed our advice. It was then that nine members of the high command signed and presented 36 charges against him. So we have to act on it.

Has the crisis in the SLMC affected the peace talks?

The peace talks must continue. Peace must come to this country. But we believe in a peace where aspirations of all communities will be met.

We do not know what Minister Hakeem has been discussing at the negotiating table. He has never discussed the agenda of the peace talks with the high command.

Therefore, we plan to request from the Prime Minister that a representative from us be allowed to take part at the next session of the peace talks.

How many SLMC supporters are with you?

Eleven of the High Command members are with us. More than 95 percent of the Muslims in the country are backing us. Those who hang around Mr. Hakeem are cronies who expect jobs and other benefits from him because he holds a powerful portfolio.

In the light of the present crisis, how do you see the future of the party?
Nothing will happen to the party. We have only removed Mr. Hakeem from the post of party leader.

What are your plans?
We plan to take forward the views and aspirations of the Muslim people of the North and East.

Does the PA support you?
No. We are still in the UNF government. However, we will talk to all party leaders to introduce our new leader.

Hakeem, Athaullah vie for people's support
By Nilika Kasturisinghe
The Hakeem -Athaullah factions fighting to gain supremacy in the Muslim Congress are both building up their campaigns in the East, while Rauff Hakeem spent the Eid Festival in Muttur, A.L.M. Athaullah scheduled a meeting in Ninthavur last evening.

More meetings are being lined up in various parts of the East to stake a claim to the peoples support.

On Festival day in Pottuvil and Marathamuni public meetings were held to show solidarity with Hakeem.

The main slogan being chanted by the Athaullah camp is that Mr. Hakeem is not championing the people's cause. Similarly Mr. Hakeem on Tuesday claimed that the conspirators could not win the support of the people.

Meanwhile as the court battle continued dissident frontliner Noordeen Mashoor said they would decide tomorrow whether to go to courts again. The dissidents had got an enjoining order from the Colombo District Court last Monday but on Friday Mr. Hakeem got the enjoining order withdrawn.

Meanwhile, National Unity Alliance parliamentarian Segu Issadeen whose party had split from the SLMC called on the SLMC to unite for the sake of the Muslim community without waiting for court decisions which would take a long time.

People are with me says Hakeem
Rauff Hakeem who regained his right to function as leader of the Muslim Congress by a District Court ruling on Thursday, celebrated the Eid-ul-Fitr festival in Muttur in an apparent bid to consolidate his position in the Eastern Province.

While a faction that rebelled against his leadership accused him of flouting the high command and its decisions, Mr. Hakeem addressing parliament on Thursday described the rebels' action as a stab in the back. On Tuesday morning, soon after rushing back from Oslo, Mr. Hakeem who told a news conference that he saw there was no foundation for this rebellion other than opportunism.

"Some of them want to have emotional roller coasters. I am challenging the so-called new leadership to come on to the roads and test their support base," Mr. Hakeem said claiming that the "self-appointed' new leaders lacked the people's support.

Mr. Hakeem was also confident that his position as leader remained unchanged as he had informed the key players in the coup, A.L.M. Athaullah and A.L.M. Hafrath, that their membership had been suspended even before the rebel high command meeting on Sunday evening.

"Though the rebels claim they received no letters, the Election's Commissioner has received my letter announcing the suspension of the rebels. That was enough for us. We cannot discount the fact that there are forces at work to create instability all over the country," he said.

STF called in
The STF deployed more than a platoon to strengthen security in Ninthavur where dissident leader A.L.M. Athaullah, was scheduled to hold a meeting last evening, DIG STF Eastern Province said.

STF Chief Nimal Gunathilake said the Police had requested STF troops be deployed.
Meanwhile, SLMC sources told The Sunday Times that shops had been closed in Ninthavur as people were fearful of what might happen.

Announcements had also been made over the public address system by mosques advising people to stay indoors due to the security risk.

It was also reported that one vehicle belonging to the Athaullah faction and giving publicity to the meeting had been attacked by rivals.

Demerge North-East and then devolve power
Guest Column by Prof. M.L.A. Cader
The course of the present peace process and the Government's willingness to devolve power have raised concern among the Muslim community. Muslims in the East, especially those in the Southeast, are demanding that in the event of power devolution, there should be a separate unit for them.

The concept of a Southeast unit arose out of the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. In the initial stages, SLMC founder leader M. H. M. Ashraff opposed the merger, because he believed that it would reduce the Muslim presence to a mere 17 percent of the merged province whereas in the Eastern Province they would constitute 33 percent. But when the issue became a condition on which the LTTE could be lured into the peace process during the Jayewardene regime, only a few objected. Then, the Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed and the Northern and Eastern provinces were merged temporarily pending a referendum within a year. However, for some reasons, the referendum was never held.

