‘The message to my people is that I am concentrating on development work. I want to make Sri Lanka a hub for the development of knowledge, energy, commerce, naval transportation, and aviation. To achieve that, our people must stay together, rally round the government and achieve it — for the people. To the international community, my message is they must understand our position. We defeated terrorists, not freedom fighters. The whole world is facing this problem. So they must realise what we have achieved and help to develop the country, develop the North-East. They must help us not to widen the gap between the communities but to bring them closer.’
In this second and concluding part of a one-hour interview given to N. Ram at ‘Temple Trees’ in Colombo, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s President, responds to questions about his ambitious initiative for a trilingual Sri Lanka, the role of the English language, the contentious 18th constitutional amendment, the jailing and conviction of General Sarath Fonseka, the status and future of 11,000 hard-core LTTE cadres and supporters, and relations with India.
You have taken a special interest in language policy. You have announced a Ten Year Presidential Initiative for a Trilingual Sri Lanka and before that the initiative to promote English. This seems to have been thought out over the long term. How do you see this going?
Last year was the Year of English and Information Technology. With that the people started spoken English, they started learning English. So I thought the best thing was that all Sinhalese must learn Tamil now, the Tamils must learn Sinhala, and they must all learn English and acquire knowledge, international knowledge. We thought the best thing was to launch this three-language initiative. We have set the target of 2020 and I think we can achieve it. One issue is teachers; we have to train the teachers. But we have to meet that challenge.
The coordinator of this initiative, Sunimal Fernando, told me about the findings of a socio-linguistic survey in Sri Lanka; it showed a surprising amount of support, even enthusiasm, among both Sinhalese and Tamils for learning each other’s language. This must have come as a surprise even to you.
Yes but I have seen some of this. Government servants get from [SL Rs] 10,000 to [SL Rs] 25,000, depending on the level of competency, for learning a second language, Sinhalese learning Tamil or Tamils learning Sinhala. We pay them; I don’t think any other country pays government servants like this. We are serious about this.
In your address in 2009 during the launch of the Year of English and IT, you made an interesting statement. First about Sinhala and Tamil, not merely as tools of communication but as encapsulating values and worldviews. And English is to be delivered purely as a “life skill” for its “utility value,” as “a vital tool of communication with the outside world of knowledge” and as a skill that is required for employment. Then you go on to say something very interesting: “We will ensure that there will be a complete break with the past where in our country English was rolled out as a vehicle for creating disaffection towards our national cultures, national ethos and national identity.” So you make a qualitative distinction between learning Sinhala and Tamil by people belonging to the other community and English as a life skill — but breaking with the past. So it was a real problem in Sri Lanka, the separation of the English-knowing elite and the people?
Yes. Because everybody thought that English was for the elite. And the elite used it as a sword — in Sinhala it is “kaduva.” The elite used knowledge of English as a kaduva to cut down the others from the villages. This was very prominent in high society, especially in Colombo; they thought the people who didn’t know English must be somebody to be looked down upon. Now it has changed and we want to change this attitude.
And if this Trilingual Initiative really takes off and achieves its target, it will really be a unique achievement. Very few countries would have done anything like this.
Can you tell us about your thinking behind the removal, through a constitutional amendment, of the two-term bar on holding presidential office? There has been international comment on, and criticism of this change.
The thing is I have seen the second term of various leaders, not only in Sri Lanka but also in many other countries. Because in the first year [of the second term] you can work. Yes, you make promises, you can work in the first year. When it comes to the second year, from the beginning the party is fighting within to find the next leader. Government servants will be looking out to see who will be the next leader and they will not work. And the President would be a lame duck President from the second year [of the second term]. See what happened during the last term to [President] Chandrika [Kumaratunga], what happened to J.R. [Jayewardena], what happened to others. I’ve seen that, so I’m not going to walk into that trap! So I thought the best thing – whether you contest or not, that is a different thing – would be to be free from that [constraint]. Because during the second term of six years that the people have given me because I have achieved during the first term, I must have that freedom, without conspiracies, without pulling you down among your people, among the government servants especially.
The second term is very important. To achieve development for the people — that was the mandate they have given me. That’s why I did that. It doesn’t mean … whether I’m going to contest a third term or fourth term, it’s not like that. Generally, this [two-term limit] had made our leaders lame ducks during the second term.
You have told me on more than one occasion that one of the problems with the constitutional structure in Sri Lanka was that the President was away from Parliament, and that you had grown up in the parliamentary tradition and you wanted to overcome or narrow that gap. Have you been able to do that?
