I have helped reset relations with US, India, China – Ranil

Ranil Wickremasinghe

Paintings at Temple Trees, this country’s White House, are still leaning against walls waiting to be hung, and the gated grounds are no longer teeming with guards and stewards who served the home’s previous occupant like supplicants at a royal court.

But more than a month after taking over this iconic home after a shocking electoral triumph by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says he has been kept very busy.

In an interview in his office here Saturday, Mr. Wickremesinghe said he had managed to help reset relations with the United States, India and China and has only just started to grapple with the profound issues of releasing hundreds of political prisoners and handing back thousands of acres of land seized mostly from minority Tamils during this country’s long civil war.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was appointed by Mr. Sirisena and took over Temple Trees from the departing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said his first two weeks in office were taken up by a visit from the pope and the urgent need to produce a budget.

“So it’s only been three weeks,” he said. “We just started.”

That is why he still has only the vaguest idea of how many political prisoners are still in Sri Lanka’s jails and how many acres of land can easily be returned to those from whom they were seized, he said.

A tentative list of prisoners has already been created, he said.

“I just want it to be verified twice over from my end before we say here’s the final list,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said. “We should have it by March. And if there is any secret camps, you can close it down and get these people.”

Tens of thousands went missing during the civil war ending in 2009, including people who were killed in battles as well as those said to have been shot in custody. But there have long been rumors of secret camps holding thousands of detainees, a notion Mr. Wickremesinghe sought to dispel.

“There are a few hundreds, I think, not thousands,” he said. “There are people who are missing whose names are not found anywhere,” which, he said, means they either “are not among the living, or they left the country. That’s all.”

Some Tamil activists have become increasingly unhappy in recent weeks as a result of what they see as delays in releasing prisoners and returning seized lands. The Tamil-dominated Northern Provincial Council unanimously passed a resolution this month seeking an international investigation into accusations of genocide against Tamils during the country’s civil war. The use of the term “genocide” angered many in the new government, and it came just before the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to delay the release of a report into human rights violations during the war.

In an interview in his Colombo home here Sunday, C. V. Wigneswaran, chief minister of the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, said that he feared that the prime minister had refused to release prisoners because he did not want to anger the Sinhalese majority before parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer.

“I’m talking of a history of not living up to promises in the past,” Mr. Wigneswaran said. “The prime minister wants to play for time because the elections are coming.”

Even without a verified list of prisoners, Mr. Wigneswaran said that dozens who are widely known to be held for political reasons could be released immediately.

In a separate interview, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that frustrations over the delays were understandable. “Nobody seems to know who they are, even those who ought to know,” Mr. Samaraweera said of the prisoners. “The officials themselves may have been too intimidated to ask questions about things they ought to know.”

Mr. Rajapaksa presided over an increasingly authoritarian administration, and its passing has led to a palpable sense of relief among much of Colombo’s elite, including top business leaders. Among the happiest are diplomats and representatives of Western nations with whom the Rajapaksa administration had become combative.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, who has served as prime minister twice before, in the 1990s and early 2000s, pledged to return relations with the West to a far happier state. “When I was prime minister last, we had good relations with the United States, India and China. The Rajapaksa regime destroyed that. They fought with the West. They fell out with India. And they thought that China would be their savior,” he said.

Chinese contractors built roads and expanded ports during the Rajapaksa administration that were funded by massive loans. In moves that enraged Indian defense officials, a Chinese submarine twice paid visits to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

The new government has promised to scrutinize these projects, and Eran Wickramaratne, the deputy minister of highways and investment promotion, said in an interview at his stately home here that his initial review suggested that some were “highly corrupt.” Roads that should have cost less than $1 million per about every half-mile cost more than six times that much, he said.

Much of that money was stolen by members of the previous administration and secreted abroad, Mr. Samaraweera said in an interview in his office in a fading colonial building here.

“We have already located over $2 billion” stashed in foreign accounts, Mr. Samaraweera said. “We are speaking to the World Bank and financial intelligence agencies of several countries about it.”

The excesses of the previous administration included a multimillion-dollar expansion of Temple Trees involving the construction of a 7,000-seat auditorium, three high-tech cabinet meeting rooms and a small kidney-shaped swimming pool.

Mr. Wickremesinghe happily offered tours of the rarely seen home to visiting journalists in hopes of further tarnishing Mr. Rajapaksa, whose supporters held a vast rally last week. Mr. Rajapaksa has been unclear in public statements about whether he will fight in upcoming parliamentary elections or attempt a political comeback of any sort.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was less uncertain about Mr. Rajapaksa’s future.

“I don’t think he’ll contest,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said. “I know him.”

(Courtesy: New York Times)