An Exclusive Interview By Hafeel Farisz for “Daily Mirror”
Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defence and Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an exclusive interview based on the recent inter communal violence that engulfed the South Western region of the country, denied allegations that he was providing cover to “certain organisations”. He instead asserted that the purported Sinhala Buddhist organisations are not his creations. He further went on to state that “Muslim politicians and Opposition politicians” are to blame for creating the ‘myth’ that these organisations were his creation.
Q: To start off with, are you saddened by the recent inter communal violence in Sri Lanka, having suffered decades through a conflict on similar lines?
Yes, I definitely am because I am the first person and one who has worked very hard to bring stability to this country together with the President. I was in the forefront of defeating Terrorism from which we suffered for 30 long years. Due to the correct approach and understanding having understood the weaknesses we suffered in the past, we were able to defeat it and usher an era of peace and stability. Following this, a window of opportunity opened up to bring benefits to the people of this country. That is the main thing. This government has done a lot of work to this end – development of infrastructure and ushering in a very conducive environment for development etc. I think we were on the correct path. We saw massive investments flowing into the country, and the increase of tourism among many other areas in which we have seen rapid progress. This is what the government can do – creating an environment for entrepreneurs and the private sector to take this opportunity to participate and help economic development.
In the meantime we also saw rapid progress in all war affected areas in the North which included de-mining, re-settlement, infrastructure development, rehabilitation among others. Among all else we have brought in freedom and democracy to these areas that had not tasted such for a long time. We have done everything to bring stability throughout the country and to maintain the peace that we brought in after so much sacrifice. Once all this was stopped what we wanted was to get the maximum out of the stability that we have ushered in and from that point of view, I am very sad to have witnessed these incidents. They gave a very bad image to our country and it affected many people who had an image of Sri Lanka being a peaceful and stable country. We saw the international media projecting Sri Lanka in bad light and that is very sad. Even the timings of the incident have affected all of us because we have a great challenge from within certain sections of the international community after the end of the war, a team to inquire has now been appointed by the Human Rights Council and we were working very hard with like minded countries to work with us and also to win their support.
Therefore this is a very sad situation. This is why all citizens of Sri Lanka, irrespective of party politics, race and religion must come together and not forget the past. We must not forget the image that Sri Lanka projected before May 2009 and all you would have seen was violence, this is what we saw. We must not forget this past which was not very long ago. We must ask ourselves; do you want to go back to that era? Do you want the country to be projected to the world on the same angles as before?. We live in a global world and we have to depend on others, if you take tourism- no one would come to this country if the country was not perceived to be peaceful, would investors come to this country if there is no stability or peace? No. so we don’t want this kind of incidents ever taking place.
I can give you a personal example of how these incidents affect the image of this country. During the time of the incident the Foreign Minister of Singapore was on a private holiday in the same region during the violence. Usually Singapore sends security personnel only to certain countries which they perceive to be violent. Sri Lanka is a country to which they do not send security personnel with their dignitaries, that’s the image that we had created. However, as soon as this incident happened the Security establishment in Singapore were worried and had wanted to send their personnel, but the Foreign Minister had said that there was no need because there was no imminent threat. He told me this during dinner at my house. But that’s the kind of effect these incidents have on the image of the country. So this is why I am sad of these incidents.
Q: But are you surprised that this happened? The last time I interviewed you, we spoke about the Bodu Bala Sena, the hate speech targeting one community and so on. How are you surprised that this happened?
Yes, I am surprised. The people have to be responsible; we don’t have to resort to violence in any way to solve any problem. If it is terrorism then that’s a different issue and a militaristic approach must be taken. But when its an issues of this kind, we must have dialogue, discuss and negotiate, there are other means to address these issues. Why I am surprised is because we were just getting over a very dark period, where people were frightened to travel in a bus, where there were no investors, tourists or peace of mind. For two generations we went through this. Why do we forget this within such a short period? That is what surprises me. That is why I am surprised. I am not talking about one community or organisation. I am not blaming anybody; the blame game will not work. It is not one person or organisation that was responsible for the recent incidents. There were many parties who were responsible for this. This is why I am surprised. Everybody must act wisely now.
Q: To get directly to the point, many parties have alleged and perceived you to be the fatherly figure that is providing cover and aiding and abetting Sinhala extremism. What is your connection with these fringe organisations which are perceived to be the catalyst for the recent spate of violence?
