By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Hot on the heels of the UN’s and EU’s actions on Sri Lanka, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella sat down with The Sunday Leader to speak of Sri Lanka’s position in relation to international interference as well as the current situation in the country.
Opposing the UN and EU actions, Rambukwella said, “Everyone must respect our sovereignty. An infringement on our sovereignty is something that we will not tolerate.” He observed that the Sri Lankan government had already decided and acted on post war reconciliation even before the international bodies had lobbied for it. “We have had 30 years of uncertainty and now they expect to turn out miracles within 365 days,” he said.
Q: What is Sri Lanka’s position regarding the EU’s call for a written obligation from the government to extend the GSP+ facility and the UN’s appointment of a panel of experts on Sri Lanka?
A: If you look at the terms and conditions forwarded to us, it is a complete infringement of the sovereignty of the country. They have suggested constitutional changes, the repeal of certain acts and many things that deal with the constitution. This is a labor related issue and we can look at anything related to labour. These conditions are not worth looking at. We have enjoyed this benefit for a period of time and certain conditions were put forward and they are all labour related. It is very unfortunate that all these conditions are related to constitutional changes and general administration of the country.
Q: But, when the facility was initially granted to the country, Sri Lanka agreed to adhere to 27 international treaties that include good governance, human rights, etc.
A: When you take the 17th Amendment that they have spoken of, it is purely a political operation.
Q: But does not the 17th Amendment come under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)?
A: We have a strong judiciary and we have human and fundamental rights enshrined within the constitution. Anyone has the right to go to court for legal redress. Both public officials and police officers have found redress through the Supreme Court. There are so many who have filed fundamental rights applications and won. It is active and operative.
Q: What is the government’s stance on the UN’s actions?
A: We regret the UN move too. We oppose this on the basis that we had a conflict for three decades within which period, everyone suffered for 30 years. The root cause for the suffering was the LTTE and its terrorist activities. Thousands have been killed, displaced, abducted, etc. Unfortunately none of them made any efforts, other than making a few statements, to exert pressure to stop terrorism. When we were at the tail end of the war, we were advised by all of them to sit down and negotiate with these terrorists. But, as a sovereign nation, we had the courage to go through it and see an end to terrorism on our soil.
The terms of reference on some of these things say that what led to the abuse of human rights at the tail end of the war and possible violation of international laws amounting to war crimes by the LTTE and the government. The irony is that the LTTE is no longer in existence. Therefore, very clearly it is an eyewash to have the LTTE in the terms of reference. It is just that they are trying to pin the government for something or the other.
The President, before the war ended in April last year, suggested the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation to deal with this issue. The commission has now been appointed by the President, mandated and terms of reference that will deal with exactly the same that this UN appointed panel of experts is going to look at.
Q: Is the government considering a change in its foreign policy to stop further isolation of Sri Lanka in the global arena?
A: Sri Lanka has not been isolated. In fact, we deal strongly with India, China, the US, Iran and West Asian countries.
Q: One year after the war, foreign delegates who visited the country have all emphasized the need for a reconciliation programme. What has the government done in that direction?
A: We have initiated much. The President himself initiated the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. But it appears there is a joint effort between the diaspora and the opposition namely Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mano Ganesan and Rauf Hakeem to scurry this process.
Q: The government is in the process of signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. What benefits would Sri Lanka entail from such an agreement?
A: I cannot say offhand. When you talk of an agreement two or more parties are involved, in this case it is the Sri Lankan Government and India. Nobody is going to send us a draft agreement that is totally disadvantageous to any party. It is at that stage and we are very mindful of that. The FTA was signed 10 years ago and we have come a long way since then. Both countries have grown. India’s economy has become more open and some issue we had in certain provinces have been dealt with now.
I have personally met with the Finance Minister and other relevant ministers and they accepted that there have been some issues. They are keen to see that we overcome these problems and get on with the next phase, which would be like the second phase of the FTA. I also say that we need to look at the size of the country, the economy and the political power of India, which is the leader in the region.
Q: So far the business community is not aware of what is in the CEPA and how does the government plan to open a dialogue?
A: The government is currently in a dialogue with the business community. It’s true they are yet to see the agreement. But we will take our time and not be in a hurry to rush it through. The FTA took four years. So we will discuss this too, with all parties concerned.
Q: What benefits did the FTA with India bring to Sri Lanka?
A: There have been advantages and disadvantages. The tea sector has spoken of some problems because their goods there had been affected as they were left in Indian ports for a while. All these have been addressed. If you look at the statistics, the trade imbalance has lessened. Those are our parameters. Our exports have increased. The overall picture is that we have gained.
Q: Is a presidential pardon for General Sarath Fonseka possible anytime soon?
A: How can you give a presidential pardon to a suspect? There is a legal process for it. One has to be convicted and thereafter an appeal can be made. Depending on the magnitude of the offence and punishment a decision can be made. It is the prerogative of the President and I cannot speak on that.
Q: What is the position with regard to KP? Is he a suspect? Or is he in line for a Presidential pardon?
A: He is a suspect. But we are now also talking of reconciliation, which is being used very commonly. That is what we need to look at. We have completely destroyed the LTTE militarily together with its infrastructure too. But we still speak of a diaspora. Which is still in existence. Still active. KP got down members from the diaspora. We are making in-roads to build a dialogue with some of them living outside. We are looking at the long term. We don’t want the diaspora to be active and bounce back. We need to now use tactics to quell any possible resurgence of the LTTE. That will however take time. But it is all part of the reconciliation process for which KP is important.
Q: What is your response to journalist J. S. Tissainayagam having left the country and arrived in the US following a presidential pardon?
A: It is his freedom of movement. His right to exercise where he chooses to live in future.
Q: But isn’t this a telling reflection on your government that so many journalists have been compelled to leave this country and seek refuge elsewhere?
A: I can give you some examples of how some people who worked with INGOs made use of the time to move out of the country. When they saw the tail end of the war, they wanted to make a destructive move and left the country.
Q: Given that over 90 state departments come under the control of the Rajapaksas there are rumours that many within your party are discontented. Is that true?
A: I’m not discontented and I cannot speak for the others. They might not tell me the truth and it is not right for me to ask them either.
Q: But do you agree that this kind of nepotism – employing over 100 friends and relations — utilizing state funds can effectively take the country forward?
A: The Gandhis, Mahathirs, Lee Kwan Yews did it in the East and the Kennedys and Clintons did it in the West. It can be seen in the Latin American nations as well. Some countries have a monarchy. This is nothing exceptional to Sri Lanka. There is no problem as long as there’s confidence and they deliver. When you take Gotabaya, he is the best thing that happened in my view in relation to the war. As for Basil, he is a real go-getter. Even during the war, he acted behind the scenes and traveled many times to India for closed-door meetings. There was a lot of lobbying done by him. Do you think we would have been able to do anything with regard to the war, if India had turned the other way? It was all Basil’s work. Some may feel a little jealous about it, but that is human nature.