India needs to take relook at dealings with neighbours: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

President Mahinda Rajapaksa with PM Manmohan Singh

COLOMBO: In the strongest reaction yet to India’s contentious support to a US sponsored resolution at the UNHRC against Sri Lanka earlier this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has broken his silence by calling upon the Indian government to have a relook at its dealings with its neighbours.

In a freewheeling interaction with TOI at his Temple Trees residence in Colombo, his first full-length interview since India’s vote for the resolution in March, Rajapaksa suggested that India could be abdicating its leadership role in the region.

Rajapaksa, in fact, did not fully agree with India’s contention that it had helped tone down the resolution against alleged human rights abuses, saying that if India had continued with its support to Sri Lanka, there may not have been any resolution against his country at all.

“Any good intentions and actions are always appreciated. But I must add that if India stood by us and supported Sri Lanka’s request for more time and space, who knows, there may not have been a resolution at all,” the president said when told how PM Manmohan Singh had himself intervened to make the resolution “non-intrusive”.

“The region looks up to India but India must examine itself whether or not it is doing the right thing in dealing with its neighbours… what they are doing is the best thing or not,” Rajapaksa said. This was in reply to a question about India’s vote and how it seemed to have fuelled an anti-India sentiment in the island nation. “All I can say is that we are not a nation and people without feelings. India and Sri Lanka share common cultural and historic values and so we can feel deeply about such moves,” he elaborated.

However, he stressed that the two countries needed to move on, saying that he didn’t see the vote as changing the dynamics of ties between the two countries. “Past is past, let’s look at the future now,” he said, reiterating his comment in the past that Indians will remain like “relations” and that the two countries remain “much more than good neighbours”.

The president also brushed aside the issue of growing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka, one of New Delhi’s pressing concerns, describing it as paranoia. In fact, taking a swipe at India for its own burgeoning trade ties with China, the president said, “The way India is doing business with China, Sri Lanka is not.”

“Whether it is Sri Lanka’s exports or imports, wholesale business or investment in land and hotels, it is India which is the main power involved. It is only India which is involved in the telecom sector too,” he said, adding that Sri Lanka will not hurt India’s interests in the region and that any such fear was unfounded.

Rajapaksa, however, did not give any assurance on whether or not the Chinese will be given operational control of projects like Hambantota port and airport which they are building. It is well known that Hambantota was first offered to India but the president confirmed that even in the case of Colombo port, the contract for which went to a Hong Kong-based company, it was India which did not show any interest.

“India could have participated in the tender but it did not. These are commercial interests and not a sign of any Sri Lankan strategic drift,” he said.

However, he acknowledged the help from the Chinese in decisively ending the conflict in 2009. “When we had to fight the most brutal terrorist outfit in the world, we had to buy arms and ammunition from legal entities that were ready to sell them to us at the best terms,” he said.

“It is important to look at things in the right perspective and not rush to conclusions. India has undertaken to build the northern Kankesanturai harbour as China builds at Hambantota in the south. India is also rebuilding Palaly airport in the north,” he said. He described India’s decision to allow the sacred Kapilavastu relics to travel to Sri Lanka for the first time since 1978 as a gesture that will be regarded with highest esteem and gratitude.

Following is the full interview:

The end of the conflict in May 2009 was described by both countries as a historic opportunity to work towards genuine national reconciliation. After 18 rounds of dialogue with the TNA, the negotiations have ended abruptly. Could you please tell us who, according to you, is responsible for the current stalemate?

The fact that we have had so many rounds of dialogue shows our commitment to reach a suitable consensus. We are always ready to continue the dialogue with the TNA and any others who may have views that could be expressed and shared. We have categorically stated that all these discussions could be had at the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the TNA must make every effort to come to the PSC.

As late as May 2011, when your foreign minister came to India, a joint statement issued by the 2 countries said that a devolution package, building upon the 13th amendment, would create conditions for genuine reconciliation. But the insistence on PSC is being seen by India as another flip-flop by your government over the issue.

You have given the answer in your question, when you referred to the reference in the joint statement of May 2011 that “building upon the 13th Amendment, would create conditions for genuine reconciliation.” That is what we are seeking to achieve through the Parliamentary Select Committee. One must not forget that we are in a functioning democracy, and that Parliament is the supreme legislature. Whatever discussions we have with the TNA or any others, the final decision will have to be taken by Parliament. That is why we consider it best to arrive at a solution through a Parliamentary Select Committee, which will make it a more genuine and workable consensus.

You said on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day this year that all parties should participate in PSC and not rely on “imported solutions” and “foreign influences”. Is India not justified in believing that your commitment to the 13th amendment is wavering despite TNA leaders having declared they want a solution only within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

There is no justification for any consideration that our commitment to the 13 Amendment is wavering. I am glad that the TNA now speaks of wanting a solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. But their thinking and strategy as shown at their most recent conference at Batticaloa was a call for its old agenda, when the LTTE was dictating terms to them. These matters must be clarified. That I believe is the democratic approach.

