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World Affairs








Muslims will reject those aligned to Pillaiyan

Naushad Majid

Naushad Majid represents the Muslims from the east in the political affairs committee of the United National Party (UNP).  He is also the eastern province convenor for the party and brims with confidence that the UNP could not only successfully contest the eastern provincial council election but also win it. In this interview, Naushad Majid explains how the UNP could turn the eastern provincial council election into a huge political success for the party.  He says the conditions that prevailed in Batticaloa will not be applicable to the provincial council election as there are two other districts coming into the equation where mostly Sinhalese and Muslims dwell. Excerpts: 

By Mark Indika Samarasekera

Q: The government held elections for nine local bodies in Batticaloa early this month. But some people in the east claim that they had no opportunity to cast their vote. In your opinion, what would have happened?

A:  An election does not mean just the polling day.  It is unfair to just assess the situation on a particular day and declare the election process a peaceful one.  We should consider the period commencing from the calling of nomination to the declaration of results.

Since nomination, an infamous Tamil militant group began threatening those were opposed to them of dire consequences if they dared to vote. These terrorists demanded people to either vote for them or  refrain. This is how Pillayan group prevented different political views from being expressed during the election. There was coercion, intimidation and suppression.

In that backdrop, nobody dared to risk their lives by  exercising their franchise. Given the conditions that prevailed, how can democratic political parties expect their cadres to be exposed to violence and intimidation of a terrorist group that brooks no opposition?  Due to obvious lack of democracy in the entire process, we lost out a chance to seek public office.

Q: However, both the UNP and the JVP are now gearing to contest the provincial council election. Has anything changed since the Batticaloa local election?

A: If the UNP is contesting the provincial council election, the contest is not confined to the Batticaloa District. This election is applicable to both Trincomalee and Ampara Districts as well. In those areas, there are Sinhala and Muslim inhabitants. They form the majority in both districts. Together they form the provincial majority. That will also change the equation in the province.

The conditions prevailing in Batticaloa won't be applicable to the other two districts.  The TMVP wields no power in the other two districts.

Though we did not contest the manipulated and immoral local authority elections in the Batticaloa District, the UNP will certainly contest the eastern provincial council election. We will certainly contest.

Q: Your party refused to contest the previous election claiming there was no democracy. Is it only fair to question what has so drastically improved that you feel confident about the PC poll?

A: Some things are different. For example, when you take the entire province as a whole, the situation is different to what prevails in the single district of Batticaloa. The results are out, and the entire country does know how the election was won. We predicted this long before the election results were announced.

We won't allow the same thing to happen to the entire province. We will do our best to prevent militancy from spreading to the entire province. For that, democratic political parties must contest.

If you take Mannama South, Kalawanchikudi and Wellawali-only 45% of the voters have cast their votes. From that 45%, some 20% got rejected. Generally, the rejected votes in these areas would be around 2%-3%. But in this poll - excluding Araipattu - in all other areas over 12% of the votes got rejected.

What does this mean?  People have  gone to the booths out of fear, but spoilt their votes instead of voting in favour of a barbaric military outfit. That's how they silently expressed their protest. If only 45% of the voters cast their votes, what happened to the other 55%? Why did they opt not to vote altogether?

Q: What was the situation in the other areas?

A: In most places, polling agents were not there. The whole country knows about the manner in which the Batticaloa poll was conducted. The best evidence of its undemocratic conduct is Minister Douglas Devananda's report on the election. The EPDP contested all nine local bodies as an independent group. They are now crying foul alleging this was a daylight robbery and not an election.  We predicted it would be so, long before they went to poll.

Q: The SLMC is no longer a constituent partner of the government. But there are many SLMC breakaway groups currently working with the government such as Segu Izzadeen, M. L. M. Athaullah, Ameer Ali, and Rishard Bathiudeen. Won't they share a common platform with the government and the Pillayan Group during this campaign?

A: This election will prove a huge test for the names you just mentioned. They all entered politics representing the SLMC. They had no other political background.  They are in powerful positions thanks to the SLMC voters.

That means, they should rightfully have a problem in working with the Pillayan Group that indiscriminately killed Muslims. Naturally any Muslim political representative should have a problem in working with this group. I am aware that these SLMC defectors have in unison protested to the President that they cannot work with the Pillayan Group in the forthcoming election. They are also seeking an opportunity to contest as an independent group.

But one thing remains the same. Whether they contest as independents or not, they will still align themselves with the government. If such a course is taken, their collective political future as Muslim representatives will also be decided. I think this election will therefore prove not only decisive but be a sort of a litmus test for the Muslims leaders.

Q: Are you saying that the Muslim leadership cannot work with a government that is already in an alliance with the Pillayan Group?

A: Of course. The eastern Muslims cannot and will not accept their leaders who ally themselves in anyway with the Pillayan Group that has outrightly violated the community's basic rights.

Q: What if they contest as an independent group to retain their identity? Won't that be different?

A: That will be yet another way to hoodwink the people. These politicians will eventually align themselves to the government, whether they contest as independents or not.

On the other hand, even if they contest as independents, Muslims won't cast their votes in their favour. The voters will not be fooled.

It is the Muslim community that plays a principal role in eastern politics. With the birth of the SLMC, the community is quite conversant about their political rights as well as their identity.  East is the one and only province where the Muslim community gets an opportunity of demonstrating their political power.

