Padma Rao Sundarji
(Full text of HT’s exclusive interview given by Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Padma Rao Sundarji, published in the Hindustan Times of September 17, 2013)
HT: Mr. Rajapaksa, in May 2009, your government and army managed to do something all previous governments in Sri Lanka had failed to do: end the 30-year-long civil war – one of the most brutal in the world – and decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What did you and your army do differently ?
Rajapaksa: It was sheer determination. The whole country had faced the war. But, I had the advantage over younger generations of having watched it from the day it started. When the LTTE were weak, they always asked for a ceasefire. Then, the international community intervened, the LTTE got powerful and – attacked all over again. So we knew and recognized that pattern. Our army too, knew, that as long as there are no political interferences as before, they could defeat them. We did not interfere and they succeeded in their endeavour.
HT: What would you list as your greatest achievement since the end of that brutal war which saw almost 120,000 people killed ?
Rajapaksa: Releasing all the ex-LTTE cadres and development of the North and East that were battered by the war. We released the cadres because we believe that their inherent Hindu culture will help them adapt and assimilate into the culturally similar Buddhist mainstream and that society will help them too.
Many have joined the army, and several LTTE cadres have got married. I just got back from a train trip on board the Yala Devi, the new train to Killinochchi. I was taking the trip after 23 years, as were many others. Some of the passengers came up to me and cried tears of joy.
HT: Since the end of the war in May 2009, the international community has focused on the last and most brutal phase, during which allegedly about 30,000 civilians were killed in crossfire. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) is charged with committing human rights excesses. India has backed several international resolutions condemning Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa: But why are they examining only the last phase? Why don’t they go into all 30 years of war when the LTTE committed outrageous human rights excesses?
As for the last phase, why don’t they talk at all about how many civilians were trying desperately to come over to this side, when they were shot from behind by the terrorists? We provided ample evidence of how people who wanted to escape from the Tigers were being shot by them. If we were murdering them too, why would they have tried to cross over? They would have waited there with Prabhakaran.
HT: The Geneva Convention applies to warring states but not to non-state actors like the LTTE. Given that there are civil war and sectarian wars all over the world and from the point of view of a human rights lawyer, do you think there ought to be amendments to those laws?
Rajapaksa: All international laws are made by big, powerful countries but applied only on weaker ones like ours. The countries who make those laws escape themselves. In fact, such countries are laws unto themselves. They discuss, they decide, they apply. Certainly that system needs to be revamped.
HT: Many influential members of the worldwide 887,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora who funded and armed the LTTE are still floating and keeping the concept of ‘Eelam’ alive. How are you tackling that problem?
Rajapaksa: It is not only the diaspora, but also people who escaped from here – after committing crimes of some kind or another – and got asylum in those countries.
We have discussed this with many of their host countries, who are among those who declare that 40,000 persons – either dead or missing in the civil war- are yet to be accounted for. But unfortunately, we can’t trace those people who escaped later. We only know that they have gone to Europe – even to small countries like Austria, Switzerland but also Canada.
HT: Switzerland has about 50,000 citizens of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, most of the funding for the LTTE is said to have come from that country. Bern started expatriating them to Sri Lanka after the end of the war but stopped recently, because the Swiss government feels it cannot guarantee their safety in Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa: Most of those Tamil refugees who live there today were sent by the LTTE to earn money and give 40%-50% to the LTTE. In that sense, you could call them employees of the LTTE.
But I wonder why the Swiss government doesn’t just keep them there as citizens, if it feels they will be threatened here? We have no objections. If anybody wants to migrate, of course they can. Why should I worry about them? Anybody who sets foot in Sri Lanka is safe. We guarantee their safety.
HT: But all countries hosting Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka accuse you of human rights abuses. What would your message be to all those who have nurtured and tolerated money transfers in the name of a ‘freedom struggle’ to the LTTE -which bought weapons – all these decades?
