Interview with Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister.
As Sri Lanka starts rebuilding its devastated coastline, Lakshman Kadirgamar, its Foreign Affairs Minister, said efforts were on to put in place a non-political, working arrangement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which he hoped would "provide a new platform" on which a political structure could be built.
Excerpts from an interview he gave V.S. Sambandan:
Since the tsunami, nearly 50 heads of states or organisations have come to Sri Lanka. Several countries have been involved in relief operations. Do you have a final figure on the kind of international assistance that Sri Lanka has received until now?
No. The figures are not final, but within a few days it is very likely that we shall have a good understanding of what the figures are. At the donor conferences [in Jakarta and Geneva] amounts of funds were mentioned quite liberally. One thing must be noted. It is well known in international practice that there is a world of difference between pledges of funds and what one finds in the bank.
What percentage of the pledged funds do you think will ultimately flow into Sri Lanka?
I think we are speaking about over a billion dollars. It could be $1.8 billion. Having said that, I would repeat that as of today, one cannot quantify [the inflow] with any degree of reliable specificity.
The tsunami has also seen conflict areas devastated - Aceh in Indonesia and the coast along eastern Sri Lanka. Do you see the possibility of the Sri Lankan conflict specifically changing course with the tsunami? Would you like to comment on the other conflict areas in the region?
I cannot speak with any degree of authority on Aceh. It is a complicated situation there and I would not venture to make any observations on that.
With regard to Sri Lanka, the tsunami, which obviously is no respecter of persons, property or regions, has devastated two-thirds of our coastline. It is common knowledge that parts of the areas affected are in the so-called LTTE-controlled areas, where the government's writ does not run on a day-to-day basis. There is an acute awareness on the part of the government that the funds that are coming in are other people's funds. It is money contributed by countries, institutions and individuals abroad. And they would want to see these funds equitably distributed, in respect of the various regions affected. The government is determined to ensure that equitable distribution of funds takes place. There will be no question of the government discriminating between LTTE areas and government areas. It is a clear matter of policy. We owe it to the international community, which has generously donated these funds, and we owe it to the people of Sri Lanka, who have been gravely affected by the tsunami, to see to it that the funds are spread with an even hand. I have reason to believe that the LTTE is also fully aware of the implications of the tsunami in this respect.
What this means is that certainly in respect of the LTTE-controlled areas, there will simply have to be a common effort to ensure that the funds are properly and effectively deployed. The funds themselves will come to the government and therefore, it is the government's duty to ensure that there is equitable allocation. Equally, it is the LTTE's duty to the people who live in the areas controlled by them to cooperate in the equitable distribution of funds and the implementation of projects in the devastated areas under their control.
There are reports of the LTTE requesting funds to be sent directly to it. Has such a request actually come, and if so, what will be the government's response?
Funds being sent directly to them is not a matter that they have raised with the government so far. The policy of the government and the policy of the international donors has been that funds cannot be remitted directly to the LTTE.
As the scenario unfolds and you come across problems of implementation of projects on the ground, you are going to come across a situation where the line between the allocation of funds on paper and the use of those funds on the ground is not going to be easy to draw in terms of who handles the funds. So the question of whether funds can go directly to the LTTE may become somewhat blurred in the sense that a route may have to be established through which the funds come officially to the government and are then given to various organisations operating in the LTTE-controlled areas - as to the identity of these organisations, there has to be some common understanding - for use, for the reason that obviously given the present situation - which has prevailed for some years - the government itself cannot go in and implement those projects on the ground.
That is a reality one has to accept, so I see signs of the government, the LTTE and the donors getting their act together, of balancing the two concepts - that funds cannot be given outright to the LTTE for the reason that it is not a state entity, and we do not know what their accounting procedures are and so on - as against the necessity for the LTTE, in its areas, to have a significant hand in the implementation of projects of the government. This will have to be worked on.What is the progress on this?
There are discussions going on at the technical level, not at the political level. Those discussions are proceeding and hopefully in the near future we shall be able to come to some agreed working arrangement.
Will it be a non-political working arrangement?It is a non-political working arrangement.
Do you see it as a prelude to a political... ?
In theory, certainly, because any kind of working together between parties that have been in conflict must surely provide a new platform on which the political structure can be built. One refers frequently to confidence building measures (CBMs). Successful co-implementation of the kind of working arrangement we have in mind in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster could certainly provide that platform.
Could you elaborate on the working arrangements the government has in mind?
There will have to be some kind of structure at the centre, with participation by the government, the LTTE and other parties concerned to deal with the allocation of funds to projects. Then there will certainly have to be a structure with regional and district levels, with similar representative participation to work on the ground. Now, at that level, even in the so-called LTTE-controlled areas, in addition to the LTTE the government will have to be represented and the others will have to be represented - Muslims, for instance, and international organisations, perhaps non-governmental organisations. So what is conceived of is a fairly comprehensive and well-balanced kind of representation. This kind of arrangement will not be simply a government-and-LTTE one. It has to go wider than that because there are so many other actors now, in terms of funds and in terms of interests, and in terms of areas where there are different communities.So plurality and inclusiveness...
