By Himal Kotelawala
In his first-ever press conference, amid increasingly awkward allegations of evading the media, presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa fielded questions today on his vision for the country as well as his performance and track record as Defence Ministry Secretary.
Flanked by his former president brother Mahinda Rajapaksa and leaders of the alliance led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Rajapaksa took questions on, among other things, the country’s human rights obligations, media freedom, foreign policy, reconciliation and development.
Held in a partitioned section of the glitzy ballroom of the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo — whose construction, incidentally, began in the Rajapaksa era on prime real estate that had once belonged to the Army Headquarters — the press conference had all the trappings of a Rajapaksa INC event. Two rows of high tables were reserved for the presidential candidate and his politically colourful entourage, against a mammoth digital backdrop displaying the SLPP’s now-iconic pohottuwa (lotus bud) symbol and the words ‘Vision in Action’, with blown-up images of the two Rajapaksa brothers on either end.
As far as inaugural press briefings for a presidential candidate go, this morning’s event was certainly one of the more impressive ones on record, even accounting for the Rajapaksa brand of pomp which rarely fails to impress. In terms of substance, however, there was much to be desired.
Candidate Rajapaksa himself appeared sufficiently confident that his first powwow with the press would be smooth sailing from start to finish — and to his credit, it was, for the most part — but one wishes that more satisfactory answers were provided to some of the more probing questions fired his way.
The very first question directed at Rajapaksa had to do with Sri Lanka’s commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Asked how a Rajapaksa government would proceed with the matter, the SLPP candidate was entirely dismissive of the agreement entered with the UNHRC by the Yahapalana Government.
“My personal view is that [the agreement] is not a legal document, but we will always work with the UNHRC to solve any issues they might have,” he said, stressing that he didn’t recognise the agreement as one signed by the Sri Lankan state.
“We have already rejected that agreement as a party. It is not a document we signed. On this issue, our policies and the present government’s are far apart,” he added.
Among the more controversial of Rajapaksa’s pronouncements on the campaign trail has been a remark that, upon assuming office, he would immediately release military personnel put behind bars in the recent past for various alleged crimes. Responding to a question about the implications of this statement, Rajapksa insinuated that the judicial process that ended up trying the soldiers in question was politically motivated — a familiar refrain.
“You already know how these soldiers and others were politically victimised. Two very senior officials from the Attorney General’s Department have revealed the procedure that was adopted. There has never been a situation in Sri Lanka where [such decisions] were made at the headquarters of a political party,” he said, referring to incriminating comments made by former Solicitor General Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe in a leaked telephone conversation last month.
All of the soldiers arrested thus were tried using B reports, said Rajapaksa, insisting that it was not a process that could be justified.
His brother Mahinda meanwhile, responding to a question on debt servicing, claimed without too much elaboration that finding funds would not be a problem.
The younger Rajapaksa was then asked about accountability for those reported missing during the final phase of the war in 2009.
“When this government came into power, they neglected our process and started a new one. We will continue the process initiated by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Under the census department, we carried out a survey and found the number of people missing – whether they were LTTE terrorists or any others.
“We produced a document on that, but the foreign investigators, without even listening to us, produced their own reports and numbers. There are a lot of ambiguous documents there. We’re an independent country, where we can follow [the law] without foreign-appointed people producing documents without even coming here,” said Rajapaksa.
SLPP Chairman Prof. G. L. Pieris interjected at this point, noting that the incumbent government has admitted that some of the commitments made in the UNHRC agreement were contrary to the country’s constitution.
“No government, either present or future, can take actions that are in direct conflict with the highest law of the land,” said Prof. Pieris.
Asked about combatants said to have surrendered to the army in the last days of the war, the former Defence Ministry Secretary said, with a laugh: “I was not the commander of the army.”
Rajapaksa recalled how 13,784 people who surrendered were rehabilitated and reintegrated into society in an ambitious programme that even received the commendation of foreign observers.
Some of surrendered LTTE cadres were recruited to the civil defence force, he said, and some even signed up for the military proper.
Drawing a distinction between “missing people” and people who surrendered to the military, Rajapaksa said there were missing people in the government forces too.
“There are more than 3,000 officers missing in the military. There were certain instances on the battlefield where we couldn’t even recover our own bodies. In Jaffna Fort, there were bodies we couldn’t recover because the fighting intensity was so high,” he said.
When a journalist pointed out that some of the missing were not, in fact, part of the rehabilitated 13,784 according to some families in the North, Rajapaksa said it’s only an allegation that’s not substantiated by official records of surrender. A rebuttal by the same journalist that a commission appointed by the then government itself had recorded details of surrender was left hanging.
