'The Government is stuck on every front'

Print edition : December 19, 1998
Interview with Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Forty-nine-year-old Ranil Wickremasinghe is the active, experienced and hard-working leader of Sri Lanka's chief Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), which is often described as the largest party in the political system. He has held different Ministerial portfolios during the prolonged phase of UNP rule lasting for a decade-and-a-half from 1977. He was also, briefly during a transitional period, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

He is expected to be President Chandrika Kumaratunga's main rival in the next presidential election, which is due in the year 2000, and is also getting ready to wage an aggressive campaign in the proximate parliamentary election. During the past many months, he has been busy organising and re-energising his party. N. Ram interviewed Ranil Wickrema-singhe at his Colombo office on December 7 to gain an idea of the UNP's perspective on the political situation, the military conflict in the North, dealing with the LTTE, and bilateral relations with India:

N. Ram (NR): Mr. Wickrema-singhe, could you give us an assessment of the overall situation? First, the military situation relating to the ethnic question, and then your reading of the political initiative that is aimed at finding a solution.

Ranil Wickremasinghe (RW): The overall verdict would be that the Government is stuck on every front. They launched this military campaign called (Operation) Jaya Sikurui to defeat the LTTE. It has not worked. It has failed. The objective was to capture Killinochchi - Killinochchi is now in the hands of the LTTE. It's been one of the costliest campaigns in military history and certainly the longest ongoing military campaign from the Second World War, after the siege of Leningrad. But what has finally happened is that there has been setback after setback.

With the Army being stretched, the Government really cannot make any progress. Neither can they give up any of the areas that have been captured but not consolidated elsewhere. Politically, it will be a setback for the Government.

A failed strategy

The whole strategy was based on defeating the LTTE militarily and then marginalising them politically through the package. As a result, the package cannot be brought forward. The LTTE is quite active. The package has also run into a lot of opposition in the South. With a majority against the present set of proposals, the Government has no way out.

We believe that (the strategy of) concentrating all the economic resources and winning the war in one year has also failed. The economy is coming apart. We are feeling pressure from three sources. We have had problems in three areas. Firstly, the Government has not been able to manage the economy and has lost investor confidence. Secondly, the fact that resources have been drained off for the war has limited the ability of the private sector to expand. It has also come increasingly under pressure. Thirdly, we are not prepared for the Asian crisis that is affecting our exports.

This has really brought the Government to a grinding halt. They have got to decide where they go from here.

Reading Prabakaran's Heroes' Day speech

NR: The LTTE leader Prabakaran's recent address on Heroes' Day received wide publicity. What do you think it reflects?

RW: It is significant in the sense that it is different from the earlier speeches. It seems to have been addressed more to a Southern audience than to a Northern audience. It talks of finding a solution within Sri Lanka as one single country. It also holds out the threat that "if you all fail to do so, then the LTTE cannot be blamed for pushing the agenda for an independent Tamil state."

For the first time, Prabakaran has recognised, stated that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. It is sending a signal that they want to have talks, they are looking for a political solution. In a way, he has also taken the political initiative away from the Government. From May last year, when the Government initiated the bipartisan exchange of letters to enable the Government to talk to the LTTE, until now, the initiative would have been with the Government. But Prabakaran has taken the political initiative away from the Government - as much as he has taken the military initiative away. It is a position from which, if the Government does not respond, it will affect them adversely, both internally and internationally.

Learning from the 1994-95 experience

NR: Thus far Prabakaran has not shown any willingness to talk about substance. Basically, he talks about what needs to be done before meaningful negotiations can be held. You think that could change?

RW: Well, when you go for talks, all that depends on the ability of the Government to set an agenda which could lead to some fruitful results. Otherwise, the talks become inconclusive. On the last occasion, they sent a very inexperienced team to talk with the LTTE. The LTTE team at least had experience: some of the members of the LTTE team were those who had discussions with the Sri Lanka Government and the Indian Government earlier. But on the Sri Lanka Government side, most of them had no experience in any type of negotiations. This, I think, was a fundamental flaw.

Secondly, Prabakaran gave notice of the fact that he was withdrawing from the talks. President Kumaratunga did not follow up on that. Neither were the armed forces informed of the fact that the talks might break down, in which case they would have been prepared. In fact, it was handled very amateurishly on the last occasion. It depends on whether they have the ability to learn from their past mistakes. So far President Kumaratunga has shown she will not learn from past mistakes.

"The LTTE is stronger"

NR: Since the talks collapsed in '95, we have had a sustained period of military operations. Would you say the LTTE is weaker or stronger than it was at that point, or more or less in the same position strategically?

RW: I would say the LTTE is stronger. They have now developed the ability to fight a conventional war, at a divisional level. They did not have that earlier. They were indulging in guerilla warfare. Even the attack on Pooneryn was not successful, because they could not deploy their units at battalion formation. It is not so now. Their victories at Mullaithivu and Killinochchi are major victories by any standard. Because this enabled the LTTE to be recognised as the most powerful guerilla force in the world. This is due to the fact that we overstretched ourselves and we allowed the LTTE to concentrate their resources in a smaller area. Where we turned the military strategy the other way around!

