‘India is my relation, the others are friends'
Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa on key issues and his priorities.
— PHOTO: N. RAM
PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA: “Without peace, there is no development; without development, there is no peace.”
Mahinda Rajapaksa, a powerful and popular head of government and state, has the way cleared for him for the next six years and more. In a recent conversation with N. Ram lasting three-and-a-half hours at Temple Trees in Colombo, he covered, and answered questions on, a range of subjects. Excerpts from his on-the-record comments and responses:
Huge victory in presidential election
I was not surprised [by the margin of victory, nearly 18 percentage points]. Because in the Provincial Councils, if you count the majority, it was 2.5 million. I knew that if you took 1 million out of that, I would have won with 1.5 million. And I knew what the pulse of the people in villages was. Even in Colombo district, outside the municipal area, they gave me a good majority. I knew from the start that my majority would be there.
And I am not surprised about the North-East results. I was encouraged by that. I had the election, I knew that people must vote, they must be given a chance to elect their own President. Twenty-six per cent, I am satisfied with it. In every village, I got some votes, didn't I?
Factors behind the decisive win
One thing is that people wanted experience – a politician to lead their country. I have been in politics for 40 years. Suddenly a military man coming in, I don't think people trusted him. They were frightened by the way that he talked, shouting at people, blackguarding people. He [Sarath Fonseka] showed his inexperience on economic affairs,
Actually, he never said anything about me other than a few words in the final days. Other than ‘I will take him and remand him.' ‘I will kick him out' – that was Somavansa [Amarasinghe, the JVP leader] and he endorsed it. ‘At 7 o'clock I will walk in there, take him into custody, put him into Bogambara [maximum security prison in Kandy] in a 2x2 cell.' He thought this was the Army! He was ill advised.
The whole campaign was against a family and it was all mud-throwing. Without politics, they were trying to personalise the campaign.
Rural Sri Lanka supported me in a big way. I feel that was because of the development in the villages. We had the village road development programme, the programme for the development of the whole village, the fertilizer subsidy, the ‘Grow More Food' campaign. Incomes for rural households rose sharply. From 1948 to 2005, the per capita income came up to $ 1000. During the period of my presidency, when the war was going on, it has gone up to $2200. With development, the lifestyle of the people had changed. They [the Fonseka camp] couldn't understand that.
If I had been in the Opposition, I would have addressed not anything else but the cost of living. Forget about everything else, just address that. When eventually they tried to address it, it was too late. We had the answers.
People in the villages didn't like the way they conducted the campaign: that they would try to take me into custody, kick me out, kill me. People don't like that. Villagers don't want that to happen. They [the Fonseka camp] miscalculated, failed to see the affection, the love people in the villages have for me.
In addition, suburban people voted heavily for me. Other than people in Colombo, and some people in Kandy and other cities, they voted for me. They wanted a peaceful life. They believed in democracy. I think our people are, in that way, very educated, very conscious about democracy. They didn't want a military man coming in.
Who got the credit for eliminating the LTTE?
People, by the way they voted, showed they gave the credit to me. Who built the Taj Mahal? Who is remembered by people as the builder of the Taj Mahal? Not the mason or the chief engineer, right?
On parliamentary election prospects
I think we will win the parliamentary elections very comfortably. The people will vote with us. Now they know the government is stable for seven years.
A two-thirds majority?
I think we will be able to get that, or at least close to that. Finally, Ranil Wickremasinghe's crowd is there to come back and join me, right [laughter]?
Cohabitation? Ranil as Prime Minister?
Oh, no problem but he won't do that [do well in the parliamentary election]! So the situation won't arise. You know that during the campaign, Ranil campaigned for me when he went to the Tamil areas.
He said, ‘ Poda, Mahinda Rajapaksa poda, Gotabaya poda, Basil poda [laughter].' People were shocked. I was talking in Tamil; he wanted to show that he also knew Tamil. And the first word he said was ‘ Poda, Mahinda poda [laughter].' He meant, ‘Don't vote for him, reject him.'
Role of opposition
The opposition must be able to contribute. They must criticise – constructive criticism but not mud-throwing all the time. Not opposing everything the government brings. This is the unfortunate thing in Sri Lanka. They oppose everything, whatever the government does. It's petty politics. The criticism is always personalised. The opposition must contribute to whatever solution we are going to bring to this North-East issue. Because what we want is permanent peace.
13th Amendment plus
The 13th Amendment was brought in a hurry, without studying the whole problem. There is a need to understand the geography of the country, the historical background of the whole problem. Without studying that, you can't bring a solution that is suitable for your country. It must be a practical solution.
The 13th Amendment is implementable at the moment other than the police powers. It is in the Constitution. I don't have to say I'm implementing it because it is implemented in the other areas. The land, everything is implementable. We had the [presidential] election [in the Northern Province] and we are going to have the Provincial Council election after this [parliamentary elections of April 8]. I thought I had to resettle the people [first]. Now there are fewer than 50,000 in the IDP camps; and many of them don't want to go.
The development-peace link
The west doesn't understand this. It doesn't know what's going in here. They're making statements. They ask about humanitarian assistance. I say I don't want humanitarian assistance! We will look after our people, provide them food. I can get down food from India any time. I said we want development assistance [for the North].
Without peace, there is no development; without development, there is no peace.
Tamils in the national police
Do you know we have taken about 500 Tamils from the Eastern Province and they are already in service? Now we are taking them from the Northern Province. In Jaffna, 7500 Tamils came for 450 places. They have been selected. [The President's Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga add: ‘The people selected have been security-screened and will be recruited [in the national police force] immediately after the election. This is an achievement, by any government.']
