Groundviews

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on ethnicity in Northern Sri Lanka post-war

Image courtesy 3mana

In my interview with the Secretary of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, broadcast on the BBC a week ago, his comments on the demography of the North aroused particular interest.

DBS Jeyaraj disputed his assertion that it was easy for Tamils to live all over Sri Lanka, and described as “troubling” Mr Rajapaksa’s assertion that the North of Sri Lanka should not be viewed as a predominantly Tamil place.  In his website he asked why, indeed, Tamils should not call the north their homeland; such a term need not exclude others from living there, he said.

In contrast, the senior presidential secretariat official, Lucien Rajakarunanayake, said the BBC had been “humbled” by Mr Rajapaksa as the BBC’s plan “to show… that Tamils … were threatened by Sinhala settlers” was disproved.

The BBC had no such plan but only raised the subject of ethnicity once Mr Rajapaksa brought up the subject of government agents.

Mr. Rajapaksa dwelt on the point that Sinhalese should have as much right as others to buy property in the North (something they do enjoy, as Mr Jeyaraj points out).  He did not address the question of whether the North should be seen as culturally mainly Tamil, which admittedly I did not ask him explicitly.  But he did agree with the controversial proposition – also expressed by a certain strain of Sinhala nationalism – that all parts of the country should be populated along the same ethnic proportions as the country as a whole.  In other words, if Sri Lanka is 75% Sinhalese, then the Northern Province should also be.

And he said the North should not be seen as predominantly Tamil because by the same token Colombo and Hambantota had many Tamils and this had reduced the percentage of Sinhalese there.

The interview was long, but substantial portions of it are transcribed here, including also his comments on the normalisation of the north; the role that he says the UNHCR and UNICEF have here; on threats against journalists and civil society activists delivered on state ITN television in March; and on disappearances and accountability.  Omissions are either indicated with ellipsis … or summarised in italics in square brackets.

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Charles Haviland: What has Sri Lanka achieved 3 years after the end of the war?

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa:  [Says we have achieved a lot.  Brought normalcy. Relaxed most of the restrictions we had to impose; removed emergency and travel restrictions.]   Today we’ve removed all these restrictions and anybody, journalists, diplomats or any outsiders can go to any part of Sri Lanka.   For example … the number of Tamils living in Canada and various countries who had visited Sri Lanka after so many years and who had travelled to North, the number is amazing, it’s about 20,000 people within 6 months had come from various countries.  Actually these are the people called diaspora – the people who are living outside, who had left Sri Lanka a long time back and settled down in Australia, Canada, UK – various parts – it’s amazing to see people from 101 countries had visited the north and has gone back.  They have visited their ancestral homes after a long long time…. Irrespective of the wrong propaganda taking place in the foreign countries, they could see that a lot of people had the confidence to visit their parents, their relations and ancestral homes…

[Says fishing restrictions removed.  Areas, size of boat, horse power of vessels, were restricted because of security right around the northern coast.]  Virtually the fishing industry was collapsed.  Now we have removed all these restrictions and the fishermen can go freely on fishing…

Then there are lot of complaints on the different armed groups.  You know, to stand up to the LTTE threat, some of the groups had to be armed during this period.  If you take like the EPDP, EPRLF, various groups were armed in these areas.

CH: These were pro-government Tamil groups?

GR: These were not all pro-government but anti-LTTE Tamil groups.  Some were pro-government, some were not pro-government, but were not with the LTTE.  A lot of groups like that.  But they had arms, they were carrying arms.  As of today we have disarmed all these Tamil groups.  Today no one other than the police or armed forces carry weapons in these areas.  That’s a tremendous achievement.

[After the conflict was over there were nearly 300,000 IDPs in welfare camps.]  Except 7,000 odd people all the others have been resettled in their original places and houses.  [Most challenging problem is need to demine; lots of help from international organisations but 70% of demining done by army.  In all 90% of land demined and resettled.]  Now it is the area which was under heavy fighting at the last stages which is remaining.  Having more and more explosives in this area is a possibility.  That is why we are taking a long time to demine these areas but now we have concentrated in these areas and put almost all the demining groups into this area so that we can resettle these people immediately.

CH: Will people be able to resettle soon in the area of that fiercest final fighting, because some people say there are nasty relics there and that’s why people are not being allowed back?

GR:  No.  To resettle these people as you know it is not our decision, the UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] has to give the clearance certificate to resettle these people.  They give that once they are certain that it is safe for the children.  [There have been a few accidents with mines.]  They are very concerned about security of the people.  But we are not keeping any of the areas.  My aim is to expedite this whole programme and settle them within 1 or 2 months the remaining area.  We are not keeping any areas restricted; they will go back to their original places.

