Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa responds to Editor in Chief of “The Hindu” N. Ram’s questions in this extended interview in Colombo. Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, participated in the conversation, filling in some details and adding his insights. P.M. Amza, Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in Southern India, was also present during the June 30 meeting at Temple Trees, the former official residence of Prime Ministers.
N. Ram: Mr. President, are you satisfied with conditions in the Vavuniya IDP camps where close to 300,000 Tamils are housed?
President: I sent some people close to me to the camps. They went and stayed for several days. They spoke to the girls, the Tamil children, and others. And they came and reported to me. I don’t rely on information only from the officials. We released people over 60. You know, a 74-year-old man, when he was released he immediately came here and went to Singapore. He was the man who had the money list, the other list. [Velupillai] Prabakaran had given lists to many, not to just one person. This man escaped; he was one of the leaders.
I would say the condition in our camps is the best any country has. We supply water. There is a problem with lavatories. That is not because of our fault. The money that comes from the EU and others, it goes to the NGOs and the U.N. They are very slow; disbursing money is very slow. We supply the water tanks; we have spent over [Sri Lankan] Rs. 2 billion. Giving electricity, giving water, now we are giving televisions to them. They have telephone facilities. Schools have been established. Some of the leaders are using mobile phones.
I had a special meeting on the disposal of waste. I sent a special team of specialists to see how mosquitoes can be eradicated.
We know there are shortcomings. Slowly, we have to overcome them. In some camps there are no problems. What these people I sent told me: they are satisfied with the housing, the shelter. They have undergone much worse conditions earlier [when they were under the LTTE’s control]. Their problem is movement, freedom of movement. Since there are security concerns, I don’t know how to do that immediately.
So I said: “We have to identify these people. So if anybody takes the responsibility, we are ready to send them.” We have called an all-party meeting for Development and Reconciliation. The reconciliation part, all parties must participate. The TNA [Tamil National Alliance] must participate.
Resettling displaced Tamils
NR: Why can’t more Tamil IDPs be sent back to the places they hail from, provided of course their security and wellbeing can be assured? Why not a grand gesture of sending tens of thousands of people to safe places where they can be looked after – at this stage, in the Eastern Province, the Jaffna Peninsula, and the Indian Tamil areas?
President: You must remember it is only one month, my friend. I said on the 20th of May that as soon as possible, we must send them to places where they can stay. My problem is that we have to get the certificate of de-mining from the U.N. We have already sent people back to several places; you can get the details. As soon as we get the clearance, I’m ready to do that. But before that I must get the clearance from the U.N. about the de-mining. I can’t send them to a place without basic facilities. Now we’re spending on electricity, on roads, on water. We can’t send them back to a place where there are just jungles. Every square centimetre has been mined by the LTTE. If something happens, I am responsible.
Lalith Weeratunga (Secretary to the President; LW): Sri Lanka is adopting a very good system. We are de-mining the paddy fields first; then you can get into rice cultivation. The other thing is that the U.N. has been so slow in de-mining. It’s the Indian companies that have been doing the good work.
President: And the [Sri Lankan] Army. They’re doing the best work.
My personal feeling is that as soon as possible, we have to re-settle these people. We have to send them to the villages. But my problem is that to provide security for them, I will have to recruit another 200,000! I don’t want to do that. Now I am recruiting Tamils to the Army and the police. I was always for that. I said: “Have a Muslim regiment and a Tamil regiment.” All these people started opposing it for political reasons: “No Muslim regiment, no Tamil regiment.” Not by the Sinhalese who welcomed that, but by the Tamils, by the Muslims.
You know, the mothers of our soldiers – some of them though their sons had been killed by the LTTE – when we told them that these people [Tamil civilians fleeing the LTTE] were coming and we must send them food and meet their other basic needs, these mothers contributed. The mothers of ex-soldiers contributed. Bikkus contributed. But not some Tamil businessmen. I had to remind them, shout at them, plead with them to get that support.
