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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 113

"I am not a Sinhala chauvinist but a Sri Lankan nationalist" - Mahinda Rajapakse

By Inderjit Badwar - Exclusive interview with President Mahinda Rajapakse

The two-part interview report by the popular Indian journalist and writer Inderjit Badwar with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse that were carried in IANS and PTI recently were the truncated versions that simply did not carry the full flavor and complexities of the comprehensive Question & Answer session that has major international policy ramifications. “Asian Tribune” gives here the full, unedited text. Even Indrajit Badwar is of the candid opinion that those edited versions in two parts -- did not reflect cardinal nuances --- Rajapakse's, more than broad hints that he is willing to bend and acknowledge that the preservation of Tamil honor, ethnicity and human rights are fundamental to any solution and that he is mentally prepared to give "an out-of-the box" (read autonomy) status to the North.Mahinda Rajapakse: "My political strategy is transparent. I have no hidden agenda. All parties that are represented in our Parliament should unite on a common peace platform."Mahinda Rajapakse: "My political strategy is transparent. I have no hidden agenda. All parties that are represented in our Parliament should unite on a common peace platform."

Mahinda Rajapakse also firmly dismissed the permanence or even the utility of a military victory in the last answer when he refers to the Buddha Dharma.

The reading of the interview in its entirety, it is absolutely clear that Rajapakse was making a special effort to reach out to the Tamil diaspora. Unfortunately, in the truncated summaries that have appeared, he is positioned as a man hell-bent on preserving "unitary" rule with no regards for human rights. In fact Human Rights Watch brazenly labels him a warmonger!.. This really misses the forest for the trees. - Editor - Asian Tribune

Introduction

He recently hit the news with a quick military victory that wrested control of the eastern provinces of his island nation from the LTTE. But Mahinda Rajapakse is not a man in a hurry. The Sri Lankan President knows exactly where he wants to go, and in order to get there he marches to the beat of his own distant drummer. He does not play to the gallery and the concepts of PR and image-making and “positioning” are alien to him. Unlike his westernized predecessors Chandrika Kumaratunge, Ranil Wickramasinghe, and even Premadasa, Rajapakse, in his own words is “not a man of glamour.” He is the country’s first head of state from the rural south and, like the English he speaks, homespun.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that he has no charisma—an inherent trait that swept him into power in December 2005 against all odds on the crest of a Sinhala majority vote with the support of chauvinist parties like the JHU and JVP. To most of the world he remains either an enigma or a Rambo trying to force a military solution to Sri Lanka’s decades-old ethnic problems. Is he a warmonger? What are his views on human rights and the plight of the Tamils? Why did he lose his patience with the LTTE? What are his estimates of the LTTE’s strength? How does he view India? Is he tilting towards Pakistan? Where is he buying arms? What are his peace plans and agenda for devolution of powers?

In the most extensive, candid and emotional interview he has even given, Rajapakse recently spoke to senior journalist and author Inderjit Badwar at his residence in Colombo. The President – a tall, muscular figure who exudes the earthy exuberance and macho good looks of a South Indian film star -- had just finished his morning work-out at the gym followed by a swim was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his hair still wet.

The full text of the exclusive interview Inderjit Badwar had with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse

Inderjit Badwar: Excellency, your critics, including groups like Human Rights Watch say that you are not doing enough to further a political solution to the ethnic strife in your country but are bent upon a military victory. Is this perception accurate? Have your policies created a stalemate?

Mahinda Rajapakse : These outside “instant experts” have been giving their text book analyses and solutions for decades with the aim of influencing donors such as the World Bank and IMF to pressurize my country into imposing their theoretical solutions rather than letting us negotiate a settlement based on a Sri Lankan consensus and Sri Lankan realities. Let me also correct this strange phrase “ethnic strife.” My very policy has centered on breaking the stalemate. I have a new approach, it is true. But how can any new initiative succeed when the other side does not have a peace agenda? When I was elected I was called a hawk and a warmonger. Judge for yourself if this is true.

One of my first actions was to call the LTTE for talks. I said I was willing to meet Prabhakaran. They responded with bombs and attacks. I took office as President on November 19th 2005 and by December 4th their attacks had commenced. Claymore attacks on service personnel and on innocent civilians followed one after the other at regular intervals. We did not retaliate. My opponents thought that I would immediately escalate hostilities and be blamed for breaking the Ceasefire. They thought that my partners the JVP and JHU would force me into a warlike posture. But that did not happen.

