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UNP cannot celebrate May Day ignoring Premadasa commemoration - Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar

Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar, a former Media minister in the 2001-2003 UNP Government, is a popular political figure among Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese voters alike. The Sunday Observer met him last week to inquire about his future political career with news circulating that he has disowned active politics and has declared that he will not be contesting any future elections.


Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar.
Pic: Rukmal Gamage

Q: What is your ties with your party now?

A: When Ranjith Madduma Bandara was appointed National Organiser, the doors of the executive - committee were closed on me. I was stripped off all the positions I held within the UNP. But I am not interested in positions. I will work according to my conscience. And that is enough for me to be happy. I do what is right and good for the country and my party.

Q: What have you been doing lately?

A: I have begun addressing UNP supporters in an islandwide campaign to create awareness. The objective is to salvage the party from its current predicament. Never before in the history have we recorded such a humiliating defeat, to this extent and unfortunate depths. As a person who cares, I cannot remain idle and let it be destroyed. My efforts will be for the future of the party and the country. I want to do the maximum within my power to salvage UNP.

Q: You have declared that you will not be contesting any elections in the future. What prompted you to take such a decision?

A: I took that decision, when I became a project minister from a state minister. My father had contested from Beruwala since 1946. I followed in his footsteps. We have been contesting and representing the Beruwala people for 50 years. It was a decision taken after listening to my conscience. I felt someone new must be given the opportunity to represent the people of Beruwala. I wanted to step down and clear the path for a newcomer before my voters grew tired of me.

When I was promoted as project minister I had the confidence that the UNP was going to win the next election and after that I would be appointed a Cabinet minister. I took that decision to let the other candidates to come up. It was not a hasty decision.

Q: You are still a popular politician. Don't you think the voters will feel abandoned?

A: That is not how I see it. We need to move away from family politics. I felt strongly that I have to allow others to shine. You need not go to parliament to serve people. Numerous other ways are there for someone who is genuinely interested in serving people, to do so.

Q: Is that an implication that Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar will not be seen in parliament if a UNP Government is elected in the future?

A: Yes. Parliament is not a priority for me. But I will certainly be within the Party's organising structure and make my best effort to restore UNP's lost glory. Therefore, my work within the party will continue.

Q: The two factions of the UNP seem to be in a row over holding of the May Day rally, with the party leadership announcing Jaffna as the venue while the Sajith faction seems to be asking people to join Premadasa Commemoration in Colombo?

A: The UNP is holding just one May day rally. I think that is in Jaffna.

I don't hold any position in the party Executive-Committee; therefore I cannot make an official statement on behalf of the party. What is organised in Colombo is the usual event, the President Premadasa commemoration. We don't need to fight over these two events, people can participate in the event that is most convenient to them. Let it be the decision of the party supporters.

Q: But there seem to be an apparent opposition from the party leadership to the Colombo event. This is obvious by the way that conditions are being imposed on party organisers.

A: That is most unfortunate. If you feel that the party is trying to block the President Premadasa commemoration from being successfully held, that they are making attempts to sabotage it, imposing conditions to deter supporters, I feel that is most unfortunate. The party is going to benefit if the event is held as planned and if it becomes successful.

On the other hand the UNP cannot celebrate May Day forgetting Premadasa Commemoration. He was assassinated by the terrorists when he was actively engaged in organizing the UNP rally. He was never a leader to arrive in time for garlands. We lost him because of his true policies. He believed people came first and his security could assume the second place.

Q: In your opinion, why did the party take a decision to hold UNP rally in Jaffna, is it because the party has lost badly in the South or because people there seem to be willing to listen to the UNP?

A: I don't know how or why the ex-co concluded that the May Day rally this year should be held in Jaffna. I cannot comment on the basis of their decision. I am not in a position to do so. It is not clear if they consulted the UNP trade unions, or the membership at the grass roots before the Jaffna venue was selected. Their objectives too are unknown to me. But one thing has to be understood, the message that you intend to carry to the masses by way of choosing a particular area for May Day rally, is as equally important as the message you propagate via party policies, the mindset, our actions and our statements in parliament.

These are paramount in winning the confidence of communities. The UNP, as a popular right wing political party always commanded the faith of minority communities. This was true since 1950s when minority voters in the North helped UNP candidate Nadesan to enter parliament defeating Federal Party leader S. Chelvanayagam. They did not believe in racial politics. They had faith in the UNP.

But by 1956, there was a setback since the party was overshadowed by rising extremism. The UNP too was carried away by this black tide, adopted 'Sinhala only policy'. I have seen with the report containing the speech Nadesan made at the UNP ex-co subsequently. I am sure he would have made that speech with tears in his eyes. He said, 'as one of the founding members of the UNP, I cannot be happy at the way it has been deprived of its founding policies. If I remain within the party under the current state of affairs, I will become a traitor in the eyes of my supporters.' That was the beginning of the racial politics in Sri Lanka.

People can't be won over by the venue you hold a rally. The yardstick to judge a party is by the way you make your contribution in resolving a national issue. These are the things the UNP must address.

Q: Although they try to show solidarity with Northern people, the UNP is not participating in the Parliamentary Select Committee that discusses a solution to the issues of the North East people?

A: True, but the Government should also be genuine in their objectives.

There will not be long life to this initiative if their aim is not genuine...

Our people are not gullible; they are intelligent, unlike other countries, we had been enjoying franchise right since 1930s. The ex-leaders of the UNP D.S. Senanayake, C.W.W. Kannangara, A. Ratnayake and T.B. Jayah, R. Premadasa were the people who gave this country the free education, free health service, free housing projects, Janasaviya, free text books and uniform material. There is a big question why a new PSC is needed.

There had been committees, APRC of Prof. Tissa Vitharana, LLRC; why do we need more committees. We could implement their recommendations.

Q: UNP is currently factionalised beyond any hope of near revival. Do you believe the party can still pose a challenge to the government?

A: The Government has been successful in fractionalising the UNP. The same plight has befallen the SLMC, JVP, Tamil parties and communist parties.

A good section of party supporters know this internal strife is a creation of outside elements. That is why we want to find a leader who is genuinely interested in leading the party to victory and not dance to the tune of external forces. This is not an issue of personalities, it is a problem that concerns the party's policies as a whole and its current course of direction which majority think is not right.

The UNP leader has linked the party with an international organisation which herald extreme rightist, neo liberal politicies.

Some of the other members of this alliance are US's Republican Party, Sarkosy's party in France, Christian Democratic Party and Conservative Party in England. Such actions have far reaching consequences, this is not the path the past leaders of the UNP has taken. This allegiance could only contribute to our downfall. Almost all the other parties within this alliance are riddled with crises.

They are against pro-people policies. I can't understand why the leadership reckons it is important to join forces with them.

Our struggle within the party is over three issues. One is to restore internal democracy, second to thrust the party back into its original socialist democratic course, that has secured us electoral victories in the past.

In any democratic party, when a leader loses one or two elections, he choses to step down and make way for a new face. We saw this change in UK. When Labour party lost elections Gordon Brown stepped down and groomed Tony Blair. Then a new labour policy was adopted and this change steered the party into a landslide victory. Then again the Conservatives did the same. We have examples also in Australia, New Zealand, etc. The leaders who stepped down remained within the party, they were not banished. Our third intention is to make this change within UNP.

Some of the Sri Lankan political leaders think we still have a feudal system, that the country is theirs to control and the parties belong to them. We have to change from this mind set. The struggle within UNP is against these undemocratic forces. We want the leadership to listen to the voice of the party supporters and the voters.

Q: Isn't there a legal procedure in line with the party constitution to change leadership?

A: We are taking all that is possible within the legal parameters. But there is a handful of people, that represent the elite class, who do not feel the pulse of the people. This elite do not want to loosen their grip and let go. Ours is a party who set golden examples. A person like Premadasa became the first citizen of the country, due to these independent policies. Only people from certain cast were able to ascend to Presidency before that. All these barriers were broken by the UNP. We must once again go back to that era.

Q: One allegation against Sajith is that he is not politically matured to take up the leadership?

A: That is not a reason for Ranil Wickremesinghe to hold on to power. It is not a matter if the next leader is Sajith or Karu. The opposition leader has to realise what people demand. How old was President Obama when he was elected. David Cameron was just a London Economic School graduate.

We must command at least 33 percent of Sinhalese Buddhist votes. We cannot win elections only by the minority votes. This is the reality.

We have been unable to get even 20 percent in Sinhala Buddhist dominated areas under the present leader. Hence we no longer can allow him to be a burden to the party.

Q: Why can't you join forces with the present leadership?

A: When we come to an agreement, you have to abide by that. When the opposition leader agreed to appoint Sajith Premadasa as the Deputy Leader he agreed to consult him in every key decision that concerns the party but that pledge has not been honoured.

He is trying to artificially groom another Wijewardena.

He is a good person but leaders cannot be appointed by someone, they have to be elected by people's choice. That is what we are fighting for. UNP Leader has to be honest with his actions.

In view of the Dambulla issue Sajith Premadasa and even Janaka Bandara Tennakoon has taken strong stands eventhough, as Sinhala Buddhist politicians they may be risking their future. Those I see as leadership qualities. When there is a critical issue, a leader should not hide behind others or party statements, he must come out and express his views and make known his stand.

Q: Is it possible if Ranil Wickremesinghe refuse to step down the party would split?

A: I don't want to think of that possibility yet. It is not a joke if people refuse a leader for 20 straight years.

Q: What is actually the issue with Dambulla mosque. It is claimed that this is an unauthorised building?

A: If it was an unauthorised building, there are legal procedures to be followed to take action. According to the Muslim people this mosque had been there since 1963 and before that as a place of worship. Min Janaka Bandara says the place had been there at the time he was born also. This issue should not be allowed to grow into such an unpleasant state. The psychological impact would then be hard to erase.

Right thinking Sinhala crowd is against the removal of this place.

That is a consolation. A small percentage of every community involve in these type of actions, their reasons vary from power, business needs to rivalry in the profession.

In Sri Lanka the majority of people are not driven by racial factors. This is why I cannot beat Tilak Karunaratne in Kalutara district and be the first in the preferential list although the vast majority of the people in Kalutara are Muslims. The voters don't hold communal feelings when in an election booth.

Those who abide by Buddhist teachings will not discriminate others. In Syria there is this famous Umayyad Mosque where the mosque and a Christian church stand side by side. When the previous Pope visited Damascus a common service by the Muslims and the Christians were held in his honour and they prayed to a common god. This is a beautiful message the world has given us.

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