President Mahinda Rajapakse speaks to K Venkataraman of The Times of India:
Excerpts from the Interview:
Your popularity in the country is at its height. But aren't you worried about the international image of the country and your own personal image abroad?
Why should I worry about others? If India and neighbours are good with me, that is enough for me.
The UN has made adverse remarks about the human rights situation and many have called for an international investigation into war crimes in the last phase of the war.
They should understand the country's situation. Earlier, they said Prabhakaran was the world's most ruthless terrorist. But now, suddenly, when I defeated him, they are talking differently. I wonder if they would say the same if bin Laden were to be defeated. They can advise us, but they can't force us. No one can force us to do this and that.
The international community, including EU, even India, frequently asks you to speed up the process of finding a political solution. Where do you stand on that?
We will take our own time and the solution, you can't ask for an instant solution like instant noodles. Constitutions are not for one or two days. It is not a magazine which is published weekly or monthly. We can't change the Constitution frequently. We will have to take our own time. We will certainly change all this. My commitment remains.
The European Union has threatened to suspend GSP Plus tariff concessions for Sri Lanka.
I am not bothered. These concessions were offered soon after the tsunami. Now the tsunami (rehabilitation) is over, it helped us at that time. Now we must find new markets. Our people must know this: when I called the elections, they (EU) immediately called for suspension of tariff concessions. It was a politically motivated decision. If the EU doesn't want to give it (concessions), let them keep it. I don't want it. We have gone and explained what we have done. Now we have appointed it (an inquiry commission), not because someone wanted me to, but because I am committed to that.
The commission is about the lessons learnt and what should be done for national reconciliation. You must have your own view on this. What will you say are the lessons learnt from this conflict and what are your suggestions for national reconciliation?
The people must trust each other. We have to build that trust. In Colombo, about 30 years ago, Sinhalese were the majority. Today, they are a minority, about 27%. There are more Tamils and Muslims now. But I don't see this as a problem. I believe in mixed population. Earlier, there was and they had no problem like this. Only politicians make althese issues for their own ends.
There are fears of complete Sinhalisation of the north and east. Will the Sinhalese people be settled in those areas in large numbers?
They were there, you know. They were chased by Prabhakaran, so, if anybody wants to go there, yes, they can. What if somebody were to say that in Colombo, the Tamils have come in large numbers?
Is it true there are 25,000 Chinese workers in Sri Lanka?
How can it be 25,000? Must be the Chinese who work here as dental technicians. They have been here for such a long time. I remember during the time of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, the opposition started a campaign saying Bandaranaike had sold this country to China. And they came out with photos of these dental technicians. They took their photos and were publishing it saying China, China. I feel it is the same cry of China, China now. Others are saying India, India. Now they are saying we are selling this country to India. The JVP has declared we are selling this country to India.
Between all these developments, where do you see your relations with China?
We are a non-aligned country. Our neighbours are Indians. I always say, Indians are our relations. From the time of Emperor Asoka, we have had that culture. The whole culture, irrigation, architecture has been built up over the last 2,500 years. You can't break that. But that doesn't mean we won't get commercial benefits from others. From China, or Japan, or whoever. They will come here, they will build, they will go back. India comes here, they will build and they will stay. This is the difference. In simple terms, whenever our relationship is stronger and we get close to India, this campaign begins. They start to say India has started to rule, and they know India is very sensitive about Pakistan or China. So they will use these factors to upset the Indian public. Well, I think even the LTTE used this point.
How do you see your recent visit to India and the joint statement that spoke of cooperation in various fields?
I think it was a very successful visit. The agreements that we signed, in fact most of them, are concerned with development work, especially in the north, infrastructure development, railways, housing projects (50,000 houses in the north and east), power plant project in Sampur. All those things are necessary for development of this country.
Some of these ideas have been around for 2-3 years. However, not much progress has been made. Do you think work will speed up now?
I very much hope so. We need to have targets. Earlier, we could say the delay was due to the terrorist problem or something. Now we cannot say all those things. We agreed that all projects will be started by 2010.
How do you foresee Indo-Sri Lankan relations over the next five years?
It will be very strong. We had certain things in the past, but now it is very good, we understand them, they understand us. This is the best time we have had at all levels. Even the people-to-people contacts, business, politicians.
Do you think India has something to contribute to resolution of ethnic and political issues in Lanka?
I think a solution must come from among ourselves. It must be a homegrown solution. You can't bring something from outside and implement here. We must know what it is and people must accept it. If the majority rejects it, we can't ignore that. So, any solution must be acceptable to all communities. And 13th amendment (to devolve power), India's proposal, with that we introduced provincial councils (in the north and east). From there, of course, we have to develop it.
