N. Ram interviews Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa

MR_PresidentOfSLDuring his first term, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, underestimated by his political opponents and the outside world, achieved overwhelming political dominance after his politico-military strategy eliminated the LTTE as a military force and he went on to score two big electoral victories. As he embarks on a second presidential term, which began on November 19, he reflects on the tasks and challenges ahead in an interview given to N. Ram at Temple Trees in Colombo.

Mr. President, you made a huge score in the first innings. As you begin your second innings, there are heightened expectations from many constituencies within Sri Lanka and outside. How do you react to these?

As for what I achieved in the first term, I have brought peace to this country. Eliminated terrorism and brought peace. Now my aim is to develop the country. After that, the priorities are the people whom we have to win over – the hearts and minds of the people. Now Sri Lanka is one country; it’s not divided. So what we want is to see that the whole nation gets all the benefits, not only one area, not only one community. To develop the economy so that all the people benefit.

Earlier you spoke about the three Ds, Development, Democratisation, and Devolution. Has that changed?

No. Development is important. Without development and peace, we can’t have democracy. Democracy is very important because we are a democratic country. And then devolution: we have said we must know the minds of the people. Politicians have their own theories but people, the new generation, have different views. What we want is reconfirmation of what they want. Definitely we are going to have this. To have peace, we need all this.

How do you find the response of the people of Sri Lanka when you go to the rural areas? You won two big elections, the presidential election and the parliamentary elections.

When I go to villages and talk to the people, they are warm and friendly. I feel it.

You have no worthwhile opposition, politically speaking. Of course there are opposition forces. General [Sarath] Fonseka came into the picture and there are others. But after the elimination of the LTTE and after the electoral victories, I don’t see any leader in South Asia who is so well placed, so dominant politically as you are. How do you react to this? Do you sometimes feel complacent?

I must thank the people. In our democracy, people have trusted me to deliver. They know I have delivered peace to them. Now they need development and peace again. That is what the people expect from us. Now, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, after a victory by 1.8 million – all this gives strength to me and to my party. What the people wish to have, we have to deliver.

On the Tamil question, the first challenge after the elimination of the LTTE was looking after 300,000 people who were in the camps. Now most of them have been sent back to their areas and I believe the number in the camps has come down to 18,000.

Of this 17,000 or 18,000, many of them are not in the camps; they go to the villages and come back. But at least 10,000 of them are from areas that have to be de-mined; we can’t send them there yet. But by December, we expect to send back everyone other than the people who wish to stay there [in the camps].

Are you satisfied with the resources that have come internally and externally to help this process?

I’m satisfied. Because all our friends helped us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this.

Now, there are heightened expectations about the political solution, the 13th Amendment-plus, that has been promised. The impression is that there is drift here.

As you would understand, we can discuss this only now – with all the political parties. After the elections, we have had discussions and they will continue. The solution that I have in mind might not be good enough for them; they might not accept it. Not only the political parties, the people must accept it. They want a new leadership to be built up. After we send them back to their villages, they have all these expectations and hopes. We must find out from them too. I have already had discussions with our political leaders who are in the government and who are in the opposition.

Do you have in mind a clear political solution, even if you have not revealed the specifics?

Yes, but I will first find out their views. We want to appoint a committee, from both sides and discuss all these.

Do you find the opposition reasonably cooperative, at least the main opposition, the UNP?

[Laughs]. The problem is they have to survive. The Opposition has lost all their slogans, now they have to find new slogans. It’s good in a way. But the Opposition must also remember this. They must oppose us within the country; it is their democratic duty. They must also realise that when we go out of the country, we all represent Sri Lanka. The fight is here, in Sri Lanka, but not when they go out. They must always respect the country.

This is a principle you have followed throughout in your political career, when you were in the Opposition also?

Yes. I never went and tried to stop any aid or any benefits that we got! We never went on to that. We said, ‘yes, there are human rights violations,’ because I was the one who first went to Geneva and gave evidence in the Human Rights Commission. But we never tried to pressurise the governments to withdraw aid and benefits to the people of Sri Lanka.

