An exclusive interview with Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris.
Sri Lankan Minister for External Affairs Gamini Lakshman Peiris says the Tamils at home and abroad are responding favourably to the sincere efforts President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has been making to improve their lot since the so-called Eelam War IV ended 17 months ago.
In an exclusive interview to this writer in New Delhi on Thursday, October 14, he said: “The Tamils' response has been good. They are coming on board.”
Mr. Peiris further declared: “India is the pivot of our foreign policy. India has helped us in our darkest hour.” He was apparently referring to the crucial help India rendered to the island nation during the Eelam War IV that ended in May last year.
“There is close rapport between the political leaders of our two countries,” Mr. Peiris pointed out. He recalled that his predecessor Lakshman Kadirgamar used to say that relations between India and Sri Lanka were “so ancient that they are lost in the mist of time,” and yet so strong.
Explaining the reasons behind the Tamils' change of stance in recent months, he said Mr. Rajapaksa had met Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief R. Sampanthan and TNA MPs twice, and invited their suggestions for totally transforming the north-east from a devastated war zone into a zone of peace and prosperity.
Mr. Peiris quoted the Tamil MPs as telling Mr. Rajapaksa: “Trust us. We will work with you.”
The President's next meeting with Mr. Sampanthan would take place shortly. The TNA leader had been in Chennai for a long time for medical reasons. He returned to Colombo only a couple of days ago.
The Minister said that, in the past, plans were imposed on the Tamils from above. The absence of a two-thirds majority in Parliament had made it impossible for successive governments during the past 25 years to undertake any worthwhile schemes or devolution packages for the north-east.
But, said Mr. Peiris, Mr. Rajapaksa's re-election for a second term in January and a near two-third majority for the ruling combine in the April parliamentary election had brought about a dramatic change in the island's political scenario.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was holding sittings in Colombo, Jaffna and elsewhere. It had already submitted an interim report. Of the 2,97,000 Tamils of the Northern Province internally displaced due to the civil war, only 20,000 remained to be resettled and rehabilitated in their native places.
Tamil-speaking girls were now bread-winners in many families in the North, he noted.
Mr. Peiris, a Rhodes Scholar with PhDs from Oxford and Colombo Universities, said: “We are resuscitating the political process in the North. Local government elections have been held in Jaffna and Vavuniya. They will be held in the remaining districts as well. We hope to conduct provincial council polls in the North as soon as possible.”
As for the nearly one-million-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, the Minister said: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa and I are working on this. We want to engage our Tamil brethren living overseas in our efforts to transform the civil war-ravaged north-east”. (Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is Defence Secretary and Mr. Rajapaksa's brother).
Mr. Peiris said: “We tell them: You have to recognise that the ground situation has changed fundamentally since the war ended. They realise this too, and their response has been good.”
Judging by a Sri Lankan airline's passenger manifest, a large number of Tamils who fled to the West from their villages in the north-east due to the civil war were now flying to Colombo with their wives and children and going to their native places to see for themselves what had been happening since the bloody civil war ended.
And, said the Minister, they were reasonably impressed with what they saw with their own eyes. They now wanted to invest at home, and hoped to return to their homeland in the not-too-distant future.
“At the end of the day, wherever you may live for years and decades, you long to return to your homeland to live in peace and tranquility.”
Mr. Peiris added: “The Tamil diaspora is no longer a monolith. We can engage a substantial segment of the diaspora to change things around.”
Since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran physically eliminated in May 2009, there was durable peace all across the island. There was a mood of optimism. The anxiety and tension that pervaded for nearly three decades was gone, and people were looking to the future with hope, said the Minister.
There was an unprecedented degree of political stability. This was encouraging foreign companies, including those from India, to invest in a big way in a variety of projects in Sri Lanka, the Minister explained.
Investment in infrastructure
“We are putting a multifaceted strategy in place. We are investing hugely in infrastructure projects, like building ports, harbours, a new international airport, agricultural and skill development schemes,” he said.
Mr. Peiris pointed out that it took Sri Lanka 12 years to raise the per capita income to $1,000. After becoming President five years ago, Mr. Rajapaksa undertook a massive transformation at the grassroots level, and succeeded in doubling the per capita income to $2,000. “Now, so much economic activity is going on that we are hoping to double the per capita income to $4,000 by 2015.”
Thanks to the resounding faith Sri Lankans had imposed in Mr. Rajapaksa by electing him to a second term and giving his ruling alliance a near two-third majority in Parliament, and thanks to the recent 18th Amendment, it was now possible to undertake meaningful and long-term plans that would make Sri Lanka a model state of progress and cultural integration, Mr. Peiris opined.
Concluding his 45-minute conversation with this writer at the ITC Maurya, Mr. Peiris said: “The people's confidence in the President is the most conspicuous feature of life in Sri Lanka today. The people are saying, ‘We don't want history to repeat itself as a tragedy. We want a job done. Do it now, and do it well'.”
India has given nearly a billion dollars to Sri Lanka as grants and assistance to help rebuild the infrastructure ravaged during the three-decades of civil war, and to build 50,000 homes for war-displaced Tamils in the Northern Province. Several dozens of Indian companies have so far invested nearly half a billion dollars in several projects across the island. Many more are planning to invest in several sectors of the economy, like tourism, and hotels.