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Tamil leaders ‘must come and negotiate with me’ after parliamentary elections

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President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

N. Ram

Mahinda Rajapaksa on 13th Amendment-plus, his presidential election win & Sarath Fonseka’s arrest

“… to begin a broader dialogue with all parties… to bring about a lasting peace and development ”

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President Mahinda Rajapaksa is confident that the United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, will win the forthcoming parliamentary elections “very comfortably.” Asked whether his realistic target was a two-thirds majority, he responded: “I think we will be able to get that, or at least close to that.”

Was he willing to enter into constructive cohabitation with the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, in the event of the United National Party doing well? “Oh, no problem but he won’t do that! So the situation won’t arise.”

In an interview to The Hindu at Temple Trees in Colombo, the Sri Lankan President responded candidly to questions ranging from the contours of the political solution to the Tamil question he had in mind to the factors behind his 18 percentage point win in the January 26 presidential election, the subsequent arrest of retired general Sarath Fonseka, and India-Sri Lanka relations.

In response to a specific question, Mr. Rajapaksa reiterated his commitment made in the joint statement of May 23, 2009 between the Sri Lankan government and the U.N. “to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties, in the new circumstances to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.”

“The 13th Amendment is in the Constitution,” he noted. “I don’t have to say I’m implementing it, because it is implemented in the other areas. The 13th Amendment is implementable at the moment other than the police powers. The land, everything is implementable. We had the presidential election [in the Northern Province] and we are going to have the Provincial Council election after this [the parliamentary election of April 8]. I thought I had to resettle the people [first]. Now there are fewer than 50,000 people in the IDP camps, and many of them don’t want to go.”

Sri Lanka’s powerful executive President spelt out the next step: “Soon after these parliamentary elections, I will call all the leaders of the political parties and start talking to them. “He had done his best to talk to the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance and the Muslim parties but “they were not interested in solving this problem as long as [Velupillai] Prabakaran was there.” But now it was a wholly new ball game: “Now they must understand that there is no option for them but to talk. I’m the President of the country…they must come and negotiate with me, have a dialogue with me. If they think they can’t cope with me, new leaders will come up and I will have to deal with them.”

Asked about the circumstances and reasons leading to the arrest of the former Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff, Mr. Rajapaksa explained that much before the presidential election the intelligence agencies were reporting to him on how the general was working to divide the Army and engaging himself in activities prosecutable under military law. The Army wanted to take him into custody for an enquiry into the serious allegations but “if at that time I had allowed that, they would have said that I was frightened of this man contesting.”

After the election, the President explained, the Army wanted to “take action for what he had done.” He said it was up to the Army, which could go ahead if it had the evidence. The process was slowed down because Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was “very cautious” and did not want any precipitate action against the former Army Commander. President Rajapaksa added that he did not want to get involved in the judicial process, and that “if I get involved, Army discipline will go for a six.”

He wryly remarked on the fact that the retired general was being given “five star treatment…in a luxury flat, the Navy Commander’s chalet” and his wife, lawyer, and doctors were allowed to see him whereas “if he had won, I would have been in Bogambara [maximum security prison in Kandy], in a 2’x2’ cell!” (the retired general made this threat during the election campaign). “Had there been a different election result,” President Rajapaksa reflected, “there would have been a bloodbath…dead bodies everywhere…burning houses and all that. Before the election, even government servants were getting threatening letters saying ‘on the 26th [of January], we will be coming for you.”

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