| by Dilrukshi Handunnetti

( March 18, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is trouble in paradise. A government constituent partner, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) first chose to break its silence over alleged religious intolerance in the island, highlighting government inaction on its own blueprint for achieving reconciliation, in a report presented to the visiting UN Human Rights Chief, Navanethem Pillay, last year. Its updated version has now reached the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) causing all hell to break loose within the government.

This report has made the government reel under the reality that a constituent partner has dared to formally record its protest in a manner that could defeat the government’s professed position of being committed to the implementation of the recommendations contained in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report.

The report’s content have also become public at an inconvenient time, embarrassing Colombo and with possible ramifications in Geneva, while the Rajapaksa Government remains busily engaged in the battling a resolution against Sri Lanka that is now before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), scheduled for a vote on 28 March. Sri Lankan diplomats, particularly the delegation currently in Geneva, have strived to lobby enough support to have the US-sponsored resolution softened, amidst calls for an international investigation into the island’s alleged rights abuses, both in the past and the present. On 11 March, when the revised version emerged, it seemed the island has achieved a measure of success, only to find the SLMC’s report proving a thorn and dampening the spirit.

The Sri Lankan Government is prudent enough to harbour no illusions about having the resolution defeated. In the present scenario, it would be content to have it sufficiently diluted. In this backdrop, other constituent partners have taken cudgels with the SLMC for the sharing of a report that sought to damn the government. It is argued that the SLMC has violated basic agreements among constituent parties but the SLMC’s counter argument is that its biggest relationship is with the people who form its own constituency and the listed issues had to be raised at the international fora due to the government’s failure to have them addressed through domestic processes.

Bad penny report

But the SLMC’s report has popped up like a bad penny, adding credence to the current belief among many State parties that Sri Lanka remains an aggressor and violator of rights with demonstrated lack of respect for religious diversity. Pushed against the wall, the SLMC has begun to publicly defend its stance, insisting on its willingness to leave the government, if the need arises.

It is supposed to be the SLMC’s clarion call, in the eyes of some, as it now denounces certain aspects of the government of which the SLMC remains a part of. According to SLMC Leader, Rauff Hakeem, it was also a self-reflective exercise to look at where the government has failed because, in his opinion, there are several loopholes in the implementation of the LLRC recommendations and his Party has reached a decision to express its opposition to ongoing religious intolerance in multi-ethnic and multi- religious Sri Lanka.

But the government’s response to the SLMC’s behaviour was to berate Hakeem for failing the government in its crucial hour by putting out a damning report, listing out recorded incidents of violence and hostility against the Muslim community. During the last Cabinet meeting, President Rajapaksa fired salvos at the SLMC leader for failing to prioritize the government over his Party.

The government is clearly irked. But it is not so much the SLMC’’s justification of the issue of religious intolerance but more to do with its projected image of an invincible administration with absolute agreement within, that is now being questioned.

Irrespective of how the country is perceived by the international community, the Rajapaksa administration has thrived on presenting a united and stable image, indicating there is collective agreement on its approach towards issues in general. What the SLMC has achieved is to chip away the Rajapaksa’s confidence by demonstrating that there is dissent within. The SLMC is not likely to be forgiven for making the government vulnerable, particularly in the present context and is likely, from now on, to turn a keen eye on allies to ensure that the cracks don’t show.

“This is completely unwarranted. It is embarrassing to have a constituent party that blames the government while being part of it,” a prominent Cabinet minister told this column. “It is far worse than having rights groups condemning the government or documentaries like the Killing Fields series being screened. It is irresponsible,” the Cabinet member insisted.

The SLMC, founded in September 1981, by the charismatic M.H.M. Ashraff from Sammanthurai, as a political response to deal with unaddressed socio-political issues – particularly in Eastern Sri Lanka with its sizeable Muslim population – in the recent years, was full of political compromises and ugly defections. It had for long, maintained a deafening silence on issues that impacted on the Muslim community and its current response, according to some, is a tad too late. SLMC’s lack of responsiveness to issues affecting the Muslim community has resulted in the once strong Muslim political party to be split several times, have its electoral base reduced as well as acceptance within the community as a strong political force. For long, SLMC has been a failed political exercise, the occasional bouts of defiance notwithstanding.

However, Minister Hakeem has already declared that he was “ashamed to be part of this government” and questioned as to how it could be identified as a “strong government,” when it has consistently failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities. According to him, the report was compiled and submitted in the best interests of the government in a spirit of transparency and accountability as well as to “redirect focus” of an administration that lacks sufficient focus on reconciliation.

Dissatisfaction among Muslims

The SLMC argues the point that the deep dissatisfaction reflected in the report is reflective of the Muslim community’s disappointment over the government’s inability to curb religious extremism, particularly in the recent past. Hakeem has insisted that it was a decision of the Party’s high command as there were growing incidents of human rights violations directed towards the Muslims in the country with no action being taken to thwart them. “We have defended the government in Geneva, lobbied for its cause but there is a need for raising these concerns as there is a failure to contain the situation,” Hakeem argues.

The LLRC report had been for long portrayed as the panacea for all ills and the one document that is expected to help the administration to scrape through the UNHRC sessions possibly with minor bruises. The SLMC’s charge that the LLRC is not well-implemented due to the government’s own lack of genuine commitment to achieve reconciliation in the country goes to the very heart of the UNHRC argument that Sri Lanka has failed to demonstrate seriousness of purpose.

The SLMC also believes that it is standing on, or rather should, on solid ground, with a President who repeatedly raised human rights issues in Geneva during his long years in the opposition. It also argues that the intention was to highlight every community’s right to live as equals and therefore, should be treated positively, instead of treating it as an anti-government exercise.

But here is a government that is extremely sensitive to international criticism and to resolutions of any kind, as admitted to by President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently. This defiant act of the government’s ‘kept allies’ is not likely to be tolerated and is eventually likely to have political ramifications for the SLMC. Post Geneva will be the SLMC’s litmus test when the Rajapaksa administration decisively turned its wrath on the prodigal Party.

( The writer is an editor of the Ceylon Today, a daily newspaper based in Colombo, where this piece was originally appeared)