CH: Some recent accounts from the north suggest that in fact there are restrictions still in place on things like fishing, there are still some armed people, there were some very nasty violent incidents in the north recently – and that in general the military is too powerful in the north.

GR: For groups I can assure you 100% – a lot of people visit, it’s not a secret… I’ve not got any single complaint on that because that’s something that we did…  It’s a benefit for us because why should we have any other group – we don’t want LTTE or any other group – it’s an issue for us, when the security forces are there, we have full control, why should we allow somebody whom we don’t have control, to carry weapons?  There’s no logic in that.  …  At the same time there are no restrictions on fishing.   In fact we are encouraging them to do fishing – now we are giving loans, boats, utensils, other equipments…  There shouldn’t be any restrictions on the sea because it’s free now.  [The main issue now is Indian fishing encroachment]

CH: Do you have any sympathy with those who say the military presence is too overbearing?  That they need military permission for various public events, that the military’s control of business, for instance restaurants and cafes, is actually to the detriment of the local people’s business

GR:  [These are old allegations.  I’ve instructed change.  A diplomat recently complained about one hotel on the A9 road.  That is the only one remaining and is for army people, not the public]   

CH: But the north is full of military-run businesses – the whole A9, all the way along.

GR: No.  You go today and take me any picture.  Not a single one.  I have removed all along A9, not a single army-run business.  Earlier there was because there were no other people to do businesses.  It was the request of the people.  A lot of people visited.   There were no restaurants, no place to do anything, even take a bottle of water.  That is why we started.  Now when the people have come back we want to give these opportunities to the people in these areas.  [You can see this in Kilinochchi.]    We have taken out all those businesses.  It is up to them to run the businesses.  And other thing – we are not getting involved in running day to day administration.  It’s done by the civil administration, government agents, assistant government agents etc…

CH:  There’s been some unhappiness that some of the government agents have been taken away, the Tamil ones, and replaced by Sinhala ones – in the north.  Can you comment on that?

GR: Earlier before the war, all were Sinhalese.  And it is Sri Lanka.  Any Tamil officer should be able to work in any other place …  There are a lot of Tamil officers working in Colombo, Galle, Matara – similarly the Sinhalese, the Muslims should be able to work in the north.  It is part of Sri Lanka.

CH:  Do you believe that in fact the North should be populated to the same proportions as the country as a whole – in other words, there should rightfully be far more Sinhalese living in the north?

GR:  Yes why not?  Why not?  Look at Colombo…   Even with the war going on, even with complaints that the Sinhalese were harassing Tamil … the Tamil population in Colombo, the capital, grew over 50%.  Certain 100% predominantly Sinhalese areas if you take today has become 100% Tamil.

CH: Not 100% Tamil – maybe majority Tamil-speaking, that’s Tamil and Muslim together.

GR:  No, no.  Go to Wellawatte.

CH: One Colombo suburb.

GR: Go to Dehiwala, Wellawatte, Bambalapitiya – all these areas 100% were Sinhalese.  Today – my argument is there is no restrictions – whether you are Tamil, Muslim, you can buy property in any part of Sri Lanka.  You can buy any house, you can build any house anywhere.  But the Sinhalese can’t do that in other part – in North.   Why is that?  Why such a restriction, there should not be such a restriction?

CH: But some fear – what they say is the Tamil identity of the North is thereby being diluted?

GR: No, there is not a single Sinhalese today.  [laughs]  How can it be diluted?  In 1980 when the LTTE chased the Sinhalese out of the Jaffna peninsula there were 22,000 Sinhalese families.  Today it is zero.

CH: Do you think it’s fair that Tamil people should regard the North as a predominantly Tamil place?

GR: Why should be that?  Why should be that?  I come from Hambantota.  When I was small I didn’t see any Tamil family in this area.  But today there are so many Tamil families.  Why?  So then why can’t it happen the same thing in the North?  If you are a Sri Lankan citizen you must be able to go and buy the properties from anywhere.  I’m not talking about forced settlements, I’m talking about the freedom for a Sri Lankan to live anywhere in this country.

CH:  You don’t accept that some Sinhalese people are being given more incentive and more encouragement to move to the North?

GR: So if there are not a single Sinhalese in that area that argument doesn’t stand.

CH: There are many Sinhalese in the north.

GR: Where?

CH: In Vavuniya district.

GR: Vavuniya was there a long time. Some of the old villages have been completely removed during that period.  It was an old town.  There were so many Sinhalese families, 2,000 year old families were there.

CH: But you don’t accept that the North is any kind of Tamil area?

GR: How can you give that – you can’t give any area to any particular community, it’s very unfair to say that.

