'We have settled 80 percent of the displaced people'
Sri Lanka's new Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris, who visited Washington, DC last month, feels the tensions that existed in the United States and Sri Lanka during the height of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, when Colombo refused to acquiesce to a ceasefire, have been repaired.
In an exclusive interview with rediff India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa, Peiris said President Mahinda Rajapakse, who will visit India on Tuesday on his first overseas trip since being re-elected in January, would seek to "chart a course" for the Indo-Lanka relationship for the next few years.
Following your meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are you confident that the tensions that existed in the US-Sri Lanka relationship have been repaired?
I would say so. In fact, Secretary Clinton said there was a time when the perception was that Sri Lanka was standing aloof or apart from the international community. But she categorically said that was the past and that Sri Lanka had moved on from that situation.
So, the atmosphere of the discussion with her was that the country had emerged from its painful conflict and is in a position to look to the future with confidence. In order to achieve the goals in the post-conflict scenario, the US government expressed its pleasure with all the initiatives that were being taken. She spoke of the tremendous progress that has been made in regard to the resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons.
We have resettled more than 80 percent of them in a year, which the US appreciated it because it is a ground reality. And, she strongly agreed with our point that these people should be able to resettle without rancour, without bitterness.
I also made it very clear that President Rajapakse does not for a moment believe that military victory per se by itself is going to provide us with a durable solution and he is investing a lot of time and effort in the political proposals. However, he believes that there has to be consultations with the Tamil leadership. It can't be unilateral.
There should be some resilience and flexibility on the part of the Tamil leadership also. We have in power a government with a two-thirds majority in parliament after 25 years. So, it has the legal capability to change the constitution. So, we are moving that process forward.
Was the lifting of the travel advisory to Sri Lanka by the US state department a tangible manifestation of this?
Absolutely. And, when I thanked her for this, she said that it is not only a reflection of reality bit a vote of confidence -- these were her exact words. So, there is an expectation that we will continue to move forward.
Image: Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Laxman Peiris
Photographs: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
'UN intervention will not help the Reconciliation Commission'
The envisaged Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate human rights violations during the conflict is predicted to be a sham, since there will not be any independent international observers.
The culture of the international community now is to encourage countries to deal with their own problems -- sovereign states are expected to do that. This is a very complex situation; it has its roots in Sri Lanka's history. The solutions have to be home grown. The commission must be given the space to begin its work and to carry on without impediments or interference.
The work of the commission will be rendered more difficult than it could be if you have sort of gratuitous intervention by the United Nations at this point of time -- that will not be helpful. The reaction of the country will obviously be unfriendly because it would be see as a very patronising, condescending attitude. So, all we are saying is do not impute malafides to the government. You can't assume that this is going to fail.
Will the commission also investigate the killings of some leading journalists -- like Lasantha Wickramatnga (former editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader) -- and allegations that these were swept under the rug?Of course. All of that is well within the ambit of the commission.
Image: Demonstrators hold pictures of relatives and friends who went missing during Sri Lanka's war with the LTTEin Colombo on September 9, 2009
Photographs: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
'We are very grateful to India'
Many in India, particularly analysts and commentators writing on the China factor in Sri Lanka, believe that Colombo may be playing a zero-sum game vis-a-vis India and China.
Our friendship with those two countries is not mutually exclusive or antagonistic. We are very grateful to India and it is an extremely close relationship straddling all sectors of activity. The fact of the matter, in the last stages of the war, India had an election coming up, but in spite of that they did not put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to stop the war. At one time there were messages of that sort emanating from Delhi, but a high-powered delegation that came to Colombo to discuss matters with the president. When the president explained his stand, we were able to arrive at an understanding with India. The Indians did not compel us to stop the war
It was a difficult time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh because there was tremendous pressure on him from the South India bloc with threats of withdrawal of support to his coalition.
Absolutely. The leadership of the Congress party had every possible reason to put pressure on Sri Lanka from the point of view of winning the election. But they did not. They had the courage to do what they thought was right. They did not compel us to stop the war. So, that is something we will always remember and with gratitude.
There been a rise in Indian investment in Sri Lanka, especially in the northern province including Jaffna, and a heavy influx of Indian tourists to Sri Lanka. What is your reaction to it?
In fact, the largest number of tourists coming into Sri Lanka today is from India. And in terms of connectivity -- there are more than 100 flights a week between Colombo and Indian cities. There is also very large Indian investment into Sri Lanka. There is Sri Lankan investment into India. As an example, Brandix has a huge 1000-acre apparel project in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, the Indian government has publicly stated that this is a model project that has enabled 40,000 Indian women to achieve social mobility. The Free Trade Agreement that we signed with India in 1998 and went into operation in 2000 has resulted in a six-fold increase in the volume of trade between the two countries.