NR: Another issue is three doctors under detention: one may be an LTTE man; the other two are government doctors. Why can’t they be released now?
President: I told them to organise a press conference. Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.
LW: They were lying through their teeth [about civilian casualties in the No Fire Zone]. And they are public servants, paid by the government. If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.
President: Everybody is worried about the doctors. So let them explain to the public, to the journalists, who can question them, why and on what basis they said what they said. Let the pro-LTTE journalists also question them.
The question of Tamil leadership
NR: How do you see the post-Prabakaran situation evolving politically?
President: My view is this. Most Tamil people believed they had a leader – whether he was right or wrong. This man [Prabakaran] made them proud. It was a ruthless organisation, it killed people, those are all immaterial for others. They thought: “There is a leader who is keeping us up in the world.” Suddenly that leadership vanished, after thirty years. Immediately they couldn’t digest it. Many of them know he was wrong. It will take time. Some of these people, the older people, can’t accept it yet. Still the Internet — ‘KP’ [Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the former head of the LTTE’s ‘Department of International Relations’ and chief arms procurer who is at large and on Interpol’s most wanted list] and the rest are sending messages, right? “You don’t worry, the organisation is still there,” and so on. Their propaganda machinery is alive, to get the money. Things that they bought individually, they are not giving it. There are Sinhalese businessmen here who invested the LTTE money. We know it but various powerful people protected them.
My fear is this. Now, to collect money again, somebody will have to plan something here. Just one incident. Just to upset the world and then to show they have started the movement – so that they can continue to collect the money. They think that will help. But we are very vigilant.
In this whole thing, we have to think aloud. I have warned my party people, all party people, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, that “I don’t want any statement, anything that creates a disturbance among our three communities.” Now my theory is: there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love the country and those who don’t. They tried to twist that but I still maintain that position.
NR: That was in your speech of May 19.
President: Yes, in Parliament. And in my Parliament speech, I spoke in Tamil also. And I spoke only in Tamil when I gave a small message when we started the new ITV Tamil channel, Vasantham.
LW: The public service is learning Tamil. Some are following courses of 40 hours of spoken Tamil.
President: I learnt that in one school the master said: “If the President can learn Tamil, why can’t you all? You are students. You must learn Tamil.” We are paying people in the public service for learning Tamil, to encourage them.
LW: There is a one-time payment if you pass Tamil. But if they go for classes also we pay. H.E. [His Excellency] has issued a directive that with effect from July 1 we will not recruit people to the public service unless they know Tamil – and vice versa, that is, Tamils must know Sinhala, Sinhalese must know Tamil.
President: Let them learn, let them learn. I can remember that in 1970 as a young MP I said that we must teach all Sinhalese Tamil and all Tamils Sinhala. If that had happened, I think there would have been a different world.
NR: There was this famous and prophetic statement in the 1950s [in 1956, when Sinhala was made the official language]: “Two languages, one country. One language, two countries.”
President: Yes, by Colvin [Dr. Colin R. de Silva, the LSSP leader who between 1970 and 1975 was a key Minister in the Cabinet of Sirimavo Bandaranaike].
Towards a political solution
NR: Now about your political solution. You talked about the 13th Amendment plus.
President: I am waiting for them. The TNA representatives must come and participate in the discussions [on the political solution]. I am getting delayed because they haven’t done this yet. [On July 2, leaders and representatives of 22 political parties, including the TNA, participated in the inaugural meeting of the newly constituted All Parties Committee to build a consensus among political parties for development and reconciliation, giving priority to the speedy resettlement and rehabilitation of the war-displaced.] I am waiting but it will be after my [re-]election [as President]. I must get the mandate. After that, the political solution comes. Even tomorrow I can give that — but I want to get that from the people. Even today somebody said: “The 13th Amendment. We are not for…” I called them and gave them a piece of my mind. I called our party leaders and told them: “Now what I’m going to tell you, you’re not going to tell anybody. It’s between you and I.” Only party leaders were there. But today a professor from a university called me to say, “Thank you very much.” I said: “For what?” He said: “This morning you have warned all the people about racism. And what you said has been highly regarded. This call is to thank you.” I asked, “How do you know?” He said: “No sir, I just heard.” This professor, a Tamil man, had immediately got the news. “Whether it is Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, I am telling you all. No racism. Don’t try to create problems for me.”