It is notable that the Tamil National Alliance, or the people who are now the TNA, have for the first time said they would accept a devolution package within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. How do you see that?

It is a good development. Because earlier they wanted a separate state. It’s a very good development. We can now start talking to them.

You expect a lot from them?

Not only from the TNA but from all the Tamil parties. We need their support and the [Tamil] people’s support. This is very important. They must realise that they can’t get what Prabakaran wanted – by using guns and all those weapons, by terrorism. They can’t terrorise the country that way. They must also realise that what we refused to give Prabakaran, we won’t give to others. So they must be realistic – and fair, in this process. They must know the feelings of the others too.

The question is also about the sequencing: before you come to this political agreement, the search for a political consensus on the devolution package, why not hold elections in the Northern Province? But even the TNA doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry.

Yes, because at this juncture we have to re-settle these people first. They must be given their basic needs and provide for their livelihoods.

But they voted in the presidential and parliamentary elections even though they were in the camps. Do you have to wait for them to be completely re-settled now?

There is also the need to register all of them [in the electoral register]. We can’t have elections now under the 1981 Census. You know, in the Eastern Province, we had elections as soon as we threw the LTTE out. But [in the North] I didn’t want to have elections when they were in camps, because the interpretation would have been different. Now I want to have elections as soon as possible to the Northern Provincial Council. We might be able to do that by next year. People who want to criticise us will always criticise us, for the low turnout and so on. But we can’t have elections under the 1981 Census!

Everybody speaks about the tremendous infrastructural development in Sri Lanka, every part of Sri Lanka except the areas where de-mining is yet to be completed. So you have a very good thing going. Can’t the political process be speeded up to keep pace with this rapid development?

Unfortunately, the stakeholders were not available, some of them. When we start that [political process], the Opposition must cooperate. Everybody must agree to the solution – this is not my personal solution! It must be a solution of the people, a solution from the grassroots level – not imported, not imposed by force – it must come from them. This is the solution we want. Now they all want to be one country, one nation. I have been to the North, our young MPs also have gone. We have spent billions of rupees there. What we have spent on the Eastern Province and on the North, we have not spent on the other Provinces. If you compare that, we have invested massively in the North and the East.

Because if the political agreement happens, there will be no issue. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the LLRC, was set up to probe events from 2002 to the end of the war and fix responsibility and make recommendations. We have the successful South African model [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission]. How do you assess the progress made in this?

I would say, very good. They have already given us an interim set of recommendations. I have given it to the officials to implement. A committee has been appointed. The commission is not meeting in Colombo only; they go to the North, they go to villages. They go and meet the people; they don’t wait till people come to them, they go to the masses. The difference is that. They have invited all international human rights groups to come and give evidence. They have sent invitations to the United Nations, so it can come and find out now. I think they are working very well, though some of the interested parties have their own views about the Commission.

You have the U.N. effort, the advisory panel that the Secretary General has set up despite opposition from the Sri Lankan government, and the demands of the NGOs for more investigations into alleged human rights violations. They don’t seem to have got anywhere.

I understand the plight of the NGOs. They have to say something. Whatever we do, finally we won’t be able to change their views – we might be able to change the views of a few of them but not all of them. They must realise that if you talk about other countries, conflicts are there, human rights issues are there. You can see the difference. For example, when all the 300,000 came this side and we started building some villages and kept them there, they said we were keeping them in ‘concentration camps’! You went there at that time, you could see for yourself whether they were concentration camps. When we re-settled them, they said ‘no permanent houses.’ Within six months, we have to build permanent houses. But without de-mining, how can we go and settle them? If we had settled them, they would have said we did this purposely to kill these people. We have seen some of these NGOs in Sri Lanka during election time. They went all out. One NGO, Transparency International, its local chapter, spent [SL Rs] 109 million in 2009, and within one month, the election month, January [2010], it spent [SL Rs] 69 million. A government department won’t be able to spend so much! This is what they did – got involved in local politics. They want to change governments, they want to change leaders. They don’t worry about the repercussions. Some of these NGOs are out; some of them are working.