Ever since, the two provinces remained merged, albeit temporarily. If the North and the East is merged permanently under a political deal, people in the two provinces would be considered a part of Eelam.

The agitation by Muslims today is that their rights must also be recognised. As much as the Tamils have been living in the North and the East for centuries, the Muslims have also been living there for centuries. Therefore, their right to life and property must be recognised. They question the government as to what arrangement will be made to protect the Muslims.

In the earlier stages, a proposal was made to bring all Muslim majority areas in the East under one unit. However, due to practical reasons, it was abandoned and the focus then fell on the Southeast unit.

This question of Southeast unit was not essentially a Muslim demand. It came as a response to the North-East merger. The Muslim position is therefore, if the government wants to devolve power, the two provinces should be demerged. In such an event, the question of the South East unit would not arise. Neither would it pave the way for another round of conflict. Stable peace could arise only when this situation is taken into consideration - no merger, no South East unit. But if the government in a secret move tries to accommodate the aspirations of one community at the cost of another community, it will not herald a lasting peace. That will only create another round of conflict. Who knows, it may even lead to a situation where the Muslims will be compelled to take up arms to protect their rights.

If we want to create permanent peace, we should go back to the original concept - demerge the two provinces and devolve power.

And if the government wants to have a compromise arrangement, it could merge sections of the North with sections of the East into a new province and then devolve power.

There are so many other arrangements one can think of, but these two entities must be separate, and that will solve all the problems. The moment you merge, not only the Muslims, even the Sinhalese will be reduced to a smaller percentage.

The merger was definitely a temporary arrangement. And the merger was given on the condition that the LTTE will lay down arms and go for the peace process. But today, the LTTE has both the arms and a merged province.

So the Muslims are feeling fearful. Therefore, the Government has to come out and declare its plan to protect the Muslims.

Under the Soulbury constitution, there were provisions to protect the minority rights and interest. For instance Section 39 (II) was introduced; minority representation was ensured in nominating members and electing senators; there were an Independent Public Service Commission and the Judicial Commission. Section 39 (II) prevented the legislature from bringing in any laws that would discriminate against the minorities.

The 1972 Constitution set everything aside. They made Parliament the supreme body and made everything else subservient to it. Prabhakaran said the 1972 Constitution was the foundation on which this whole process was built. Similarly, if the North and East are merged, and power is to be devolved in one authority there, such a scenario will be the foundation on which others will build their struggle.

The Muslims in the North East will definitely co-exist with the Tamils, because they speak the same language, understand each other's culture, and they work together in farming and fishing. They depend on each other. Remove politics, they are one integrated community. Bring in politics they are divided. So someone, introduced politics and divided them as was seen in elections in 1956, 1960 and 1970s. With the objective of creating Eelam, seeds of discord were sowed to separate the two communities.

We can give a look of peace and people may feel everything is fine. But unless the real peace is achieved, which can be arrived at only if the aspirations of all communities are met, the appearance of peace could result only in the next round of conflict.

The peace process is moving, but it is more or less appeasing the Tamils while Muslim interests are neglected. The government appears to be trying to win the Tamils over so much so that it does not want to talk about the Muslims now.

It appears that even Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem doesn't want to present the case of the Muslims strongly, because he wants to allow the peace process a chance. But in politics what is important is interest. Unless you articulate your interest at all stages, your interest may be lost. It is important for the government to bring peace, but not at the expense of another group of people. It is up to the Government to say something or do something to calm Muslims. They must carry these people in their arm when they negotiate with the other group. The Government must give an assurance to the Muslims, saying 'don't worry we are taking care of you'. However, this is not coming forth. That's the fear. That's the conflict between the SLMC and the MPs.

So the fear among the Muslim community is that sometimes, you may make this community a scapegoat and go for a settlement with the LTTE.

Cleared and uncleared areas are almost non-existent now. The LTTE members need not carry weapons. The very identity of an even unarmed LTTE member instill fear in the hearts of the people.

Even the LTTE hasn't announced anything clearly. Prabhakaran's Heroes' Day speech gave no assurance that would allay Muslim fears.

The Muslims fear when power is given to one authority, suppression will soon follow. Fertile land can be taken over. There could be discriminatory policies with regard to education and employment.

The Muslims were suppressed by the Portuguese. When the Dutch came in, it was the same thing. So with all this articulation, the least we can go about is let us devolve power. That's a very fine thing - to two basic units - the North and the East. Then that question of Muslims demanding a unit or Tamils demanding a unit - as the JVP says - will not arise.

The writer is the Vice Chancellor of Eastern University.

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