Eastern Governor in the hot seat? | Sunday Observer

Eastern Governor in the hot seat?

A hartal was held in Trincomalee last Friday (10) demanding the removal of Governor Hizbullah.   Pic: Amadooru Amarajeewa, Trincomalee Special Cor.
A hartal was held in Trincomalee last Friday (10) demanding the removal of Governor Hizbullah. Pic: Amadooru Amarajeewa, Trincomalee Special Cor.

Shops and other businesses in the Eastern town Trincomalee and its suburbs Kantale, Thambalagamuwa and Serunuwara remained shuttered on Friday. The streets were nearly empty. The traders of the towns had expressed support to a hartal called by a group that called themselves the East Protection Organisation while Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Pradeshiya Sabha Member Wijayawickrama Lamahewa also continued with the Satyagraha he had embarked on earlier in the month. Their lone demand was that the Governor of the Eastern Province M.L.A.M Hizbullah be removed from his position based on the various allegations levelled against him following the Easter Sunday attacks.

In a show of solidarity earlier this week, President Maithripala Sirisena visited the Eastern Province including the sites of terror in Batticaloa and Sainthamaruthu along with the governor.

In January 2015, even prior to his appointment as governor , Hizbullah was a popular Muslim political figure in the Eastern Province. It was through his support that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was able to make headway in the Eastern Province during its last provincial council elections. Despite losing the opportunity to enter parliament in the last general election by merely 84 votes he has become a popular figure following his recent appointment. According to some residents in the province, Hizbullah appears to be a changed man. “He now works with all communities in the area and appears like he wants to win their support,” a resident said adding that unlike past governors who were not from the province Hizbullah is easily accessible. In fact, since the end of the war in 2009 Hizbullah remains the only governor who is originally from the Eastern Province. The people, therefore, claim he understands their grievances.

Accusations of extreme Islamic conservatism and support for Wahhabism has dogged a number of Muslim politicians over the years including Hizbullah. Activists have accused the governor of being one of the major stumbling blocks in introducing Islamic reforms such as the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which sought to ban teenage marriage and pregnancy. They claim his ideas are extremely regressive. The recent release of photographs which show him rubbing shoulders with the mastermind of the April 21 attacks, Zahran Hashim while shaking his hand and smiling has only added to the governor’s troubles.

Though falling short of naming Hizbullah, attending the parliamentary debate on the country’s security issue, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake pointed out that Muslim politicians have now lost control of the religious extremism they fostered in order to secure power, while suggesting a nexus between Muslim politicians and Islamic religious extremist groups in the country. Allegations have been rife that Hizbullah had courted these groups including the now banned National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) in order to gain their support to advance his political career. The Special Task Force (STF) on April 30 raiding the governor’s office in Kattankudy discovered 56 bullets, while one of his security officers was arrested days later for illegally keeping rubber seals used by several government agencies. These incidents have only further fueled the speculations against him.

However, Hizbullah has been quick to defend himself. Taking part in a popular political talk show recently he claimed he had no connection to the NTJ or similar groups, despite the accusations. Clarifying the incident behind the now widely distributed photograph of him meeting terror mastermind Zahran Hashim, Hizbullah said it was taken in 2015. According to the governor, various groups often invite politicians to discuss their concerns prior to extending their support to them during election times. “This photo was taken when the NTJ invited all contestants of the area from various political parties during the last general election,” the governor explained adding that despite the smiling faces Zahran Hashim was no supporter of his. “He worked against me from the beginning,” Hizbullah claimed during the interview.

According to him at the time there was no knowledge of Zahran Hashim having links to terrorism. “So like all other candidates I too met him,” he said. The governor claims it was Hashim’s propaganda against him that led to his eventual defeat in the parliamentary election as a result of him not adhering to election propaganda guidelines set by the NTJ such as refraining from using music in election campaigns. “I had no connection with him after this meeting,” the governor claimed adding that he had even repeatedly requested the police to prevent Zahran’s sermons which were extremist in nature being propagated.

Despite his denials, allegations against the governor have only increased in the aftermath of the April 21 attacks. But according to N.M Ameen, President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council (SLMC) one of the first organisations to have warned the government against the NTJ and Zahran Hashim, a connection between the radical groups and politicians including Hizbullah has never surfaced. “The NTJ had no political backing,” Ameen said adding that it is doubtful if the group has any deep connection with the governor. According to Ameen, the SLMC has never uncovered a connection between these groups and any politician of the Eastern Province.

However, despite the lack of evidence to prove a direct link, rights activists in the Eastern community claim the radical groups and politicians such as Hizbullah appear to hold similar views which have hampered their reform efforts over the years.

According to women’s rights activist Shreen Saroor, Muslim politicians such as Hizbullah have continued to exert pressure to block Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) reforms from taking place, leaving it languishing for the past nine years. Perhaps coincidentally groups such as NTJ which Zahran Hashim was a part of and other radical Islamist groups have opposed these reforms as well. According to activists in the area, members of the radical groups have continued to attack and threaten those working towards reforms on social media while mobilising people against them as well.

“They are hand in glove with the politicians,” Saroor claimed adding that it is the politicians that often invite these groups to discussions on reforms. As a result despite the unconfirmed links, activists say politicians such as Hizbullah and the radical groups have ideological similarities which should be a serious matter of concern.