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"A man who loves his country"

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Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief of The Straits Times of Singapore

"A man who loves his country"

March 18, 2010 Thursday, 06:05 AM
Read Ravi Velloor's complete exclusive interview with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka. PHOTO: AFP

Ravi Velloor doing the interview with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. ST PHOTO: RAVI VELLOOR

( Please note that one of the questions posed to the President refers to The statement quoted in this particular question is not the official position of the Government of Sri Lanka. It has been quoted from a feature article of Dr. Levins Rajaratnam which was published by us sometime ago. It is strictly the opinion of the contributing writer. Thank you.)

Here is the transcript of the formal interview:

Q. You start your campaign on 19th. How would you rate the UPFA's prospects for the parliamentary poll. Do you think a two-thirds majority is possible?

A. I am very relaxed. Two-thirds or one-third is immaterial for me because when I became president I didn't have a majority. The Speaker was appointed by the opposition. After four years when I dissolved the parliament I had 47 new people, including the Speaker, in my party and I had a majority. So, I am not interested in numbers but this will be a very comfortable victory. Of course, two thirds will help to change the constitution because the opposition has never supported us on this matter.

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 about the executive presidency. Will you dilute its powers as you promise?
A. It is up to the parliament. Parliament has passed these things, so let the parliament decide.

Q. But Parliament will do what you tell them to do.
A. I know… or I hope so (laughing). But I think some things will need to change. I would prefer a president answerable to parliament or give up all this and have a prime minister answerable to parliament. And maybe retire, and give advice to the government like Lee Kuan Yew — as a Mentor. But look, if I did not have this executive presidential system could I have ended this war?

Q. In your WSJ article you promised to now build a "nation for all".
A. The opportunity is there for all, including politically? Do you know my Cabinet? It is inclusive of all main communities…

Q. Well I do know that you have some 108 ministers out of a parliament of just 225 MPs...
A. No, no... (laughing). This is wrong. Cabinet is 51 members, the rest are junior and other ministers although they call themselves ministers. All ministers get the salaries of an MP. The only thing is they get personal staff and red lights on vehicles. We did an assessment and the additional costs of all these people is about Rs 49 million every month.

For one four-star general in the army (a reference to Fonseka), with 600 people looking after him, and his two houses and all the other houses no one knows where or how many he had, it cost 20 million Rupees a month.

Q. You say you want to see Sri Lanka as the Singapore for South Asia. What do you mean by that?
A. No, that is not what I said. I always say Sri Lanka is for Sri Lankans. It is not a Singapore model, although I am impressed by its growth. Some people want to make this into a Singapore or New York or Dubai but I always said Sri Lanka should become a model for by itself. In the 1960s Lee Kuan Yew said he wanted to build Singapore up like Sri Lanka.

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. You don't know this boy?

A. No! He was completely unknown to me. He was from Mullaitivu (where the Tigers once held sway) I touched his muscles and they were firm and strong. I said: Good, good!

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. Would you say the LTTE is gone for good?
A. No. There are sleeping cadres and there are interested parties, especially outside Sri Lanka. That will take time. It has been just nine months since the war ended... Just because the leaders were eliminated, it is not over. The movement will take some more time.

There are sleeping cadres, trained suicide bombers. They were a factory of suicide bombers. They were in Colombo, they are outside in various countries. Interested parties can try and make use of them, although I don't think it will happen. The suicide killer jacket they designed and made was marketed abroad. That is why we need the international community to help us on this. They are not operating from here.

Q. Does this impede your free movement?
A. I cannot sit here and say because of this I cannot move around. I have been a grassroots politician and I was with the people. Isolation from the people is something I cannot dream about.

When I heard about the killings of 64 people in a bus bomb attack, three months after I was sworn in, we were at a meeting. I said let's just go there. But security needed two hours to prepare. Finally, the helicopters were called. People were shocked that I had reached there within a matter of two hours.

You have to take a risk. You just cannot hide away although security would like to do that — they like to isolate us. Now, the JVP and Fonseka factor is there so we have to be a little more careful. The threat is not from the LTTE alone. As for the LTTE, in the villages, once an outsider comes they immediately know. But the Fonseka factor is another thing today...