Rajapaksa: I say: be fair. Be objective. Don’t just come to conclusions based on one- sided “evidence.” I understand that those governments are under pressure because these Tamils are now voters and funders of politicians in many cases, who are willing to keep human rights allegations against us and the Eelam issue alive in every available international forum.
This is the crux of the problem. One day, the people who are harbouring them will learn a lesson too. This is a warning I can give them.
HT: UNHRC Commissioner Navi Pillay has been at the forefront of criticism about the alleged human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government and army.
She was here recently and given access to everyone she wanted to meet. She is soon to write a report.
HT:Did you perceive a change in her attitude by the end of her visit to see the developments in the north and northeast?
Rajapaksa: During her courtesy call here, she seemed happy and said little. She didn’t ask me anything. By then, she had seen what we have achieved in the former warzone within four years. We asked her about these allegations but she never said a word. Had she complained I would have immediately taken action. Others in my government asked her too but she gave no concrete instances. The truth is: this, too, is a campaign that was launched by the sympathisers of the LTTE even before she came to Sri Lanka.
There is absolutely no evidence. Now I ask you, if we wanted to attack those people she met, why would we have let her meet them at all? The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is sustaining this charge now. But of course, all oppositional politicians would oppose and falsely charge the government – that happens in every country.
We have just connected Jaffna to the power grid at a cost of 14.2 billion rupees. Why did we spend that money? Because we want to develop the area and give electricity to people who had earlier destroyed everything themselves. However, the general feeling here is that she had already written up her report before she came here and will, at best, add a few words. Still, I hope it will be a fair one.
HT: The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was close to the LTTE, is contesting the Northern Province election and has released its manifesto. It wants the full implementation of the 13th amendment with, among other things – land and police powers to the council. Critics say it virtually calls for a separate Tamil state. What is your view on the manifesto?
Rajapaksa: I am disappointed. But this is not new. They have used this same tactic before to rouse the feelings of innocent people and get their votes. Earlier, they used to ask the Tamils to accept the LTTE as their true representatives. Now, they are saying the same thing but in a different way. Except that now, the Tigers are no longer there. This manifesto is a clear attempt by the TNA to divide the country. And yet, I don’t think any country will help them to do so. India definitely will not.
HT: Additionally, the TNA are asking for the army to be withdrawn completely from the North and Northeast.
Rajapaksa: If people in Hambantota in the south ask me to remove the army, can I do that? The army is all over in every country. Take India, in Delhi, in Chennai, etc. the army owns tracts of land. It’s the same thing here.
In any case, where should we put the army? We can’t throw them out! Besides, don’t forget, they have done a lot of terrific work up there – even taking on tasks that the people there themselves are loathe to touch – like building latrines, etc.
HT: But how about a phased withdrawal, drawn out over years?
Rajapaksa: We have already scaled down tremendously and reduced their presence to the airbase in Palaly and the port in Kankesanthurai. I consider Sri Lanka one country.
Whether the army is in southern Hambantota or in northern Jaffna, it is the same thing for me. So why are they so worried? Besides, the geographical boundaries and the sheer tenacity of the long war in the North means that the army will never be withdrawn completely. It is the same in many other countries.
HT: How are you going to ensure that the elections on Saturday are free and fair? There are already complaints that SLA troops are intimidating voters.
Rajapaksa: There are going to observers from both South Asian countries as well as the Commonwealth stationed there. Besides, the army is keeping an eye too. I will say this once and for all: the army is not participating in the polls but merely providing security. How could I have kept my promise of holding the elections on September 21 unless there is guaranteed security?
HT: But for all your intentions, the TNA is slated to win the polls, not your UPFA. So what gave you the confidence to still go ahead with the elections?