It’s a complete baseless allegation. It is insane to blame me out of all the people as the person who is seeking to destroy the peace and stability of this country. I am the first person who would want stability and peace in this country and the first to dispel any sort of disturbance to the peace of this country.
After the conflict ended I am sure many of the people of this country which included professionals, politicians and others were relaxing. That’s what they have to do. But I worked overtime, together with the Defense establishment we never relaxed. Soon after the end of the war we worked hard to ensure that peace sustains. That is why this country saw peace and stability all this while. There were so many attempts by the LTTE to regroup and destroy the peace in this country. We were able to prevent that. I also want to point out the irresponsible statements of certain politicians regarding intelligence personnel.
It was through the intelligence operatives that we were able to keep the peace, it was they who brought in KP who was leading and organising the international network of the LTTE. It was all due to the work of the intelligence agencies. It was they who provided all the intelligence for successful operations sacrificing a lot for this country. Unfortunately because of irresponsible acts of some people some of the intelligence personnel had to sacrifice their lives and I’m sure the country could remember that. These people are the ones who want to govern this country in the future, and if this is a calibre and mentality of the people who are attempting to govern, I don’t know what will happen to the security of this country. They have to be ashamed of themselves. If you go through a recent speech I made at the Kothelawala Defense Academy, you will see that I spoke of various potential threats to the country, and one of it was Islamic terrorism. I spoke of the possibility. Even at that time many Muslim politicians irresponsibly tried to blame me without understanding what I was talking about or the realities.
But despite this I have no need to create any organisation to counter any threat. That is not the way I work, that is not the way the Intelligence agencies or the government works. If there is a problem we have more than adequate resources to quell it. I don’t need to create organisations to do this. If we identify a threat we will counter it directly. Why should I create any other organisation? There are many other organizations today that are based on ethnic and religious lines. Is the BBS the only organisation that is based on these lines? No, there are Muslim and other religious organisations.
It is the right of the people to create any organisation, this is a democratic country. Linking me is baseless. I know who put the blame on me. It is some of the Muslim politicians and some of the opposition members. They did this to appease the international community in order to discredit me and the government. Some other people used this to get the advantage of the Muslims. Its purely political. These people have to be more responsible. The only fact they use to blame me is a photograph of me visiting an opening ceremony of a centre. I was invited by a very respected monk who all politicians and others know Ven . Kirama Wimalajothi Thera. He is known to many including the Opposition Leader.
He is a priest accepted and respected in society who has done yeoman service to the community. He invited me and that is why I went to this ceremony, and even during this ceremony, there were very respected priests, politicians and officials who were there. I don’t see anything wrong in attending this ceremony. From that day onwards they have been linking me. What other facts do they have? They have nothing else except this. I have never organised anything for them, in fact I have done everything possible to prevent some of the things that they wanted to do, take for instance the Pepiliyana incident.I spent the whole night there.
Q The main reason is the culture of impunity these people seem to enjoy, isn’t it? They have been able to get away doing things that others could not?
No, that is wrong. There is certain action that law and order could take and I think the Police has taken action immediately. But still why blame me? The Police doesn’t come under me, it’s a different Ministry in itself. Why am I blamed?
Q So do you think the Police has failed in its duty?
No, I think that’s wrong. The Police has taken action at all times. The problem is that some people expect the Police to take action in different ways to different people. Take the example of the Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph. Look at his actions and speeches. No one has called for his arrest have they? Why is the approach different? His speeches are detrimental to the country, detrimental to harmony.
In his speeches he refers to the Army as a Sinhalese Army. So why aren’t the people calling for action against him? Then look at some of the Muslim leaders and the way they talk. Why don’t you ask the same question about them? When you take legal action, or action by the Police its very unfair to target one group or persons. The Police have taken action at all times even against the Buddhist groups, what extra action are you talking about?
Q There have been instances of churches being attacked before , instances of Mosques being attacked, then most importantly there has been repeated hate speech. What action have they taken?
It is not only about the Muslims.
Q It’s about the Minorities.
Look at the social media then, I am not defending the BBS. But I am defending the Police. What action can you take against hate speech?
Q Why, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is very clear isn’t it?
