‘When India said no, only then I went to China. They readily gave it (funds) to me, they were very generous.’
With Sri Lanka all set to go to the polls next year, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in Delhi last week to address a lecture on “India-Sri Lanka, the Way Ahead”. With his party sweeping the recent local body elections, he seems fairly confident of a comeback. Although three months after he was ousted from office in January 2015 the current government amended the Sri Lankan Constitution to ensure no President contests for a third term, Rajapaksa comes armed with legal opinion that this amendment cannot be applied with retrospective effect. (He has served two consecutive terms from 2005-2015). And whether he becomes President or appoints a nominee, there is little doubt as to who the power behind the throne will be.
The man who squashed the LTTE, sent a hard message against terrorism during his visit, though he made it a point to add that this was not a war against any particular community. In an interview to Priya Sahgal, he spoke about his comeback plans and denied the charge that he favoured China over India. Interestingly when asked what he would do if the case for pardoning Rajiv Gandhi’s killers rested solely on him, he replied with an enigmatic smile. However, his son Namal, the MP from Hambantota, who had also accompanied him, was more forthright, stating, “We have done our bit. We eliminated the man who authorised it. It’s now up to India to do its bit.” Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You are in India at the invitation of Dr Subramanian Swamy and he thinks that you are the best person to bring India and Sri Lanka closer. What gives him that confidence?
A: Swamy has always been a good friend of Sri Lanka and he knew what was going on in Sri Lanka.
Q: There is a view in India that you are closer to China than India.
A: I am closer to Sri Lanka. My first loyalty and interest is Sri Lanka, then others.
Q: So, you think Sri Lanka’s interest is more with China than with India?
A: India is our neighbour, our relation. As I have always said, I have wanted development in Sri Lanka. So, whether it’s sea ports or highways, I have always offered India first. When they said no, only then I went to China and they readily gave it (funds) to me, they were very generous at that time.
Q: The feasibility study showed that the second port in Sri Lanka might not be such a good idea.
A: No it is wrong that the second port in Sri Lanka may not be a good idea. Today everybody is interested in it, not only India, also Pakistan and China. Now they have realised, it is a very important port.
Q: What India and the US are worried about is the fact that China has got a foothold in Sri Lanka, that China uses debt to lure countries.
A: It was a commercial deal with China. We never promised them that we will give you this and that land in Hambantota port, that lease was signed by the current government. We will have to discuss about it and try to change the 99-year lease.
Q: But some say the lease was signed because you were already in debt.
A: We would have paid them. We would have settled that.
Q: So, when you come back to power, can you renegotiate this?
A: We will have to discuss about this and try to change.
Q: When I said you will come back to power, you didn’t disagree. You are quite certain you will come back to power…
A: Oh, yes. I am quite confident about coming back to power in Sri Lanka—the way things are happening there and the results of the local body elections show the same.
Q: There has been some talk of amendment in the Constitution, which was passed in 2015.
A: The amendment in the Constitution passed in 2015 was targeted at me and my family, but unfortunately the President did not know that he was the target in the same amendment.
Q: So, is there a way out of this?
A: Our lawyers are saying that I can contest, but I have not decided if I will be contesting or not. We are looking for a good candidate, but if there is no other candidate, then I will step in.
Q: Under your regime, the LTTE was crushed. Can you relive the moment Prabhakaran was killed? Where were you? Did you get a phone call?
A: I was in Jordan when this happened; I heard that we have won the war. And the next day itself Prabhakaran was eliminated. They informed me.
Q: What were the exact words? Did you have any code name for him?
A: No, they just said, Prabhakaran was dead.
Q: You went after him with all your might. Your predecessors were not able to do what you achieved.
A: This was not a war against any community or a group, this was against terrorism and everybody was suffering…he was not only a threat to Sri Lanka or its leaders, but he was a threat to India. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed. They would have targeted some more people.
Q: There is a currently a debate whether Rajiv Gandhi’s killers should be released from prison or not..
A: It is an internal matter; they were given a pardon earlier. But it’s up to the government, so I don’t want to comment.
Q: If it were in your hands?
Q: How do you see India-Sri Lanka relations progressing under you, because people say that the current regime is more in our favour?
