These people are Sri Lankans, They are not ‘Kallathonis’ Mujibur Rahman
BY SHAAHIDAH RIZA
President Maithripala Sirisena must look into the concerns of the IDPs languishing for the past 25 years in camps situated in Puttalam, and other areas said United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Mujibur Rahman.
In an interview with Ceylon Today he spoke at length with regard to the issues faced by IDPs whose lands in Mannar were denied first due to the war and at present, due to a gazette signed by the President which declares their lands as part of the Wilpattu forest reserve. Rahman went on to note that the President did not listen to the plight of these IDPs and only paid attention to the environmentalists who were racially motivated to deny these people their right to lands. He added that the denying these IDPs their land without listening to their problems creates a humanitarian crisis. Excerpts follow:
?: Presently there is a discourse on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). What is the government's role in facilitating this?
A: There are certain Muslim Women's Associations who want amendments to the MMDA. They have been canvassing for more than 10 years with regard to this. It is not a recent issue. These Muslim women NGOs have been campaigning for the last 10 years even during the administration of the former government. Because of that the issues regarding the MMDA was more pronounced. Finally, I feel the Ulemas (Muslim scholars), civil society and the politicians had several meetings and agreed that some changes should take place. The last government appointed a committee headed by Justice Saleem Marsoof. The committee will soon release its report. I don't think there is an issue as everyone has already agreed that certain changes should take place.
?: Last week, the head of the ACJU Rizwi Mufthi told media that the MMDA is perfect in its present state and does not require change. Subsequently Justice Marsoof stated on social media that the MMDA requires change and that the ACJU is blocking this change. What is you view.
A: I am unaware of this exchange. A week ago, we had a meeting with the ACJU. Their general secretary and some of the Ulemas attended the meeting. Secretaries of certain other politicians also attended that meeting. At that meeting, no such conflict arose. When I spoke to them, that day, they said that they are not opposed to change. However certain issues cropped up, such as the age for marriage. However they agreed that they were ready to make changes.
?: So, are you suggesting that they agree to increase the marriageable age to 18?
A: No, it will be 16 years.
?: You are with the government. Obviously you have been acquainted with the GSP+ agreements and the criteria that ought to be met to make Sri Lanka eligible for it. Groups who agitate for reform are perpetually accused that they have been instructed to fight for reform to satisfy GSP criteria. What is the truth?
A: Actually the European Council issued a statement, few months ago indicating that the agitation for MMDA reform has got nothing to do with GSP+. Some Muslim Women's Organizations went to European embassies and HR organizations, and they campaigned against the MMDA. It was they who wanted reform in the Act. Because of that, this issue came up. This has got nothing to do with the GSP+.
?:You keep saying that Muslim women want reform, but don't you think that reform will be to the wider Muslim interest? After all MMDA endorses Kaikuli (Dowry) as well, which is not Islamic.
A: Muslim women are of the opinion that there is a lot of discrimination against them. But these discriminations are happening, not because of the Islamic law. Since we are talking about the Sri Lankan Muslim community here, it is true that in the Muslim society a lot of injustices happen to the Muslim women, but it has got nothing to do with Islam. It is happening because of the attitudes of certain Muslim men. Islamic law in its pure form has given value, priority and equal rights to Muslim women. People judge Islamic law, by the behaviour of certain Muslim men. They don't act according to Islam. We also need an attitude change amongst Muslim men, which has got nothing to do with Islam.
?: So apart from legislation, are you suggesting that a social change is also necessary in the Muslim community? How do you remedy such a situation?
A: Exactly. These happen in the grassroots level of the Muslim community, the upper class do not experience this as much. As a politician I represent Colombo Central. In my constituency, the nearly 70 per cent of the Muslims are low income people. So I know what is happening to them. Most of the Muslim women suffer injustice due to the attitude of the men. However, the law protects them, but they do not have the resources to go to courts and fight back. There are several social and economic factors which have to be looked in to, which cannot be solved by reforming the law alone. These social issues must be addressed. It mainly affects the low income community. These women suffer; the upper class Muslim women are not affected. In low income families, there are girls who cannot be married because of these social and economic issues. There are many girls who want to marry, but it is delayed because of various issues. These are also concerns of Muslim women, which need to be addressed.
?: If these reforms are brought to parliament, as a Muslim MP, will you support it?
A: Before this is brought to parliament, we should first have discussions about Justice Marsoof's report, along with the committee appointed by the cabinet. These reforms must be endorsed by the wider Muslim communities, so there should be more diverse and better consultation.
?: You mentioned the Muslim women NGOs who are agitating for reform. Don't you think that they represent the concerns of the Muslim community?
A: I don't know about that. I agree that a lot of injustices happen to Muslim women. But that is not because of Islam, it is because of the attitude of certain men. But I don't know whether they know of all the issues faced by Muslim women. I don't know whether they have clearly understood the diverse problems women face. We need reform, but it has to be within the Islamic background.
?: What is the view with regard to the Wilpattu gazette which the President signed in Russia?