‘Help us bring the communities together’

You have taken a special interest in language policy. You have announced a Ten Year Presidential Initiative for a Trilingual Sri Lanka and before that the initiative to promote English. This seems to have been thought out over the long term. How do you see this going?

Last year was the Year of English and Information Technology. With that the people started spoken English, they started learning English. So I thought the best thing was that all Sinhalese must learn Tamil now, the Tamils must learn Sinhala, and they must all learn English and acquire knowledge, international knowledge. We thought the best thing was to launch this three-language initiative. We have set the target of 2020 and I think we can achieve it. One issue is teachers; we have to train the teachers. But we have to meet that challenge.

The coordinator of this initiative, Sunimal Fernando, told me about the findings of a socio-linguistic survey in Sri Lanka; it showed a surprising amount of support, even enthusiasm, among both Sinhalese and Tamils for learning each other’s language. This must have come as a surprise even to you.

Yes but I have seen some of this. Government servants get from [SL Rs] 10,000 to [SL Rs] 25,000, depending on the level of competency, for learning a second language, Sinhalese learning Tamil or Tamils learning Sinhala. We pay them; I don’t think any other country pays government servants like this. We are serious about this.

In your address in 2009 during the launch of the Year of English and IT, you made an interesting statement. First about Sinhala and Tamil, not merely as tools of communication but as encapsulating values and worldviews. And English is to be delivered purely as a “life skill” for its “utility value,” as “a vital tool of communication with the outside world of knowledge” and as a skill that is required for employment. Then you go on to say something very interesting: “We will ensure that there will be a complete break with the past where in our country English was rolled out as a vehicle for creating disaffection towards our national cultures, national ethos and national identity.” So you make a qualitative distinction between learning Sinhala and Tamil by people belonging the other community and English as a life skill – but breaking with the past. So it was a real problem in Sri Lanka, the separation of the English-knowing elite and the people?

Yes. Because everybody thought that English was for the elite. And the elite used it as a sword – in Sinhala it is “kaduva.” The elite used knowledge of English as a kaduva to cut down the others from the villages. This was very prominent in high society, especially in Colombo; they thought the people who didn’t know English must be somebody to be looked down upon. Now it has changed and we want to change this attitude.

And if this Trilingual Initiative really takes off and achieves its target, it will really be a unique achievement. Very few countries would have done anything like this.


Can you tell us about your thinking behind the removal, through a constitutional amendment, of the two-term bar on holding presidential office? There has been international comment on, and criticism of this change.

The thing is I have seen the second term of various leaders, not only in Sri Lanka but also in many other countries. Because in the first year [of the second term] you can work. Yes, you make promises, you can work in the first year. When it comes to the second year, from the beginning the party is fighting within to find the next leader. Government servants will be looking out to see who will be the next leader and they will not work. And the President would be a lame duck President from the second year [of the second term]. See what happened during the last term to [President] Chandrika [Kumaratunga], what happened to J.R. [Jayewardena], what happened to others. I’ve seen that, so I’m not going to walk into that trap! So I thought the best thing – whether you contest or not, that is a different thing – would be to be free from that [constraint]. Because during the second term of six years that the people have given me because I have achieved during the first term, I must have that freedom, without conspiracies, without pulling you down among your people, among the government servants especially.

The second term is very important. To achieve development for the people – that was the mandate they have given me. That’s why I did that. It doesn’t mean…whether I’m going to contest a third term or fourth term, it’s not like that. Generally, this [two-term limit] had made our leaders lame ducks during the second term.

You have told me on more than one occasion that one of the problems with the constitutional structure in Sri Lanka was that the President was away from Parliament, and that you had grown up in the parliamentary tradition and you wanted to overcome or narrow that gap. Have you been able to do that?

Yes. Now it’s compulsory, after the 18th Amendment, for the President to go to Parliament, at least once in three months.

This will solve that problem?

