In an interview given to The Hindu Monday evening at ‘Temple Trees,’ Colombo — formerly the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka — President Mahinda Rajapaksa responds to questions on a range of key issues: the political process and the status of devolution, military operations and the humanitarian situation in the Wanni, bilateral relations with India, and his vision of an ethnically harmonious Sri Lanka.
Mr. President, are you satisfied with the outcome of the visit to New Delhi of your Special Envoy, Basil Rajapaksa, and the discussions he had with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and senior Indian officials?
I am extremely happy about the positive and constructive outcome of this visit and the discussions.
You have repeatedly said your government is committed to a political solution of the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. What will be the contours of this political solution?
First of all, this issue has been there for a long time, more than 20 years, and it’s high time we came to a solution. As President of Sri Lanka, I am absolutely clear that there is, and can be, no military solution to political questions. I have always maintained this. A military solution is for the terrorists; a political solution is for the people living in this country.
Let me reiterate that my government is firmly committed to a negotiated political solution — based on devolution of power and ensuring the democratic, political, including linguistic, rights of all our Tamil brethren within an undivided Sri Lanka. I would like to see more devolution to the people. It must go to the grassroots level, because they must decide on their development work, what they need. We must allow them to participate in the whole process.
For that I appointed an All Party Representative Committee. I have given them time but unfortunately they couldn’t give me a final proposal in that time. But they have given me an interim proposal, which we are implementing. We are implementing it in the Eastern Province. Within one year of clearing the Province, we had local government elections and Provincial Council elections. A Tamil Chief Minister is in office and development work has been taken up on a priority basis. We will set up a committee to benchmark what more can be done to deepen the devolution and democratic process in the Eastern Province.
As for the Northern Province, we are working to bring about a proper environment in order to bring a lasting solution to the conflict. I will be doing the same thing as soon as possible in this Province, after we clear it of terrorists. Because people must be able to express their true feelings and be able to elect their true representatives. At present such a situation does not exist. It is useless having any proposal in the Constitution or in an agreement or on paper if you are unable to implement it. Even the 13th amendment that was introduced at the instance of the Indian Government — they thought it was more than enough at that time — we couldn’t implement in the North and East because of Prabakaran and his men. In fact, there was no political will on either side to implement it. In the South because it was a political issue. But as a political leader, I have said that after 20 years we have the intention of implementing this for the first time. We have given that assurance to the Tamil people of my country and to the international community. We are going to do it. This is not to satisfy anybody. It is my duty by the people of this country. And let me repeat: I myself will take charge of the political process and see it through politically.
How do you see the relationship between your government’s military operations in the North and the political solution?
The four ‘Ds’
Our military operations are directed exclusively at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It is a terrorist and secessionist organisation that — starting with the ban by democratic India following the dastardly assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — has been banned or designated as terrorist in more than 30 countries round the world. We share with India a firm and steadfast opposition to all forms of terrorism, and I note with satisfaction that both countries have just agreed in New Delhi that “terrorism should be countered with resolve.” The current military operations are being carried out to build the environment required to free our own Tamil brothers and sisters from the cruel grip of terror and implement a just and enduring political solution based on the four ‘Ds’ — Demilitarisation, Democratisation, Development, and Devolution. I wish to once again call on the LTTE to lay down its arms, surrender, and enter the democratic political process.
The four ‘Ds’ in your vision of the political process — Demilitarisation, Democratisation, Development, Devolution — are they in some order?
Yes. Without demilitarisation first, you won’t be able to achieve anything. No democratisation, no development, no devolution. It is useless to give them devolution when they are not ready to accept it or you can’t implement it.
How do you view the concerns expressed in India and elsewhere over the adverse impact of the military operations on a large number of Tamil civilians in the Wanni?
The military operations directed against the LTTE are not intended to harass Tamil civilians or cause any harm or hardship to them. Our policy in this regard is very clear. We are making, and will continue to make, every effort to avoid civilian casualties. We will do everything in our power to mitigate and resolve the plight of the civilians displaced or affected by the conflict. We are cooperating with the United Nations and reliable international NGOs to ensure that food, medicines, and other essential commodities are within the reach of every one of our Tamil brethren affected by the conflict. We will rehabilitate every civilian affected by the conflict in a fair and transparent way. I reiterate that all hardships faced temporarily by our brothers and sisters in the North will be brought to an end in a short time.
Meanwhile, I am happy that as a gesture of goodwill, the Government of India will be sending around 800 tonnes of relief material to Sri Lanka for the affected civilians in the North. I am happy that the Government of Tamil Nadu too will be contributing to this humanitarian endeavour. The Government of Sri Lanka will facilitate the delivery and consult and cooperate with the Government of India in addressing these humanitarian issues.
Are you satisfied with the state of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India?
Very much. Sri Lanka and India have excellent relations; in fact, as far as I can see, this is the best time in our bilateral relations. I understand and respect India’s goodwill and its concern over the humanitarian situation in the Wanni. I appreciate the concerns relating to the welfare of Tamil civilians expressed by the Government and democratic political parties of Tamil Nadu.
What is your reading of the position taken by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Government on the current situation in Sri Lanka?
I have respect for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi — one of India’s senior-most politicians — and appreciate his thoughts and proposals for a just political solution of the current conflict within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka. In this connection, I would like to convey through the Government of India my wish to invite Chief Minister Karunanidhi to visit Sri Lanka.
You must be especially happy about the practical arrangements agreed on to resolve the fisheries issue.
Yes. Also because I was at one time Fisheries Minister when the Indian Government was taking my people, Sri Lankan fishermen. When I went to India, I said: ’This is a humanitarian problem. Fishermen go after fish, they are not bothered about territorial waters or the international maritime boundary!’ We understand this very much. How do you solve this problem? You can’t punish the fishermen.
The practical arrangements agreed on in New Delhi on October 26, 2008 reflect the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fisheries issues. They represent a new phase in our bilateral friendship and cooperation. These arrangements should bring to an end certain unfortunate problems that have cropped up in this area and help build goodwill on both sides. I also look forward to the speedy conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding between our two countries on development and cooperation in the field of fisheries.
Mr President, what is your vision of an ethnically harmonious Sri Lanka?
I am absolutely clear that Sri Lanka belongs to all its citizens — Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, others. The policy of my Government is to uphold the equality, liberty, fraternity, and development of people belonging to all ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities. In fact, I am proud to say that, in September this year, I became the first head of state to address the U.N. General Assembly in Tamil.
6 months ago