No, I have discussed this with many lawyers. Its very difficult to identify what hate speech is. If there was such identification I would have taken action against Bishop Rayappu Joseph along time ago. You must also understand that when you take legal action, that action should not aggravate the situation. That is the most important thing. Its very easy to say- Take legal action. But see the difficulty the Police has. Lets leave out the BBS, Sihala Ravaya, Rayappu Joseph and Azath Salley.
Take incidents of students. Today there are so many protests taking place daily in this country.
Look at the difficulty the Police has in preventing them. These are all legal, despite the disturbance to the public. What action can the Police take? Look at Rathupaswala, ultimately there were three deaths and the soldiers who went to protect the civilians are behind bars.
Q: Doesn’t all of this indicate isn’t there a failure in the system?
No, not at all. This happens all over the world, look at the United Kingdom. Only recently there were images of the Police baton charging and using dogs against civilians. There have been such instances even in the US. Countering this type of protest is not an easy thing. It’s easy to say but it’s difficult at times. The Police have their limitations. We should take action against people who do wrong but we cant go beyond it. There are laws regulations, we have to go to courts
Q: Why didn’t the Police prevent this meeting or a rally of this sort from taking place, when it was obvious that the situation was tense and could lead to violence?
Yes, that can be viewed as a lapse on the part of the decision making. But again I asked this question from the Police and what they told me was that if they prevented the rally from taking place it could have led to a bigger and worse situation. But why are you starting from there? Why not start from the beginning? On Poson Poya day a priest was assaulted.
Q: Was the priest actually assaulted?
Yes he was
Q: But there is no JMO report to that effect?
The JMO report is different, but what everybody is saying is that he was assaulted. Even pushing will not do big damage. The JMO can’t tell that. If there is a visible damage to the body then the JMO’s report will indicate it. But there need not be physical damage, right? An incident took place, and that happened on a very sensitive day to the Buddhists. Some incident involving a priest happened that day, isn’t it? That’s a fact. In the first place if that incident did not happen then nothing else would have happened, isn’t it? However, what you have to understand the action taken by the Police.
I was in Mihintale and the IGP and the Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order was also there. As soon as we got to know about this I knew it could escalate into something unwarranted because the area is a very sensitive one. Even in 2007 there was a similar tension in this area. I immediately instructed the IGP to go to Aluthgama. I also requested the secretary of the Ministry of Law and Order to go there. The IGP on the same night immediately came to Aluthgama. Look at the action taken. That is why I cant see the reason as to why the people are blaming the Police. A senior DIG of the Western Province went there immediately, the STF was also brought in. That was the action taken by the Police, that was how they were able to contain the situation on that day.
Q: But a Cabinet Minister and your classmate, Dr. Rajitha Senarathne together with an Opposition politician who was on the ground Palitha Thewarapperuma very clearly said that this was planned. That these people were there with poles and had petrol cans. How did all this happen if the security was that tight?
Then you must blame both sides. Do you think both sides had planned it? All these things were found near mosques and near temples. Then the people of the area should have known before hand if this type of situation was happening. This is very irresponsible, be it a government Minister or an Opposition politician then they are wrong. They should have informed us. They are wrong and I’m not frightened to say that. Especially a government Minister shouldn’t say that when they don’t know the facts. This is cheap politics. Can’t you get a pole today? within five minutes can’t you find a pole?. Are they saying that both parties were ready with this?
Q: My question is why didn’t the Police take preventive action?
They took action. They were living with the people. But in a situation like this where you have to fight a mob it is not easy to control. This is what I’m saying. Look at all the situations, in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Look at the Katunayake incident, Rathupuswela and Chilaw. It is unreasonable to blame it on only one side. I want to take you back to the incident of the ‘Grease Yaka’ when a Muslim person killed a Police constable whose wife was pregnant. Was there a backlash against the Muslim community? No. the Police worked hard to prevent it escalating into any sort of violence. Why talk of only this incident?
It is very wrong to blame the Police. When that murder took place the Police did everything it could to prevent the situation from escalating. But when there is a situation of a mob running riot it is difficult and different. The same thing happened in Katunayake, Rathupaswela and Chilaw. There was nothing racial about it. In Dompe when a criminal died in Police custody and the entire Police station was burnt down. These were not ethnic or religious incidents were they? When it comes to certain situations it is not easy. This is where people who are instigating should be careful. They should not bring it to a situation like that. It happens all over the world. Its difficult for the Police to control. Also once an incident of this sort happens, various other elements get in- like looters. This blame game does not work.