There was a campaign by the LTTE and the Muslim parties, Rauff Hakeem and some others, not to join the police forces and the Army. We had Tamil Army officers and even now we have Muslim [Army officers]. There was a campaign against joining. But now, after this [final victory over the LTTE], they have joined.
You should see their muscles! They have been trained well [laughs]. You don't have to train them again. The only thing is they must learn some police work. That's all, it's easy! We have good training institutes.
We can train adequate numbers. They will be in these [Tamil] areas mostly and we want to get them down to the South also. You've got to mix them.
Tamil-Muslim majority in Colombo
In Colombo, the majority is Tamil and Muslim. Twenty years ago, the Sinhalese were about 90 per cent; today, they're less than 30 [per cent]. The majority are Muslims and Tamils and there is no problem. The Mayor of Colombo is a Muslim [Uvais Mohamed Imitiyas].
Dialogue on devolution
Soon after these parliamentary elections, I will call all the leaders of the political parties and start talking to them. You know, I tried to get them down, the TNA [Tamil National Alliance], the Tamil parties, the Muslim parties. But they were not interested. They were not interested in solving this problem as long as [Velupillai] Prabakaran was there. Now they must understand that there is no option for them but to talk. I'm the President of the country, I'm the leader of the country, they must come and negotiate with me, have a dialogue with me. If they think they can't cope with me, new leaders will come up and I will have to deal with them.
On western antipathy to him
They don't like me. They don't like my independent views. My preference is for my country. Why should I be loyal to any other country? I'm not a green card holder, am I?
Close ties with Asian countries
They [India, China, Japan] were the countries that helped me to develop this country.
As neighbours of the Asian group, they were very generous in offering us development assistance. This country needs development: infrastructure in the North-East and in the South. In the North and East, the conflict is over, we're one country. Now I want to develop the country. For development, these are the countries that helped me and I am ready to accept other countries to come and help me develop the country. We can look after the humanitarian… We give free food, free health care, subsidised fertilizer, transport assistance. We can afford that. But I want development assistance. I want roads, development of the power sector, hotels. And investment.
I have set new targets for tourism. I called the Tourism Board and said I was not satisfied with the present [rate of development]. I want to call the private sector. They're going to the Maldives and various other countries to invest their money. I am going to tell them to invest here. I want to get Indian companies, the Tatas and others, to invest in Sri Lanka.
On excellent ties with India
That's right. Because I'm very clear. When I say something, I stick to it. When I say ‘yes,' yes. When I say ‘no,' no.
With India, I think I have been very clear in my policy. Consistent, never changed. They were a little worried about my connection with China. For development, China, Japan and all these [Asian] countries will come and invest.
That is a different question. India is our close neighbour. I always say, ‘India is my relation. Others are my friends.'
On Sarath Fonseka's arrest
When I heard about all this earlier, when the intelligence agencies were reporting to me on all this, the Army would have taken him over [under military law]. They wanted to do that. But if at that time I had allowed that, they would have said that I was frightened of this man contesting.
I accepted his resignation as CDS [Chief of Defence Staff]. I could have declined to do that [under the special Act] and we could have charged him for what he had done, what the intelligence agencies were reporting on. But I didn't want to do that because the people would have said I blocked him from contesting.
I knew he was the best candidate I could get! It was very clear in the election. He couldn't get what Ranil Wickremasinghe got.
Even with the JVP, which supported me once and with all this alliance, he never got that vote. They had the biggest alliance against a contesting President. Ultimately, what happened?
Then [after the election] the Army came and said, ‘Sir, we have to take action for what he had done.' So I said, ‘All right, it's up to you. See if you have the evidence to arrest him. If you have evidence, certainly do it. But please consult the Attorney-General.' Gotabaya [Rajapaksa] was very cautious. He said ‘no,' otherwise they would have taken him [Fonseka] immediately [after the election results were announced]. Only after going through all the evidence was the Army given the green light to do what they wanted.
This is an enquiry [under military law] to see if there is a prima facie case against Fonseka. I don't want to get involved in the judicial process. One thing is that I am a lawyer myself, so I always respect the law. I never say anything against the courts, against the judges. [Except once when the last Chief Justice was trying to decide the price of petrol. I said that was the executive's, not the judiciary's, job.] My view is, ‘let the legal process go on.' I don't want to get involved in it. Discipline is an Army matter. If I get involved, Army discipline will go for a six. I don't want to do that. It is very important that democracy is restored.
Army law is very different from the general law. Now he has been taken by the Army. He is under the Army Commander. He is being given a luxury flat, the Navy Commander's chalet. If he had won, I would have been in Bogambara, in a 2x2 cell! He is allowed access to his lawyer, his wife is allowed to see him. She called my wife, who was at a banquet in Moscow; she was told, ‘ask for it and you will be allowed to see him' and she did. Doctors, everything possible is allowed. We don't want to harass him.
In Buddhism, they say, ‘for what you have done, there will be repercussions in this particular birth.' Good or bad, you don't have to wait till the next birth.
I always believe in God – Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and God. There is somebody who looks after us. They say that when Vishnu looks after you, no one can do you any harm. That's why I went to Tirupati [and prayed]: ‘Look after this country.'
If Fonseka had won
Had there been a different election result, there would have been a bloodbath. There would have been dead bodies everywhere. Burning houses and all that. Just before the election, even government servants were getting threatening letters saying ‘on the 26th [of January] we will come for you.‘
The Hindu : Opinion / Interviews : ‘India is my relation, the others are friends'