'We are going after Rajapaksa’s stolen assets'

Updated - April 02, 2016 09:45 am IST

Published - March 14, 2015 03:12 am IST

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

In the first government response to the outrage in India over Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe’s controversial comments on the “right to shoot” fishermen who trespass, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera defended the comments. He spoke on the comments, India-Sri Lanka talks, and the legal process against former president Rajapaksa in an interview to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar.

PM Ranil Wickremsinghe had called PM Modi’s visit a “ceremonial visit”. Given that no big agreements were signed today, would you agree that it is just that?

SL FM Samaraweera: It is a ceremonial visit, but it has a greater significance because it is a unique visit. This is the first time an Indian PM is making a state visit to India in 27 years, when we are only 26 miles apart. So it shows a great strengthening of ties, and this will be a first step.

Even so none of the issues between the two countries seem to have been resolved: no announcement on Sampur power project, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement still hangs fire, no movement on the fishing rights issue….

In a visit of this nature, the objective is not to solve issue, because when the two leaders meet for a mere one and a half hours, it would be impractical to want solutions, but we have taken a few steps towards resolving the problems you are talking about.

Did the Prime Minister bring up PM Wickremsinghe’s comments in an interview, talking about Sri Lanka’s ‘right to shoot fishermen’? Did they have an impact on the talks?

No no. You must take this remark in the spirit it is said in. Of course written in cold black and white in print, the words may look very threatening and sinister, but PM Wickremsinghe merely reflected the frustration felt by many of the fishermen locally, nothing more.

Speaking here, Prime Minister Modi has said India looks for an early implementation of the 13 amendment, and something beyond that. How do you see that statement? Do you have a time line for its implementation?

We are a government who has worked on timelines. In our 100 day programme, we have given pride of place to kickstarting the reconciliation process, and we have taken some remarkable steps, which the PM referred to in his opening remarks at the talks. So we are moving towards creating multi cultural multi lingual multi ethnic Sri Lanka, and I think India has appreciated that.

President Sirisena, while in the UK promised to set up a “war crimes investigation” within a month. How far up the chain of command will the investigation go. Will former President Rajapaksa also be named in that?

No it isn’t that. What he has promised is a mechanism on war crime investigations to be set up within a month. We don’t know the other details. We have asked for the UN Special rapporteurs report to be brought up in September, and whatever the names are which will crop up, and a suitable investigation will be carried out against them.

In an interview to The Hindu , Mr. Rajapaksa said that he is being harassed by your government, along with his family and associates. He also said he has not announced a retirement, so could come back to politics. How do you respond to that?

We have at last restored the democratic credentials of Sri Lanka which was becoming a dictatorship under the former president. He can certainly return to politics, no one is going to stop him. But on the other hand, we also have a duty to look into the allegations of very serious corruption against the president and his family. We have already got the services of some international organisations, including the world bank to recover stolen assets of governments. And yes, we are going after Mr. Rajapaksa’s stolen assets. Because most of the money is hidden away internationally.

So would you consider international help in the war crimes inquiry as well?

No, these are two different issues. We will look into those allegations, but when it comes to the loot the Rajapaksa family has stolen we have to get the support of various international agencies. In fact we have located a few billion already. We have asked India for help in this and quite a few other countries too.

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