by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) which has the power to determine which political formation could form a viable administration in the Eastern Provincial Council is yet to arrive at a decision formally.
However informed sources revealed that unofficial discussions are currently on between the party and Government circles and that the SLMC is very likely to support the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)in setting up the Eastern province administration and will be an integral part of the new dispensation.
Prominent cabinet ministers like Minister of Youth affairs and skills development Dullas Alahapperuma,Minister of Health cabinet ministers Maithripala Sirisena and Petroleum Industries minister Susil Premajayantha have already stated that the SLMC being a constituent party of the Govt will jointly form an administration in the Eastern Province together with the UPFA but the Muslim Congress is yet to confirm that and remains officially undecided on the issue so far.
With the UPFA and its ally the National Freedom Front (NFF) garnering fifteen seats on the one hand and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) contesting on the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)symbol along with the United National party (UNP) acquiring fifteen seats on the other, the SLMC with seven seats in the thirty – seven member council is regarded as the “king –maker” with power to make or unmake the required majority.
While the UPFA led Govt has already gone on record that the SLMC will be partners in forming the new administration the TNA also entertains hopes that the Muslim Congress would throw in its lot with the opposition and forge an alternative administration in association with the Tamil party and the UNP. The TNA has offered the chief ministership of the council and a ministerial portfolio to the SLMC if it joins hands with it.
The SLMC hierarchy has engaged politely with both sides and stated that the party would arrive at a decision after inner –party consultations.
Nominally there are three choices before the SLMC.One is to remain with the Govt and help the UPFA form the Eastern administration.Two is to support the TNA and UNP and participate in an alternative administration. Three is to refrain from joining the UPFA but support it from outside to provide a stable majority and influence its decisions through the threat of voting against it.
Accordingly some members of the SLMC upper echelons met for discussions on these issues at a Colombo hotel on Tuesday September 11th and thrashed out issues in a cordial manner. All eight SLMC parliamentarians including its leader Rauf Hakeem, chairman Basheer Segu Dawood and Secretary –General MT Hassen Ali were present at the conclave.Also present were the seven newly elected Eastern Province SLMC councilors and Kalmunai deputy – mayor Nizam Kariapper who is the SLMC deputy secretary –general.
In an unexpected move six Ulamas or Islamic religious dignitaries associated with the SLMC also participated in the discussions.This included the head of the Muslim majority Amparai district head of the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU)which is the supreme council of Islamic theologians in Sri Lanka.
The reason for the presence of these particular Ulama theologians at the special meeting was because all prior to elections the SLMC candidates had pledged on the Holy Koran in the presence of these Ulamas that they would not forsake the party and cross over to Govt ranks after being elected. It was felt therefore that the Ulamas should be present at the special meeting aimed at chartering the SLMC’s future course.
The SLMC discussions commenced at 1.30 pm and reportedly went on till late into the night. The special meeting discussions will continue on Wednesday September 12th in Colombo as no decision was finalized on Tuesday.
It is learnt that an official decision is not likely to be finalized by the SLMC even on Wednesday. Senior leaders of the party will leave for the Eastern province and conduct party branch meetings in the districts of Amparai,Batticaloa and Trincomalee on Thursday September 13th and Friday September 14th . Office bearers and prominent activists known as “poraligal” of the party would be consulted on the course of action to be adopted by the Muslim Congress regarding the Eastern province administration.
Thereafter the “Uyar Peedam”(high command) of the party known as the Supreme Council would meet at the party headquarters “Darussalam” over the week-end and arrive at a final and conclusive decision. The 85 member Supreme council is the highest decision making body of the Muslim Congress. It is said that the majority of members in the Supreme council are loyal to the “Thalaiver” Rauf Hakeem and would abide by whatever decision taken by him after articulating their views stridently.
Even as the Muslim congress goes through the motions of intense inner –party consultations seeking to project the impression that an intra-party decision making process is underway with grassroots participation, informed sources revealed that the SLMC hierarchy has already decided not to unhitch its wagon from the UPFA star.
Although the party remains “officially” undecided the leadership has already decided to remain with the Govt and help the UPFA form the Eastern administration in partnership with the SLMC.