Rajapaksa: My confidence stems from the fact that all are entering the fray, including the TNA. When I was in Jaffna recently, some candidates of the TNA crossed over to us reporting discrimination against them because they were from lower castes and that 80% of the TNA’s candidates were from the upper caste. They spoke in Tamil and denounced the policies of the TNA in public. But it is going to be a good battle. May the best party win.
HT: Relations between New Delhi and Colombo are no longer as close as before, largely due to the demands of politicians in Tamil Nadu.
Rajapaksa: I cannot comment on South India’s politics. But politicians understand politicians, so I give New Delhi a wide margin. And our relationship with India is still very good.
HT: But in the interim, your relationship with China is better. The Chinese are assisting you – among other things – with satellite technology. India is worried that they may be used to spy or jam Indian satellites.
Rajapaksa: Who is going to develop this country? Should that be my aim or should I just wait in the name of good relationships with other countries? I will take the help of whoever offers it.
India and China may have their differences. But having said that, our relationship with India will not change. Who controls business in this country?
All wholesale businesses -food, clothes, saris and gold are India-aligned. A total of 43 CEOs of 46 International companies operating in Sri Lanka are Indians. This despite the fact that our policy is to give jobs to qualified Sri Lankans if they fit the bill. But, let it be known that India’s fears are unfounded. We will never allow any country to act against India in any way from our soil.
HT: But surely the Tamils of Tamil Nadu worry you?
Rajapaksa: Yes. Because the actions by Tamil Nadu and the messages that come from there to the people of this country are that they are trying to encourage separatism in Sri Lanka. I can understand it from the political point of view but the general public doesn’t see it that way.
They interpret it as not Tamil Nadu, but India trying to split Sri Lanka. Then there is the history of the LTTE to add to that fear: the fact that they were trained in India.
HT: Is the LTTE well and truly decimated? Or is there still a latent feeling of separatism among Sri Lankan Tamils ?
Rajapaksa: The average people do not have any such feelings. They are very happy. What they want is to be in a peaceful country and earn their livelihoods. But my fear is that there are politicians who still sympathize with the LTTE and want to divide this country. They might try to poison the younger generation.
HT: You are accused of having too many family members in government, not implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in full, of a Sinhala colonization of the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa : Please don’t forget that there have been Rajapaksas in Parliament since the forties – this is not the first time. In any case, all Rajapaksas in positions of power today were elected. Which country in this region does not have political families? We had the Bandaranaikes, you have yours in India too. Unfortunately, those criticising our implementation of the LLRC don’t know what they are talking about because they have not been here and seen for themselves.
There are some things we cannot and will not implement – like having two national anthems, which was one recommendation. How can we possibly allow that ? Could India have 35 national anthems? And why would we need to colonize our own country? After all there were so many Sinhalas already in the North and Northeast before the war began. Ninety percent of Colombo’s population is of Tamil origin. Does that mean they are colonizing Colombo? My own Tamil relations have taken a lot of land here. My niece’s husband owns land in southern Sri Lanka and I frequently pull his leg about it.
These are politically motivated stories spread by those who don’t know Sri Lanka. I speak Tamil up in the North. Is that colonization? In fact, they are asking for Sinhalese teachers up there, while young Sinhalese here are showing growing keenness to learn Tamil.
HT: On a more personal note, you deliver some addresses in fluent Tamil, most recently at the United Nations. Where did you learn to speak it so well?
Rajapaksa: I have an excellent teacher. I have not spoken it all my life, but started learning when I was the Leader of the Opposition. How you address people makes a big difference. Many MPs are now holding speeches in Tamil in the North, so I must admit it has set a trend of sorts.
HT: Do you have any time for other hobbies – like rugby, which you are said to love? You always seem to be travelling.
Rajapaksa: Travelling and meeting people is my relaxation! I used to watch the rugby matches in which my sons were playing. But not much now, because my children are grown up and busier even than I am.
(The interviewer is a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered the Sri Lanka civil war and other South Asia affairs for over two decades.This interview is reproduced from the “Hindustan Times”)