More questions followed in a similar vein, but the SLPP presidential candidate, it appeared, was not one to dwell on the past. He was keen to move on to what he called his policies as a future president.
“People in the North and East have more important issues: jobs, education, etc, and we can’t hang on to old things; we have to move forward,” he said.
The older Rajapksa brother, on a separate note, said that the SLPP is still open for talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), but denied reports that discussions had already taken place.
The former president then alluded to disappearances from 1983 onward under the then United National Party (UNP) government, in response to a question about disappearances said to have taken place under his watch.
The would-be president, meanwhile, stressed that leaders of the Tamil community had talked to the SLPP about “regional development” and solutions to various problems in areas of employment, education and others.
With respect to development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa highlighted his already stated policies of targeting self-sufficiency in food and economic growth built on the advancement of technical fields.
“Today, the centre of gravity of development is moving to Asia. Asian countries were developed based on technology. We have to invest more in education, targeting this particular economic development,” he said.
Asked about his foreign policy, Rajapaksa said he is committed to neutrality.
“We have to be a neutral country. We can’t get caught up in the power struggles going on between various countries in this region. We were a non-aligned country, and under the present situation we have to be neutral,” he said.
One journalist asked the former military man to elaborate on his philosophy on reconciliation.
“People should live in dignity. [We should] give an opportunity to every person aspiring for a good living, good education and access to affordable housing. These we have to develop irrespective of regions or ethnicities. Because of the 30 year war, certain areas were not developed like others,” he said.
His responses to further questions seemed to illustrate Rajapaksa’s “it’s the economy” reading of the ethnic issue, as he went on to highlight post-war economic interventions of the Rajapaksa government in the North and East.
“The then government should be given credit not only for ending the war but also for post-war development. We pumped a lot of money into the region. The road network, the two railway lines, electricity for every village, drinking water and irrigation canal rehabilitation projects were carried out,” he said.
Rajapaksa also insisted that his brother’s government was responsible for releasing some 90% of the land in the North.
“When we took over the government, Jaffna peninsula was like a camp, with bunkers all around. Both the LTTE and the military were occupying the land. In 2014, more than 90% of the land had to be released,” he said, adding that 300,000 people were resettled in their time.
“Unfortunately, nobody talks about this,” he said.
The SLPP candidate was more evasive about the matter of the controversial ACSA and SOFA agreements with the United States.
“The agreement we signed was a different one. It went on for 10 years. Nothing actually happened with that. The benefit was for us, but not for them. The present agreement is a different matter. I’m always for a sovereign independent nation. I will not do anything to harm our sovereignty. Any government that negotiates has to start with me as president,” he said.
A question about constitutional reform and abolishing the executive presidency went unanswered by the candidate, but his brother, the would-be Prime Minister could be heard saying: “We’re of the position that the executive presidency should be abolished. It is up to the Parliament.”
Many of the questions that followed were either softball questions, if not outright full-tosses, that weren’t especially challenging to either the candidate or his entourage. It must also be noted that the organisers did little to ensure that as many journalists as possible got an opportunity to ask questions, what with the microphone being repeatedly passed onto those who had already asked more than one question. However, when the inevitable question of media freedom finally arose, the response from the panel took a predictably opportunistic flavour.
Said Gotabaya Rajapaksa: “I didn’t start a white van culture. Everyone’s forgotten how people were abducted not just in white vans but white lorries in 1989. A period of burning tires, torture chambers — everyone including journalists have forgotten that period.”
Asked about disappearances reported during his tenure as Defence Ministry Secretary, Rajapaksa said: “The people who did this are on that side now.”
Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila, meanwhile, chimed in with a recollection that four presidential commissions appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge in 1996 had found that abductions using white vans took place in the late 1980s.
He also recalled a question he had raised in Parliament about how many abductions or murders of journalists were carried out in the second term of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2010 to 2015.
“[UNP Minister] Gayantha Karunatillake answered in Parliament that the number was zero,” he said.
Pronouncements were made to the effect that a victory for rival presidential hopeful UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa could spell a possible return to the dark days of the late ’80s, one of the bloodiest periods in the country’s history, under the presidency of his late father Ranasinghe Premadasa.
To expect this occasion — where journalists themselves were confronting the Rajapaksas on their press freedom record — to have been seized for the opportunity that it was for the SLPP campaign to turn it into a moment of sombre reflection, if not a mea culpa, would be naive. It was instead reduced to an exercise in abject whataboutery, as was par for the course.
But if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is serious about winning over the media, a more sincere dialogue would likely yield more dividends than a micro-managed PR drive masquerading as a press conference.