In the last phase of the UNP, we had the LTTE in three areas. They had to administer Jaffna Peninsula. They had to defend the jungles in the Wanni. And they also had to carry on their activities in the Eastern Province. While the Government focussed on the Eastern Province. Now it's the other way around. We are stretched into all parts of Sri Lanka and the main LTTE force is in Mullaithivu.

Costly political interference

NR: Has there been political direction for the military operations? Or would you say political interference? How do you see the role of political leadership in this?

RW: There has been political interference in the military operations. Anuruddha Ratwatte (Deputy Defence Minister and Power and Energy Minister) has taken over the conduct of military operations. The professional officers who spoke out their minds have been sent out of the Army or transferred. These are the officers who produced results earlier.

The policy of sacrificing soldiers to make territorial gains has not worked. It has been having a backlash within the armed forces. It is not only on the ground. In the last three years, the LTTE has demonstrated its ability to control the sea route between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai. Now they have even brought in a few aircraft - for the first time. They have built up an armoured column and artillery from equipment captured from the Sri Lankan Army. This shows the extent of political interference. The total losses, the death toll for the Army over the past four years is 11,500 - while in the previous period stretching from 1983 to 1994, it was in the region of 6,000 or 7,000.


NR: And this phenomenon of desertion everyone is talking about: are you concerned about that?

RW: It is a matter of concern. People are deserting the Army, no one is joining the Army. Every day our strength is being reduced.

NR: There is some talk of conscription in the future, if this continues.

RW: Conscription will not work. It is politically unpopular. The Government will not press ahead with it. There was some idea being floated by the Defence Ministry, but the President abandoned it because she realised it was very unpopular.

The UNP and devolution

NR: Finally, on this devolution package: could you give us an update on your party's assessment of what is on offer and also what needs to be done?

RW: The present devolution package will not find acceptance in Sri Lanka because many major parties and groups are opposed to it. From the South itself, many or most of the political parties; from the North, the LTTE. We have to work out a new package.

Devolution is necessary but I would say the basis of political settlement is a state that is based on democracy, the rule of law, human dignity as well as the supremacy of the Constitution. On that count, the equal treatment of all Sri Lankan citizens, the acceptance of the different cultural and linguistic traditions. As far as the UNP is concerned, within an indivisible Sri Lanka, we could go forward in devolving power to a large extent. Not merely to the Provinces but also to the local authorities. This is what we have been working on and talking about.

UNP prospects

NR: May I have your reading of the political situation on the ground? You are now in a phase of building up your party. The UNP has been the leading party in the system, when we look at the track record; but you suffered big reverses and there was also a period of disarray. As party leader, how do you see it on the ground in different parts of the country?

RW: The party organisation is getting into shape. A lot of new people are coming in. For the first time, after about ten years, the youth and women's wings have been reorganised. Professional sections have been brought into the party. A lot of enthusiasm, a lot of grassroots reorganisation has gone on, including what is called the cluster system where we cluster two polling booths and have one person supervising it.

At the present moment, we have about 16,000 party branches in different parts of the country outside the Northern Province. And that's a tremendous task that has been undertaken by the UNP. I am quite confident and hopeful that the UNP will be the single largest party in the next election and will have an overall majority in Parliament.


India, Sri Lanka and free trade

NR: And finally on bilateral relations with India. President Kumaratunga will be visiting India later this month, in the last week of December, and perhaps the highlight of the visit will be the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries. In the SAARC framework, the various member states are supposed to be moving towards free trade, but bilateral progress could come on a faster track. What is your thinking on this?

RW: We have always been for close economic relations with India and we finally have to become one market. We have identified the sectors where we are strong, where we are weak and work it on a basis so that the stronger sectors are opened out initially and the other sectors are strengthened... and you can look at the other options. We have been pushing this for the last few years both in Government and in Opposition.

I think the major achievement of the SAARC Heads of Government meeting in Colombo was Prime Minister (A.B.) Vajpayee's offer of a fast track negotiation with other SAARC member states. We are sorry that the Sri Lanka Government and others did not utilise the SAARC Heads of Government meeting to press ahead with this and to get it clarified. Nevertheless, they followed it up subsequently. There will still be certain issues to be worked out like...

NR: ...the Rules of Origin stipulation (that is, the stipulated domestic value added ratio used for Rules of Origin purposes) ...

Towards a single South Asian market

RW: ...Rules of Origin and some of the other non-tariff barriers. Free trade is a sensitive issue in any country, in the domestic political scene. Therefore it must be handled in a way that ensures that there are no major political issues on either side, as far as India and Sri Lanka are concerned. But in the long term, a single market is something that we have to work for. And we welcome every move, every step that moves us closer to that.

NR: You are thinking of a time frame of...

RW: I would look at a decade plus. A decade should be a target, some may take longer. That's in what the WTO (World Trade Organisation) lays down: a decade is the maximum, but then it can be sector by sector. So once you identify some of the sectors as late-comers, this can be done.

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