However, I differ from my opponents who say Peace at Any Price. I say Peace, yes, but Peace with Honor and Dignity. And the only question that is non-negotiable is a divided Sri Lanka. I don’t think anybody wants that. The world does not want it, India does not want it, and our proud citizens, including the Tamils do not want that. It will mean massive de-stabilizations, big-power politics, and more violence.

The “stalemate” you refer to is between “violence” and “talks.” We have “talks” on our agenda. The other side has “violence” on theirs. I recognize the legitimate historic grievances of our Tamil people. They are Sri Lankans: Proud Sri Lankans. And any organized repression of the rights of any Sri Lankan is a blot on all Sri Lankans.

Inderjit Badwar: But isn’t the recent fighting in the East a sign that you have escalated the war effort rather than the peace effort? Is the 2000 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) now a dead letter?

Mahinda Rajapakse: First of all let me state without hesitation that I applaud the brave Sri Lankan soldiers who have liberated the Eastern Province from the grip of terror. The victory of Thoppigala is a landmark in restoring peace in an area that was an LTTE stronghold for training terrorists including child soldiers, as well as for arms and drug smuggling.

Today, I am confident enough to tell you that I will hold elections in the Eastern Province hopefully by the end of the year. We will demonstrate the viability of a Tamil-Sinhala-Muslim partnership. This will be a showcase of how the three communities can work together in a peaceful, democratic, power sharing arrangement. It will be an example to the North where the LTTE’s efforts have been to isolate the Tamil community from the rest of the Sri Lankan people.

Inderjit Badwar: But what about the CFA?

Mahinda Rajapakse: Look at the record and judge for yourself. The LTTE treated the CFA as a joke, using the agreement to amass arms, strengthen its dictatorship and create terror, while our government showed unbelievable patience. I’ll give you only a few internationally verifiable examples.

On 29th May 2006, twelve laborers were killed by the Tigers at Omadiyamadu in the Welikanda area. They were engaged in an irrigation canal construction project. This was the LTTE’s response to the EU ban on that organization and the statement released by the Co-chairs of the peace process urging it to shun violence and resume peace talks.

Then again, the LTTE terrorists carried out a claymore mine attack at a bus carrying over 100 civilians on 15 June 2006 at Kebitigollawa. Sixty four, including children, Buddhist monks and pregnant women were killed. This was the worst single act of violence since the CFA was signed in 2002.

Earlier, very soon after the CFA was signed, the LTTE killed a large number of our intelligence officers. Then again on 12th August, 2005 Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was shot by an LTTE sniper in Colombo. Mr. Kadirgamar was a Tamil and was at the top of the LTTE's hit list because he was responsible for getting the US among many countries to classify the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Then, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Parami Kulatunga was murdered on 26th June 2006 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, who crashed his motorbike into an army convoy at Pannipitiya, near Colombo. Then again, the Deputy Secretary General of the government Peace Secretariat, Kethesh Loganathan a highly respected Tamil, was shot dead by suspected LTTE assassins in Colombo on the 12th August 2006. Further to all this, they also attempted the assassination of Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on 25th April 2006, and of Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on December 1st 2006.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when on 20th July 2006 the LTTE forcibly closed the water supply from the Mawilaru anicut (irrigation channel) to the Seruwila, Muttur and Ichalampattu areas in the Trincomalee district preventing the flow of water that sustains about 15,000 families and feeds 30,000 acres of paddy land. In response we were forced on humanitarian grounds, on July 26th 2006, to carry out our first offensive military action since 2002 and successfully open the sluice gates on August 10th and save the lifeblood of these 15,000 farmers.

Inderjit Badwar: Widespread allegations recently surfaced in your country that you made a pre-election secret deal with the LTTE under which funds would be funneled to them in exchange for their organizing a total boycott of Tamil votes for your election in order to help you win and then make political concessions to Prabhakaran. The sum is estimated at Rs 700 million.