SLMC leader and Justice minister Rauf Hakeem had met President Rajapaksa privately after the Govt party leaders meeting at “Temple Trees” and assured him of continuous support. Likewise party “Thavisalar”(chairman) and Batticaloa district MP Basheer Segu Dawood has also had unofficial talks with Govt members where he has assured SLMC support and participation for the UPFA.
The deputy leader of the SLMC Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed with a “wheeler dealer” reputation who was freshly elected to the Eastern Provincial council from the Batticaloa district has already commenced discussions with senior members of the Govt including minister Premajayantha.
Naseer Ahamed has also told the Tamil media that the SLMC would take a decision keeping in mind the overall interests of the Muslim people on an Island wide basis and not merely on the basis of the Eastern province Muslims alone. The inference from this is that the SLMC will be with the UPFA and not join the TNA –UNP or remain non – aligned.
Nazeer Ahamed who returned to SLMC folds early this year like the biblical prodigal son is regarded as highly influential within the party on account of his financial clout and manifest closeness to party leader Hakeem. Naseer Ahamed who hails from Eravur in Batticaloa district is strongly tipped to be the Eastern province chief minister if and when the SLMC gets an opportunity in this respect.
The current unofficial discussions between Govt and SLMC leaders is over a number of vital matters it is learnt.
Since the Govt is committed to appoint Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias “Pillaiyan” as the Eastern chief minister for the second time for a specific period of at least one year SLMC leaders like Hakeem and Segu Dawood are not insisting on that post for the Muslim Congress as of now. They are willing to wait for a while and and accept the post on a rotational basis after some time. However they want an explicit guarantee that the first Muslim chief minister of the East should be from the SLMC whenever feasible.
Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed however is very keen that the SLMC demand the chief minister post now itself as he wants to to don the mantle without delay. Given his influence with the SLMC hierarchy there is a strong possibility that the party may insist upon the chief minister post as its due. If the SLMC does so the Govt is likely to break its promise to Pillaiyan and award the post to the Muslim Congress after satisfying the erstwhile Eastern chief minister with different types of compensation.
In the present situation forming the Eastern administration with a viable majority is of tremendous importance to President Rajapaksa. Since Pillaiyan is the solitary Tamil councillor and has no Tamil bloc to support him gaining SLMC support is politically necessary.
If it comes to a crunch Pillaiyan may be dispensed with as politically expendable.
In this scenario the SLMC will have two options. One is to get the chief minister post and no other minister post in the council. The other is to not get the Chief minister post but opt for two provincial minister posts or one provincial minister and one chairman or deputy chairman of council post.
Ministerial allocation within the Eastern provincial council is a dicey matter as there are many contenders. Two former provincial ministers have been re-elected.One is Uduma Lebbe from Amparai district who is a member of the National Congress led by cabinet minister Athaullah. The other is Zubair from Batticaloa district who is a member of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress led by cabinet minister Rishad Badiutheen.
Two former Parliamentarians who held deputy minister posts have also been elected. One is Najeeb Abdul Majeed of Kinniya elected in Trincomalee district from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP)The other is Ameer Ali from Ottamavaddy elected in Batticaloa district from the All Ceylon Muslim Congress.
Under these circumstances provincial ministerial allocations are a difficult area in which the SLMC is treading warily. The party therefore is making demands for a greater say at the national level.
The SLMC had a minister and deputy minister post earlier but Segu Dawood resigned his portfolio citing a conflict of interests as the SLMC was contesting separately against the Government. Now the Muslim Congress would like Segu Dawood to be re-appointed as a full fledged cabinet minister.It would also like two or three more deputy minister posts.Talks are focusing on this. Obtaining ministerial portfolios that could be utilized to improve the lot of Muslims in a better way is also a priority.
The SLMC is also asking for the re-demarcation of the Amparai district. It wants the electoral districts of Pottuvul,Sammanthurai and Kalmunai to be made into a new coastal district of Kalmunai.
Muslims are the majority in these three littoral divisions while Sinhalese are the majority in the Amparai hinterland
The SLMC is also asking for a greater allocation of funds and resources for development both at the Provincial and district level. It wants the Parliamentarians of the respective areas to have a greater say in devising and allocating funds under the decentralized budget.
