Interview: Mahinda Rajapaksa

‘We are getting a lot of support’

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Leader of the Opposition, at a function in Bengaluru in February. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Rajapaksa with his brothers Gotabaya Rajapaksa (centre), former Defence Secretary, and Basil Rajapaksa, a former Minister. A file photograph. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Interview with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Just about five years ago, the Sri Lankan people handed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa a decisive electoral defeat and brought to power an unlikely coalition comprising the two main political parties. Within a year, it was clear that the new national government would not be able to deliver on most of its promises. The sole alternative in sight was Rajapaksa, whose popularity grew.

After the fiasco of October 26, when he was sworn in Prime Minister but could not prove his majority in parliament, Rajapaksa appeared to have made, uncharacteristically, a wrong political calculation. But the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) leader has bounced back after the April 21 explosions and is now the most popular politician in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa is one of the few opposition leaders in the region who gets to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the Indian leader finds time for him in Colombo, regardless of how short the trip is, and makes time for him when he is in New Delhi.

Political observers in Sri Lanka are certain that the next President will be a Rajapaksa man. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself cannot contest because of the two-term limit for the President. He spoke to Frontline on various issues affecting Sri Lanka in an interview on June 2 at his Colombo residence. Excerpts:

The post-blasts situation in Sri Lanka is complex and does not lend itself to quick-fix solutions. This comes at a time when the legacy problem of the Tamil question still remains. How do you view these developments?

[The situation here] is very complex because it is all created by this government. The Tamil problem, for instance, was there for a long time. This government thought that it could find a solution, but it could not do it. And it wants its pound of flesh. This is the unfortunate thing. So, the best is that we have to negotiate [with all the players].

But this government has failed; it cheated the Tamil people. This government treats the Tamils as a vote bank but finally does not give them anything. Forget the political solution, the basic needs of the people, including infrastructure development, has not been taken care of in the past five years. Whatever you see now is what was done in my time. They have not done anything. You ask the people of the North whether they have at least laid some roads. No.

You handled one kind of terrorism. What happened recently is another kind of terrorism. How do you think this should be tackled?

This can be done. There is no magic in this. When the religious extremists want to join the terrorists, the terrorists are ready and waiting. But there are a lot of extremists [who subscribe to various causes]. So we need to first get the correct picture as to what is happening on the ground. Then we need to negotiate with them as a first step in an attempt to convert them. We have to try to change them.

We must not allow the Islamic State to influence Sri Lankans. It has to be done through the Muslim community…. We have to tackle it properly. We have to study it and then work on solutions.

Now, the entire Muslim community in Sri Lanka is under watch and under siege. You saw that in Kurunegala [a central Sri Lankan town where Sinhala mobs attacked Muslims]...

These are people from outside who came to create trouble. Not the [local] villagers. When something like this happens, then everybody [locals] comes and just watches…. The police took into custody quite a few people who had come out of curiosity to watch. That created the problem there.

When you left office, you stated that people were free of the scourge of terrorism. What went wrong?

There were no issues relating to terrorism when I left…. For 10 years—there was only one month to go for 10 years of peace—there was no problem. Unfortunately, this has happened now.

We warned them about the dangers of lowering the guard across the country. What happened was the intelligence services, which were handled by the military—and it was the largest intelligence service that we had—the authorities just pulled them out. The experienced officers were sent out. Some are in remand. They were remanded for things such as keeping some suspect without a warrant. So they were charged. As many as 48 officers were charged with various offences. And some other officers were transferred out. These are the things that happened.

Then the government gave these powers to the police. They said that the army must not do these things, this is police work. As it is, the police have enough work to look after law and order…. The other problem was that the police did not look for intelligence on suspicious activity across Sri Lanka, they were going after us. They wanted to nail us, the Rajapaksas. So, they had no time to look for terror modules or anything else.

You think that the existence of two power centres, one around the President and the other around the Prime Minister, is at the bottom of poor governance? What can be the solution?

Yes. Either the presidential system must come back or parliamentary system should be adopted. The majority wants the parliamentary system.Now, no one [who was part of the government] can come out and say, I was against it and I am not responsible for this. They are all part of the government. They are all in the same boat, sailing with Ranil [Wickremesinghe].

What will be the role of Tamils and Muslims in a new government in which you have a role? Who will these minority communities prefer?

This time I think there will be a change. I don’t think they will go back to the same people [vote for the United National Party]…. They all should be moderate and think that they are living in Sri Lanka and that they are part of one Sri Lanka.