What is important is to stop creating situations of this type. This is why I said that we have to be very careful. I also must say that it is the President who has solutions to all these problems. He quelled terrorism and it is he who could solve problems of this sort. What I’m saying is if there are issues that affect the people, if the Sinhalese the President is the only person who could solve them. Everybody should present these problems and the President will solve it. Nobody else can solve them. You can shout and cry, you can fight on social media, but the problems will not be solved. The problems can only be solved by him.
Q: There is a sense of belief that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s military mindset has usurped the Political project of the President. There have also been many writings appearing to this effect. Has your Military mindset usurped the Political mindset of the President?
I have nothing to do with the BBS. I am not at all involved in any of this. All this stems from baseless accusations, and I will always say that some Muslim politicians and Opposition politicians have wrongfully put the blame on me. The media also has done the same thing. What facts do they have to say that? Its very unfortunate that some people write these baseless factless articles, that is very wrong. Due to these writings the international media also believe them to be true. This is very wrong. The people who write these articles are insane. Why would the President want to damage the stability, why would he want to lose his vote base? Why would a leader want to create trouble in a country? its insane to think like that.
I am the person who worked day and night, working hard to bring and keep stability in this country while they were sleeping and writing. They want to become heroes by writing this sort of nonsense. They write without any facts.I am not worried about them because they can’t do any good to this country. They are the people who have accused this country of not having media freedom, this is evidence of that freedom. But they misuse that freedom. I will give up this post if they can prove this. I will leave this post if they can prove that I have any connection with any of these organisations. I am not afraid to say that I am a Buddhist. I am not afraid to say that there are issues that are harmful to the sentiments of the people. But I don’t condone violence. I don’t say that violence is the solution to this. I am not afraid to say that there are issues for the Sinhalese. Not only for the Sinhalese but even the Tamils have issues. If you specifically speak about the Muslim community not only the Sinhalese Buddhists, but the Sinhalese Catholics also have certain issues with them. In Mannar there are no Sinhalese but there are issues between the Muslims and the Tamil Catholics. What about the Tamils in Batticaloa? They have issues. What about the Catholics in Wattala and Ja-ela who have brought these issues to me.
This is why I believe that we have to talk to the Muslims. I am currently conducting a wide ranging dialogue with them. Moderate Muslims have told me that they have issues with certain extreme elements of the Muslim community. They have told me about them. We are working with these moderates. I am not saying that there are Muslim terrorists in this country. The Indian intelligence agencies have told me that there is a possibility of Islamic Terrorism being based in Sri Lanka to act against India. However, we investigated these concerns and found that there is no merit in these concerns or claims.
Our intelligence agencies are very active on these issues. But there are certain instances which go beyond the Security forces and the Government. The religious leaders must work together on them, they have to ensure that other communities sentiments are not harmed. I have worked on this throughout. I have met the Muslim community and religious leaders many times, our intelligence agencies have worked with them to prevent this sort of issue. This is not how the media should work, this aggravates the situation. It doesn’t help the country. I don’t see how such foolish, baseless articles could bring harmony to this country and society. This is not the way to do it. They should understand this and analyze this better. They should call for the elders and the leaders to come forward and find solutions.
Q: It was reported that you have now instructed the security agencies to take a stand against hate on social media. To quote Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi, isn’t this an instance of closing the door after the horse has bolted the stable?
This is nothing new and I have just reinforced what I said before. It is very difficult to identify and locate these people on Facebook or Twitter because the servers are not in Sri Lanka. This is not something new. I wanted to re emphasise this and wanted it to stop which is why I said it again. Not only on this issue, look at the way they attack the President on social media. It’s not done in the right spirit or in a sensible manner, but our power is limited because we don’t have the technological capability to stop it. Its not easy. However, the people should rise up from this, the whole country has to come together to stop this. You must not leave this only to the Government or the forces. Society should stand up. Why am I blamed? This is purely done by people who are frightened of me coming to politics. They are frightened because I have proved myself be it in either Defense or Urban Development. These people who blame me are people who can’t work but can only talk. These are the people who are afraid of me. They are trying to tarnish my name, that is all there is to it.
Q: Finally, will you be coming into politics?
( Laughs), If the President invites me I will definitely come and I assure you that I can do much better than many of these politicians currently holding office.