Monday, February 18, 2008

'We now want only a final solution' - Interview With Mahinda Rajapakse

Mahinda Rajapakse

Mahinda Rajapaksa
President of Sri Lanka

In the past few months, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse seems to have come into his own. His defence forces are notching up successes against the LTTE, he has fended off attempts to have his Government defeated in Parliament and is one step ahead of his rivals by announcing a devolution package for the Tamils. In an exclusive interview in his Temple Trees office in the heart of Colombo, a confident Rajapakse spoke to India Today Managing Editor Raj Chengappa about what he sees as the challenges ahead. Excerpts:

Q. Do you want to get Prabhakaran dead or alive?
A. Alive. For the crimes he has done, he needs to be tried and I would like to send him to India too for he killed a leader who would have changed the face of not just India but the whole region.

Q. Why did you decide finally to end the five-year-old Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Government and the LTTE?
A. When the CFA was introduced in 2002, I was leader of the Opposition and the first one to speak out against it. When I became the President, I said I will try to negotiate with the LTTE, talk to them and achieve peace to settle the issue. But it did not mean that I approved of the CFA. But they went on a killing spree, not only attacking our army commander, the defence secretary, who is my brother, but also began targeting civilians and children. I wanted the killing to stop. They had violated the CFA so often that it had become a farce. So I decided to end it.

Q. What makes you so confident of taking on the LTTE in an all out war now?
A. Either the LTTE accept a political solution by giving up arms and terrorist activities or we will have to curtail their moves. The Government can’t kneel down to terrorists. Since I came to power we have cleared the eastern and western provinces of LTTE control.

Mahinda RajapakseThey are now restricted to just one-and-a-half districts. From top to bottom the Government is committed. There is greater coordination between the Government and the defence forces which helps our cause.

Q. If the LTTE comes back to the negotiating table, will you talk?
A. Yes, only if they give up their weapons. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. Ceasefire will give them time again. We don’t want them to strengthen themselves and attack us. We want a final solution.

Q. If the LTTE doesn’t come around, how long will it take to wipe them out?
A. We would have cleared them out of the remaining areas long ago but we also had to ensure no civilians were killed. I would say, in a year and a half, we might be able to do it.

Q. The LTTE’s counter strategy seems to be to attack civilians.
A. It is a desperate move in the hope that the international community will put pressure on the Government. They can’t achieve anything.

Q. Inflation is running high. Do you think people are willing to pay the price of war?
A. People will understand. A recent survey done by a rival paper did show that they supported me on the development work that I am doing.

Q. So will there be no cut in the defence budget?
A. The money we are spending on defence is not high. It is 3.5 per cent of the GDP. I believe no country can afford to compromise on its defence.

Q. When you took over as President in 2005 you said that you expected India to do a lot. Has India lived up to your expectations?
A. India’s approach has been very positive and encouraging. Our relationship is now probably at the best of levels.

Q. But India is not willing to sell your Government offensive arms to fight the LTTE.
A. We can buy arms from anywhere, but we can’t buy a good friend. And that is what we need. India is a power in this region. It is very strong and can do a lot to develop the neighbouring countries. Not just Sri Lanka, but also others. India is with us and they have showed us their support.

Q. The EU and other countries have alleged human rights violations by your Government during the conduct of war.
A. There are a few allegations in the East. We enquired into all such allegations but no one was even willing to file a complaint to begin action. We have appointed a commission of eminent persons to look into all the allegations but we need a complaint, evidence and witnesses to do justice in such cases. We will take action.

Q. Coming to a political solution, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to go into a package to solve Tamil grievances has recommended the implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution done in 1987 that wanted power to be devolved to the provinces. Why should the Tamils accept something that was offered to them 20 years earlier?
A. Why shouldn’t they? It was never implemented because the parties that agreed to it—the LTTE and the then government—fell out soon after that. I believe it is a good way to begin. We should first start something we can implement. I don’t need twothirds majority in Parliament to do it. So it’s a beginning. The APRC can then give me some new proposals and we can consider them too. But I don’t want to waste my time on solutions that are not practical just to satisfy the international community. They may look good on paper but will be burnt in Parliament. There will be riots.

Q. How quickly do you see the package implemented?
A. I have already appointed an Advisory Cabinet Committee. I am waiting for their report. As soon as I get the report, I will implement it.

Q. You had also said that you would give the Tamils more than just the 13th Amendment.
A. I am waiting for the proposals to be given to me by the committee to decide. Meanwhile, let us implement something that had the blessings of all—the then government, the LTTE and all other Tamil parties. Something that Rajiv Gandhi had helped get under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. In addition I have already started taking steps to ensure the implementation of the official language policy by promoting the learning and usage of Tamil in administration. I am also recruiting Tamils in the police. Don’t think we are only fighting the terrorists.

Q. Do you have consensus among the Sinhala parties to implement it?
A. How can the UNP oppose this when its own government had passed the 13th Amendment. Only the JVP (Janata Vimukthi Peramuna) is the problem. But let’s not forgot that the JVP has asked for more powers for the provinces and even participated in Provincial Councils.

Q. Why don’t you hold a referendum in the liberated Eastern districts to decide whether they should join the North as envisaged in the Accord?
A. Why should I? If you go now to places like Batticalao you would find they oppose it. I will not have this country divided.

Q. Why not have a federal system like India?
A. Federalism is out—just don’t talk about it. Historically the word is suspect and is linked with separatism. Maximum devolution under a unitary government is the mandate that I have got and I am going to implement that.

Q. Your party doesn’t have a twothirds majority in Parliament. Will you go for elections to implement it?
A. I don’t need two-thirds majority in Parliament for what has been proposed. When the need arises I certainly will.

Courtesy: indiatoday.com

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