Yes. Now it’s compulsory, after the 18th Amendment, for the President to go to Parliament, at least once in three months.
This will solve that problem?
I think so. Because then when I have the right to go there, at least once in three months, I can use it at any time when I think it is necessary or useful. Even that they criticise, saying I am trying to control Parliament! I don’t want to do that; that’s why I said once in three months was enough. I don’t want to go and mess around with the parliamentary system. I want to be there to feel the pulse of the people, to hear the Opposition, to find out. I will give you an example. Recently, when Ranil Wickremasinghe, Leader of the Opposition, raised an issue on casinos, that somebody had started a casino on government land, I issued orders and found out it was a true story. I immediately called Ranil and thanked him for raising that. The Opposition’s duty is to show us these things and if I am there, in Parliament, I will be better informed about these things. Where something wrong has happened, we can always rectify it. It is very important that I should be very close to Parliament.
The other issue that is commented upon and criticised is the jailing and conviction of your former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka. Neither he nor any member of his family has asked for a presidential pardon. Is it a political problem in Sri Lanka?
No, it’s not a political problem. The law is for all; everybody is equal before the law. Whatever wrong things they have done, they have to face it. People understand this. Some Opposition MPs, thinking they can use this as a platform to gain political advantage, are using his name. But I don’t think it’s a matter over which people are excited. They are not interested.
Neither the UNP nor even the JVP seems to have taken this up in a serious way.
No. When they want to say something or do something, they bring this up.
One is the rule of law and the President’s role. But there is also a personal side. He was your Army Commander, you knew him personally. How do these two sides interact?
Yes, it’s really difficult. But whether you are the Army Commander or not, if you do something wrong, you will have to face it. We never thought he was a man like that, we didn’t know. When he came forward as a candidate, somebody informed and said his son-in-law was an arms dealer. We never knew about this. He didn’t admit it either. He should have informed us. He sat as chairman of the tender board; no Army Commander had done that earlier. We made a man who was supposed to retire in a little while the Army Commander. If I had known that his son-in-law was an arms dealer, I would have warned him or tried to correct him.
There are, I’m told, about 11,000 self-confessed LTTE cadres or supporters in custody, hardcore elements and maybe some others. How do you resolve this issue?
Some of them have already been rehabilitated. Four thousand have already gone home. We have released the children and the old people. Some of them don’t want to go; they are with us, for their own sake.
In your U.N. address, you extended an open invitation to all Tamil expatriate citizens of Sri Lanka who wished to come and join the development of the country. Has there been a good response to this?
Yes, there has been a lot of response, including from those expatriates who want dual citizenship. But there are also those who went away for other reasons, but showing the conflict as the reason. Many Sri Lankans have gone and settled down abroad and taken the citizenship of other countries.
You have been in close touch with Indian leaders. You have come to India; you were the chief guest at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games; you have maintained continuous contact. Are you satisfied with the level and quality of India’s contribution to this process, after the war ended?
Yes. Yes. Relations have been excellent, after the war, and before the war ended. We have been in close touch, the leaders of the two countries.
For example, building 50,000 houses should take care of most of the housing needs of the displaced people in the mainland North. Then there is restoration of the collapsed railway network in the North. Palaly Airfield; KKS harbour; road development projects; a power project in Sampur in the East …
So all these projects have been given to India. But still some of the papers are making a big fuss over our projects and making comparisons with what we have given China.
Did the Indian government, political leaders or officials, express concern over this?
No, no. They are much more mature. Because everything had been offered to them first. The airport, the port, Hambanthotta harbour. Even Sampur was offered four years ago. We need development, rapid development. This will greatly help the people of the North, the Tamils. People who used to support the LTTE, those who made a big fuss over these projects, including Professor [M.S.] Swaminathan’s blueprint for the development of agriculture and fisheries in the North, should realise this.
As you embark on your second term, your new term, as President of Sri Lanka, what is your message to your people and to the international community? How should they respond to Sri Lanka’s new situation?
The message to my people is that I am concentrating on development work. I want to make Sri Lanka a hub for the development of knowledge, energy, commerce, naval transportation, and aviation. To achieve that, our people must stay together, rally round the government and achieve it — for the people. To the international community, my message is they must understand our position. We defeated terrorists, not freedom fighters. The whole world is facing this problem. So they must realise what we have achieved and help to develop the country, develop the North-East. They must help us not to widen the gap between the communities but to bring them closer. The past is past; you don’t dig into the wounds. We must think positively, not negatively.
Courtesy: The Hindu