[As for the political] solution, I’m willing. I know what to give and I know what not to give. The people have given me the mandate, so I’m going to use it. But I must get these people [the TNA representatives] to agree to this. They must also know that they can’t get what they want. No way for federalism in this country. For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities]. Here the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Muslims inter-marry. In my own family, there have been mixed marriages: Sinhalese with Tamils, Sinhalese with Muslims. This is Sri Lankan society. No one can change this.
NR: You have this idea of a Second Chamber.
President: Yes, I want to get representatives from the Provinces involved in national policy-making. And if there is anything against a Provincial Council, they can protect their powers constitutionally. I have an arrangement in mind — this is what we call ‘home-grown solutions’ — but the idea needs to be discussed and the details settled. I don’t want to impose any arrangement.
N. Ram (NR): Mr. President, when you were elected in 2005 what was your expectation of this conflict? This is what you said in your 2005 presidential election manifesto, Mahinda Chintana: “The freedom of our country is supreme. I will not permit any separatism. I will also not permit anyone to destroy democracy in our country…I will respect all ethnic and religious identities, refrain from using force against anyone, and build a new society that protects individuals and social freedoms.” In that policy statement, you also projected the “fundamental platform” of your initiatives as “an undivided country, a national consensus, and an honourable peace.” So what was your real expectation when you assumed the office of President? You had no plan, it appears, to go on an offensive.
President: I was very clear about terrorism. I didn’t want to suppress the Tamils’ feelings. But I was very clear about the terrorism from the start. That’s why as soon as I knew that I was going to win, I invited Gota [his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who took charge as Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law & Order on November 25, 2005; a battle-hardened professional with 20 years of service in the Sri Lankan Army, he played a key role in the successful Vadamarachchi Operation against the LTTE in 1987 and subsequently, in 1990, in Operation Thrividabalaya to rescue Jaffna peninsula and the Jaffna Fort from LTTE control.] I said to him: “You can’t go. You wait here.” That’s why I selected as commanders of the Armed Forces people who would get ready to do that.
Then I sent the message to the LTTE: “Come, we will have talks, discuss.” I was trying to negotiate. I was very practical. I said: “You can get anything you want. But why don’t you all contest for this, have elections? Now you are people who have weapons in your hands. Ask the people to select. Have elections for the Provincial Council. Then we will negotiate. I can negotiate with an elected group. But with a man with weapons, I can’t negotiate.” The biggest mistake he [Prabakaran] made was this. He said I was a practical man, a pragmatic man.
Lalith Weeratunga (Secretary to the President; LW): H.E. [His Excellency] was appointed on the 19th of November  when he made his inaugural speech, where he invited this man. Then on the 27th of November came Prabakaran’s Maaveerar speech, in which he said the President was a pragmatic, practical man [the LTTE supremo announced that his organisation would “wait and observe” the new President’s approach to the peace process “for some time” because “President Rajapaksa is considered a realist, committed to pragmatic politics”]. When he said that, H.E. said in a speech: “I am willing to walk that last mile.” Then on the 5th of December, they attacked 13 innocent soldiers who were taking meals to their comrades and they were without weapons. That is how it started.
President: Even then I didn’t do anything. But then I knew what was going on. Then only I started my defence, I would say. Then Gota said we would have to increase the strength of the Army. All that was planned by them [the professionals]. I said: “What do you want? Get ready.” But I went behind them [the LTTE] pleading. But I knew people were getting worked up in the South. Then I warned the LTTE: “Don’t do this. Don’t push me to the wall.”
LW: Then you sent me to talk to one of their leaders.
