Pillaiyan (L) shakes hands with M.L.A.M.Hisbulla .
The eastern provincial council election held a few months ago, was a defining moment in this country’s history. Like the great battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharatha, it saw everybody in the east divided into two clearly defined camps. It brought together traditional enemies onto one platform to defeat the common enemy. The LTTE and TNA sided with the SLMC and Many independent Muslims sided with the TMVP. In the aftermath of the election, there was a tug of war between Pillaiyan and M.L.A.M.Hisbulla for the chief minister’s position. Now six months into the eastern government that was cobbled together by the president, minister Hisbulla speaks to C.A.Chandraprema of his relationship with the Tamil chief minister and the place of Muslims within the eastern provincial council.
Q. After the EPC elections, how have you been faring in the provincial council?
A. For the first time, all three communities are working together in one forum, and we have to thank the president for that. I have been in politics since 1988, and for the past twenty years, whenever there was a problem in the eastern province, there was no way to talk to each other. When I was a minister, even if I spoke to a TNA parliamentarian, it will not have any effect at the ground level. Now, there is the chief minister, myself and a Sinhala minister, so if any issues come up, we settle it then and there because a forum has been created for all three communities to work together. I work very closely with the chief minister and we are working together to develop the eastern province.
Q. A few weeks ago, Kumar Rupesinghe spoke very highly of you and Pillaiyan for having put in place a conflict resolution mechanism in the east. Is there any formal mechanism that you have put in place?
A. Every Wednesday, we have our board of ministers meeting where we discuss all issues. In the meantime we have already formed an inter communities friendship council in the Batticaloa district, where Tamil-Muslim clashes usually occur. These councils meet once a month and organize various cultural events and so on, which bring these two communities together. Also on Saturdays and Sundays, the chief minister visits Muslim villages and I visit Tamil villages. I went to the temple with him and he came to the mosque with me. I invite him to all my functions and he invites me to all his functions. So we are working together to bring about unity among the communities. There used to be the complaint that Muslim politicians did not look after the Tamil community and Tamil leaders and especially the Tamil administrative officers did not look after the Muslims. Now, all appointments are being made according to the ethnic ratio.
Q. The chief minister that you are working under is an ex-terrorist and may have been personally responsible for attacks on other communities in the east in the past. How do you now find him as a politician?
A. Of course when he was in the LTTE, he may have done everything. But now he is the chief minister and he has changed. He is very polite, and never makes hasty decisions. He always listens to things carefully, and in all issues he ensures that all three communities are treated equally and he does not want any community to have grievances. He’s doing a very good job really.
Q. After the EPC elections and when the appointment of a chief minister was to be made, there was some friction between you and the chief minister. But now you seem to have ironed out your problems.
A. Yes, there were a lot of problems, I objected because there was this promise that whatever community gets more seats will get the chief ministerial post. That was the agreement between the Muslim ministers and the president. So we all made that demand. Finally, the president appointed him as the chief minister and me as a minister. It was after accepting the ministerial portfolio that I went and assumed duties. After that I have not had a problem and I am giving the maximum support to the chief minister. Yesterday, someone said that the power of the provincial council in the east is because the chief minister and I are working together. There were no differences or misunderstandings after the appointment. We work very closely with one another. We work in the same building, and our bungalows are located in the same vicinity, so we are working together.
Q. Had you remained in the SLMC, they may have won, and you may have been the chief minister. Do you regret having left the SLMC?
A. No, because I left the SLMC because the SLMC leader said that he doesn’t want power in the eastern provincial council. That was the problem that I and Mr Hakeem had. I told Mr Hakeem that we should capture the council because we were in the opposition in the centre and that we can’t be in the opposition in the east as well.. But he said very clearly that we will sit in the opposition. That is why I and other SLMC members left the party.
Q. Why is it that he did not want power in the east?
A. I don’t know. The SLMC, the UNP, the TNA and even the LTTE all contested under the UNP banner. So it may be that he did not want to talk about a Muslim chief minister or an SLMC victory for fear of alienating the TNA or the LTTE. He may have feared that if he spoke of a Muslim chief minister, he may not get the TNA or LTTE votes.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
A. I want to develop the east which has been abandoned for the past twenty years. If you take educational levels, we come 9th in Sri Lanka. Not even 50% of the students pass the O/L. If you take sport, health and all other social indicators, we come last in the island. So we want to develop the eastern province. When the time comes, we’ll see what the next step is.
Q. Generally speaking, are you satisfied with the efforts made by the government to develop the east after they reestablished control?
A. Yes, generally, I am satisfied. Water is a main problem in the Batticaloa district and there is a 75 million Dollar project now nearing completion. Work is going on with regard to all the main roads, so I am satisfied with the work that has been going on. I must especially thank Mr Basil Rajapakse. He comes to the east once a month and gives encouragement with regard to the development of the area.
Q. The fear in the east was that if the chief minister is from one community…
A. For the past five months we have been in power, and if anything has gone wrong, I too am responsible, because we are working together. The Tamil community can’t say that that they have been ignored because the chief minister is Tamil. The Muslims can’t complain because I work very closely with the CM. I don’t know whether this same friendship and working arrangements will continue if someone else comes as chief minister.
Q. What I was going to ask you was whether you feel that the benefits of the development that is going on in the east is trickling down to the Muslims as well.
A. After 1983, for more than 25 years, the Muslims could not even go to their paddy fields to cultivate their own land in peace. But now, they go about their work in peace. Even though the LTTE is no more here, the TMVP cadres are still around. Only the name changed. These are the same cadres so if they don’t allow it, our people won’t be able to go about their work. But our people are now going about their work. In areas like Morawewa and Gomarankadawala, a large number of Sinhalese farmers could not do their cultivation. But now after many years, they are back at work. One school was closed, I went and re-opened it. A large number of students have come back to abandoned schools. So all three communities are benefiting now. We have 46 district secretaries divisions in the east. Out of 46, divisions, 21 have been without post offices for the past fifteen years. We have now taken staff for these post offices. Where there are Tamils, we have put a Tamil officer, where there are Muslims, a Muslim officer and where there are Shinhalese, a Sinhalese officer