Hafeel Farisz Interviews Defence Secretary
The country’s powerful Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke to the Daily Mirror in one of his most wide ranging interviews in recent times, on a gamut of issues. Rajapaksa explained why he believes that devolution of power is not the solution to the national question. He also expressed his candid views about his percieved relationship with hard-line Sinhala groups,the issues surrounding the arrest of a senior Police officer on charges of murder and about the controversial Matale mass grave among other topics on this exclusive interview.
Q: You come from a political family. What are your views on the presidencies of J.R. Jayewardene, R.Premadasa and Chandrika BandaranaikeYour impressions of their times in power?
I was in the Army under President Jayewardene and President Premadasa, and I see it purely in a defence perspective, in the sense of national security. In my view, both President Jayewardene and President Premadasa were not able to properly understand and comprehend the situation which was leading to the conflict that dragged on for so many years.
President Jayewardene , of course, during his tenure hadn’t experienced this sort of an issue. In fact, nobody had experienced this, including the military and the politicians. It was a whole new challenge for all of them. But leadership is all about the capability to deal with such situations with a vision. I don’t think he did that properly. I’m not talking about the economy, but in terms of national security, President Jayewardene did not make the right decisions.
I had seen from the late 1970’s how these extreme Tamil movements developed, especially during the time I served in the North. If you correctly analyse the growth of the LTTE, and how it developed into such a massive organization, you will realize that the strain in the relationship Sri Lanka had with India was the main reason for it.
This is clear because at the very beginning India trained the LTTE, including its leaders. They permitted training camps in Tamil Nadu, and the RAW was responsible for training its leaders. At the time the leader in India was Mrs. Ghandhi, and the relationship between President Jayewardene and Indira Ghandhi was a strained one. That was the main reason for them to help the LTTE at the time. There was no other reason. Before that, we had had a cordial as well as a meaningful relationship with India. It was clearly a mistake President Jayewardene made at that time. Unfortunately, his advisors were not able to comprehend the possible consequences of that situation either. They could not foresee the threat of a military organisation emerging against the government. They never anticipated such an eventuality, and it was a big mistake on their part. There were so many incidents to prove this point. A very good example for this was the arrest of Kuttumani and Prabhakaran in the 1980’s in Tamil Nadu.
At that time, the Indian government informed the government of Sri Lanka that these two had been arrested. But the government of Sri Lanka did not take it seriously enough, and sent Major Lionel Balagalle and ASP Punya De Silva to India. They were low level officers at that time.
And India’s reaction to that was, they just gave the pictures of Kuttumani and Prabhakaran and sent these two officers back to Sri Lanka, they were not even allowed to interrogate these people, and the two were later released. If the government at that time, had the prudence to at least send a minister to India and shown enough concern on the issue, and had higher level discussion, then history would have been different. We lost peace and stability in this country due to such blunders. So you have to judge the performance of these leaders on that.
It’s true that during the 1980’s President Jayewardene appointed General Tissa Weerathunga as overall commander in the North and gave orders to eradicate terrorism, and that was a good move.
During that time apart from the military aspect of, there were a lot of other factors taking shape. These were the foundations of the full blown terrorist outfit. Initially, there were Tamil people being resettled within the Eelam border. There were areas which were complete jungles in which people were resettled. Some of these Tamil villages that we see today were not there before. Various NGOs were also helping this process. Then, of course, there was financing, with money coming in from various accounts. Everything except military training was taking place there.
However, the LTTE had a big problem in recruiting people, because the LTTE was a small organisation. Even the other armed groups were very small outfits. General Weerathunga understood all these factors, and did very good work to curb the situation, but most of his recommendations were not implemented by the government mainly due to pressure from the TULF.
The ‘83 communal riots were a turning point in this context. President Jayewardene was responsible for it, because for three days he did not take any action to arrest the situation. This was in fact the turning point in this entire saga. He did not take proper action, and instead gathered all the Tamil people and sent them all to Jaffna, on a ship. This gave the LTTE the best opportunity to recruit people. Before that, I know very well that the LTTE did not have popular support, I know for a fact that the LTTE had difficulty in recruiting people, but this gave them the opening to recruit cadres.
Since that time a huge growth of all the terrorist groups in the North was witnessed. There were also other incidents such as the burning of the Jaffna library, the rigging of the DDC elections etc. The President was responsible for all these. These were the incidents which helped the LTTE to grow into what it later became.
There was also no mechanism to stop trained cadres and weapons from being brought into the island.
Then there was the instance when the IPKF was brought into the country. Because of all these weaknesses, we couldn’t stand against Indian pressure leading up to the intervention of the IPKF. All of this was because President Jayewardene couldn’t handle the situation, thus compelling him to give in to Indian pressure. President Premadasa also followed these footsteps.
Q: What about the IPKF’s intervention?
Bringing in the IPKF was a failure on the part of the Lankan government. However, once they came in, they initially intervened as “the friends of the LTTE” – but very soon the entire intervention turned the other way because Prabhakaran’s idea was not about settling this issue, he had a different agenda. He didn’t want to hand over weapons and agree to the 13th Amendment. His agenda was very different. He wanted to divide this country into two by military means, therefore, he didn’t want to accept the Provincial Council System. What Prabhakaran instead did was to turn his guns against the IPKF.
Then a new situation arose with the IPKF beginning to fight the LTTE. At the inception, they suffered a lot of casualties, but since the Indian Army was a professional Army they were able to gradually turn the situation around. They started attacking and exerting pressure on the LTTE.
Then what happened was President Premadasa had discussions with the LTTE, and gave weapons and funded them. He made a huge blunder when he told the IPKF that was fighting the LTTE to leave the country. That was a grave misjudgment on his part. He did not visualise and analyse the situation properly, a facet that all good leaders must possess.
Since the IPKF was in the country, and they were fighting the LTTE we most certainly could have tackled this entire problem in a different way. He and his government could’ve sent the IPKF back, but they shouldn’t have created a situation in which the LTTE could raise its head up again, and fight against the Sri Lankan military. What happened however, is that in less than six months after the IPKF’s departure the LTTE launched the Eelam War- 2 against our troops.
Therefore, on a national security point of view these are the mistakes these two leaders made. They didn’t give proper leadership when the time demanded it. This led to a war which dragged on for thirty years causing massive destruction to life and property. This was a problem which could have been tackled at a very early stage.
You can see how we gradually lost peace in this country, leading to a point where we ultimately gave in and divided this country.
When I took over as Secretary of Defence, this country was almost two countries, with a majority of the areas in the North and the East being virtually governed by Prabhakaran. Neither the Police nor the military could go into these areas, despite our government agents, officers and other state workers being stationed in these areas. The LTTE had the military power. We were paying and maintaining these government officers, but Prabhakaran was directing them as to their duties. They had their own Police, Court System and printed their own stamps, doing almost everything as they wished.
This country was almost divided at the time. You could see how it gradually developed into this situation, and obviously it was a failure in leadership on the part of successive Sri Lankan Presidents.
President Jayewardene inherited a peaceful country with all people living together, but he led it to a country that was in turmoil. Day by day the situation deteriorated in this country. We lost the peace and stability of this country. gradually based on all of the above.
It is on these factors, that one should judge and assess the performance of these leaders. This is a brief detailing and of course, there are other aspects and a more in-depth analysis could be done about this, but in brief this is what really happened.
Q: Don’t you think all these leaders, including your brother always felt that the LTTE was a result of a political problem, caused by an issue the Tamil people faced in the North? Do you not think that this problem should be addressed?
It is not a political problem, in many countries including so-called advanced societies which have minorities there are issues relating to the minorities. One has to then understand these issues and address them, whether in the US, the UK or any other country, these issues exist when there are minorities. Then of course you have to bring certain rules, regulations and methods to address these issues. That is what one has to do. You can’t call these political issues. Of course, the government has to address these issues, but it has to be in similar vein that any other issue prevalent within a country would be addressed.
Even if there are issues of the majority community the government will have to similarly address these issues. Now after we gained independence, there were certain issues for the majority community and the government had to address these issues. You have to take the country as one citizenry, and identify these problems, understand them and of course address them.
Also it must not be forgotten that in many developing countries, most of these issues are not confined to the minorities. It is not that they go through these issues alone and it is not that they face these issues because they are minorities. Upon close analysis, at times, it would be clear that the majority community faces these issues more acutely than the minority communities.
But Politicians try to show that these are only confined to the minorities. It can happen both ways- where politicians representing the minority can go to their community and point out issues and say that these issues arise only because you are either Tamil or a Muslim and blame a Sinhalese government.
But that’s not the truth- these very same problems are faced by the Sinhalese farmer, fisherman and worker. Similarly the majority community politicians can use this to trump up the same communal feeling.
In that way most of these issues are because of politicians- they use these issues for political advantage. So we have to look at them as common issues and address them on a broader basis.
But if there are issues that are confined to the minorities- if the Muslims or the Tamils feel that they have issues only because they are of that ethnic group, then it has to be resolved through dialogue and discussion.
However, the method in which this is being addressed today, by demarcating certain areas for Tamils and certain areas for Muslims and giving certain powers to them, will not solve any problem. There has been no country in the world where such problems have been solved by dividing the people and dividing a country. Wherever they have united these people the problems have been solved, a good example is Singapore.
There are no Tamil areas, Muslims areas or 100% Sinhalese areas. Look at the Tamil community, they live all around the country and there are no restrictions. For example look at the change in the demographics in Colombo during the last decade. Today Sinhalese have become the minority in Colombo with people migrating from the North and the East. But nobody is saying that you can’t buy land or that they can’t live in Colombo.
It’s wrong to say that only the Tamils can buy land in Jaffna. Any Sri Lankan must be able to live in any part of Sri Lanka, they should be able to live, buy land, do business or work in any part of the country. Only then would people be able to live together. Unless that happens this problem will persist.
It is very detrimental and not for the benefit of the Muslims or the Tamils to ask for separate areas. This is good for the politicians for their survival and it is only for their survival that they keep asking for these things and it isn’t for the benefit of the common man.
Sri Lankans must live together to ensure that the whole country develops. This is the best opportunity for that to happen. We have lost so many valuable opportunities during the last 30 years of war. The rest of the world moved ahead with the technological boom leaving us behind. We lost this opportunity because of the war that prevailed in this country. We were fighting while the rest of the world was progressing.
We lost valuable lives, be it Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims, the Military and the LTTE; fact is that we lost valuable life. We lost so much of property and resources within the period. Look at the destruction it caused, how can a country afford to lose 22 aircrafts in a single day? Or a bomb explosion at the country’s pivotal commercial hub? The oil refineries, harbours and everything else was destroyed.
Our tourist industries and fisheries industries were completely destroyed and no sensible investor would have come to Sri Lanka under those circumstances.
Now we have peace and stability in this country, this is the time for us to progress.
We haven’t restricted the Tamils or the Muslims from doing business. Who are the top businessmen in this country? Among them you would find many Tamils and Muslims.
Is there a restriction in terms of education for the minorities in this country? Is there any sort of restriction for a Muslim or a Tamil to enter a university? Everything happens purely on merit. If you are good you are hired.
Look at the nubers of Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Accountants or any other profession- there are a large amount of those from the minority communities. Then where is this discrimination that people talk about? There is no such barrier. If one is talented there is no barrier whatsoever to become anyone in this country irrespective of ethnicity.
Is there any problem for any minority to buy property in Colombo or any other part of this country? No. This is what we have to look at. If the Tamil or Muslim community still feels insecure, then we need to identify the problem but these factors must most certainly be considered.
If there is no problem to do business, if there is no problem in entering university, if there is no problem in buying land and if there is no barrier to become a professional then where is the discrimination? Where does this sense of insecurity stem from? It must be identified and solutions must be brought through necessary dialogue.
There are Tamils living in every part of country, then how do you solve the problem by giving only certain powers to the North and the East? How does it solve the problems of the Tamils living elsewhere? There is no logic in this.
Q:Isn’t the argument however that the majority of those living in the North are from the Tamil community and therefore they aspire for self- governance?
That is the problem. That shouldn’t be the case. This happened because the LTTE prevented any other community from entering these areas. They ethnically cleansed the North. For thirty years there was no growth of Sinhalese in that area. The reverse never happened in any other area. Tamils were allowed to come to any other province and settle down at any time as they wished, during this period. But the Sinhalese weren’t even permitted to enter the Northern Province.
If the situation was normal there would have been more and more Sinhalese in the Northern Province. I would know this because I served in Jaffna as a 2nd lieutenant. There were Sinhalese in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullathiwu, Vavuniya, Mannar and other areas. What happened to these Sinhalese?
Not only were the Sinhalese chased out, they weren’t even permitted to enter the areas, so obviously it was confined to Tamils.
This is not even an argument. Take Trincomalee as an example. Before the 1980s the majority in Trincomalee were Sinhalese. Today the Sinhalese have become a minority in Trincomalee and that is because the LTTE chased them out. Not only did the numbers decrease, there was also no growth of the Sinhalese.
If normalcy prevailed this entire situation would have changed. It is nothing but true and correct that in the North and East there must be the same percentage of the majority community. When 78% of this country comprises Sinhalese how does such a vast landmass in the North become 98% Tamil. Isn’t this unnatural? This was forced. Natural growth was prevented.
Q:But still don’t you believe in devolution or decentralisation of power?
No I don’t believe in devolution because of the above points I mentioned. If devolution is for administrative purposes that is of course legitimate. But if one thinks that devolution would provide an answer to the national problem that is something that I don’t agree with.
Take Police powers for example, when one says Police powers would solve the ethnic problem that is faced, tell me how does that same model work in the Eastern Province?
In the Eastern Province you would never get a Tamil Chief Minister. Mr. Pillayan was appointed CM only because the President wanted him to be the CM, despite a lot of pressure from the Muslim Ministers. How can you say that under a Muslim Chief Minister there won’t be the same issues the Tamil are facing?
If this is the argument and if this is the theory- that devolution would solve the problem, I want to know how it solves the issues of the Tamils living in the Central Province who live without any concerns under a Sinhalese Chief Minister. How about the Tamils living in Uva? In Sabaragamuwa? Do you know that in the Ratnapura District, there are more Tamils than in Kilinochchi?.
What about their concerns then? There is simply no logic in this argument.
Q: You earlier said that the strained relationship with India caused the LTTE. Accordingly if one is to take that the 13th amendment was India’s creation don’t you think that it would cause a problem now with India by backtracking it?
This is why I said we should not listen to India. This is our problem. Diplomatic relationships are different from this and we should not mix the two up. We should have good diplomatic relationships with India, Pakistan, China and everybody.
But India and Sri Lanka are two countries. This problem is inherently a Sri Lankan problem and should be solved by Sri Lankans.
If the relationship of these two countries is strained on this one issue then it is wrong, even on India’s part. I have spoken to the new High Commissioner, and the Indian Officials and they have never said that relationships would be strained because of this issue.
This is our country and it is our future that we are talking about here. We can’t sacrifice this country’s future due to pressure from any other country, be it India, US or Europe. We will live for a very short period but for generations and generations to come Sri Lanka must remain a sovereign independent and a peaceful state.
We made a mistake earlier by giving into external pressure with regard to the method of governance in this country.
Q:Are you therefore calling for the complete repealing of the 13th amendment?
I think that’s the way forward. But that doesn’t mean that I’m against decentralisation, it is good but it has to be practical. It has to be beneficial and it has to be sustainable. Also decentralisation must ensure peace and stability in this country.
You should not segregate places- to demarcate certain areas based on ethnicities. That is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is bringing people together; it is about ensuring that people think as one nation.
A person can have his own religion, culture and identity, but that is different from this segregation. Mixed cultures can enrich the culture of a nation. The Sinhalese and Tamils have their own culture and that is a good thing but it should enrich a nation rather than alienate them within the country itself.
Q: Moving on to another direction, despite this country being one of the few countries that has not seen terror since the end of its war in 2009, there has been a sudden rise in communal tensions?
This again I see as a reaction to some of the claims and things done by the minorities. We shouldn’t let these things come out. Remember the majority community is 78% but if some 8% or 10% of the community tries to bring various issues all the time it creates a suspicion among the majority community. It creates insecurity within the majority community and obviously there will be sections reacting to that. This is what happened. And this is why I say that we should not alienate issues to be regarded as Tamil or Muslim issues. This will only give opportunity to the majority community to bring out these issues.This is where communal problems arise. Instead we have to discuss these issues on a common basis. Definitely if the minority communities feel certain problems, I don’t think anyone will oppose them bringing it up.I recently read a news item in one of the papers that in Kalmunai that the Tamil community has approached the Bodu Bala Sena to solve some issues, they have with the Muslim community. Now see where is the end? Where is the end? This will never bring us anywhere.
Q:But do you deplore this form or any other form of extremism?
Of course I do. That’s the main teaching of the Buddha “the Middle Path”. Any form of extremism is bad and that is the teaching of the Buddha and I deplore any form of extremist adherences.
Q:But then there are reports that these groups work under your patronage?
Again this is how politicians take gains from such issues. When people want to sling mud this is what they do. It is true that I got involved when these things happened and because of my involvement, I managed to solve a lot of problems. Not only the Bodu Bala Sena, I discussed things with the Muslim groups and I still do. I invited the Jamiyathul Ulama just like I did with the Bodu Bala Sena. I brought these two groups together and discussed their issues.
These discussion mediated by me helped to solve a lot of problems and bringcalm the raging tensions. My involvement helped to bring this situation down and to bring some sense of calmness- if not I don’t know where these things would have led up to.
I got involved because I saw this as a threat to the national security and stability of this country. We went through this for 30 years and we brought peace into this country and I don’t want to see an opening for any conflict of this sort. That was my main concern and that was why I got involved and spoke to all these groups and mediated in order to bring about a solution.
But the Politicians who want to bring discredit to me label me with Bodu Bala Sena and various groups. I did not create the Bodu Bala Sena, it was a creation as a reaction to what was happening. Of course I knew these priests. Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi is a well- known priest and not only to me, the President also knows him very well, Minister Dinesh Gunwardena, and even the opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe knows him too together with other parliamentarians.
One of the other young priests in the organisation was also living in a temple close to Los Angeles where I lived when I was in the United States. Obviously the priest was involved in many Buddhist functions which I organized. Knowing people does not mean that one should be associated with their ideologies. I can’t be involved with any such organisation because I am a government official. I can’t be a member of any group. However, associating with people does not mean that I belong to that group.
I associate with many individuals, I very often meet the Cardinal of this country, I know many Bishops and in fact I addressed the Bishops’ conference at one point to solve certain issues.
That doesn’t mean that I’m involved with them. I meet many renowned priests and others to solve certain issues as the Secretary of Defence. These are not terrorist organisations and it is very wrong to label me due to this. I am a Sinhalese Buddhist and I have the right to associate any priest and visit any temple.
Q: But the main allegation is that the law did not work when there were incidents of violence allegedly propagated by these groups?
No that is wrong. Because of me a lot of things were prevented. I’m not defending the Bodu Bala Sena but most of these things were not done by them; it was rather because of local tensions within these areas.
In all these cases we reacted, in Dambulla it was solved because of Police intervention. Similarly in Dehiwala, Ampara and Balangoda I intervened. In Pepiliyana I spent the whole night trying to solve this issue and nobody else did this. Of course it’s my duty but I went out of my way and beyond the call of my duty to solve these issues.
Also you should not generalise these things. In a society there are different people with different ideas. There are people who think in a different way but this should never be generalised to reflect the view of an entire community.
When something happens on the part of the majority community people tend to generalise it as to reflect the entire view of the community within that incident, but the reverse does not happen. This is wrong. One should look at the full picture, the entire situation before coming to such judgments.
Q: Would you give that guarantee that there would never be a start in violence against any group?
Yes I would. Security and stability are our main priorities; we all need to preserve that. The President is open to discuss and speak to everybody and that is done to maintain this stability.
Of course in a democratic country people think differently. We can’t expect everybody to think in the same way. But nobody should generalise and make it to be a commonality. It is not so.
Anything could be discussed now and solved. It can be a member of the TNA, UNP, SLFP or SLMC -they could all discuss and solve any issues that prevail because there is no terrorism in this country. We can sit and solve any problem that exists. It is useless for Muslim leaders to go and discuss this with some other country, they live in this country and they are all Sri Lankans so we have to discuss these issues and find solutions among us.
Q:After the arrest of a top DIG there have been allegations levelled against you which said that these things happened under your watch? And what measures have you taken to prevent them from occurring again?
These things are not unique to Sri Lanka. They happen all over the world and in Sri Lanka it wasn’t confined to this period and happened all along. What is important is the action that is taken against it. People are people and human beings are human beings, they do wrong things. But look at the extent of the action I have taken against things that I inherited from previous administrations. I inherited them because these were existent and sometimes facilitated in the past.
Look at the Colombo lands issue and the underworld. We didn’t create them. Many groups used to take over lands and create mayhem in the past. I have stopped that now. These people who make such allegations don’t talk about that today do they? I believe these issues still prevail but I’m fighting them and have been able to stop this to a great extent.
I will treat these criminals harshly because they are a menace and a cancer to society. I was not the person who brought drugs into this country; these problems are things that existed. I’m fighting against them, various underworld groups have been quelled to a great extent, but I will fight till these are completely done away with.
This is what I’m doing; I’m the person fighting them. It is of course very unfortunate that a person at the level of a DIG had been doing this. I wasn’t the one who got him into the police force, and he worked his way to that level. How can you know a person’s background until something is committed?
The important thing is that I have always told the Inspector General of Police (IGP) that discipline is a must and have given him total freedom to conduct his duties. I don’t encourage any wrong doing in any way and would never do so. Nobody has tried to pressurise me in any way politically or otherwise. I have told the IGP that we need an effective and disciplined Police force that fights crimes. During my weekly meetings with the intelligence services and the Police I give them all the support to stop drugs, other vices and to fight crime.
Q: The Opposition especially uses this example to say that you are behind extra judicial killings that occur in the country. What do you have to say to this?
Politicians always sling mud like this and it is nothing new. These very politicians who blame me now for this have blamed me for other things in the past as well. At one point it was about me taking over land in Colombo, which is an utter lie and during the elections they blamed me alleging that I own property and land.
I don’t own a single house in this country, the only property I had, I sold and I don’t posses any estates or anything of the sort. Now the people know the truth.
Then at one time they blamed me for white vans, for everything I am the one who is blamed. Even during the height of the war they brought these very stories like disappearances and white van stories to obstruct our mission which was to eradicate terrorism. Now that is over. Now they have taken this, but I’m the person who is fighting all these crimes. My aim is to fight these crimes like we fought terrorism. I want to eradicate the underworld, the drug dealers. Yes, I may have to use strong methods but I will do so for the betterment of this country and the people.
You have to fight these criminals. My duty is towards the law abiding citizens of this country and not towards any criminal. These things are not created by me or the President. We were here only for seven years and therefore we inherited them. I’m surprised to see Ranil Wickermasighe making statements, what about his past? What about Batalanda? People know these things.
Q:There is also this other allegation surrounding the Matale mass graveyard against you, what do you have to say about this?
This should be investigated impartially, independently and transparently. I don’t want to comment on it since an investigation going on.
I have my comments but I don’t want to make them right now, let there be an independent, thorough transparent investigation.
If these skeletons are from that era, although I think it was from before that, then a lot of people were blamed for the atrocities in that era. But there is one thing that should be made very clear- the yard was not found in a jungle or in someplace that could not be located. It was found within the premises of a Hospital. Therefore, there is a person responsible of the hospital and I think the investigation should start there.
My argument is that these were not found in the jungles or in someplace that was hidden, it was found in a public place and the investigation could begin there.
There were a lot of people blaming both the JVP and the government at the time and these are the groups that would know what happened if the skeletons are in fact from that era.
Q:What about the recent news about your phone being tapped?
Only the people who have the capability could tap them, I have informed my service provider about this. I felt there was something wrong because each time I used the phone there was either a drop in signal or there was a drop in the quality of the call, there was also an unusual loss of signal at times.
I know that this capability exists, and I know that some foreign embassies or high commissions posses these capabilities. I strongly suspected that this was happening and I complained about it.
Q:And finally there are also allegations that the state intelligence agencies tap the phones of journalists and opposition politicians?
No I can categorically say that it does not happen in Sri Lanka. We don’t indulge in activities that impede on the civil liberties of our citizens.