LLRC, which was set up by your own government to look into allegations of war crime from 2002 to 2009, made some very positive recommendations for national reconciliation but again your government has done little to move forward. Why are these recommendations not been implemented?

This shows a wrong understanding of the actual situation. We appointed the LLRC in May 2010, just one year after the armed conflict ended. Few other countries, if any, have acted so fast in on such an issue. The LLRC submitted its report last November and in December, just a month later, the same was submitted to Parliament. We have also made it available to the whole world by placing it on the web. A Task Force headed by the Secretary to the President was appointed by the Cabinet in May this year to prepare an action plan to monitor the implementation of the 285 recommendations contained in Chapter 9 of the LLRC report. The Task Force presented their action plan to the Cabinet on 19th July 2012 and the Cabinet has approved this plan. It has also been made available to the media, the diplomatic missions and also placed on our websites. We are giving priority to those that can be implemented soonest. Surely, how can it be said that the recommendations are not being implemented? Are we not entitled to due process in this matter? Does any country implement such a wide ranging report the moment it is presented, without proper study as to how best it has to be and can be done? The LLRC was appointed on the basis of restorative justice, instead of retributive Justice. We must ensure that this restorative process does take place.

Why are you not doing enough for the demilitarization of northern Sri Lanka? Almost 70 per cent of your forces are still stationed there. What are you doing about sensitive issues like high security zones, list of missing people and election in the Northern Province?

To say that almost 70 percent of our forces are still deployed in northern Sri Lanka is what the LTTE rump disseminates in their malicious propaganda against the Govt of Sri Lanka. It certainly is not true. Also, I think this is not a well thought out use of the word “demilitarization”. We are recovering from a ruthless armed conflict, carried out by terrorists that lasted three decades. We have steadily reduced the number of troops in the North. In December 2009, the troop strength in Jaffna was 27,000. The current figure, as at June this year is 15,000.This could hardly be the sign of continuing militarization. This is in fact a studied lowering of military presence as conditions and circumstances permit. I believe you are not aware of the numbers still engaged in de-mining activities? Why do you not look at the role they play in development work in the North, to keep up with our massive investment in infra-structure in that region? Are you not aware of the large amounts of hidden arms still being found in the North? Also, are you not aware of the incitement to violence that is being done by the pro-LTTE groups who are living abroad, especially in the West? Are we not entitled to be cautious of what these well-funded groups may do, looking at the experience of the past three decades?I must add that if not for the Armed Forces personnel, the massive post conflict development would not have taken place.

India’s leader of opposition in the lower House, Sushma Swaraj, who led a parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka this year, said the opposition and government in India, as indeed the people of India, are together over the issue of political settlement. She also expressed concern over the lack of development on the issue of reconciliation. Does your government realize that what is happening in your country is no longer an emotive issue only for a particular state in India?

I had a good exchange of views with Hon. Sushma Swaraj. If you say that the people of India, with the many regional and other problems they have, are together over the issue of a political settlement here, I must say that the people of Sri Lanka are also together on the same issue. The observations she made to the media here were most encouraging. We are moving towards reconciliation. I have already told you about the LLRC. It would be good to know the progress we are making in the area of bringing the Tamil language to the administration. There is a marked increase in numbers of Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims in the Police Service, especially in the North & East. This is so in the Civil Defence Force too, and many Tamils are also showing eagerness to join the armed forces. These are all aspects of reconciliation. Our governmentis fully aware of the feelings in India and we are most aware that it is an emotive issue that is strongly manipulated by the political forces in a particular state thatyou did not, or preferred not to mention.

Did it hurt when India voted for the US backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council and why do you think India did it?

All I can say is that we are not a nation and people without feelings. India and Sri Lanka share common cultural and historic values, so we can feel deeply about such moves. But it does not alter our friendship and good relations. I trust there is no change in the dynamic of the relations between our two countries. The visit of Indian Ministers and key officials including the National Security Advisor did not show that in any way. Our position was that Sri Lanka needed time and space to resolve issues that have accumulated due to a long drawn conflict that became the hurdle for our development.

While India voted in favour of the resolution, truth is that PM Manmohan Singh himself took interest in ensuring that the language of UNHRC the resolution was diluted making it “non intrusive” and that it wasn’t a monitoring mechanism. Also, do you think India is being influenced heavily by the US in conducting its foreign policy?