Another issue under discussion is the “retirement” of current Eastern Province Governor Rear Admiral (retd) Mohan Wijeywickrama. The SLMC wants a Tamil or Muslim to be appointed as Eastern Governor depending on whether a Tamil or Muslim is made chief minister.
The SLMC is also demanding speedy resettlement and rehabilitation of Muslims displaced by the War. The bulk of these Muslim IDP’s were actually evicted from their historic habitat.
An important matter being discussed is that of guaranteeing the cultural and religious rights of Muslims living in all parts of the Island. The SLMC is concerned about attempts to deny Muslims in certain places the right to conduct worship in Mosques or observe religious fasts or engage in customary practices.
There is also an overall concern about the security of Muslims in the Island.
It is not known whether the SLMC will sign a comprehensive memorandum of agreement with the UPFA or be satisfied with explicit verbal guarantees from the Rajapaksa regime at the highest levels.
Although most issues are still being negotiated it is learnt that arriving at an understanding with mutual adjustments and compromises is very much on the cards. Since the decision to support the Govt has already been taken by the SLMC hierarchy these discussions too will have to reach a successful conclusion it is pointed out
When the SLMC supreme council meets after the optics of intensive inner party consultations the high command will most likely be presented with a fait accompli.Against that backdrop the unofficial Govt-SLMC discuusions aimed at an official agreement would only amount to a case of dotting the “I”s and crossing the “T”s.
Notwithstanding the covert moves of the SLMC hierarchy there is always the theoretical possibility of these decisions being negated or overturned by a massive show of protest by SLMC membership in the Eastern province.
Such a prospect however is rather remote because the bulk of Muslim Congress “poraligal” are not very keen on forming a joint administration with the TNA and UNP. While Eastern Muslims would like to live in amity with Tamils in the province many are reluctant to join forces officially with the TNA as it is yet perceived as a mouthpiece of the LTTE . It is yet seen as being influenced by the pro-LTTE diaspora.
The pronouncements of some TNA leaders during the election campaign were quite provocative to Muslims and did not inspire confidence among Muslims. The harping of the TNA on the North – East re-merger has alienated many Muslims who earlier wanted to cooperate closely with the Tamil party.
An unofficial assessment of the opinion of senior Muslim Congress leaders indicates that around 75 % is for aligning with the Government while about 25 % want the SLMC to join forces with the TNA and UNP.These sections feel that since the Eastern province Muslims have to coexist with Tamils in the littoral region known as “ezhuvaankarai” or shore of the rising sun ways a total parting of the ways with the TNA is not desirable.
Since Tamil and Muslim villages are adjacently interspersed among one another like the flour and coconut in a “pittu bamboo” these sections do not want to alienate the TNA and by extension the Tamil people.
Souces close to Rauf Hakeem say that the SLMC leader is very sensitive to this and is trying to evolve an approach that could incorporate the TNA,SLMC and UPFA into reaching a joint position.
Hakeem has already indicated his mindset on the issue by telling sections of the media that he is worried about the ethnic polarization that has set in as a result of the polls campaign. He does not want these chasms to widen further and wants a win win situation whare all three ethnicities could find common ground and forge a consensus. The SLMC leader is reportedly thinking of a unified administration for the east that includes the UPFA, TNA and SLMC.
Although some parallel discussions have been initiated on this track it appears too early to predict the outcome of such moves. Given curret political ground realities such moves may not gain much success it is felt.Powerful elements in the so called International community are said to be in favour of a tripartite joint administration for the East and have reportedly pledged massive amounts of money for provincial development if a unified administration is set up.
Meanwhile senior members of the TNA wait patiently for a word from the SLMC about the Muslim Congress extending support to their party and the UNP.It appears that their hopes may turn into dupes. If such a scenario emerges the TNA is ;ikely to be sorely disappointed.
Most TNA leaders however would be aware of the “Ilavu Kaatha Kili” tale. It is about the parrot(kili)which waited in anticipation for the green Silk cotton tree (Ilavam panju maram)”fruits” to ripen.They never did!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org