TamilWeek, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2005
Eastern Muslims in quandary over polls

By A. M. Jazeel

The votes of the eastern Muslims are significant in deciding the victory of the
presidential candidate in the country. The two leading candidates, Ranil
Wickremesinghe from the UNP and Mahinda Rajapaksa from UPFA are involved in
alluring the votes of thee Muslims in their favour when the Muslims in the east are
nowadays politically divided into many factions.

In the case of the east Muslims, there are many factors to be considered before they
select the presidential candidate of their choice. The most important of them are the
positions of Muslim political parties and their local and national leaders, the share of
Muslims in the proposed ISGA proposal, the past ethnic violence’s in Mutur and
Valachenai, the role of Muslims in the peace talks with LTTE, adequate representation
in P-TOMS, post tsunami relief activities and above all, the trend of discrimination in
development works by the present ministers of UPFA regime in the Muslim areas.

The SLMC, the most influential party among eastern Muslims has now considerably
lost its grip in the east following the internal split within the party, which led to the
defection of some of its parliamentarians to the government side and the potential
failure of Mr. Rauff Hakeem, SLMC leader to address the problems of Muslims living in
the north east province when he participated in the stalled peace talks. However, it
had secured two parliamentary seats in the last parliamentary poll from Digamadulla
district facing the fierce fray of the defectors. This shows that the SLMC still has some
support in the east. In addition to that some SLMC ex-parliamentarians in the east are
expected to join the SLMC again.

Thus, this situation is definitely going to increase the support to the opposition leader
Ranil Wickremasinghe.On the other hand, the two cabinet ministers and other
ministers holding portfolios in the present government from the east have expressed
their strong support to UPFA candidate, Rajapaksa in this election.

They have even started campaigning for the prime minister in the Ampara district.
Compared to the interest shown by the SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem in the
development work in the east when he held a cabinet portfolio, these ministers have
allocated so much of funds to several development projects in the eastern province.
These ministers have some vote bank the east and can provide more support to
Prime Minister Rajapakse when campaigning taking the anti-LTTE trend in the
meetings. Recently, Minister Ferial Ashraff and Minister Athaulla have brought the
prime minister to two different meetings arranged in the Ampara district to show their
political strength in their electorate.

But the eastern Muslims have criticized these two ministers when they were less active
during the tsunami time and silent when the government, agreed to P-TOMS, which
failed to accommodate adequate Muslim representation in the body.

In the east, Minister A. L. M. Athaulla, a vociferous firebrand on the election platform
and TV debates was severely and widely criticized for his short-sighted vision in
respect of Muslim politics and for allocating money as much as possible to his
hometown, Akkaraipattu, relatively neglecting other Muslim villages in the Ampara
district.

This was highly reflected in the east when Kalmunai and Pottuvil Muslims recently
staged protests against him on a massive scale. They allege that the Minister
Athaullah does not meet the constituents after the poll and only work for his
hometown. Further, he has visited the tsunami affected people and the affected area
only once a week after the tsunami disaster, just to show he was interested in the
affected people. Afterwards he never visited the refugees. His role in post tsunami
assistance to the people was negligible and is severely criticized by the eastern
Muslims. In this backdrop, it is a big question how most eastern Muslims and the
tsunami victims are going to vote. The supporters of the eastern Muslim ministers
would vote for Rajapaksa.

Be that as it may, when looking at the stands of the two leading presidential
candidates on the issue of Muslims, Ranil Wickremasinghe in his former regime failed
to mitigate the violence in Valachennai and Mutur, but he has, in his election
manifesto, pledged to take into consideration the security of the eastern Muslims
unlike before. However, the future of the ISGA and the role of Muslims are still vague
and need to be clarified.

Rajapaksa speaks much of his role for the cause of Palestine Muslims. But the
eastern Muslim wants him to speak about his past role about the Muslims in his
government. The immediate concern of Muslims is about the Muslims living in his
country. In the meantime, he goes on to emphasize the need for security of Muslims in
the east in his election platforms.

He has also pledged in a meeting held in Oluvil participating as a chief guest on the
5th death anniversary of late Minister Ashraff, that he is going to set up an additional
provincial office in the east as most of the people in Ampara district find it difficult to
get their work done in Trincomalee by traveling a long distance. Yet, his role in the
capacity of premier of the country in the post-tsunami relief activities for the east
tsunami victims was so poor when compared to his interest in his own electorate,
Hambantota. Most of the tsunami-affected people have not yet received their tsunami
pledges made by the government, though it is going to be roughly a year since the
tsunami hit the country.

In the case of other tsunami related issues, most of the tsunami victims are still living
in temporary huts and are facing new socio-cultural and economic issues. Both
candidates from the two major parties in the fray have not put forward a proper for
these victims, who are suffering in silence. Their voice of anguish is not heard, as they
appear to be a forgotten people.

Another important aspect in selecting a candidate is the coalition of hard-line parties
like the JHU and the JVP with the UPFA. Muslims have reasonable doubts that how
these hard-line parties are going to support the Muslim cause in the north-east
province. In the meantime, the ministers and other Muslim parties who expressed their
support to Mahinda Rajapaksa have not yet signed any pact with him like in the case
of the JVP and the JHU. These Muslim parties are blindly supporting him with secret
promises of perks and portfolios. This situation is indeed not healthy for Muslims and
causes grave concern in the community about the seriousness of the blatant promises
made by the premier on the election platform.

Now, the eastern Muslims are politically scattered with several Muslim political parties
cropping up among them unlike during the time of the late Ashraff. These divisions are
mainly based on the growing sense of regionalism among the eastern Muslims,
consequent to the discrimination of development work by the ministers in power. The
ministers and members of parliament have been keen on developing their own
villages, allocating funds as much as possible to construct gateways and monuments.
The other villages which have been more affected by two decades of local war and
need more basic facilities and development work are going to vote against the
candidate represented by these MPs.

In the circumstances, Muslim votes are going to be split. Most of the Muslims in the
east are not even happy about their so-called local political leaders. No candidate
expects the overwhelming support of the Muslims. Only a handful of hardcore
politicians will listen to them and cast their franchise according to the wishes of their
political gods, while the majority are going to decide depending on how the
prospective president is going to express his viable strategy to best deal with the
aspiration of eastern Muslims. They also expect these promises to be open and less
ambiguous and devoid of politics. Whoever meets the aspiration of the Muslims
through this election has a greater chance to catch most of the floating votes.

Their immediate expectations from the presidential candidates are the additional
provincial administrative body for the eastern province, a comprehensive package for
rapid post-tsunami construction and rehabilitation, a workable plan to develop the
villages in the east by an egalitarian approach in the development process, an equal
role in the peace process and the strengthening of security in the east. This is
besides the common relief the nation expects.

[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]
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