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I fought India's war (Interview with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa)

I fought India's war (Interview with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa)

Author: Kallol Bhattacherjee
Publication: The Week
Date: June 7, 2009
URL: http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?BV_ID=@@@&contentType=EDITORIAL&sectionName=TheWeek%20Current%20Events&programId=1073754900&contentId=5538317

Temple Trees, the residence of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, served as a warehouse during the Dutch and British colonial rule. It has grandiose halls with elaborate woodwork, exquisite sculptures and priceless paintings. The three-decade-long war on the LTTE has not affected its architectural elegance, though Rajapaksa's staff have stretched security measures to the ultimate. Visitors, with impeccable documents of identity, are frisked thrice at three different barricades. Finally, a man emerges from an underground tunnel to check under the visitor's vehicle, which is then parked at a safe distance. Then, after a most intrusive security check and questioning, the visitor is ushered in to meet the president.

A person of frank disposition, Rajapaksa is known for his promotion of youthful activities in the government and Sri Lankan society. His son Yoshitha is a rugby player like him-Rajapaksa used to play rugby in school and college. "My three sons are into rugby. Two of them are part of leading junior rugby teams of Sri Lanka," he said. His association with India goes back a long way. "During a visit to Bombay in the 1970s, I met Sanjay Gandhi," he said, before professing his regard for former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. "Sri Lanka is located in South Asia and I want to have best ties with its neighbours," he said.

On May 28, he had to preside over three marriages in the morning and then meet a group of schoolchildren. He squeezed in the meeting with THE WEEK between the two appointments. Dressed in white with the trademark red muffler ("The colour of my muffler resembles the colour of Sri Lankan earth," he explained), Rajapaksa talked freely about the country's future in South Asia, the world affairs and his war on terror. Mid way through the interview, he invited me to lunch. Over red rice, chicken kankun, fried fish, tempered pineapple, pol sambol, white cashew-green peas curry and jaggery-sagoo (a sweet dish), Velupillai Prabhakaran's nemesis continued the conversation. Excerpts from the interview:

Q.: How do you reconcile your faith (Buddhism advocates nonviolence) with your war on terror?
A.: The war was not fought on an innocent person or an organisation. I went to war to save innocent people from a ruthless man and his organisation. It was a campaign to save the innocent from the brutal forces that dominated their lives for more than three decades. Even Dharmashoka, the Indian emperor who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, gained territory while spreading the faith. I merely liberated a part of Sri Lanka's population from the clutches of the LTTE. I did not fight the war for territory. In that way, I see no conflict between my religion and my action.

Q.: The LTTE attempted to assassinate members of your family. Did you fight a personal war?
A.: I did not fight because of any personal reason. There was no guarantee of security all these years. People could not celebrate freely, they were always afraid to speak freely. It was a war to end the rule of fear. The LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi, the greatest Indian I can think of. His contribution to science and technology made India the kind of power it is today. I think my war is part of the South Asian campaign against terrorism. In fact, by eliminating the LTTE militarily, I have fought India's war.

Q.: Yet, it is believed you are friendlier with countries like China and Pakistan.
A.: Nothing is more important for me than what India thinks. I thank the Prime Minister, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the Indian people for the support to Sri Lanka during the war.

Q.: Have you spoken with Sonia post victory?
A.: My victory coincided with her electoral victory (smiles). I have written to her congratulating her on winning the elections. India's moral support during the war was most important.

Q.: Do you want to build bridges with politicians in Tamil Nadu?
A.: I was congratulated by many politicians in Tamil Nadu after the war. Look at the fate of LTTE supporters in Tamil Nadu in the elections. All those who supported the Tigers have been routed. The people of Tamil Nadu have given these terror supporters a fitting reply.

Some NGOs and individuals tried to protest after the war ended. But they have failed miserably. After all, these are the elite of Tamil society who had no clue about the hardship faced by the people in the LTTE-held northern Sri Lanka.

Q.: Will you visit Tamil Nadu in the near future?
A.: Hopefully, I shall visit the state very soon. I used to spend my holidays in Tamil Nadu. I have Tamil relatives and my niece is married to a Maharashtrian. I do not need invitations to visit India. After all I am connected to India through family ties.

Q.: What role do you visualise for the Sri Lankan military now?
A.: The Sri Lankan armed forces are highly disciplined and professional. Their next responsibility will be to contribute to the relief and rehabilitation of the displaced people in the north and northeast. Even during the war, they were building roads and bridges in the north.

Q.: Will you send your forces for peacekeeping operations abroad?
A.: Sri Lankan forces will go anywhere as per UN requirement. Our army was posted in Haiti and it earned a lot of praise from the international community.

Q.: You have engaged mutually antagonistic parties like the Israelis and the Palestinians and India and Pakistan. (Rajapaksa has a road named after him in the West Bank.)
A.: As I am a democrat, I support the democratic rights of the Palestinians. Sri Lanka's ties with Israel were established by earlier governments. I have simply taken it to new heights. Similarly, India is my neighbour and best friend. But I want to have friends all over South Asia and that is why I find it all right to have good ties with Pakistan also. You have a saying 'the world is my family' [Vasudhaiva kutumbakam], right?

Q.: You mentioned a homegrown solution for Tamils in your speech to parliament on May 19. Will you do it differently from the India-Lanka accord?
A.: The India-Lanka accord led to the 13th amendment in the Sri Lankan constitution. In that way the homegrown approach covers the position of India, too. This time, a political solution will be devised after taking every shade of Sri Lankan opinion into consideration. Since peace is in the interest of Sri Lanka, we have to sit down and decide on its content ourselves.

Q.: What role can India play in reconstructing Sri Lanka?
A.: After the defeat of the LTTE, a prominent industrialist from Chennai told me that a new age of ties would begin between India and Sri Lanka. Indian industrialists should come in and contribute to the development of Sri Lanka especially since the security atmosphere will see a radical transformation now.

Q.: What about the allegations of human rights abuse by Lankan soldiers?
A.: I think the human rights lobby got its timing wrong. After all, they have to indulge in some antics to stay relevant. Where were they when the LTTE terrorised Sri Lankans all these years? Instead of congratulating Sri Lanka they want to humiliate us. Yesterday's ballot at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees saw 29 votes in Sri Lanka's favour while 12 countries wanted to investigate war crimes. I think the vote is the answer to your question.

Q.: The victory has boosted your image. Are you thinking of advancing the date of elections?
A.: Not yet. The two assembly-level elections at Jaffna and Vavuniya should be completed first. Then I shall decide whether to have the parliamentary or the presidential elections.

Q.: Your diplomacy hints at transforming Sri Lanka into a regional trade hub.
A.: We are building five new harbours and two ports. A new harbour is coming up at Galle. Trincomalee is the best natural harbour of South Asia. Certainly, I look forward to the day when Sri Lanka can emerge as a regional trade and energy hub. After all, the country is situated on the busy energy route between West Asia and East Asia.

Q.: You have defeated the LTTE, but you have to fight against your political opponents.
A.: I feel sad about them. They do not have any issues left to take on me. But I value my opponents as they are playing the role of opposition in a democratic society.

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