Image: Protesters hold portraits of slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran at a rally against Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Chennai on May 21, 2009
'Rajapakse's India trip will chart future course'
Sri Lanka's close relations with Pakistan has caused some concern in India
But again, it is erroneous to think that if we are friendly with China, India will resent it, if we are friendly with India, Pakistan will resent it. That's not the way international relations work in South Asia, and, each country understands that this is multi-dimensional. There is room for friendships with more than one country and exclusivity is neither demanded nor accepted.
How significant is President Rajapakse's state visit to India and what does he hope to achieve through this visit?It is the first bilateral visit that the president is making after his election on January 26. One is the close, personal relationship between the leaders of the two countries. Then there is the importance of the relationship in economic terms. There is also the fact that two weeks ago, President Rajapakse took over the leadership of G-15, of which India is a member. G-15 includes three of the world's largest economies in the top 10 -- that is Brazil, India and Mexico, so there will necessarily be a discussion on how to best to move the G-15 forward and leverage its influence. So, in every degree and walk of life the relationship between India and Sri Lanka is going to prosper. So, it makes sense that the president makes his first trip to India to chart a course for the relationship in the next few months and years to come.
Image: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Photographs: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
'We have set an example in counter-insurgency'
Are there lessons for India and other countries on handling counter-insurgency from the Sri Lankan victory over the LTTE?
I believe so, definitely. In universities, think tanks, research organisations, in military academies, there is a great deal of interest in the methods that were adopted in Sri Lanka to overcome terrorism. Despite being a small country with limited resources, smaller armed forces, we were able to achieve things that bigger economies with massive armed force were not able to do within a comparative timeframe.
There is interest in certain aspects, for example the use of small naval craft. Of course, no two situations are identical and the methodologies depend on the geographical situation and other factors. But, we are aware that the Sri Lankan experience is being closely looked at in other countries with similar problems not to follow exactly, but to note some of the features of comparative interest.
Image: A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard during the resettlement of refugees to their homes in Mannar, western Sri Lanka June 9, 2009
'The war against LTTE is definitely over'
Is the LTTE completely dead? Or do you see it rising from the dead in the future?
Yes, within the country and as far as military action is concerned, Yes (the LTTE is dead). The LTTE can never re-arm and re-group. The war, the military action, that chapter is definitely over. That does not mean that we should underestimate the LTTE's capability or groups that are friendly to the LTTE, especially in manifesting itself in two ways. The vast financial empire that they have built up over the last quarter of a century still exists. The second aspect is the sophisticated communication network. These two are being used with a vengeance against Sri Lanka.
Initiatives in the field of battle and military arena, have been transformed to the arena of diplomacy, and are bearing enormous pressure on foreign governments and multilateral institutions. Lobby groups are continuing spreading the LTTE propaganda. So these countries have to be vigilant on that front.
Image: Protesters wear masks of slain LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran at a rally against Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Chennai on May 28, 2009
'International NGOs have a different agenda'
Are the surviving, sophisticated communication networks of the LTTE manipulating international groups like the Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and Freedom House?
Yes, very much so. There are indications that there is timing in the high profile activities of these international non-governmental organisations. It is tied up to a different agenda.
For example, the International Crisis Group released its scathing report in Chatham House on May 17. Amnesty International did something similar two days later in London. The Human Rights Watch issued a very strong statement on the heels of all this and on the eve of the General System of Preferences meeting in Brussels (to discuss special duty-free exemptions for Sri Lankan exports) on May 20 and 21. So we think that there are connections between these things and the initiatives of the LTTE.
Image: Refugees from the Settikulam Internally Displaced People camp in northern Sri Lanka wait to meet their relatives August 15, 2009
'Only the president is exempt from the law'
There is an overwhelming perception that the president is going after General Sarath Fonseka because he had the gall to challenge him (for presidency). Wouldn't it have been more prudent to have ignored him after Fonseka lost?
No. The NGOs are talking a great deal about impunity. It does not mean just because a man contested a presidential election, the law of the land -- criminal laws -- cannot be applied against him. We are all subject to the laws of the land. The only exception is the president, who enjoys immunity in terms of the constitution -- and it is not President Rajapakse's constitution, but President J R Jayawardene gave the constitution in 1978. If there is strong evidence relating to the commission of crimes, then the legal machinery has to be activated.Some evidence was gathered, especially during the election campaign, but it was thought that any kind of institution of proceedings at that time would be imprudent because it would then have been said it is being done to damn General Fonseka's election campaign. He contested the election and lost. But it would be wrong to refrain from applying the criminal law, because that would be the clearest possible example of impunity.
Image: A Buddhist monk walks past a poster of defeated presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka before the start of a rally against Fonseka's arrest in Colombo on March 8, 2010
Photographs: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters