Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

Mahinda – Better than G.W Bush ?

Photo credit: Al-Jazeera

A friend recently forwarded me this story – an interview featuring the Sri Lankan President on Al Jazeera. I am slightly confused by it – and thought it would be useful to get some local interpretations…

Click here for original source

The following is a transcript of an interview between Al Jazeera’s 101 East presenter Teymoor Nabili and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka:

Teymoor Nabili: Mr President, the Tamil Tigers launched their first attack against your government and against the Sri Lankan people only weeks after you came to power. Why do you think it was, that after so long of adhering to the peace plan, they suddenly decided to start attacking again?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa: They would have thought it was a weakness of mine, that I could be defeated. That was a good opportunity for them to establish a separate state. They would have believed that.

Is it possible that for Prabhakaran, war or continuing conflict is actually a preferred option because only by convincing the northern population that they were under attack can he convince them to support his movement. If there were no attacks from the government the population would lose the need for his command ?

Like I said before, he thought that we were weak, that the state is weak, that he is strong. But now, he has come to a point, where he has accepted that. He has lost the east. Prabhakaran does not represent the aspirations of the Tamil people. What he represents, is the interests of a small group, not the needs of the Tamil people. The Tamil people do not want a war, they want peace. The government does not need a war, the government wants peace.

Is there any level of dialogue at all between your government and the LTTE right now?

Actually, at present there are no talks at any level. As a government we cannot have talks. We say that we are ready for talks always.

You don’t see any value in dialogue?

We are always ready for talks. Always, even today. Even while the fighting goes on, I am ready for talks. Even being armed, the way they are behaving today, we are ready to go forward.

When you say you are prepared to talk, you are prepared to instigate, to initiate dialogue?

Definitely, if the LTTE is ready. [It takes] two hands to clap.

Have you made the offer?

I am ready if Prabhakaran is ready. We have said that very clearly. I am ready, but I am not prepared to kneel before the terrorism of the LTTE. I have said that many times. If I am attacked, I will counter attack. That is what we have done at every occasion.

We have then, a face-off. How does one get around what seems to be an intractable problem?

Actually in this instance, and at every other instance we have said, come and commence talks with us, we are ready. We have offered a political solution to the people. Along with the political solution, we are prepared to talk. But what the LTTE wants, to keep their arms and divide the country into two. That I cannot allow.

Do you think the Sri Lankan people would rather see a victory against the Tamil Tigers or a peace agreement with the Tamil Tigers?

The people have been battered by the LTTE for many years. It has come to a point where the LTTE cannot be trusted. If the people are asked, they will say, defeat the LTTE and talk. But I am ready to talk with the LTTE. From the other side, this question is a question not faced in any other country. Where a head of state asks Prabhakaran to talk.

So you are saying that you think the Sri Lankan people would prefer a defeat of the LTTE first?

First. Opinion polls seem to suggest that peace is much more important to the Sri Lankan people. For the people, LTTE, peace – the people want peace, that is the truth, without defeating the LTTE, without defeating the terrorism of the LTTE. There is no politics in this. There is a political side and terrorism here. This is a terrorist group. The people are aware that as long as a terrorist organisation exists, that negotiations will not be successful. They are making use of the negotiations to strengthen themselves, to bring in arms. This is a historical fact, historically because the people have been battered. Today we have to be very careful.

So let me be clear on this: what you’re saying is that there must first be military victory and then peace talks?

No. That is not what I hope for. Until the terrorists are weakened, they will not come for talks. As long as they think they are strong, they will try to break up the country. Today, what we hope is to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil people.

What do you mean by weakened? At what point will you accept that the Tamil Tigers are weakened because it’s now been almost a year of …

Even under today’s circumstances. Clearly said, what the people expect. But what I expect is not that. I said that even today I am ready to negotiate, very clearly. My argument is that terrorism has to be got rid off. We cannot kneel down to that. I am not prepared to kneel down to their arms capability. But I am committed to ensuring the rights of the Tamil people. That I will achieve, somehow.

I apologise, I am not really following you. You say that terrorism must be defeated but you don’t want, you don’t think that a military victory is necessary?

Absolutely, a victory is essential against terrorism. That is a different story. But because we need to meet the aspirations of the Tamil people, I am prepared to go for talks, with the terrorists. I have come to that point. Has any other world leader said that?

Could you then describe a situation under which both those things can be achieved – defeat of the terrorists and representation of the Tamil people? What I am struggling to understand here is if the defeat of terrorism is a key element of your strategy and yet dialogue is also a key element of your strategy. How do you see those two working together? Which comes first and how do you proceed?

Now, we tried to talk at the beginning. While keeping their arms, we were prepared to talk. When we went to Geneva; they killed innocent people. Even while they were killing, I negotiated. I think, if you were to compare with other countries, you will see a difference. In other countries there will be no negotiations. But, we have been prepared, we have negotiated, we have shown that we are genuinely ready to do that. But they must give up terrorism. They must enter a democratic framework. Without that, that is what we expect to achieve through negotiations. It was clear during our negotiations with them, that they have no interest in negotiating because they believe they can win this war, that they can divide this country into two. That is their strong belief, Prabhakaran’s belief.

The message I am hearing from you right now is that your military strategy is going to continue until the Tigers come to the table and ask for negotiations and lay down their arms.

No. I am ready to talk even while they carry arms. Even while they fight, if they want to negotiate with me, and reach a solution, I am ready for that too.

Let me rephrase then. What you are saying is that the government’s military strategy will continue as is, until you get a signal from Prabhakaran that he is willing to talk and he is willing to stop his military action first?

If they do not attack me, I will not attack. If they stay where they are, keeping their arms, I have no problem with that. But, they must agree to a political solution. To achieve the aspirations of the Tamil people, and to achieve the aspirations of the people of this country, I am prepared. Because I will not divide people as Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese.

Let’s assume that Prabhakaran is committed to a military victory against the government. Is it your belief that the government can defeat the Tigers militarily if it comes to the necessity?

Actually, the government has the capability to defeat them. The government is strong. Defeating terrorism is not only for the Sri Lankan government. To protect democracy, the whole world must act to defeat terrorism

But we’ve had a year now of the government putting an all-out effort to counter the Tamil Tiger terrorism and in that time there has not only been no progress made, we now see they have an air force.

I must say this very clearly. We have cleared the east from terrorism. Today, they have been limited to Killinochchi and Mullaitivu areas. We have weakened them. They receive help from the European and other countries, they get strong. As long as they get this protection money they will carry this out as a business. We must keep that in mind.

Do you think Prabhakaran should admit finally that the ceasefire agreement is dead?

Prabhakaran is breaking it all the time. Prabhakaran is not talking about a ceasefire agreement. When it’s needed, he talks about it to the international community. Prabhakaran has completely forgotten about it, and is carrying out his terrorist activities.

As far as you are concerned it’s no more than a piece of paper now?

Even though I dislike saying it, the agreement has fallen to that state. This agreement is between us. We are prepared to renew the agreement at any time. But Prabhakaran does not honour that. We still honour it. We still do not send our police, our army to that side.

Richard Boucher visited Sri Lanka recently and he said there are two aspects that concern us, abductions and killings and the freedom of the press. Other human rights organisations have also levelled criticisms at the forces, armed forces.

Actually, today I am not prepared to accept that there are human rights violations as has been reported. When such accusations are made, I, the forces, the police …

Are you willing to accept that there are violations of human rights occurring?

Knowingly, a state will not violate human rights, abduct people. That must be stated very clearly. Our forces are a very disciplined force. Not seen in any other country. Not a single civilian was injured when we took Vakarai. We know that in certain instances when bombs are dropped in other countries, people are killed, children die. We do not behave like that. We did not do that. We protected every civilian.

But Human Rights Watch has documented at least 700 and more abductions during your term.

Many of those people who are said to have been abducted are in England, Germany, gone abroad. They have made complaints that they were abducted, but when they return they don’t say. Some talk of a few people abducted from Colombo. We do not know whether they are fighting in Killinochchi, we have no way of finding out. This is all against the government. We have seen this business. We have found out that under the same name, they have gone abroad. In these lists we have seen.

So this is a conspiracy?

Definitely, I don’t refute the fact that the LTTE is abducting people. The LTTE has abducted people and killed them. The state forces do not have to abduct people, because we have a law. We can question them, and remand them, imprison them. We can detain them under emergency laws. So there is no need to abduct someone, for the state. If we receive evidence about any incidents, I have appointed a commission to take action against such people. International observers have been brought in. That is what a state can do. If there are killings, we have a police, a law to stop that. For this too, we have a law and a commission.

Let’s move away from abductions, you said after your victory that your aim is to bring about an honourable peace. This has been a long-running problem. How long do you think it can continue to go on before something very serious occurs within the Sri Lankan society itself?

I would like to solve this problem today. This has gone on too far. We need to solve this as quickly as possible. That is why we are working very hard.

How do you propose to do that?

We have to discuss it, then we have to bring it before the people and we also have to eradicate terrorism. We cannot allow these criminals to dictate to us. We cannot have them join us. While we go ahead with our programme to control these people we will bring forward a solution. This way the people will be with us. If you ask the people whether they want LTTE rule, they will say they don’t want it. You go there and ask them. But the problem is that if they say they are opposed to the LTTE, they will be killed.

The ambassador designate to the EU from Sri Lanka has been speaking about his concerns with the situation; that perhaps Europe, and maybe even a Democratic US president after the next election, may begin to support either a humanitarian intervention in Sri Lanka, or a perhaps a slightly stronger intervention in Sri Lanka. Perhaps even ultimately a Bosnia-style solution. Is that a fear that you have?

I believe in this country, for the problem of this country, another country cannot force a solution. To find a solution for this country, it is not Europe that can help. It is India that can find a solution. India is our neighbour. It is essential for the people of India. Therefore I believe, that it is the Indian government that can help us with this question.

But what would you like India to do today?

To offer a solution to this problem, according to the present situation, to help the Tamil people, India’s support is necessary. India must work with this government. It has worked, and my belief is that there must be more support from the Indian government. Sri Lanka is not a colony of England, America or any other country. Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. So when they get involved it is important that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of this country.

Mr President thank you very much for talking to Al Jazeera.