I think it is best to move away from this resolution, which is done and over. What is necessary is to go beyond that. Any good intentions and actions are always appreciated. But I must add that if India stood by us and supported Sri Lanka’s request for more time and space, who knows, there may not have been a resolution at all. The region looks up to India and India must examine itself whether or not it is doing the right thing in dealing with its neighbours…what they are doing is the best thing or not.

There is a concern within the Indian establishment that Colombo, whose growing proximity to China is no secret, may now decide to have what it believes is a more realist policy orientation rather than non-aligned.

I think it is necessary to state very clearly that Sri Lanka remains fully committed to being a non-aligned state. Non-alignment is a policy that we shall follow, even in the absence of the old power blocs, and also taking the new geo-political realities into consideration. We recognize that India is a land of considerable importance to Sri Lanka. But I think the many fears that the Indian establishment may be having, as you state, about Sri Lanka’s growing relations with China are unfounded. Yes, there is increased Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. These are all commercial transactions. We need to catch up with our lost development opportunities of a three decade period and we need to explore funding sources that make low cost funds available to us.

China is building not just Hambantota port but also Colombo terminal, roads, railways and power plants. Many in India believe that this is aimed at undermining India’s natural influence in the region and that it can be a long-term economic and security threat for India. What assurances can you give to India, if at all, about not hurting India’s interests in the region with this strategic drift towards Beijing?

China’s recent investments in Sri Lanka far preceded the UNHRC vote. It is necessary to look at these matters in the correct perspective and not rush to conclusions. India has undertaken to build the northern Kankesanturai Harbour, while China builds at Hambantota in the Southern extreme. India will be rebuilding and expanding the Palaly Airport in the North. India is investing in the Sampur Coal Fired Power Plant in the East. India is also building the railways in the North and South. Who undertakes development in the Colombo Port that is much needed, has been decided on a global tender, and it is a Hong Kong based company that won the contract. It is wrong to say that Sri Lanka offered these contracts to China. India too could have participated in this tender. But they did not. Let me tell you that these are commercial interests and not in any way related to a “strategic drift” that you mention. When we had to fight the most brutal terrorist outfit in the world, yes, we had to buy arms and ammunition from legal entities that were ready to sell them to us at the best terms. Sri Lanka has no reason to do anything that would hurt India’s interests in this region. There is no rationale for us to do such things, and we also believe that India also would not do anything that would harm Sri Lanka. Our best neighbourly relations will remain, and there are many more areas for investment that India could be interested in.

What is your response to concerns in India about your allowing other countries to explore oil and gas in the region? China already has many oil survey ships operating in the region.

Our energy requirements keep increasing and to find oil within in our own ocean region will be a great boon. I see no reasons whatever for concern by India at our allowing other countries to explore for oil in this region. The company that is doing the initial work now is one that has a large presence in India, too. One must not forget that we did make the first offer of oil exploration sites in the Mannar Basin to India. So what is the need for any concern?

India and Sri Lanka were the first to sign a free trade agreement in South Asia in the late 90s and so it is strange that the proposal for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) has not yet come into effect. India, in fact, continues to wait for you to make up your mind. What are the constraints which are preventing you from going ahead?

I do not think that is a correct assessment. Discussions at the official level have been going on for quite some time. There are areas which are very complex and such matters take time to be resolved. I think anything hurried will not yield desired results. There must be in depth analysis of all possible issues that may not surface now, but many years later. Then only any agreement becomes meaningful to both stakeholders.

There have been some talks recently in Sri Lanka about lowering of imports from India.

There is no official policy on these lines, specific to India. There is always talk of lowering imports, this is inevitable. Like any other country Sri Lanka will look at the possibilities of import substitution. This will not apply to India alone. We must narrow our trade gap. We must produce in our country what we can best produce. In fact India may be able to help us in this, to mutual benefit. There is nothing in our thinking of lowering imports from India alone.

India’s line of credit to Sri Lanka is close to a billion dollars. It has also given about $ 350 million in grants and aids apart from making massive reconstruction and development efforts in the north and east. As a goodwill gesture, it has decided to allow the sacred Kapilavastu relics to travel to Sri Lanka later this year. It has rarely made an exception like that for any other country. Do you think India has done enough to fulfil Sri Lanka’s expectations from its, geographically at least, most significant neighbour?

India has done a great deal in this regard. Its contributions in fulfilling Sri Lanka’s expectations are many. Allowing the sacred Kapilavastu relics to be brought to Sri Lanka is a gesture that will always be regarded with the highest esteem and gratitude. I am glad that my request to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh during my last visit to India bore fruit. This underscores our close relations through the centuries, especially the links through Buddhism. India’s grants and aid for construction and development especially in the conflict affected areas is most encouraging and helpful in our efforts to move on the path of development in peace and reconciliation. All of this emphasises India’s role as our closest and most significant neighbour, to use your own words.


Source: India Times