Q. How are your Tamil lessons shaping up? Where have you reached?

A. Progressing. I even try to make speeches in Tamil these days.

Q. You said you would call the Tamil parties after the polls. But who would you talk to? Would you have problems finding an interlocutor, seeing very few credible Tamil names around. Who do you deal with if the UPFA sweeps the polls?
A. This is the problem with them. The Tamils are divided. I will call them for talks but of course, they can’t ask for what the LTTE asked. There will be a new generation of Tamils.

Yesterday, I saw a lot of Indian workers in the South. They come on three-month holiday visas. I saw them working on threshing and harvesting machines. So I was saying that you can’t go anywhere in the country without seeing Indians workers everywhere. Even in my village. They are willing to work for half the pay and work longer hours, day and night. .

Q. Do you have specific programs targeted at bringing Tamils into the mainstream, such as into army and police?

A. We have already started that. In the East we have already hired nearly 500 to the Police. In the North, for police we have selected about 450 from Jaffna. I told them, these boys are trained. Just teach them some law. If the army is disciplined — and this is why I am keen to discipline the army — they will have the national feeling.

Q. What are your feelings toward Fonseka? Cannot Fonseka be accomodated under this national reconciliation you are planning?

A. He is a fool. On 16th November he was sitting right here and I asked him if he was interested in contesting (the presidential election) and he said, No, sir... I haven't made up my mind. Even on the day of his last visit he didn't tell me.

So I advised him. I told him that politics is not the army. In the army, when you have an order they follow. In politics you give order and they react in a different way. I told him you are going to people whom you have criticized. So he said that also is politics, no? I said, be careful. One day they will drop you. I told him, whatever he might think, I know this game and I am going to win this election. Whoever is my opponent doesn’t matter to me. Of course, after my victory, you can come and see me whenever you want.

But his whole campaign was one of mud-slinging. I could have stopped him contesting, because he couldn’t retire until I permitted him to. I could have just sat on his retirement request until after the nomination papers were filed and that would prevent him from contesting. But I let him contest. I didn't want people to say I was frightened. I told the army they could do whatever they wanted to on any evidence they had, after the elections. He was on holiday in China when the war was in its last days.

Do you know that when I was in remand — I was in remand for three months back in 1985 — I didn't get the comfort he is getting. My mother was gravely ill and they wouldn't allow me to see her. When I went to the hospital she was already gone. But if I pardon him what about army discipline? What about the court martials of other officers? What can I do! This is the British law. They gave it to India and us. Fonseka himself put thousands of soldiers under court martial. At one time the figure was 8,500. I shouted at him and I had to release them.

Do you know he wanted to increase the size of the army to 450,000? I asked him how much do you have now? He said 200,000. And I said, now that the war is over, you want 450,000? He said 'Every village you have to guard. You have to be careful. Cannot release these fellows (IDPs) for three years.' He said there are external threats. So I asked, who he was talking about? 'And he said, India'. India's standing army is 1.5 million, its paramilitary forces are about 1 million. So what can 450,000 do against 2.5 million? I told him, let me worry about external forces.

This fellow had placed cash of 700,000 dollars (S$975,534) in a bank after the elections. This man put it in lockers not regular deposits. And that was only half the money and only because the locker wasn't big enough to take more.

Q. How convinced are you about the charges against him? He was accused of plotting a coup, but those charges don't appear to have been formally laid.
A. There was something going on. I cannot discuss all details as inquiries and legal proceedings are on. He was moving special forces to Colombo and forces that he considered were loyal to him — he comes from the Sinha Regiment. This was told to me earlier but I never took it seriously. And he was harbouring deserters. It is up to the police and security forces to frame the charges. It is not for me to get involved. Let them handle it. Whether he is found guilty or not guilty is not my concern. But the procedure must go on. The law must be enforced irrespective of persons.

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. But you also have a nephew now running Uva Province.
A. But he was elected. He got the highest votes. He went for an election. The Rajapaksas have a 76 year history of electoral politics. We don't know any other business. (Guffaws). Our business is elections, both winning and losing… although you will hear we own appam shops and thosai shops. I must admit I am the only one who didn't sell my property to contest elections. My father did it. Every election he would sell his land.

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.

Q. You are poised on the brink of unprecedented power, it would appear. Shouldn't there be some check on you?
A. There is always the people and parliament. One day I will have to answer the people if I do something wrong. Not to NGOs who get their money from abroad.

Q. How would you like history to remember you?
A. As a man who loved his country and his people, and did my best to serve them.

Last Updated on Sunday, 21 March 2010 17:28