Thursday, March 18, 2010

"If I want to leave politics, the best way is to talk of federalism" - SL President

To read the full interview, click here.

Ravi Vellore - In August 2008, after spending a week in Colombo, I stuck my neck out to suggest in a long article for the Straits Times that Sri Lanka's long drawn civil war may finally be heading for a close.

At the time some thought I was too optimistic. The Tigers were considered invincible.
But the Tamil Tiger "headquarters" of Killinochchi fell in late December and suddenly the world sat up and took notice of an entirely new scenario developing on the island.

In May last year, I was in Colombo again when Sri Lankan troops fished out Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's body from a lagoon.

Alongside, the army had managed to wipe out the entire leadership of the Tigers, who had, suprisingly for a guerilla force, apparently congregated at one location.

The exact circumstances of the end of the war will never be known for years. Some say the Tigers were eliminated even as they sought a surrender.

The end of the war was followed by a surge of majority-Sinhala triumphalism with huge cutouts of President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya and army chief Sarath Fonseka appearing all over the populous central and south of the island.

Those posters have now disappeared. The Rajapaksas fell out with their former army chief, who then unsuccessfully mounted a political challenge for the presidency.

Fonseka was subsequently bounced out of his party office and is currently undergoing court martial.

This week, President Rajapaksa received me in his Temple Trees residence on Colombo's Galle Road for what his advisers called a "nice, long chat."

Sitting with Central Bank Governor Cabraal, Secretary to President Lalith Weeratunge and Information Director Lucien Rajakarunanayake, Mr Rajapaksa spoke for two hours in a formal interview during which he pulled no punches. He then took me indoors for an hour long informal conversation over lunch.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Q. What would be topmost on your agenda after the poll? With the presidential and parliamentary polls out of the way you have an open road for five years.

A. Of course, the peace settlement is a must. Then there is the economic challenge. In the four years I was president I have doubled per capita income to US$2,014 (S$2,806). My target is to double this to US$4,000 by the end of my tenure in office. Remember this took place was when the war was on. With infrastructure, development, we can do it.

We had noticed that all the development was taking place in Colombo and its neighbourhood. I think this was because all the leaders were from Colombo (guffawing). They gave roads, electricity, good schools... were only in Colombo. My intention is to build the rural economy through infrastructure. Which is why Hambantota.

Q. You are consciously shifting some of the economic weight to the South?

A. Yes, well to the whole country, including the North and South.

Q. So, there might be an international airport in Jaffna some day?

A. Yes, we might be able to do it. In the old days we used to fly from Jaffna to Tiruchy in India. At the moment I am developing the airport in the South. We will see after we finish that. Palaly airfield in Jaffna is now an air force base. If these mad fellows give up their Eelam dream — which will never happen as long as I am here — we can think about it. They must give that up.

Q. Are these pro-LTTE people still active?

A. It is more outside Sri Lanka than within the country. There are (expatriate Tamil) people living on this Eelam thing. They have their own agenda. They live on this. And the people who are collecting money abroad for the LTTE have lost their living because Tamils are not willing to contribute funds anymore. So, they want something to happen here to impress and activate them.

Many Tamils want to come back. The second generation and third generation Tamils aren't Sri Lankans really. They can't speak a word of Tamil or Sinhala. It's true for Sinhalese outside as well. But a lot of the educated people who went abroad, they have come here. From Canada I had a lawyer... leads a very comfortable life there, but he wants to come and invest and work here.

Right-thinking people know they can come and do business here. In Colombo, business is largely controlled by Tamils. We had 90 per cent Sinhalese some 30 years ago, but now the Sinhalese are 27 per cent. The approach to my house is lined by Muslim Tamil homes on both sides. The other day I called all of them into my home for a meal.

Q. What is this model Sri Lanka you have in mind?

A. To be a hub for education, for aviation. shipping, communications and tourism. We are building five ports around the country. We are expanding Colombo Port, we are building Hambantota. There is Kankesanthurai in the North. And we aren't mentioning Trincomalee because it is a naval base at the moment. We are building a new international airport after 60 years.

When I went to Kandy they said you are building ports and airports in Hambantota but you aren't giving us anything. I said if you can bring the sea through the Mahaveli irrigation project I can consider a port for you. One can think of a seaplane facility at the Victioria Reservoir. I am surprised at some of the things that even educated people can say.

Q. You wrote about a "full reconciliation program". What does this mean?

A. This is what I believe. That without peace, there is no development. And without development, there is no peace. You go to a village or a farm and go to a student or a man who is in a relief camp and ask him. Do you want constitutional amendments? Their answer invariably is: 'We want a house', or 'we want to educate my child. We want electricity.' This is what they will ask.

If you develop these areas there will be a new generation that will emerge and new politicians. This is why I went for elections knowing that people in the north of Sri Lanka will not support me. Actually I was surprised I got a quarter of the votes polled there. I went there, spoke to them in Tamil. They knew development was coming. It shows development has value.