So the 13th amendment plus (for more decentralisation) is a reality.
That plus is mine (Laughs). Yes, it is a reality. I want to go and discuss first with the Tamil parties. We want to see that the provinces are able to share the powers at the Centre. This is very important.
That's where the idea of the Upper House (Senate with members nominated by provincial councils) comes?
Do you think the situation is more conducive for a solution, with the consent of the Tamil National Alliance?
Yes, but they must also realize our difficulties, and the concerns of the majority. We have a saying in Sinhala: "Someone burnt by fire, will be scared of even fireflies."
You mean fears of the majority?
I mean the fears of all. They also must realize all this. Without the majority, you can't implement it. This is what happened to the 13th amendment. It is only the diaspora who want to keep these issues, the conflict, alive. The younger generation has moved on. Now, there are younger Tamil leaders emerging.
What is your total vision for the Tamil people who had suffered during the war?
If the south gets gold, you can't give iron to the north and the east; I want to give them gold too. This is the simple answer. For the last 30 years, they didn't get all this. They must feel that there is no discrimination.
What about the rehabilitation process? Is there an overall architecture for the entire process of resettlement and rehabilitation to include economic activities and livelihood opportunities?
Yes, we have a programme, we have a plan. I have appointed a Presidential Task Force which undertook the entire planning process with government agencies to implement. We are slowly implementing it. The first stage is demining and the second stage is to send the people there. When you are resettling them, they must have roads, hospitals, schools, the village headman's office, divisional secretary's office, in short the basic infrastructure. We have all the officials in place. Now, we have to resettle nearly 47,000 displaced people. Of these, some 19,000 are with their relatives. Even the people who are in camps who have no houses will soon be resettled.
In this process, do you think it would be better to have locally elected representatives? Is there a plan to hold the Northern Province elections?
Yes. They need pradesiya sabhas (local councils). The next step is holding the provincial council elections. But we need some time, as we have had enough elections.
There are complaints that the Eastern Province CM does not have any power and that implementation is centralized.
He has all the powers. Now he (Eastern Province chief minister Pillaiyan) has gone abroad. He has taken 27 members or so abroad. They have gone on a study tour! I thought that money could have been used to build some roads. These are not controlled by us.
In the last parliamentary election, Tamil and Muslim parties that contested as part of the UPFA did not use their own party names or symbols. Do you want them to be seen as only a part of national parties, or should they have their own independent parties?
It depends. The main political parties will also put up their own candidates. I would like to see that all these people do not stick only to those areas. When you have political parties which stick to only to those areas, they could get communal. It is much better that they join the national parties. They should join the majority, the whole country. Whether they are Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, they are citizens of the country. They are not separate citizens.
Do you plan to change the powers of the president?
There are some ideas. I want to go to the parliament. I do go to meet people and for functions. I miss parliament.
Is it merely about attending Parliament, or about making the office accountable to Parliament?
Now, under the proposed Constitution, the president should attend Parliament once in three months. There are proposals that there should be an executive PM and a ceremonial president. These are ideas of those who want to destabilize the whole country. They don't want a strong leader.
What is your vision for the country, covering the political and development questions and all the challenges faced by your presidency?
Without development, there is no peace, and without peace, there is no development. If peace is there, development will come. The development should be people-centric. You can't remain isolated in the world. You have to win over all these people: neighbours, Asians, European Union or the US. As a non-aligned country, I believe in being closer to all the countries. But we must do this in our independent ways. Unfortunately in the past, our foreign policy was wrong. We antagonized neighbours. I will never do that. I know the consequences.
What about the future of Sarath Fonseka, who remains in custody?
I am not interested to know. There is a case. If he is freed also, I am not concerned. The matter is with the judiciary. I will not interfere with the case. After the victory, he wanted to raise another 200,000 soldiers. When I asked him why, he said he wanted small army camps everywhere. I said he couldn't do that as it was the job of the police to maintain law and order. And he said there was an external threat also. I wanted to know from where and he said, from India! I told him I will handle that. That was his mentality. He wanted to fight the whole world.
He has made statements that war crimes were committed.
When he is in Parliament, he goes there very early and stays there throughout the day until the staff tell him that they have to go home. He gets all the freedom there and speaks to people.
Will you get a third term? There are rumours that you are going to amend the Constitution to remove the two-term restriction for anyone to hold the president's office.
For that you have to wait and see. It is only after six years. I prefer to be in Parliament, but after six years I might also decide to retire. So, what I always say is, it is a democratic right of a person or citizen to contest. Let the people decide. By the Constitution, you can't restrict it. It is the people's right to elect their leaders. The losing candidate has no restriction, and can keep contesting, but the winner is not allowed to contest more than two times. - courtesy: The Times of India -