‘If India agrees to postpone debt by 3 years, we can convince others too’

The previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess, says Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajpaksa

On his first visit after being sworn in as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister and following talks with PM Narendra Modi, Mahinda Rajpaksa looks forward to debt-restructuring and completion of joint projects with India. He, however, says his government will not pursue projects of the previous government.

No agreements were announced after your meeting, especially on the $400-million Line of Credit offered by India for infrastructure. Tell us about the talks.

We did speak about several agreements and we have agreed to some of the projects that [the Indian side] were interested in. It was a fruitful and successful meet, for both sides, I would say. The housing project is something that is a priority area for us, and we asked for more funding for that. We have a new initiative to cover the whole country, every village, and we should like to get some support for that. Apart from housing, there were several projects we discussed.

In April 2017, the previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe had also signed a MoU on economic cooperation for infrastructure projects, including energy and oil projects in Trincomalee that India has been keen on. Were those discussed?

Former President [M.R.S. Sirisena] actually rejected all the projects PM [Wickremsinghe] had signed. We are not responsible for those projects.

The Mattala [airport] project is also out. Our government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control.

An additional $50 million from the LoC have been earmarked for security cooperation, especially after the Easter bombings. What was decided about that?

We have decided that we must have more intelligence sharing now, and increase the technical assistance [from India], as well as training. On the Easter bombings, we have an ongoing investigation into the conspiracy, and a commission is looking into it. We hope that India will continue to help us on that. In addition, we want to continue our earlier [pre-2015] project for tri-lateral terror and security cooperation between Maldives-India-Sri Lanka. We might have the meeting for that as soon as possible, possibly in the Maldives and discuss how to take the trilateral idea forward.

Both PM Modi here and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have made a point of their concerns for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, and the expectations from your government...

We have always understood these concerns. Soon after the war ended [in 2009], we had elections, and we allowed the North to select their own Chief Minister. We held those elections despite knowing we would lose them. But nothing moved after that. We are now expecting to hold our parliamentary elections this April, and after that the provincial council elections. We will appoint a team to go to Jaffna to discuss the way forward.

There has been a controversy over the decision to drop the national anthem in Tamil during Sri Lanka’s national day ceremony. How can you reassure Tamils if this is the signal sent out?

But if you look around the world, the national anthem is sung primarily in one language. In India, you have so many languages, yet on your national days, you sing it in one language. Our structure is the same. When I go to Jaffna, to a Tamil school, they sing the anthem in Tamil. We have no objection if people want to sing it in their way. Some political figures are raising this issue; the general public is not interested in this issue.

Your biggest challenge this year will be servicing the domestic and foreign debt, which totals about $60 billion. How do you plan to deal with this issue?

Yes, it is a worry. This is something we discussed with the Indian government as well, and have asked if we could get a moratorium on all loan repayments for three years, until we can revive the economy. If the Indian government takes this step, then other governments might agree to do the same thing, including China. The previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess. It all depends on the stand India takes.

Given that the President is also your brother,

could the tussle over the 19th amendment [President-PM power structure]

cause problems

between you?

No, no, no. First of all, we have to get rid of the 19th Amendment….The way the present Constitution is structured and the confusion with the 19th Amendment, only two brothers like Gota and I can handle this (Laughs). Otherwise no President and PM will ever agree on this issue.

Finally, what does it feel like to be back here as Prime Minister, after five years, when you visited, but were out of power?

Well, I am grateful to PM Modi for inviting me and receiving me — both when I was out of power and now. I never felt the difference, in that sense.

The housing project is a priority area for us, and we asked India for more funding

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