Mahinda Rajapakse: This is completely laughable as well as logically absurd. Is it possible in any country for a person who is not even in power to make a deal of this sort? And how does this allegation co-exist with the earlier description of me as a “hawk” who seeks only a military victory? I can’t be both things at the same time. If I’m a hawk I cannot be making secret deals for a political solution. If I’m for a negotiated settlement then I cannot possibly be accused of seeking a military solution! See, unlike my predecessors I am not a glamorous man. I come from a rural background in the Deep South. We are a simple people used to direct words and direct talks. We prefer direct man-to-man talks. I have offered to meet Prabhakaran directly. He is, after all, a Sri Lankan. History shows that secret deals backfire. President Premadasa made such a deal with Prabhakaran and the LTTE assassinated him. If you really believe that we gave him 700 million and got him to organize a boycott of Tamil votes at the Presidential election, then we invite you, please, to take the initiative on our behalf and offer him even a much bigger sum of money in return for getting him to the negotiating table so that we may have peace in our country and save so many precious lives.

My political strategy is transparent. I have no hidden agenda. All parties that are represented in our Parliament should unite on a common peace platform, – at least on a common minimum peace programme with concrete proposals on devolution and reform, –a platform we can use as a consensus platform for negotiations. Similarly, Tamil groups must present a united agenda and concrete proposals for peace. Prabhakaran does not speak for all Tamils. The vast majority of Tamil people want peace above everything and to them Eelam is just an illusion.

But moderate voices in the Tamil community are silenced through murder and terror. Prabhakaran says he is the champion of Tamilian rights. How can he claim such a monopoly? I believe all peace-loving Sri Lankans, me included, are also champions of the rights of all minorities. You see, I do not believe there is any such thing as ‘Tamil terrorism’. There are genuine ‘Tamil grievances’ and genuine ‘Tamil aspirations’. And on the other side there is ‘LTTE terrorism’ which we will fight. While we welcome all steps to redress Tamil grievances we do not support compromising with terrorism.

Yes, my cabinet did approve the funding of about 1200 housing units to be built in Trincomalee, Batticoloa and other parts of the north and east including areas controlled by the LTTE, for people displaced by the Tsunami. This was a matter of humanitarian aid regardless of creed, religion or political affiliation and a confidence building measure that shows that Sri Lanka will not discriminate against any of its citizens – and least of all its Tamil citizens, - even if they happen to live in LTTE controlled areas.

Inderjit Badwar: But the criticism persists that you are not moving quickly enough towards a devolution plan involving federalism.

Mahinda Rajapakse: “Federalism” is a negative word in Sri Lanka because people think it synonymous with dividing the country. Also, I prefer the phrase “power-sharing” to “devolution”. But it is not like making instant coffee. Ultimately, it would be a mistake for Western governments to allow their frustrations with the slow pace of reform in Sri Lanka to be interpreted as empathy with a terrorist cause. I cannot change history or my own political circumstances overnight. I have already told you that we will hold elections in the Eastern Province. This is a big step because elections have been held in all provinces except the east and north. You must remember my political legacy and constraints. During my election I received few Tamil votes because of the LTTE-enforced boycott. I was elected primarily by a Sinhala constituency on an election manifesto which made it clear that an ultimate solution to the ethnic crisis could be evolved only on the basis of a unitary state.

In any peace settlement I have to carry the Sinhala voters with me. I cannot unilaterally impose a settlement – it has to be the outcome of a political process – an outcome that must be long-lasting and acceptable to the people. That is why the first step I took was to try and forge what I call a “Southern Consensus”. I constituted our All Party Representatives Council. An Expert Committee of this Council unfortunately leaked its report to the public even before I had time to build a proper consensus. An expert committee’s recommendations are not the same thing as a political consensus that comes out of a political process and is backed by the people. I have now made a public appeal to al political parties to kindly present their proposals with speed. We cannot afford delays.

Inderjit Badwar: You maintain steadfastly that ultimately the solution will have to be an indigenous Sri Lankan solution and not something dictated by outside powers, but you still look for help from outside powers including India for help against the LTTE.

Mahinda Rajapakse: We need to support the Tamil speaking people of our country in their struggle against terrorism. We need to support them in their fight for Human Rights and Democracy. For this, we are getting the support of the world community to an extent we never received before. Now the European Union too has banned the LTTE. So has Canada and soon perhaps Australia as well. The increasing isolation of this terrorist group that stands in the way of my vision for my country is an important development that has taken place during my short period in office. Their futile attempt to express some kind of regret for their cruel assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was their response to their increasing isolation by the world community.