CH: Secretary I want to ask about some serious human rights issues.  Since October there have been several dozen disappearances unaccounted for.

GR: No that is wrong actually.   [Says he has a document on the issue prepared for diplomats]  You are taking this from some website, no?

CH: No, I’ve met some of the families of the victims myself, in particular the wife of a man called Ramasamy Prabagaran who was abducted outside his house in March in front of his wife and daughter just after being released from police custody where he’d been for two years.  And he’s not the only example.

GR: No, there are, in that website there were about 59 names.  Some diplomat gave these names to me.  I have investigated on these names.  18 are completely false, there is nothing like that anywhere, a person of that kind or that type of reported or anything.   Some of them, yes, there have been but we have solved, we have found these people.  It can happen that people abduct people and ask for money, it happens all over the world.  …

CH: But many of them have not been solved, Secretary, and –

GR: Don’t say many.  There are some cases.  About 8 cases.  That we can’t account – they say they have been abducted but I want to tell you this… There are a lot of people that commit crimes here.  I can name some people…  Certain people who are in the underworld, who are responsible for a lot of crime and who are drug dealers who do various things here – and they escape – it’s very easy to go to India through various means…

CH: These people’s families are mourning for them, they’re not people who have just gone abroad.

GR: [Says there’s a case of a mother who reported son abducted; he turned up in Canada, committed a crime and was deported back to Sri Lanka]

CH: I’m talking about recent, real cases in Colombo.

GR: These are wrong allegations.

CH: They’re not wrong allegations because I’ve met the victims.

GR:  Don’t get angry!  Usually I get angry so you don’t get angry!  [Laughs]  Don’t get angry.  I am the sec defence.  I have investigated this.  Don’t take the word from these people.  Take the word from me.  If you ask from me, these are wrong allegations.  I have investigated these things.  These are not correct…  These are lies to give a wrong picture of Sri Lanka – what we have achieved is tremendous.  …  The peace that we have achieved here.  What is prevailing in this country is tremendous.  This is to prevent the visitors coming into Sri Lanka, the investment coming to Sri Lanka, to give a wrong image of SL by the rump of the LTTE who is remaining outside and trying to damage the image of Sri Lanka.

CH: In the case of Mr Sagara Senaratne there was an attempt to abduct him and then his brother in law who is a minister secured his release somehow mysteriously – some reports say he contacted some senior people in the government and was then released.  That’s why people think that in some cases the government is committing the abductions. 

GR: No we are not committing the abductions.  Why should we abduct a minister’s relation or somebody?    [If person missing, it’s duty of police to find them]  You must get the stories of how we have helped a lot of people.  There are groups taking people for ransom.  I can produce many people whom I have helped find.

CH: But in many cases there is no ransom  – this lady’s husband was taken just 2 days before he was due to testify about the conditions in police custody – it therefore looked like the doing of the state.

GR:  No it’s wrong.  We have not done.  It’s not necessary to do that. We have released 11,000 surrendees who had surrendered to our government.  People don’t talk about this.  11,000 who had committed so much of crimes, who are LTTE cadres, they themselves had surrendered.  We have rehabilitated.  ….  You are quoting some Prabagaran.  Why should we harass him when at the end of the war – these are not the surrendees – we had 4,000 detainees at various places – at Boosa, detention camps, the police, whom we had arrested, the army, the police, during the war period…   For so many years.  At the end we had 4,000-odd.  Today we have only 234.  These are not from the surrendees, these are the people we have arrested for various crimes.

CH: How has the number been reduced?

GR: What we have decided is rather than going through the legal procedures, after investigation, these people we have thought much better to rehabilitate them and release.  We have rehabilitated them and released them.

CH: So you’re saying there are only 234 long-term detainees now?

GR: These are the detainees in Boosa.  There is a difference in people – if they are in the remand prison that is a different category.  …  These are the people whom we have detained over the years for various reasons and who were in Boosa and various detention camps.  We have released them after rehabilitation.  You must go and see these people….  Go to Boosa.  The programme is supposed to be a detention camp – but the process that we adopt – we allow them to do their spiritual work, handicraft work, we give vocational training, then release them…  People don’t talk about the action we have taken for these detainees.  …. It’s very unfortunate to take one or two isolated cases and try to project that.

[CH asks about freedom of expression, threats against people carried in state ITN television bulletins in March] 

[GR replies: we have a lot of daily papers; freedom must be freedom for everybody.  Alleges that Channel 4 put out “wrong information”; they are enjoying freedom – that is freedom of the media.  Applies not only to one media outlet.  Why can’t government media have same freedom?]

CH: But if the government media make threats, that can lead to violence, Secretary.