A: it is a very unfortunate issue. President certainly signed a gazette. But there are two sides to that story. I don't know who has advised the President to sign the gazette in such a hurry. After all he was in Russia. Perhaps he thought that Wilpattu would be destroyed before he returned from Russia. This is not a Muslim issue; it is an IDP resettlement issue. These people have been living for more than 25 years in the refugee camp. It's a human rights issue. These must be looked at in a humanitarian angle.
These IDPs are not from Tamil Nadu, Pakistan or Afghanistan. These IDPs were originally from the North of the country and were expelled by the LTTE due to the war. These people were rendered homeless and brought to the level of IDPs due to the war. In the meantime, there are some land issues going on in the North and the Tamil people are protesting often. There are so many issues which arose due to war, which are also presently ongoing. Without solving the issues of the Tamil people by not releasing land, we have created another issue. I request the present to appoint a committee listen to the voice of the IDPs. It is not the case of people living there and destroying wildlife. More than 10,000 people are still in the Puttalam district languishing in camps.
There are IDPs in Kurunegala as well. Even in Colombo, there are several IDPs who were misplaced due to war from Jaffna and Mannar. Without listening to the plight of the people and hearing only, one side of the story, decisions cannot be made. That is unacceptable. The President must temporarily stop the implementation of the Gazette and appoint a committee. He should address the issues of the IDPs as well.
?: There are environmentalists who say that these areas have to be protected and that it is part of the forest reserves. How would you respond to that?
A: Most of these environmentalists are sitting in Colombo and work with NGOs. They only talk about Wilpattu, but they won't talk about all other environmental violations that are happening across the country. They are trying to paint this as a communal issue.
They are racially motivated. They are not real environmentalists. If you go to Mannar and other areas and observe the horrendous conditions these people live in for 25 years, it only becomes a human rights issue. These people are Sri Lankans.
They are not 'Kallathonis'. We have a responsibility to sort out their problems. They became refugees due to our internal conflicts. After the war they want to go back to their homeland, are we allowing them to do that or not? If we are focusing on environment issues, then we also have to focus on IDP issues as well. One thing is not more important than the other. They are all equally important.
?: During the 2015 elections a large number of the Muslim community were frustrated with the Rajapaksa government and voted for a change. Don't you think that the current President and the Prime minister have let the Muslim community down?
A: Most of the Muslims voted against Rajapaksa because they needed to live peacefully, in harmony with other communities. That was our main expectation. The Muslim community voted for change seeking social harmony, and not because of the cost of living, bribery issues or other issues. They wanted to defeat the communal forces and they want to live with other communities in peace and harmony. When we compare the plight of the Muslims with their situation during the Rajapaksa regime, they are in a much better situation now. I am not saying that everything has been sorted out 100 per cent. There are many other issues, but we are still hoping to sort those out, after all it's only two years and few months since Unity government has been in power. With the Mannar issues, their rights must be given.
?: You represent Central Colombo, Colombo is home to many slums. Government after government have tried to find solutions but there has not been a single sustainable solution. What is your view?
A: A main issue for Colombo-Central is the housing issue. After President Premadasa- that is, after 1994- no one put up a housing complex in Colombo. More than two generations are living n the same house. It is a terrible issue in the Colombo central.
There are 1000s of youth without jobs. The school education is also poor. There are several infrastructure issues for the last 25 years, even during CBK's and Mahinda Rajapaksa's time. They didn't want to bring any solution to these issues because it is a UNP stronghold. Because of that they were discriminated. These people always vote for UNP. The previous governments neglected the entire Colombo city because it is a UNP vote base. Now we have a responsibility to sort out the problems within the city which has been going on for 25 years. We cannot do it in a day. It will take time, but we will do it. We have a plan which we will follow through.
?:two years and now four months has lapsed since the year has started how would you rate the performance of this Government?
A: When you compare with the Rajapaksa's regime, we have done a lot of reform in instilling democracy. We have appointed independent commissions, justice system is independent, law and order which is now prevalent. We have done a lot to establish democracy in the country. But there are certain other issues which we must address. There must be some socio- economic changes. You all know the despicable state in which the previous government handed over the country to us. Now we have a challenge to develop the economy. The government is working on that. The international community is eager to work with us as opposed to how they worked with the previous government. They are actually listening to our government's views and respecting our stand on certain matters. The international community has some sort of trust in the workings of this government. They know that the government will make positive reforms. We have built ethnic harmony amongst the communities.
?: At the same time there are mighty fiascos as well, such as the bond scam.
A: Yes that is true. However an inquiry is going on regarding that. The president has appointed a commission. These are being done because of the democratic and transparent way this government handles things. If this happened during the Rajapaksa regime, even you all-the media- cannot speak about it. A white van will take you away. Now everybody can speak openly about issues. All journalists, civil society, and politicians can express their views openly. This is the democracy of the government we expected. We are not saying that we are perfect, but we are open to criticism and we are listening to what the people want. When Rajapaksa was the president no one could speak so candidly, his brother would dispatch a white van.
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