But our most special relationship is with India. The destinies of our two countries are closely tied, one to the other. So has it been throughout the history of our two countries. Our religions, our traditions and our world views are rooted in a common culture. I understand India perhaps more than any other political leader in our country today. I have had the closest ties with Indian leaders ever since I was a Minister in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s cabinet, way back in the nineteen nineties. A close understanding between our two countries is basic to the security of the South Asian region. Our economic destiny too is closely tied to that of India. These are the basics that should guide our relations. No question.

I always look to India, therefore, for cooperation and support because the stability and prosperity of Sri Lanka and India are like the two sides of the same coin: They cannot be de-linked, one from the other. This is why I have been repeatedly requesting the Indian government to play a much bigger role in helping Sri Lanka solve our crisis. It is not only I who look to India for this. In fact the whole world is looking to India to provide the initiative that would move the peace process forward.

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal is evidence that the US looks to India today as a responsible nuclear power that can keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace and stability. SAARC looks to India as a senior partner. We observed India’s intervention in Nepal which brought the Maoist rebels to the negotiating table. We too look to India to help us protect our democracy from the threat of terrorism.

India has banned the LTTE and will not negotiate with terrorists. We need India’s help in the seas around Jaffna and Trincomalee to prevent terrorist arms being smuggled into our country. We make a special appeal to India’s Tamil leaders to take the initiative in helping even the misguided though small section of our Tamil population unite behind a peaceful solution to their problems.

And by the way, let me tell you that in 1999, - several years before the US recognized India as a nuclear force for world peace, I expressed a similar sentiment at a Human Rights Conference in Dehra Dun, and received more brickbats than bouquets from the Media at that time. When I was asked by the media what I thought of India’s Nuclear Underground Test, I said it was something all Asians should be proud about, because India had emerged as South Asia’s first super-power, and shown that we Asians will not succumb to big power pressures anymore. I also said that a strong India can play a much larger role in ensuring peace in our region in the long run. People now tell me that I was then ‘ahead of my times’.

It is important to keep all this in mind especially at a time like this, when the LTTE is conducting an organized campaign to send Sri Lankan citizens as refugees to India in order to try and create a problem between our two countries.

Inderjit Badwar: How do you feel about India looking with suspicion at your arms purchases from Pakistan and China, particularly the recent statement from National Security Advisory M.K. Narayanan?

Mahinda Rajapakse: Our arms purchases from Pakistan and China among other countries are nothing new. They constitute the continuance of a long practice. They are among the countries from which we have been traditionally purchasing arms for a long time.

In my first meeting with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, I assured him that so long as I am at the helm of my country’s affairs, I will never allow Sri Lanka to be used as a base for operations by any power that may threaten India’s security. India was the first to ban the LTTE as an organization. And given her own domestic compulsions, which we fully appreciate, India has been a bulwark of emotional, economic and moral support. They have given us training, radars, and defensive equipment.

My personal emissaries have been visiting India and keeping your people informed, fully informed, of every development. India is fully aware of our deals with China's Poly Technologies for supplies of ammunition and ordnance for our army and navy in addition to varied small arms. We have also informed the Indian government of our plans to acquire MiG 29 fighters to boost our air power. We are extra sensitive to innocent Tamil fishermen getting caught up in crossfire. The problem is that the LTTE’s armed boats take shelter in the flotillas that often compromise a thousand Indian fishing boats.

Inderjit Badwar: How strong is the LTTE?

Mahinda Rajapakse: There is no doubt that the LTTE is the most advanced terrorist group in South Asia. We estimate they have some 8 – 10,000 armed combatants in their ranks, of which around 3 – 6,000 constitute a core of trained fighters. They have conducted more than 200 battlefield and civilian suicide missions up until August 2006, compared with 50 attacks by all other groups around the world, including Hamas, Hizbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Sri Lankan and foreign intelligence agencies believe that the annual revenue of the LTTE is in the region of $100m, of which some $60m is generated overseas. About 90% of this is earmarked for the LTTE’s international procurement budget, and the remaining 10% is used to support its operations and activities around the world. The LTTE also draws on profits earned from its vast portfolio. It runs a commercial shipping network comprising vessels that usually fly Honduran, Liberian and Panamanian flags and engage in legitimate business most of the time. The group also has investments in stocks, in the money market and in real estate, as well as in gasoline stations, restaurants and small shops. Other activities that are particularly disconcerting for the international community, but which help the LTTE to net a fair share of its regular revenue, include narcotics smuggling, light weapons and human trafficking, organized crime and money laundering.

Inderjit Badwar: You spoke of indigenous solutions involving power sharing. Can you elaborate?

Mahinda Rajapakse: Let us take India. States like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and West Bengal have distinct linguistic and cultural entities with their own organic identities. In Sri Lanka – except for the North with its Tamil language and lifestyle – no other province has a separate organic identity as such. Over a period of years – the districts – which were units of administration where matters of land, birth, deaths, justice were covered – began to develop some kind of identity. People got used to exercising their rights and powers at this level. Later through the system of Provincial Councils, the power from the centre – originally delegated to the districts – went into the hands of the new provincial councils which were much more distant from the grassroots communities in which our people live and work. In other words, power shifted away from the grassroots, away from the districts, away from the people into the hands of politicians. I would like to see the functioning of a true democracy where power reverts back to the districts, which means back to the people themselves.

Inderjit Badwar: …..but you said earlier that the North, as a province, had a distinct linguistic and cultural identity.

Mahinda Rajapakse: Well, in the case of the North, because of the war situation it requires our special attention.

Inderjit Badwar: You mean you would consider making a special case of the North?

Mahinda Rajapakse: I don’t like to pre-empt this. After all, it must come from the all party conference. And all of us who seek peace in Sri Lanka must think of innovating ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions.

Inderjit Badwar: Many Tamils, who may not even like Prabhakaran, believe that you will negotiate only so long as he is around because he is a sort of protection for them. Suppose he is no longer on the scene, what guarantee is there that Tamil political aspirations will be met and that you will not suppress them?

Mahinda Rajapakse: Until now Prabhakaran has been the main obstacle to peace. Every Tamil leader who dared to differ with him has been killed. He has stifled democracy in the areas of his influence and ruthlessly suppressed the human rights of the Tamil people.

I have already said that with or without Prabhakaran, genuine Tamil grievances, the compulsions of their ethnic honour and linguistic identity, need to be respected and addressed or the problem will not be solved.

How many of you are aware that in my career both as a lawyer and as a politician, I was a human rights activist? As a human rights activist I simply cannot be a Sinhala chauvinist. On the contrary I would like to call myself a Sri Lankan nationalist. I have Tamil relatives and heaps of Tamil friends. My government has several Tamil ministers. In fact 53% percent of all my country’s Tamils live outside the North and East, intermingling peacefully with the Sinhala people. And as for the capital city of Colombo, 60% of its population is composed of Tamils and Muslims. They live peacefully with the Sinhala people and a large proportion of them run prosperous businesses as well.

Inderjit Badwar: What about the charges of ethnic cleansing in which Tamils in Colombo were rounded up?

Mahinda Rajapakse: This is a huge exaggeration. The reality is that Colombo has been repeatedly targeted by LTTE terrorists. And in combating urban terrorism there is a delicate balance to be drawn between safeguarding human rights and preventing terrorist attacks. Up till now, all the terrorist attacks in Colombo had been planned and implemented by persons taking refuge in lodges. And yes, we conducted a search of a few specific lodges where we had information that LTTE terrorist cadres, coming to the capital ostensibly to expedite passport clearances, may be taking shelter. There were no illegal detentions and the security forces were under strict orders to exercise restraint and show courtesy. If there was any ethnic cleansing in my country it was done by the LTTE after the Indo-Sri Lanka accord when Tamil-speaking Muslims were hounded out of Jaffna and Mannar and forced into refugee camps.

Inderjit Badwar: What would you like to hear from Prabhakaran that would make the peace process move forward faster?

Mahinda Rajapakse: I would like to hear him say that he believes in the Oneness of Sri Lanka, and the desirability of the Tamils, Sinhala, Muslims and others living together like the children of a common Mother.

Inderjit Badwar: As a statesman, what would you like to tell the world?

Mahinda Rajapakse: I wish to say that I am not looking for a short-term victory. I am looking for a long-term peace. We have to avoid the creation of resentment, fear and hatred. I follow the Buddha Dharma. I have no use for the joy of temporary success achieved by arms. On the contrary I take the view that in the long run, it is ‘Goodwill’ and ‘Understanding’ that count , that force is futile, and that there can be no peace until there is peace in the human heart.

Inderjit Badhwar: a Delhi-based author and journalist was former Executive Editor of India Today and Executive Producer TV TODAY)

- Asian Tribune -

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