Yes. These will have to be reflected in order to make the structure, in order to give it a chance to work effectively.
Among the several visitors to Sri Lanka after the tsunami was United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. How do you see his visit in the humanitarian context and in the context of the politics generated by it?
In the humanitarian context it was absolutely necessary and the Secretary-General took the opportunity of his presence at the Jakarta meeting on January 6 to stop by here, because Sri Lanka and Indonesia were among the most gravely affected countries, so it made perfectly good sense; further, because the U.N. system obviously has a role to play in this kind of disaster.
The issue was also politicised, with the LTTE making an issue of the U.N. Secretary-General not visiting the LTTE areas. Would you like to elaborate?
I think the LTTE has always seen the possibility of a visit by the Secretary-General to the areas controlled by them at present as a politically significant event. The Government of Sri Lanka has always taken the view that nothing should be done by the Secretary-General or by the U.N., which directly or even indirectly recognises this - a de facto situation, where some areas of the country are under the control of a non-state party - bearing in mind the overarching principle that has been widely acknowledged internationally that a settlement of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka should always be consistent with the territorial integrity, unity and sovereignty of the country.
The present path appears to be insulating disaster management and relief from politics. Would you like to comment on the possibility or otherwise of the stalled peace talks being revived?
No, the question of the peace talks, or attempts being made to resume the peace talks, which were discontinued almost two years ago, has not been a matter for consideration at this point in time. In fact, when the Norwegians [team of Ministers and facilitators] went to meet the LTTE [leadership] recently, they went with the clear understanding that they were not going to take up the question of the resumption of peace talks. On their return to Colombo, they made it very clear to us that the talks in the Vanni had focussed very definitely on post-tsunami reconstruction. In other words, the LTTE fully accepted that, according to the report that the Norwegian delegation gave us.
So the attempts to resume peace talks are on hold right now, so to say.Yes. Definitely.
Is there any estimate on the damage to military installations of both the Tigers and the government as a result of the tsunami?
The damage to the Tigers is a matter of uncertainty, because by the very nature of the location of their facilities, in the areas controlled by them at the moment, it is not possible for the government to have a really accurate assessment. As far as government installations are concerned, I think the damage has been very slight.
Is the tsunami's impact on the military one of the reasons for putting peace talks in abeyance?
No. No. I would say definitely not. The reason is a very simple, practical one. You cannot be engaged at this time in very complex and difficult negotiations to get the peace talks started. We spent a whole year in trying to get an agenda. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, discussion of formulae, and all that. You cannot have a process like that going on, which is a contentious process, while you are trying desperately, in the name of the people, to work together - the government and the LTTE - to repair the damage that has been caused.
The two activities simply cannot go hand in hand. One is the humanitarian activities, which require the utmost cooperation. The other is a contentious activity, where you do not see eye to eye. The peace talks affair has to yield, in terms of priorities, to the humanitarian endeavour, for the time being.
India has been the first country to respond to the disaster and it looks like the Indians will be the last to leave after relief work. Would you like to comment on the Indian assistance?
Yes. I would be very happy to do so. India responded to our crisis on [December] 26 itself, within a few hours of the disaster having struck our shores. It sent material assistance within a few hours and the stream of assistance has continued and takes a variety of forms. India's long-term commitment to reconstruction work, which will commence soon, has also been clearly stated. So India will be with us for the long haul, as the expression goes.
This takes me back again to the internationalisation of the relief efforts and the multiple participation of countries. How does Sri Lanka plan to avoid a donor circus?
We are very acutely aware of this problem. Not only has the scale of the disaster been unprecedented, but the scale of the response in terms of assistance has also been unprecedented.
A lot of people, experienced in disaster management, have expressed their astonishment at the way in which this small country has coped with this unprecedented situation. A great deal of credit must go to our bureaucracy, in all its forms - the administrative service, the police, the armed forces, the medical profession and the teachers - and individuals. Why is it that in a democratic society, ordinary people, often all over the world, respond very well to a crisis? It is because they use their minds, they use their imagination, they use their wits, they are accustomed to doing so. In an autocracy it is not so, because people are reduced to being robotic automatons waiting for directions. This is the product of decades and decades of running your own affairs. Participatory democracy really shines in such moments of crisis. We have very good examples of that in the Third World.
Donor circus, yes, we are very aware of it and steps will have to be taken and are now being very, very intensely worked on at this very moment on how to avoid this.
How do you see the overwhelming international assistance and offers of help for rehabilitation having an impact on Sri Lankan policy?
I do not think it will have any significant impact in the shaping of our foreign policy.
Will there be continuity or a shift in foreign policy?
Our foreign policy, I would say, has always been largely bipartisan. It is one area in which the degree of disagreement is fairly minimal. Depending on which government is in office, you will find sometimes a tilt to one side or the other. But those tilts are becoming less pronounced now because the nature of the world today, in a rapidly evolving globalising context, is such that you have to develop relationships across the board irrespective of ideology, which was one of the hallmarks of foreign policy for any country in an earlier era because of the Cold War and other factors, which are no longer present.
So today, bipartisan foreign policy is very natural and certainly, as the Minister, I would endeavour to keep it that way.