Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem, in an interview with Daily Mirror speaks about the aspirations of Muslims in Constitution making and the current crisis of his party. Minister Hakeem, who is also the Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage Minister, responds to allegations about radicalisation of his community. Excerpts:
Q: How do you look at the current political situation of the country?
A: The national unity government has completed its first two years. We are in the process of gradually implementing some of the development programmes processed over the last two years. Massive infrastructure projects have been commissioned. When we complete our term in 2020, we are hopeful we will have worked on infrastructure and addressed the issues related to the balance of payment crisis. We would have reduced our debt stock and increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Also, we will expand our traditional basket of goods that we export, and move towards new industrial items of exports. It is also possible once we establish the industrial parks.
Q: How do you look at it from the perspective of your community; especially in the context that their businesses have been hit by current economic conditions as reported?
A: The business community has a pathological problem, they are always complaining. However much we have a better climate, they will not admit it. They always keep complaining. Basically, we have to face the debt burden the country is saddled with. Inevitably, we have to raise our revenue. We have no choice other than widening our tax net as well as slightly altering the VAT regime. All these will affect the small businesses. We brought in changes to accommodate the grievances of small shopkeepers so that they will not be caught up in the threshold for VAT. Basically, this complaint from the business community that things are not rosy enough is there. But, everybody has to go through this transition.
On the community aspect, we must be quite relieved that we do not have the type of culture of impunity that affected us in the past. It threatened the very survival and security of the community in many areas. Unnecessary issues created by the xenophobic forces have declined though those cannot vanish at once.
These forces, no longer, have state patronage. As for security, the community should feel quite relieved.
Q: You held Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) responsible for violence against Muslims at that time. They have links with the present government. What are your views on it?
A: It is unfortunate that some in the government may feel that these forces need to be engaged with, to prevent them from being more boisterous. We find the judiciary taking a tough line when these people started misbehaving in court houses. Even that could not have happened in the past. At least the arm of law is stretched out to some extent. There are some puerile arguments that it would be better to let them voice rather than keeping them out. This type of arguments does not hold water. Some may claim that these forces have support from some elements of the government. The leaders of this government do not have much regard to them. They do not have the blanket support they enjoyed in the past. During the period between 2012 and 2014, we saw attacks on the places of worship, businesses etc. Violence instigated by them amounted to 350 incidents a year. We do not hear of such statistics now. I think we need not worry too much about it.
Q: You projected a better economic future under this government. Yet, going by all indicators so far, the economy is down. How did it happen then?
A: We should also look at the overall economic climate in the world. There are some countries that have succeeded with some sufficient reforms. Others have not. In fact, we have now decided to introduce exchange control legislations to liberalize some sectors. We also need the public sector enterprises to bring in business partners on a Private Public Partnership model in order to reduce government investments in public infrastructure. As for the government’s borrowings in the past, it had even allowed the state enterprises to burrow domestically and externally. I would not say that it was a wrong idea. But, it has to be within some sustainable level.
Q: What is your opinion on the progress made so far in the Constitution making process?
A: The Steering Committee of Parliament chaired by the Prime Minister regularly meets. We have appointed several Subcommittees to go into different aspects of Constitution making. We have had the public representations. As for overall constitutional reforms, some people say we should not risk a referendum. That means we will be allowed to do only cosmetic changes which may not go far enough despite our election pledges.
Q: Does that mean that you need drastic constitutional changes…
A: This government came to office not simply because the UNP and the SLFP voted for it. There was a share by the TNA, the SLMC and other parties. We were able to achieve only partial success in the 19th Amendment. The 19th Amendment was a stillborn baby. Yet, there were many matters that could not be resolved at the time because the President faced issues within their ranks of the then UPFA. We had to compromise on some of the main issues. But, with the Steering Committee concluding its work, some areas of contention remain – the matters related to the nature of State, electoral reforms and devolution. There are still some differences of opinion. These have to be ironed out within the coming few months.
Most importantly, the SLFP would have to try and take decisions.
Q: The party has already announced that it is only for reforms that do not require approval of people by referendum. How do you react?
A: Then, it will amount to cosmetic changes. Then, it will be difficult for us to convince our constituencies to go ahead with it. There are, of course, other contentious issues – the future of the executive presidency. We can look at some compromises regarding it. This President could certainly go for another term. That need not be through a popular vote. It can be through an electoral college, ensuring that parliamentary supremacy is maintained. We will have to settle for a Parliament with more powers. It has happened to some extent with the reduction of some of the powers of the executive such as the President’s power to dissolve Parliament after one year. Now it is extended to four and half years. Now the President’s power to appoint the Ministers is also curtailed. There is certain grumbling that we have exceeded the number of Cabinet Ministers using the provisions providing for the formation of a national government. I feel that the major two parties must reach some kind of agreement, not forgetting the need to have a fair election system which will enable the minorities also to have their equitable number of seats in a future Parliament.