The SLMC was created largely due to the fact that Muslim interests were not accommodated when signing the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. The Muslims were excluded from that effort.

To solve the country's conflict, all three main communities have to reach a consensus. That can happen only if the Muslim community has the opportunity to be a stakeholder in the process.

Q: The UNP has announced its decision to contest the eastern poll. What is the UNP's plan this time?

A: At the present moment, it is only the UNP that has strongly proposed a political solution to the national question. Also, we are the only political party that represents all the communities making Sri Lanka their home. We are a unique political entity due to this.

I have proposed to the party that if we are contesting the eastern provincial council, then we should also nominate a Muslim as the chief ministerial candidate. East is about Muslim politics and the UNP is a multi ethnic party.

I made this proposal because by doing that, the UNP as the largest and the strongest political party in this country will be setting an example. It will demonstrate that we have the vision and the commitment to end ethnic strife.

This means, we will prove our political maturity. Tamil people can nominate someone as chief minister to the northern province if and when elections are called. The Sinhalese have the opportunity to elect chief ministers for all other provinces. I strongly feel that if we don't nominate a Muslim as our chief ministerial candidate at the forthcoming polls, it might have a negative impact in the east which is a Muslim dominant province. It might direct them elsewhere.

The conflict was created by the political deceptions before.  That led the Tamils to arm themselves and form themselves into militant groups.  We should take every possible step to prevent a similar situation amongst the Muslims. For that, we must make prudent political decisions that would uphold the rights of all communities.

Q: Do you intend to contest the eastern election together with the SLMC?

A:  We have invited not just the SLMC but also all other political parties who share our pluralistic vision to join hands. Further, we have invited all others with a strong desire to strengthen the democratic processes to work with us. Together we can strive to uphold the rights of all communities and prevent militancy from running the show.

Q: How confidant is the UNP of winning the PC election?

A: It is only the UNP that is capable of culling the votes of all communities living in the Eastern Province. That is a strength that no other party enjoys. The UNP can win this election.

Q: Whatever the UNP's political strengths may be, what would happen if the Pillayan Group goes on a killing spree yet again?  What about state terrorism and acts of coercion and intimidation by others? How will the UNP face all that?

A: The only way to face the multiple challenges is to rely on the strength we have - the support we derive from the people. We have to fight the terror with the help of the people. In a way, this election will also be about democracy and rights.

It does not matter who will be carrying arms and ammunition, as long as the people remain with the democratic forces and fight for their due rights. People might even hit the streets at this rate crying for democracy. 

I am of strong faith that the people will place their trust in the UNP. It is immaterial what kind of groups will be active and the kind of state terror that we may have to encounter as long as people are willing to work with the UNP to protect democracy.

Q: The present administration has proposed a solution to the conflict based on the 13th Amendment. What are your views?

A: I am completely shocked that the government offered a two-decade-old solution as a basis for a solution. The government has begun to treat this national question as a joke.

This amendment is already a part of the 1978 Constitution. The problem is that it was not fully implemented.  There is no need to amend it or propose new ways to implement it.

The LTTE took up arms and launched a bitter war because the government did not honestly conduct the District Development Council elections.

It must be noted that none of the powers contained in the provincial council system have been devolved in their true sense to any provincial council. Instead, parties like the JVP and the JHU are extending their support to the government purely for political expediency but canvass against power sharing. They are also against devolving  land and police powers to the provincial councils.

To solve the question, all three communities will have to show true commitment and overcome petty party objectives. If that is not there, there will never be a solution to the conflict.

Q: You might turn out to be UNP's chief ministerial candidate for the Eastern Provincial Council. There is a possibility that the JVP and the JHU may accuse the UNP of compromising the Sinhala heritage in the east. What will be your response to such a charge?

A: If someone were to make such an allegation, that would be unfounded.  The east has Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim dominant areas. There will be members elected from those respective areas representing the dominant communities. The council will eventually be a multi party body. The chief minister does not rule alone.  He will also have ministers who will reflect the diversity of this province.

On the other hand, if the Muslims are not justly treated in the east, then there is no hope that their rights will be recognised elsewhere in the country.  Therefore it is important that we give the Muslim community the confidence they seek and deserve. This is a golden opportunity to do just that.

Take Kantale and Seruwila. They are Sinhala dominant villages. Around the two areas you find scattered Muslim settlements.  Ampara and Panama are predominantly Sinhala areas. Then Damana, Uhana and Dehiattakandiya will also have more Sinhala inhabitants. Around these areas we find some Tamil and Muslim settlements. There had been no quarrel despite the ethnic diversity.

Then take this aspect into consideration. Who protected the Dighavapi temple, a revered Buddhist place of worship?  The Muslim inhabitants offered the monks alms. It is they who looked after the temple and the priests.

During  Ashroff's time, a bogus issue was created about the Dighavapi temple.   But the truth is, it is Ashroff  who created a settlement in the area. An unnecessary political issue was created. But the temple was never harmed.

Without fear, I will always say that the Muslim people of the area protected the Dighavapi and its Buddhist heritage. There is no basis to the allegations that were abound at that time. Those were created by communal elements seeking to disrupt the racial harmony for which eastern Sri Lanka is well known.

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