GR: No, we are not making any threats.  BBC – it’s a government but you all say it’s independent.  ITN, it’s government but we say it’s independent.  It’s Independent Television Network – so you don’t say it’s government.

CH: But it has delivered threats…. do you disapprove of those threats delivered by your ITN network?

GR: …  Let me tell you.  Ours is a democratic country.  Our country has been ruled by many opposition and UNP was in power for so many years.  The SLFP, different, you know, for a long period… [ITN has had staff with varying allegiances.  So it is independent, not government-aligned.  It is government-funded but employees have varying ideas, thinking, recruited in differing eras.]   

CH: The UN Human Rights chief, as well as some foreign governments, is still pushing the notion that accountability is needed in Sri Lanka for what happened towards the end of the war.

GR: Yes, that aspect I think we have been very professionally addressed it.  The biggest allegation was about the civilian casualties.

CH: What is Sri Lanka doing about that?

GR: We have done a lot, we have done a lot….   Not only the Sri Lankan government – UNICEF had done investigation on that.  And also the investigation – satellite imagery analysis done by an American firm for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch clearly shows what it is…  [And government decided to do its own statistical analysis or census]  From the census department, they carried out a census in this area.  [Officers were all Tamil.] 

CH: But it showed 8 or 9000 civilian deaths, something like that, so what is going to be done to punish the perpetrators?

GR:  Wrong word!  Not civilians!  Do you think – was it a battle between the Sri Lankan army and civilians, do you believe that?  It’s a battle between the army and the terrorist group which were equally armed like the Sri Lankan military.

CH: There are however allegations of mass civilian casualties…

GR:  …. Within this 7.000 odd number that includes the combatants as well!  … Do you think the army was fighting with some imaginary force?  Where are the combatants? …

CH: But the UN-appointed panel suggested  there may have been tens of thousands of civilian deaths and I want to know if Sri Lanka is going to make anyone accountable for those alleged deaths?

GR: We have accounted for.  That is why.  This is by name.  Anyone can talk about numbers – you can say today 100,000 people were dying. That is not the professional approach.  We have gone from house to house and family to family and found out who are the people who died…

CH: How did they die?

GR:  By fighting…  We lost during this period 6,000 army soldiers.  Do you think they killed themselves?  6,000 army soldiers?  There was fierce fighting.  They were equipped with artillery, mortars, guns, machine guns… [The whole world said you can’t defeat LTTE but I differed.]  So now when the Sri Lankan military fought this war and defeated the LTTE, they are not talking about the combatants.  Where are these people?   Where are the combatants?  If you fight you die!

CH: The allegations are also of mass civilian deaths and people wonder whether there will be accountability.

GR:  There can be certain civilian – there are – I don’t – but it’s not the numbers that you quote.  That’s what I am saying.  Here we have found all the people who have died in this period. By name.  By name.

CH: Is there going to be a public list available?

GR: Yes. It is open.

CH: And is anyone going to be punished where civilians were killed in a way that might violate the rules of war?

GR:  No – If there’s a violation, if can prove, then we can punish, that is no problem.  But you have to prove that.  You know – we have defeated such a terrorist group.  The worst terrorist group in the world.  Now you don’t talk about that! We have stopped killing in this country.  You don’t talk about that.  You are supporting the terrorist!  You are supporting the terrorist cause!  I can’t understand it.

CH: I assure you I am not, Secretary.

GR:  Why this…?  You must praise us for stopping this unnecessary killing.  [Says that during war, daily there were deaths, lethal nature of car bombs, innocent civilians, all ethnic groups, died.  Train bombs.  We have stopped all that.]  They have attacked and destroyed property, killed innocent people, international airport, the central bank, harbour, oil refinery, hotels, all this we have stopped, all this we have stopped.  All this we have stopped.  The last 3 years.  When we have stopped all this unnecessary killing and destruction and we have opened the window for everybody, every citizen in Sri Lanka to move forward – today there are tourists coming in…. [Business has come in; people benefit.]  Take this opportunity and move forward.  Today, take the top businessmen in SL, who are these people?  They are not Sinhalese.  They are Tamils, they are Muslim, Sinhalese, no restrictions for anybody.  Who is running the Cargills chain?  Who is running Maharajas?  All are Tamil.  They had the opportunity to do business. Who are the people?  Are there any restrictions on Tamil youths to enter universities?  No!  Go to the Colombo general hospital.  You find Tamil surgeons, Tamil physicians.  This is a time that – as a Sri Lankan irrespective of whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, you as a Sri Lankan move forward – by defeating LTTE we have opened up this window.

Watch a video featuring excerpts of the interview with the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaka on the BBC website.