Q: Your party has been accused of being the main hurdle to bring about new electoral forms. How true is it?
A: It is not just the SLMC. The Muslim MPs across the board will also agree that the new MMP system has certain disadvantages for dispersed communities. It is not only going to affect the Muslims but also the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin. It is not going to be healthy for the parties like the JVP. We have suggested an alternative to it. When trying to reduce the number of constituencies, it is difficult for the minorities to have a fair number of seats. The compromise is to make multi-member constituencies and smaller constituencies where there is some agreement in principle. They are trying to limit the multi member constituencies to five. It is not certainly acceptable to us. In order to offset the drastic drop in the number of the seats in the Northern Province, there will be additional five seats for the Tamil community’s representatives. What we see is that similar arrangements could be done for other affected communities.
Q: When it comes to devolution of power, what is the arrangement you seek for Muslims?
A: At least in certain areas whether there is a high concentration of them in identifiable geographic areas, we should, at least, create separate administrative districts. What I feel is not just for Muslims. The administrative districts should be created for Tamil-speaking people as well.
Q: Does it mean that you advocate decentralization of administrative power, but not devolution of political power?
A: Political devolution is also necessary. What we feel is that if the North and the East remain separate, the question for a separate council for Muslims may not arise. If there is any merger of these two provinces, then, inevitably, the Muslims will have to be accommodated with a unit of devolution. We have not gone that far regarding it. There is a general agreement that current nine provinces will remain intact. We could perhaps have some compromises to create an Apex Council. That is for two provinces to work together whenever there is need for it in certain subject areas. For all purposes, there will be separate chief ministers and different boards of ministers. But, on matters of common interests, they can have an Apex Council linking both in working together. It is not a merger. I think it will be very difficult to sell this idea at this moment. There has to be some health compromises. For that, we need to offer Tamils a very healthy compromise rather than being very dogmatic about some of these issues. Without trying to divisions and separate conclaves, we must try and devolve maximum power to the periphery and ensure that the unit of devolution will address their long-standing grievances. The southern Sinhala community has this fear that the merger of the North and the East will pave the way for separation. Those fears need to be addressed. We have destabilizing forces on both sides. We need to have a moderate approach to reconcile differences.
Q: There is an allegation that you fired former General Secretary of your party M.T. Hasan Ali. What was the grouse with him?
A: It was not totally sidelining him. In order to sustain our party’s future trajectory, we need to make some radical changes. Then, in any party, the relationship between the General Secretary and the Leader should be maintained at a healthy level. Unfortunately, some National List appointments had to be overlooked. Some of these National List seats could not be doled out repeatedly to the same person all the time. This led to some misunderstanding. The party remains strong. None of these minor convulsions is going to affect the party.
Q: What is your position on the UNHRC process?
A: Ever since this government came to power, we have maintained a much better health relationship with the international community, particularly the United States as the mover of the resolution. Most western countries have had faith in this government in implementing the provisions. There are four different components- the Office of Missing Persons, reparations commission, truth and reconciliation and the much more controversial judicial mechanism. The two leaders of the government said they could not accommodate foreign judges in a domestic mechanism. At least, we have to establish the Office of Missing Persons, Reparations Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There is also the other reality that the current US administration of President Trump is not enthusiastic about the Geneva process. There are some comments that the US might not event extend funding to the UNHRC. It is an administration cornered more about its domestic agenda. It does not mean that we have to renege on our undertakings.
Q: In some reports submitted to the UNHRC, there were criticism on the Muslim Marriage Law here in respect of underage marriages. How would you react to it?
A: The personal laws of the country have been in place for several decades now. There is no doubt that some reforms are necessary. A committee has been appointed. Once the reports come, the government has gone and said they would not make any change without the consent of the community. The Muslim members of Parliament will be asked to look at the draft and make the necessary suggestions. We are reform-minded. There are certain issues regarding which our theologians have hard-line opinions. But, some healthy compromise could be reached.
Q: Recently, there were observations about the radicalisation of your community with the sectarian clash in Kattankudy. How do you respond?
A: These were minor incidents. Some have blown them up to show that there was major sectarian violence here. These minor incidents could happen within any community. There are minor factions that clash with certain dogmatic ideas. It has no public appeal. These are minor incidents getting resolved at local level. These have no unnecessary foreign influence though some of them. Sri Lankan Muslim community is very mature. They never resort to violence to resolve their minor religious idealistic differences.