Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader MP Rauff Hakeem, in an interview with , responds to queries and allegations about Easter Sunday attack and the report of the presidential commission that probed it. Also, he spells out his position on the UNHRC process and takes swipe at the government on the issue involving the burial of Muslim-COVID-19 victims. Excerpts of the interview:
- President Sirisena may have been complacent but not complicit in the attack
- I don’t blame any national leader for this attack
- I, Kabir Hashim raised it after Mawanella incident at that time
- Muslims will never pardon this Govt. over burial issue
QWhat is your general assessment of the political situation?
The government is running without any proper direction. They are messing up their international relations all around. They have unnecessarily antagonised their international friends. Whenever regime changes happen, you don’t overturn decisions without giving due consideration to diplomacy. Now I find them facing further problems at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). They should not use this as a tool to score brownie points in domestic politics. They must seriously address problems and engage with the international community to show that Sri Lanka is a respectable member of it. That does not mean that I am favouring country-specific resolutions. When you look at the way this trajectory is chartered by withdrawing from co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1. The regime changes should not result in such unnecessary complications at the international level. Still, it is not too late. They must engage with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and the core group looking at this resolution to have some course correction. That does not mean that I am always for country-specific resolutions.
QWhat is your position on the content of the resolution?
There are strongly worded contents. The government reversed its cremation only policy. But, it is now being criticised as if it was done in order to get the votes of OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) member states against the resolution. Obviously, it was done so. It shows the ham-fisted approach of this government to apparent violations of human rights of the minorities in the country. Without any scientific basis, they kept on insisting on this lopsided policy of burying victims.
QActually, what is your stand on the content on the resolution calling for an investigative mechanism and not to roll back the initiatives taken under the past government?
Unfortunately, they must address if there are matters of impunity. They must mobilise the domestic judicial mechanisms to redress the grievances. By deliberately withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1, they have unnecessarily brought upon themselves this issue. They now find the matter moving out of the domestic judicial mechanism. They could have easily settled for a domestic judicial system to look into all these grievances. If you are convinced that these things (allegations regarding past violations) did not happen, what remains for you is to go ahead with an inquiry. You must have confidence in your own judiciary. What happens now is that you are trying to reverse decisions already made. In any country, the security forces have a particular aura around themselves. Nobody wants to belittle your own security forces. That is understandable. If there are rogue elements, you should not dismiss it, though. You can have a positive engagement by deploying your own investigative mechanism and exonerating anyone wrongly accused. That system should have been allowed.
With the latest amendment to the constitution, that credibility has been damaged further. Issues related to impunity, rule of law and good governance must be taken positively. You can engage and prove your case rather than flatly dismissing all. Even if they are politically motivated, why do you bother if you are clear? In my opinion, that is what the former regime wanted to do. Now, we are running the risk of losing the GSP+ trade facility. The UNHRC has different systems there. You have the Universal Periodic Review. There is a peer review mechanism. It is a very positive thing. We cannot disengage from them.
- The regime changes should not result in such unnecessary complications at the international level. Still, it is not too late. They must engage with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and the core group looking at this resolution to have some course correction
- By deliberately withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1, they have unnecessarily brought upon themselves this issue. They now find the matter moving out of the domestic judicial mechanism. They could have easily settled for a domestic judicial system to look into all these grievances
- You can engage and prove your case rather than flatly dismissing all. Even if they are politically motivated, why do you bother if you are clear?
- We have signed up to so many international conventions and obligations. We cannot run away from all these obligations. If we run away, we have to face the music
- Religion is blamed for everything. No religion is preaching violence. But, there are certain elements that exploit given discontent within society to their advantage. So, Islamophobia is blamed as a reason why a fertile ground is created for extremism
- The main issue is intrigues and infighting within our intelligence services. Some in the intelligence services were too possessive of sensitive information. They did not want to share it with others. They wanted to have direct links with their superiors
QYou talked about positive engagements by the previous government with the UNHRC. Actually, that government and its leaders became unpopular electorally because of their initiatives in this regard. What do you think of this domestic aspect?
The common man gets carried by rhetoric. The mere rhetoric on the platform is not going to bail you out. Just because you have an overwhelming mandate, that does not mean that you can override an international rule-based order. That has to be respected. There is a thing called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have signed up to so many international conventions and obligations. We cannot run away from all these obligations. If we run away, we have to face the music. There are puerile election talks such as that you will be taken to the electric chair. You have to engage positively to solve all these issues.
QIn that sense, do you accept this report by the OHCHR?
No, no. I am saying there is no need for you to accept everything. There is a thing called positive engagement. You have withdrawn from co-sponsorship. You can negotiate the resolution and water it down to an acceptable position. Having taken a too rigid stand, you are looking at your domestic electorate. You are worried that you will lose face. With foolhardy decisions like the one on the burial issue, hasn’t the government lost face? That is because of a ham-fisted approach to an issue. You are just trying to satisfy a racist lobby and take it to an unnecessary level. Opportunistic politics is ruining the image of this country.
QHow will the burial issue affect future politics?
The Muslims will never pardon this government. They will never forget this terrible trauma. They virtually traumatised the entire Muslim community. They stigmatised the community to such an extent that they will not forget but forgive.
QAs a seasoned politician, do you fear whether the radical elements within the community can exploit the situation to make gains?
The Muslims are a very resilient community. We are also very mature. Having faced the Easter Sunday attack by a small cult, which in my opinion, was employed to demonise the community for a specific purpose, we have had serious introspection about our internal issues. We ourselves are now vigilant. We are never going to tolerate any strain of extremism. Of course, there had been some complacency in the past. We cannot be blaming outsiders for our problems. We have to correct it ourselves. We have to bring in reforms where necessary. Religion is blamed for everything. No religion is preaching violence. But, there are certain elements that exploit given discontent within society to their advantage. So, Islamophobia is blamed as a reason why a fertile ground is created for extremism. But, in a small community like Muslims in Sri Lanka, it will be an insult to our intelligence services, if they say they do not know what was happening. That is why I am saying that there are so many gaps in the final report.
QEverybody is finding fault with the final report. What is your view?
They created hype. This is, again, the problem of the government. Day in and day out, they used the sittings of the commission to win an election. When the report comes, it is Puswedilla (damp squib). We must not dismiss the entire report. The problem is that it fell short of expectations. They created such hype for a specific political purpose. Evidence that was led was telecast and published in order to win votes. They also wanted poor Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to be hoodwinked. He has realised his own folly. Sometimes, he gets too emotional. The trauma he suffers as the leader of that religious community is fully understandable to us. Of course, there are gaps in this report.
We also had the parliamentary select committee. I sat it. We have pinpointed a lot of gaps. The main issue is intrigues and infighting within our intelligence services. Some in the intelligence services were too possessive of sensitive information. They did not want to share it with others. They wanted to have direct links with their superiors. When you get intelligence information, you must collate it. The Director of Military Intelligence did not know what was happening. In fact, there was a big fight between the DMI and SIS after the bomb blast. The police and the military are two different arms. Military intelligence concerns national security. The work of the police is too overstretched. They also can be too politicised. Each of our tri-forces has its own intelligence network.
QBut, there is an allegation against the then President Maithripala Sirisena over dereliction of duty. What do you feel?
What I feel is that there may have been complacency. But, I don’t think there was complicity. Complacency and complicity are two different things. If you keep your institutional set-up robust and independent, you don’t have to worry. There were so many intrigues within the system which we realised when we had the parliamentary select committee meetings.
QThe president used to be the defence minister. The Minister is supposed to give leadership and focus. Then, how can you solely pinpoint the intelligence authorities only?
The defence minister is only a political head for a limited period. But, the institutions have to continue whatever regime comes. During a given time, the defence minister may not have sufficient time to sit with them. He is not there to collect and collate information. He can just give directions. Certainly, complacency may have been there. His actions may have led to think that he is not giving too much attention to it. I know President Sirisena discussed this matter with the Muslim leaders on and off. We ourselves raised this issue. When the Mawanella incident happened, I, along with Mr. Kabir Hashim said, that there is something serious behind it. We said this should be looked at seriously. The president and the prime minister agreed at that time.
Zahran had a warrant on him. He had gone underground. They had information about his movements. There was somebody who knew how to short-circuit things as Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe said in an interview with your paper. The intelligence apparatus has to undergo some radical changes.
QYou said you yourself warned about something serious after the Buddha statues in Mawanella were damaged. Why didn’t the then government act on it? Shouldn’t it be the political leaders who should act upon it?
There is a certain degree of political vilification against the former president. I don’t think the former president acted with criminal intention here. The fact was that he was under a lot of stress. There were a lot of factors that contributed to it.
QThe report says the lenient approach of the former prime minister also led to this situation. What is your view?
I don’t blame any of our national leaders. They were possessed of the possibility of it. Zahran’s cult avoided the radar and operated so freely. They had safe houses. Those safe houses were found in no time. Every safe house was busted. Why couldn’t they do it earlier? Complacency was there. There are other jigsaws in the puzzle. We wonder why certain things did not happen in the way they should have happened?