President: I sent him. I sent Jeyaraj [Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a veteran politician hailing from the Tamil minority group of Colombo Chetties and Cabinet Minister of Highways & Road Development; he was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber on April 6, 2008].
LW: In 2006, I went through many checkpoints without being checked. H.E. said: “Just go. Don’t identify yourself.” Later he told them: “I sent someone. You people couldn’t even find out who it was.”
President: I pulled up the Defence people, saying: “If I can send a man there, what is your security?” I told them after several months: “He [Lalith Weeratunga] is the man who went there. Do you know that?”
LW: To that extent he went.
NR: To see the weaknesses?
LW: No, to negotiate.
President: To negotiate and see the weaknesses also! Then I sent Jeyaraj. He told them some home truths in Sinhala, which they understood. “You will be killed [if they continued along this path].”
NR: Then came the Mavil Aru incident.
President: That was the time they gave me the green light!
NR: But you were well prepared by then, August 2006?
President: Yes. But before that, they tried to kill the Army Commander.
LW: In April 2006, when they tried to assassinate the Army Commander, the President said — this was in the next room — “as a deterrent, just one round of bombing, then stop it.”
President: Yes, I said: “Just go once.” We were very careful. We did our best to find a way out through talks.
LW: There was a whole series of negotiations, in Geneva and elsewhere. They [the Tigers] didn’t even want to talk.
President: So these military operations did not come without negotiation or without any reason. But from the start, I was getting ready for that [the military operations]. I knew — because I had the experience, you see. We knew that they would never lay down arms and start negotiating.
LW: In this connection let me tell you about the President’s interesting conversation with Mr. Solheim [Eric Solheim, the Norwegian politician and Minister who helped negotiate the 2002 ceasefire and was a controversial participant in the Norwegian mediatory efforts]. I was there, it was about March 2006. Mr. Solheim came to see H.E. after he became President, and said, in the midst of other things: “Prabakaran is a military genius. I have seen him in action,” and this and that. The President said: “He is from the jungles of the North. I am from the jungles of the South. Let’s see who will win!” It was very prophetic. Later the President met Minister Solheim in New York and reminded him of their conversation on the “military genius,” the jungles of the North and South, and who would win. The East had by that time, in 2007, been cleared and the President said: “Now see what’s going to happen in the North. The same.”
NR: When did you first get an idea that the Tigers were vulnerable, that they were hollow in some sense, that you could hit deep?
President: From the beginning I had the feeling that if you gave the forces [the Sri Lankan armed forces] proper instructions and whatever they wanted, our people could defeat them. Because I always had the feeling that what they had they could attack South India. The weapons they had accumulated could not have been just for Sri Lanka! The amount of weapons our armed forces are discovering is unbelievable. And I knew when our intelligence was saying: “They have only 15,000 fighters,” I knew it was not that number. I was not depending on one source. I knew that the LTTE had more than that. One thing I never did was to underestimate the LTTE.
NR: So you say they were the most ruthless and most powerful terrorist organisation in the world.
President: Yes, the most ruthless and richest terrorist organisation in the world. And well equipped, well trained.
LTTE’s final strategy?
NR: What do you think was their final strategy? Prabakaran holed out with all the LTTE leaders and their families in that small space, that sliver of coastal land. It shocked the world. But what were they expecting? D.B.S. Jeyaraj, who writes for us, has a theory that they wanted to do a daring counter-attack.
President: I think what they wanted was to escape. In the final phase, they were waiting for somebody to come and take them away. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone there. Because they had the Sea Tiger base: that was the only place where they could bring a ship very close — even a submarine. They selected the best place for them: on one side the sea, then the lagoon, and there was a small strip. But then it was not they who actually selected the place: they ‘selected’ it but the armed forces made them go there. The No-Fire Zones were all announced by the armed forces. After Kilinochchi, they were saying: “No-Fire Zones, so go there.” So all of them [the LTTE leaders and fighters] went there. These were not areas demarcated by the U.N. or somebody else; they were demarcated by our armed forces. The whole thing was planned by our forces to corner them. The Army was advancing from North to South, South to North, on all sides. So I would say they got cornered by our strategies.