What do you think of the fast organised by a monk in Kandy demanding the resignation of two Muslim Governors and a Minister? And the threats that some far-right monks are holding out?

When election time comes, there will be a lot of people who will come out.

In this situation, where the presidential election is about six months away, do you or your coalition have a candidate in mind?

I do not have a candidate as such. But I will select the best candidate who can win. We are part of a coalition. We will get together, and I do not want to name anyone without a consensus and take credit for it. We will discuss. When I meet people, I check with them on suitability of candidates. We will announce it at the appropriate time.

Your brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been talking about contesting…

Yes. He has been talking about it. There are a lot of people who want to be the candidate.

There is also this talk of a non-political candidate for the post of the President.

Yes. You take Gotabaya. He is a non-politician. But anybody who is a non-politician, when he contests, he becomes a politician. So once he contests, he can’t say “I am not a politician”.

What will be your role in the new scheme of things? Because of the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, under which a person can be President only for two terms, you will not be able to contest…

I am in Parliament now. No one can stop that without two-thirds majority now. [Laughs]

Is it too early for the SLPP to decide which parties will form the coalition?

We are organising ourselves. We are taking up people’s issues and organising protests. Even today [June 2] there is a protest in Matara. We have mobilised our cadre across the country. The people are against the government and we see it across Sri Lanka.

How is the SLPP received in Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka?

Now we are getting a lot of support. These people were supporting the TNA [Tamil National Alliance] earlier. Youngsters are joining us… in Jaffna peninsula. We have very good leaders from the community. This election you will see the change.

We know that the TNA has failed in the last four years. Nothing has happened. In my time, soon after the war, we got electricity, roads, hospitals, government offices, and police stations [in the Northern Province]. You go there and see. Anything that was built there was done during that time.

This time [from this government], the Tamils have not got anything. The issue is that the Tamils [TNA] are supporting the government from outside. Why? The Muslims [political parties], they joined the government, got good Ministries and were helping their community.

But these people [the TNA] are not helping the community. Youngsters are without jobs. The paddy support price is poor. So is the case with other agricultural products. There are no means of livelihood. There is no forward movement. This is the mistake that they [TNA] did. Either they must join the government and get the benefits out of it, or be in the opposition and get the benefits and give it to the people. But they are not doing that. I told this to Sambandan [TNA leader] several times. Either you join them [the government] or find out what the people want and get it for them. But nothing is happening. For infrastructure development, money was given, but nothing happened. The people know this. They are not fools.

Just ahead of the last presidential election, you and some Sri Lankan politicians accused India of interfering in the Sri Lankan election…

That is the past. I do not want to talk about that.

In this election, how do you think the powers that are entrenched here will react?

No country should get involved in our local politics. I understand they are all interested in it. My first interest and preference will always be Sri Lanka. It is also my second, third and fourth interest. So, within the four years that I had, from 2010 to 2014, I tried to develop Sri Lanka. To do that, I went to India and asked for support. I did not get the support. Then, what do I do? China gave me the money. It was a purely commercial deal.

The problem was after one [Chinese] submarine came and went. It was not parked here. But now what has happened? They have come, and they are staying here. They are staying in Hambantota [a Sri Lankan port developed by the Chinese]. They are staying in Colombo. The government has given such long leases, some for 99 years, in some cases, such as the Colombo Port, for 200 years. China is all over. This government has given that.

It appears that you have a good equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. You have met him in Delhi and he meets you each time he is in Colombo…

Yes. I think he understands the situation [in Sri Lanka] much better.

What does the future of the country look like? The economy is down, unemployment is high, and you have a host of other problems too.

The economy is down. We have a lot to do. We have to attract foreign investment. The present taxation system has to be changed. Now, even the local investor is reluctant to invest because of the heavy taxes. The answer is that yes, there should be taxes, but they should not be this high. We have had 30 years of war. You must first allow the people to earn. If you tax people without first allowing them to earn, it will not work. This tax system is preventing local and foreign investors from investing in Sri Lanka.

On the resolution to the Tamil question, do you still stand by 13+ [implementing the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and going beyond it]?

Now, what I meant was that on the 13+ we can negotiate on the creation of a senate. We will share the powers of the Centre. We will strengthen the pradeshika sabhas [provincial councils]. We can negotiate all of that.

Will the negotiations be based on the 13th Amendment or will they go beyond?

They will be based on the 13th Amendment. But, you know, there are some… issues. We can discuss all that.