With the 2010 presidential election just a fortnight away, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is actively organising its electorates for poll meetings for the opposition coalition’s candidate (retired) General Sarath Fonseka. While happy with the United National Front’s (UNF) campaign, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, said he feared hindrance to a fair election from armed groups in the east. In an interview to the Sunday Times, Mr. Hakeem described as significant the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) decision to back Gen. Fonseka. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent assurance to resettle Muslims evicted by the LTTE from the north 20 years ago, Mr. Hakeem said, was election propaganda.
Opposition candidate (retired) General Sarath Fonseka released his election manifesto on Thursday. What is there in it for Sri Lanka’s Muslim community?
What applies in common to everyone in Sri Lanka, applies to Muslims as well. In his manifesto, General Fonseka has spoken about helping everyone who has been affected by the war.
|SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem
He mentioned that the resettlement allowance of the internally displaced persons will be increased, which I think is important. However, the manifesto will be fleshed up further for the parliamentary elections. At the moment, it is a common minimum programme of the UNF and we will delve deeper into specific issues and release a document before the general elections.
Was the SLMC involved in writing the manifesto?
Yes, like all other parties in the coalition. The very title of our manifesto is believable change which we think is achievable. The UNF was assisted by a team of financial and economic experts particularly on issues concerning hand-outs and welfare measures for people.
How do you view the TNA’s support to General Fonseka’s candidacy?
The TNA’s inclusion in the opposition alliance is quite significant because for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka’s presidential election, a predominantly Tamil group has openly pledged its support to a mainstream candidate. This has much to do with the abysmal failure and betrayal of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and the need to have a change for the better.
A large section of Tamils either could not or did not vote in the 2005 presidential poll due to the LTTE boycott. Will voter-turnout in the north and east rise this time?
With the TNA actively throwing its weight behind General Fonseka there is bound to be more enthusiasm among voters in the north and east. So far as the SLMC’s vote base is concerned, it is a foregone conclusion as to who it would prefer. But the government might attempt to impose unnecessary security restrictions in those areas.
The cluster booth system will also create many insolvable problems. I would say that there is a method in the madness of the government. By keeping the IDPs inside camps even during polls, the government is showing that it pre-planned a strategy to deprive the displaced people their right to express themselves freely. The use of cluster booths is unprecedented. This system should not have been there in the first place because the war ended seven months ago and people should be able to vote freely.
What are the election issues for the large Muslim population in the east?
The dominant issue is that Muslims in the east have not enjoyed any tangible improvement in their daily lives even after the end of the war. While there has been a somewhat improvement in the security situation in terms of a slight relaxation of restrictions in the movement of people, normalcy is yet to return to the east. This will however not arrive if the government continues to patronize armed groups there.
Which armed groups are you referring to?
Primarily, the Karuna Amman faction and to a lesser extent others have become a major irritant to ordinary Tamil people. Although to a lesser degree, but even Muslims have been affected by these activities. I am afraid that this may lead to wide-scale rigging in the coming presidential election in the east. The Elections Commissioner will have to take some novel and undisclosed measures to prevent the type of booth-capturing that took place during the eastern council elections in 2008. But with the TNA in the UNF fold, we will now be able to take some political measures to counter such happenings as well.
President Rajapaksa recently said that Muslims evicted by the LTTE 20 years ago would be resettled in the north by May 2010. Your comments?
The government keeps shifting the goalpost all the time. We are sick and tired of these remarks. Just to give you an example, when the largest Muslim settlement in Musali in the Mannar district was emancipated from the LTTE in 2007 and all necessary civil administrative structures were available to the government thereafter, the government did not attempt any resettlement of people.
When people clamoured to cultivate their lands during the crop seasons or obtain access to the sea for fishing, the government flatly refused. When the government was accused of trying to change the demography of that place, instead of assisting the original inhabitants through developmental activities, it left the people there with dry ration and tin sheets to fend for themselves. Speaking of resettling Muslims now is nothing but election propaganda.