LW: Kilinochchi was captured on the 1st of January 2009. And the whole operation was over on the 19th of May. So there was ample time [for them to get away].
Conduct of armed forces
President: Yes, I can’t understand why they had to fight a conventional war. Prabakaran could have gone underground. If I was the leader of the LTTE, I would have gone underground and I would have been in the jungles — fighting a guerrilla fight. They couldn’t do that now because we, our Army, mastered the jungles. They were much better than the LTTE in this [mode of warfare]. Thanks to the Special Forces, the Long-Range Forces, and the small groups, the group of eight. That worked very well. And I salute our forces for their discipline.
LW: For example, there was not a single instance where the Army was found to be wanting in its conduct towards women.
President: That girl, when she surrendered — they were deciding, there were six or seven [LTTE women fighters] — she says in her statement: finally, two or three ate cyanide and killed themselves; and then two or three girls said, “all right, we will see whether we will be raped, whether we will kill ourselves or be killed by rape, we will take this risk.” The schoolteacher, this educated girl, surrendered. Nothing happened. She can’t believe this. She was paid by the government for fighting us! By the way, we are now going to get all the government servants [from the Northern areas that used to be controlled by the LTTE] and I am going to tell them: “Forget your past. You work there in these organisations, you can’t just wait there. We are paying you.” Now teachers must go and teach and others must go to their posts and work.
And the money that they [the Tamil civilians fleeing the LTTE] deposited: on the first day it was 450 million [Sri Lankan rupees] together in the two banks, People’s Bank and the Bank of Ceylon. And considerable quantities of gold. The Army has become a very disciplined force.
N. Ram [NR]: Are you not worried by what is seen outside Sri Lanka as triumphalism following the military victory? That has to be checked, does it not, in the South?
President: No. The Tamils are happy, the Muslims are happy. They had that fear for two days. I must admit that. When my friends informed me, “Sir, we have a problem like this” — they had this fear — I spoke to them in Tamil and said: “Don’t worry, I will look after you.” People were enjoying themselves for two weeks. One day I took a vehicle and went all over just to find out what was going on. I placed the Army and the police near the Tamil houses. Nothing happened. Not a single Tamil house was attacked, not a single Tamil was humiliated. Not a single Muslim.
Do you know that recently there was a fight. Two were killed. I thought, “Another problem.” Only to find out that a gang had applied for visas saying, “The Army is bombing us and fighting us” and that they wanted to escape all this. They somehow got two visas and [to celebrate that] had a party. After drinking, two fellows were killed. We caught all of them and questioned them. They are not LTTEers, they don’t belong to any political party. They are gangsters. Gang fighting is going on. These are the underworld; we have to tackle them. They want to go to some western countries. I don’t mind; if those governments want them, let them take them!
Is the President too powerful?
NR: There is a perception that the presidency has become too powerful. If so, what is the safeguard? What would be your answer to this criticism?
President: My answer is that it is not too powerful. That is my three years’ experience. I can’t take any decision on money matters. My money is controlled by Parliament. My powers have been taken over by Commissions. I can’t dismiss any Provincial Council — unlike your central government, which has the constitutional power to dismiss a State government and dissolve a State Assembly. So how can I say I am powerful? I can’t transfer a provincial teacher. I can’t make a school a national school. So what is this power? To decide on the security, yes. The power is there. To keep the country in one piece. Otherwise I have no powers. The Cabinet has all the power. I can request.
NR: You are a man of Parliament, are you not?
