By Ashok K Mehta
After winning a war that no Sri Lankan President dared even try to, and emerging triumphant from every election he has fought since 2005 President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is directly responsible for altogether 78 institutions, and Minister for the country’s Defence, Finance, Planning, Ports and Aviation and Highways, would unarguably be the most powerful man in Sri Lanka today. Not correct
His brother, Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa, a former Army Colonel from the Gajaba Regiment and Defence Secretary, is the real power behind the throne. He is a presidential appointee, invited back from the US in 2005 to lead a faltering war. Mr Gothabhaya Rajapaksa presides over a Rs 202 billion post-war Defence Budget, an increase of Rs 26 billion over last year and higher than health, education, welfare budgets.
Besides control of the armed forces, police, Coast Guard and intelligence, his charge extends to Urban Development Authority and Land Reclamation and Development Corporation and even aspects of tourism. Government Ministers kowtow to him though he is not answerable to Parliament. In his book there are only two kinds of Sri Lankans: Nationalists and terrorists. Once great friends during the Jaffna battles in the late-1980s, former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and he are now bitter foes.
It was Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa who picked up the gauntlet thrown by BBC’s Stephen Sackur last month to one of the most fierce and punchy HardTalks in recent times. The duel consisted of half-a-dozen or so sharp exchanges punctuated with a couple of sudden freezes in conversation, both alternately astounded and dumbstruck.
To the charge that “so much power” was concentrated in one family — another Rajapaksa, Basil, is Economic Development Minister and senior presidential adviser with oversight of wildlife conservation and investment and tourism promotion boards, head of task force for reconstruction of war-ravaged North-East and Special Envoy to India; a fourth brother, the eldest, Chamal, is the Speaker of Parliament and the President’s son, Namal, a first time MP and the country’s first son is the latest induction into the family powerhouse — and that it controlled 75 per cent of the entire Government Budget, Mr Rajapaksa replied straight off the bat: “They are all elected by the people of Sri Lanka. The President was elected by a huge margin. We won the parliamentary and provincial elections. This is democracy.”
Mr Sackur shoved the knife deeper. “One of your brothers is called Mr Ten Per Cent.” There was no response from Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa to this allegation which was repeated a second time. The story doing the rounds in Colombo is that by appointing the eldest brother as Speaker, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa has ensured that any impeachment motion, if ever, is not entertained.
Mr Sackur noted the heavy presence of soldiers in the north, more than one year after the successful conclusion of the war. He quoted former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama as saying that “majority of the Tamils are mentally still with the LTTE.” Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa maintained that the threat was still alive and the country had suffered from 30 years of terrorism. The Prabhakaran dictatorship had brainwashed the people under Tiger control. He said a lot of pro-separatist activity was taking place internationally, aided and abetted by former LTTE diaspora, so “it is imperative that we remain vigilant”.
Why was the Government displaying an authoritative tendency by continuing with the Emergency decree, Mr Sackur asked, and added: “There is no free Press in the country.” Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa explained that the Emergency was needed to protect the country and while the Government was committed to relaxing Emergency regulations and restoring peace, “We have to take whatever steps necessary to ensure terrorism does not raise its ugly head again.” This was followed by a feisty exchange on the mysterious killing of the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga. Surprisingly, Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa did not mention, as he has elsewhere, that the Army (Gen Fonseka) was instrumental in his assassination.
After the small arms fire, Mr Sackur resorted to heavier weapons. He pointed out how Sri Lanka had isolated itself from the West and the EU on account of human rights violations. “Look at your friends: China, Iran, Libya, Burma, Pakistan…” Mr Rajapaksa fired back: “Why do you exclude India and Russia who supported us? Western countries have a big Tamil diaspora, especially Canada, and depend on Tamil votes.”
The battle was hotting up. Mr Sackur raised the issue of alleged war crimes and the need for an independent investigation of the last stages of the war when 700 civilians were reportedly killed by the Army. There was audio visual evidence and Mr Sackur quoted a report by the International Crisis Group which alleged that the military deliberately shelled hospitals and targeted civilians. The figure of civilians killed by Western sources is 40,000.
Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa was not going to take these Western fabrications lying down. He said: “Our military is highly disciplined” and totally denied violation of human rights. He blamed the LTTE and said: “We declared safe zones.” Mr Sackur interjected “but you did not respect them” and mocked, “If you are so sure that no war crimes were committed, why not hold an independent international inquiry?” A visibly agitated and angry Gothabaya Rajapaksa retorted: “There is no necessity for it. We are an independent country.
Both were now locked in close quarter combat. Mr Sackur struck first: “You shoot the Sunday Leader for Rs 1 billion (over the story that he ordered white flag carrying LTTE to be shot). Gen Fonseka has accused you of war crimes. Are you worried?” Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa, livid but not losing his cool, said, “These allegations are bogus. My life and reputation are at stake. Is fighting terrorism a crime? I’m not worried. You might be.”
The mention of Gen Fonseka was red rag to a bull. “He’s a liar” bristled Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa “and if he continues to say that, we will hang him because it is treason.” A shell-shocked Sackur asked, “You will have him executed?” “Yes, for betraying the country. He’s a liar and we will hang him.” (Gen Fonseka is regarded the war hero in Sri Lanka and is facing a court martial.) Mr Gothabaya Rajapaksa has the last chuckle with his interlocutor simply lost for words. COURTESY:THE PIONEER