A: No, we were very close to India, but there was misunderstanding after that, about Chinese investment because that was a commercial need. What I wanted was a port, I want to develop my country, and so, whoever helped us, we went behind them. It was nothing personal.
Q: India was worried about the Chinese submarines that were allowed to dock.
A: They were just passing through and stopped to refuel. Even today it happens.
Q: Everybody is citing Malaysia’s example about how China works—that they put in investment, put you in their debt and then use military advantage over you?
A: No, I don’t think so. The Chinese would (not) do that, because you all are there.
Q: The US is worried about the rise of China, and that you are close to China. They may try and put pressure on you with human rights cases. Do you see that happening?
A: They were doing that from the beginning. Until the war was finished, they (US) were with us and they helped us finish the war, but after that, they started a different tune.
Q: You have been pretty dismissive regarding some of the inquiries against you. Do you feel that they are driven by some agenda?
A: There are no inquiries against me at the moment. They are going after the family…they have filed a case against my brother.
Q: You swept the recent local body elections. How important are these elections in terms of the general elections?
A: The results are going to be the same.
Q: You have been a pro Sinhalese…
A: I am not a pro Sinhalese, I am a pro Sri Lankan…
Q: And Sri Lankan is pro Sinhalese…
A: Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is Sinhalese majority. But when I say pro Sri Lankan, it involves everyone, the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others.
Q: There were talks of greater devolution of powers, which has been given to an extent…
A: It is only the politicians who want it. People just want jobs and development. The present government has done nothing.
Q: How did your party do in the Tamil province in the local body elections?
A: Not bad. At least this time, we have gained something.
Q: What has changed that you gained the support?
A: I think that now people understand that this government is not doing anything for the north.
Q: You’re known for being authoritarian.
A: The propaganda at that time was like that. The only thing is, if you give your word on something, you must deliver it. I was doing that. I didn’t say or promise things which I couldn’t do. Now the people say one thing in the morning and change it in the evening. The Prime Minister says one thing and the President is against it or vice versa.
Q: They’re both from parties who’ve come together against you. Will that survive till the next elections?
A: I can’t comment on that. The equation between the President and the Prime Minister is that they are fighting with each other. They are watching and enjoying this situation.
Q: You accused India of putting up this coalition against you to a Hong Kong-based newspaper.
A: I don’t want to talk about it now. It’s in the past.
Q: The divide between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena—who do you think is to blame in this? One is your former colleague.
A: I would blame both. We had dinner just before he (Sirisena) left our party and announced he was going to contest. That night he was with me till 11:45 pm, but he never told me he was leaving. He proposed my name as a presidential candidate and that he was selecting people for my campaign. And, the next morning at 6 he announced it.
Q: Were you expecting this?
A: No, I was not. That was unfortunate. I didn’t know about it.
Q: Since you’re in India, will you be meeting the Prime Minister?
A: Yes, I will, and the Congress as well.
Q: What is your equation with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi?
A: They’ve been very good to us when we were in power.
Q: You said people in Sri Lanka are unhappy about the lack of development. How will you solve this problem, because a lot of debt is from China which was negotiated during your time?
A: You can’t associate the whole debt amount with China as that is just about 8%. The rest is with the West and others, if I am not mistaken.
Q: What is your comeback plan, your economic blueprint to revive Sri Lanka?
A:We can do that. Earlier also we did it in 2005. It was the same situation. Now the rupee is going down and everything is going up. So we have to control all that. In our time, petrol prices were around 140 and now it is 76. Petrol prices in the world market have gone down. We bought it for 140. We managed to give people the benefit. We never increased it like this.
Q: Do Tamils in the North Eastern province want development or devolution of more powers?
A: Both have to be done. We will have to discuss that. How much we are going to do matters. Sri Lanka is a small country. You just can’t divide it and give them federalism. That is out.
Q: The Indo-Sri Lankan accord talked about devolution.
A: We were on the road against the accord. So we discussed with them—what they want, the present situation and development. We have to discuss that.
Q: The UNP (United National Party) is known to be pro-West and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) is more left o centre; where does your party stand?
A: In the centre.
Q: And we all know what happens to those who walk in the middle of the road.