President: I always say I am a man of Parliament. I like to debate. I like to fight, not physically of course. If you are inside Parliament, you’re in touch. I’m in a prison now. A glorified prisoner, I would say, with all these security personnel. I’m one who walked from Colombo to Kathargama, 180 miles in 18 days. I’m a person who went and met people. I am a person who went to their houses. I was very free: 40 years of politics was with the people. So suddenly you put me here. I also have been in remand for three months. But I can’t see a difference now. Of course I’m getting all these comforts. But what is comfort? This is not comfort. I can’t get out, I can’t drop in on my friends, I can’t bring them here. I can’t enjoy anything.
NR: They say you value friendships a lot. You have friends in India.
President: I will do anything for a friend — not for any bad work, of course. But when a friend in difficulty approaches me, I will do whatever is possible to comfort them. Even when a country needs a friend, I always trust that country as a friend. Personal friendship has become important even in international relations. That is why I always treat India as a friend. A little more than that: a relation, I would say. Because of that, I will not get angry with others also.
NR: You are happy overall with India’s response to the recent developments?
President: Yes, India was very helpful, first by understanding what was happening. We had a list and we knew what was possible and what was not. We bought the weapons we wanted from China. It was a commercial deal. China helped us and when somebody helps you, you appreciate it, don’t you? But we paid them on international terms. We were very clear about this. That is also why I stood by Pakistan. When they were isolated, I got up and defended them. Then I canvassed for India during the process of choosing a Secretary-General for the Commonwealth [Kamalesh Sharma, a senior Indian diplomat, was chosen for this post by the Commonwealth Heads of Government in November 2007 and took up his post in April 2008]. I think no other country’s leader would have been doing that openly. There were people in Sri Lanka who were interested in the job. But I said I wanted an Indian candidate. “In this region, we must have a leader. Here’s the SAARC leader, at that time. So make them also powerful internationally and then we have a friend to defend us in international forums.” That was my reasoning.
NR: There has been international concern over the assaults and pressures on journalists in Sri Lanka. Some of these journalists were your personal friends, especially Lasantha Wickrematunge [Editor of The Sunday Leader] who was gunned down in January 2009. Then, in June, a Tamil woman journalist [Krishni Ifhan née Kandasamy of Internews] was abducted in Colombo by unidentified persons [who questioned her for several hours before releasing her in Kandy].
President: Most of these cases were created, I would say. If you fight someone in the street and that man comes and hits you, can the government take responsibility? But we have not done anything against journalists even when they attack us. For example, even though we had evidence that a Tamil newspaper owner and editor supported the LTTE, we treated them as journalists. I invited them here and they even entered into arguments with our senior officials.
Some of our journalists want complete freedom. They can attack anybody, they cannot be charged. Under the Constitution, only the President has immunity from prosecution. But the journalists also think they have the right to do whatever they want and get away with it — because they are journalists. Some of them said they would get together and do something about this. But what are some of the newspapers doing? They use media power to blackmail innocent citizens and collect money. I am a politician, I can take it. But public servants, what recourse do they have? The journalist writes something and then publishes a correction — it is useless. If they write falsely that this person is a bribe-taker or a rapist — there are such instances — what does he do? He can’t go home; he can’t face his children. How many people can afford to go to court with a civil [defamation] case?
Newspapers must take responsibility. If they won’t do this, then you will have laws to make them do this.
Lasantha was my friend; he used to come and meet me, told me of various things that were happening, even in my party. He would drop in at two o’clock in the morning and I used to send him back in my vehicle.
NR: His last call was to you?
President: Yes, but unfortunately I was in the shrine room. It was a bad time. If I was out, they would have given me the phone. I was very angry with my security people.
President: I always respect the family culture of the Tamils. That is very important but it has been ruined by the LTTE. There is this 19-year-old girl in one of the IDP camps; she has had seven children! Every year she got pregnant because then the LTTE would not take her away to fight. And they don’t even know the father.
NR: And the parents also supported this?
President: Yes, to keep the child. This is in a traditional family. This is the society we are living in. We don’t want to publicise all this, although I did mention it in one of my speeches. The point is you can’t ruin the culture of a country, the future of the young generation. The drug dealers are doing that. We must do everything to stop them. COURTESY:THE HINDU