I think so. Because then when I have the right to go there, at least once in three months, I can use it at any time when I think it is necessary or useful. Even that they criticise, saying I am trying to control Parliament! I don’t want to do that; that’s why I said once in three months was enough. I don’t want to go and mess around with the parliamentary system. I want to be there to feel the pulse of the people, to hear the Opposition, to find out. I will give you an example. Recently, when Ranil Wickremasinghe, Leader of the Opposition, raised an issue on casinos, that somebody had started a casino on government land, I issued orders and found out it was a true story. I immediately called Ranil and thanked him for raising that. The Opposition’s duty is to show us these things and if I am there, in Parliament, I will be better informed about these things. Where something wrong has happened, we can always rectify it. It is very important that I should be very close to Parliament.

The other issue that is commented upon and criticised is the jailing and conviction of your former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka. Neither he nor any member of his family has asked for a presidential pardon. Is it a political problem in Sri Lanka?

No, it’s not a political problem. The law is for all; everybody is equal before the law. Whatever wrong things they have done, they have to face it. People understand this. Some Opposition MPs, thinking they can use this as a platform to gain political advantage, are using his name. But I don’t think it’s a matter over which people are excited. They are not interested.

Neither the UNP nor even the JVP seems to have taken this up in a serious way.

No. When they want to say something or do something, they bring this up.

One is the rule of law and the President’s role. But there is also a personal side. He was your Army Commander, you knew him personally. How do these two sides interact?

Yes, it’s really difficult. But whether you are the Army Commander or not, if you do something wrong, you will have to face it. We never thought he was a man like that, we didn’t know. When he came forward as a candidate, somebody informed and said his son-in-law was an arms dealer. We never knew about this. He didn’t admit it either. He should have informed us. He sat as chairman of the tender board; no Army Commander had done that earlier. We made a man who was supposed to retire in a little while the Army Commander. If I had known that his son-in-law was an arms dealer, I would have warned him or tried to correct him.

There are, I’m told, about 11,000 self-confessed LTTE cadres or supporters in custody, hardcore elements and maybe some others. How do you resolve this issue?

Some of them have already been rehabilitated. Four thousand have already gone dome. We have released the children and the old people. Some of them don’t want to go; they are with us, for their own sake.

In your U.N. address, you extended an open invitation to all Tamil expatriate citizens of Sri Lanka who wished to come and join the development of the country. Has there been a good response to this?

Yes, there has been a lot of response, including from those expatriates who want dual citizenship. But there are also those who went away for other reasons, but showing the conflict as the reason. Many Sri Lankans have gone and settled down abroad and taken the citizenship of other countries.

You have been in close touch with Indian leaders. You have come to India; you were the chief guest at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games; you have maintained continuous contact. Are you satisfied with the level and quality of India’s contribution to this process, after the war ended?

Yes. Yes. Relations have been excellent, after the war, and before the war ended. We have been in close touch, the leaders of the two countries.

For example, building 50,000 houses should take care of most of the housing needs of the displaced people in the mainland North. Then there is restoration of the collapsed railway network in the North. Palaly Airfield; KKS harbour; road development projects; a power project in Sampur in the East…

So all these projects have been given to India. But still some of the papers are making a big fuss over our projects and making comparisons with what we have given China.

Did the Indian government, political leaders or officials, express concern over this?

No, no. They are much more mature. Because everything had been offered to them first. The airport, the port, Hambanthotta harbour. Even Sampur was offered four years ago. We need development, rapid development. This will greatly help the people of the North, the Tamils. People who used to support the LTTE, those who made a big fuss over these projects, including Professor [M.S.] Swaminathan’s blueprint for the development of agriculture and fisheries in the North, should realise this.

As you embark on your second term, your new term, as President of Sri Lanka, what is your message to your people and to the international community? How should they respond to Sri Lanka’s new situation?

The message to my people is that I am concentrating on development work. I want to make Sri Lanka a hub for the development of knowledge, energy, commerce, naval transportation, and aviation. To achieve that, our people must stay together, rally round the government and achieve it – for the people. To the international community, my message is they must understand our position. We defeated terrorists, not freedom fighters. The whole world is facing this problem. So they must realise what we have achieved and help to develop the country, develop the North-East. They must help us not to widen the gap between the communities but to bring them closer. The past is past; you don’t dig into the wounds. We must think positively, not negatively.

(Courtesy of The Hindu)

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