Q. What would be the political contours of this program? What pieces do you need to put in place in order to get there?

A. This is what I want to discuss with the new MPs after the election.

I visited a refugee camp once for a function. A Colombo lawyer who was supporting us said if the North and Eastern provinces could be merged that would help us. I was listening. At that point a young man got up and said: Sir, please don't divide the country again. We were traitors to our country. Better keep us under one umbrella. So, in my speech, I said he gave the answer. I will not merge North and East, I shall merge the whole country. If we concede to the merger call, the Muslims will ask for a province. After that, the Burghers could come, and there other communities, too.

Q. Even so, isn't there some merit in the federalist principle as a solution? It has worked in India, in Switzerland.

A. Federalism is a dirty word in Sri Lanka. It is linked so much with separation. If I want to leave politics and go home, the best way is to talk of federalism. They won't accept me after that. I am a politician, no? The actual situation is, see this country. This is not an India, a huge country. You cannot forget the history of Sri Lanka.

Right now, just because all the Chief Ministers are from my party, I have some control over them. But they do have enormous powers. They even have Security Council meetings. If you give them the powers they will do whatever they want. They might say Indian Tamils cannot come here… to their areas.

Q. What about implementing the 13th Amendment? Especially, handing over police powers and control over land to Provincial Council governments?

A. We must discuss with them. The 13th Amendment is there. Other than the police powers we have given them all the powers to the provincial councils. We have nothing to do with land. What can I do when there has been no Provincial Council in North? But there must be some (central) control. I have seen people even giving away irrigation reservoirs to friends and business partners to be filled up.

As for police powers, knowing my people, I would say, please do not devolve that power. See what happened when Sonia Gandhi went to Uttar Pradesh (and Chief Minister Mayawati, who is opposed to the Congress party, denied her permission to enter her constituency). They are fighting for control of the police. You know, chief ministers are chief ministers.

I have learnt from India. You think I would make the same mistake? See what happened in Mumbai. It took eight hours to fly in the National Security Guard commandos because they needed the requisite permissions.

Q. What options are opening up now there is peace?

A. We are a non-aligned country. That is our approach. I do not have to shape policy as such. Anybody who helped me I was ready to accept. But unfortunately, the countries decided on themselves not to help us in development work or in the fight against terrorism. I treat everybody equal. But you must understand India, of course. India is our neighbour. We must have good relations whether in war or in peace.

Q. Will the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement go through with India soon?

A. This is what I just told you. Without the Cepa, the Indians are already working here. If you try to introduce it the way that people mind it... (that would be counterproductive). we cant enforce it by force. Let the businessmen decide and when they realise that this will benefit them. Then automatically they will push for it. I think that urge is taking shape now. PM Manmohan Singh understands this, too.

Q. Stepped up military ties with India now that the Tamil factor is no longer relevant? Would you start buying arms from India?

A. We don't need such arms now. When a shipload of arms arrived from China after the war — this was arms ordered by our friend Fonseka — I had to turn it back. We don't need that much of arms and ammunition anymore.

Q. How do you view the rise of China and what opportunities does it offer Sri Lanka?

A. My view is now India has taken up development in the whole North. A lot of railway line restoration there is done by the Indians. That doesn't mean Sri Lanka has been captured by India.

Now take Hambantota port. It was offered to India first. I was desperate for development work. But ultimately the Chinese agreed to build it. Take Treasury bonds. Who controls it? The bulk is invested by Americans. Now take sovereign bonds. Who controls it? The British. China is only doing development work. We have to pay back their loans.

Q. Every analyst talks of Hambantota. Will there be a Chinese naval base there one day?

A. I was interested in that harbour and port in Hambantota for the last 30 years. As I said my economic policy was not to develop only Colombo. I know that China is not interested in putting a naval base here. I will not allow this country to be used against any other country. Whether it is China, India, Pakistan... we are a non-aligned country.

Q. One complaint heard widely in the island is that there are too many Rajapaksas. What do you say to that?

A. Oh, that is true. But for that matter how many Kennedys were there in administration. Or Bushes. Or the Gandhis. I have only two brothers in administration.

Q. What are your hopes for your son Namal who is contesting the parliamentary poll next month? The official government website carries this line: 'If Sri Lanka is to develop at a rapid pace, Namal Rajapaksa should have the controlling authority.' Do you agree?

A. He has new ideas. But he has to be a back bencher. But knowing Namal he isn't using my name as such. He never accompanies me on my campaigns. He has his youth organisation for the last four or five years. When he was a student he wanted to join the party. I said, No, go study first. He quietly started this organisation and started working around the country. He has addressed 260 meetings alone and without party support. He didn't go to government television. He has gone on private television — a programme called 360 degrees — when asked to say how he wished to be known as, he said, my father was known in the 1970s as G. A. Rajapaksa's son. Now they call him Mahinda Rajapaksa's father. I want one day for the President to be called Namal's father.

© The Straits Times

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