Muslim ally threat to Chandrika

COLOMBO, JUNE 16. Amidst heightened back-room efforts by the opposition United National Party to muster support for its proposed no-confidence motion against the Government, a crucial partner of the ruling People's Alliance (PA) today said it was disillusioned with the Government and made veiled threats to withdraw support to it.

Accusing the PA of attempting to break up his party, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Mr. Rauff Hakeem, said at a news conference that his relations with the Government were at a ``low ebb''. ``My message to the Government is don't mess with my party. I am not going to be a partner to the Government when the dignity of my party and my leadership is at stake,'' said Mr. Hakeem, who held a long discussion with the President, Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga, on Friday night.

Mr. Hakeem said the SLMC was also disappointed that the Government had not implemented many of the promises made to it. On Friday, the Government upgraded a Muslim-majority town in the eastern district of Ampara to that of a municipality. The SLMC welcomed the elevation, but pointed out that the demand was for a Muslim administrative district in the east. However, Mr. Hakeem said he would not join issue with the Government on any one demand, and that there was a ``whole chain of events'' that had made the SLMC's support to the Government difficult to justify to its followers.

The SLMC has 11 Members of Parliament, and it was their support that enabled Ms. Kumaratunga's PA coalition to form the Government after the last election.

The 42-year-old lawyer, who assumed the leadership of the SLMC after its founder, M.H.M. Ashraff was killed in an air-crash days before the 2000 general elections, said he had neither sought any reassurance from Ms. Kumaratunga in return for his support to the PA nor was he given any.

In response to a question about the UNP's proposed no- confidence motion, the SLMC leader said: ``I can be persuaded, but that applies to both (PA and UNP).'' However, according to other reports, any move by Mr. Hakeem to quit the Kumaratunga Government would split his party vertically.

There is now a power struggle within the SLMC between Mr. Hakeem and the party founder's widow, Ms. Ferial Ashraff. Supporters of Ms. Ashraff from Ampara laid siege to Mr. Hakeem's home on Friday night. Fearing for his safety, he moved to a five-star hotel. Mr. Hakeem admitted his relations with Ms. Ashraff were strained and made a reference to the ``agents of the Government'' within his party, but emphatically denied there was a challenge to his leadership. He drew a connection between the attempts to break the SLMC and statements by ruling party members that he was making unreasonable demands to the PA, when in fact, all he was asking for was the implementation of old promises.

``I have been humiliated and slandered by forces within the Government,'' he said. Mr. Hakeem revealed he had told Ms. Kumaratunga during Friday night's meeting that the PA's mandate in the last election was ``flawed'' due to poll irregularities.

``She disagreed but I told her that had there been an independent (election) commission, there wouldn't be a PA Government today,'' he said.

The SLMC's credibility had suffered for participating in such a Government, he said. ``We are guilty by association,'' he said. One of the SLMC's early demands in return for its support to the Government was for the setting up of independent commissions to oversee elections, and the functioning of the police, judiciary and public service.

Mr. Hakeem had given a 100-day deadline to the new PA Government for setting up these commissions, but the Government deflected it by announcing it would set up a parliamentary select committee chaired by him to go into the demand. The SLMC leader said today no such select committee was set up.