Solutions lie in empowerment

Print edition : October 10, 2008

Interview with Rohitha Bogollagama, Foreign Affairs Minister, Sri Lanka.

in Colombo recently

Rohitha Bogollagama: Sri Lanka is consciously looking at a lasting solution, politically, for this conflict.-V. SUDERSHAN

SRI LANKAS conflict resolution process has undergone a change during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. In a wide-ranging interview to Frontline, Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said this years elections in the east were a major achievement that surpassed all other peripheral successes. Emphasising that democracy was the only way to sustainable peace, he described the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a fascist movement that had killed the political establishment of the Tamil community, and totally wiped out pluralistic development, by liquidating Tamil politicians. Excerpts:

What do you say on the current phase of the conflict resolution process after the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency began?

We have gone through several phases since President Mahinda Rajapaksas tenure began in November 2005. We devoted the first phase to talks with the LTTE, believing that the talks would lead to a negotiated settlement. That lasted up to 2006. The LTTE, in spite of the talks, went about on the normal, violent ways they were used to. They also prevented the farmers in the Eastern Province from taking water, by closing the Mavil Aru reservoir, leading to the second phase.

By October 2007, control was taken of the Eastern Province. By January 2008, we could not see any useful purpose served by the ceasefire agreement [CFA]. We annulled it and simultaneously introduced sustainable measures for the restoration of democracy. We chose the democratic agenda to empower the people politically when we were countering terrorists. That led to elections to nine local bodies in Batticaloa district. We followed them with provincial elections, and the process of development has been identified for the Northern Province, while countering terrorism.

The Eastern Province elections were preceded by the Supreme Court judgment on the status of the temporarily merged north and east

The view was that there should have been a merger for a de-merger to take place. There was no de-merger there. There was the annulment of the merger that was ultra vires of the Constitution.

So will that status continue?

That was endorsed in the provincial elections by people voting overwhelmingly for the Eastern Provincial Council. No one said, we are not accepting the Eastern Provincial Council without the northern division.

Do you think the matter is settled?

It is a matter that the people have decided upon.

Earlier governments followed a policy of war for peace that the Tigers should be forced to the negotiating table by militarily weakening them. What is the present governments approach?

Democracy is the only answer we have for sustainable peace. The subjugation of people by the LTTE cannot be tolerated. The way forward lies for the offenders to correct themselves rather than for the establishment to respond for the accommodation of the aggressors.

When the government withdrew from the CFA, you also spoke of a sustainable and practical approach towards peace. How is that moving?

Look at the seven months since we annulled the CFA, and see the achievements for Sri Lanka. In the Eastern Province, local government and provincial council elections were concluded. That is a singular achievement surpassing all the other so-called peripheral successes we have had. People in the province are free to walk, free to travel, free to pursue their studies, and seek their livelihoods. They are not being subjugated, dictated or held hostage by any terrorist group. That is a major achievement.

We are investing heavily on the people in the Eastern Province. Thats the transformation we are seeking by empowering the people first politically, second economically. That will bring about sustainable peace because people will then decide how they should steer their own expectations.

What is your response to reports about humanitarian crises in the conflict areas in the north?

A similar situation got created during the eastern operations. There were so many internally displaced persons [IDPs]. Today, within one year, that has normalised. We are doing everything in the north to facilitate daily life. We know it is not as when the conditions are normal, but these are interim phases that one has to go through. The government is very mindful of protecting the civilian population. We do not want them to fall into the hands of the LTTE, which likes to take them in order to mobilise.... We strongly believe that this will only be a short and interim phase. We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis and are taking every meaningful step towards minimising inconveniences.

How do you describe the international role in the Sri Lankan conflict resolution now and the international perception?

Sri Lanka has to be conscious of the perception the international community may form in relation to Sri Lankas local profile. That is why we maintain our relations by being articulate about the conditions in Sri Lanka with credibility. When we communicate right and with honesty, we expect an equal, strong reciprocation from the international community. That is why I started speaking to the international community about the problem we have in the country as a terrorist problem.

No longer would the international community recognise there is an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. We have a terrorist problem, a fascist movement, in the LTTE, and there is subjugation of the Tamil community of our country by this fascist movement led by Prabakaran. He has taken the lives of the Tamils, killed the political establishment of the Tamil community, and totally wiped out the pluralistic development that could have contributed to Sri Lankas political framework, by liquidating Tamil politicians. That is the fight we are waging against the LTTE because of its terrorism. This is a movement that claims to represent the Tamil community and has killed more Tamils than any other community in the country.

Today the longest-serving IDPs are from the cleansing the LTTE practised in Jaffna: the Muslim community. It is against this that we are trying to project Sri Lankas position vis-a-vis that of the international community, with very credible submissions. Our President has said that only political solutions lie for political issues. We have a military engagement purely as a means towards eliminating terrorism. We will always communicate with the international community [about] Sri Lankas agenda for a political solution.

Will the government go in for another round of efforts by facilitators as part of the conflict resolution process, or will it entirely be a process within?

Now we have come to the Sri Lanka way, because Sri Lanka has the polity that emerges representing the aspirations and expectations of the people. We have no other issue of identities to be sorted out. We have a very established identity classification. We strongly believe that we have the Sri Lankan identity as the people of Sri Lanka. We live in harmony and we have communities, and these communities have demonstrated their will to be part of each other. Their cultures are very much similar. There are no divergent issues for one to be separated from the other, whereas the fusion is greater than the need for separation.

In that state of a society, it is very easy to find solutions because solutions lie in the empowerment of our people. Basically, in terms of what is needed for them to sustain more prosperous lives and to have security, and for them to have access in terms of opportunities, and this must be a countrywide development that we are after. That is what I termed the phases political empowerment and economic advancement.

Will that be done within, without

Yes, obviously. These are matters that we have to confine now only within. What we have introduced is yielding results. I am citing all the time the experience we have had in the east. It is the same culture we represent, and there is no issue why something that can answer in the east cannot be a solution in the north.

What does the government see as an expected solution?

We believe strongly that we need to empower the people at the regional level to the fullest. That is the trend the government is after. Bringing every political view on board and finding a consensus is the way forward. Nothing else is going to materialise.

There have been five governments since the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment, but not a single government went this far. President Rajapaksas government is the only one that held elections to the Eastern Provincial Council. We dont have the two-thirds mandate in Parliament, but we have the peoples mandate to look for a political solution. Thats why, to some extent, today the community in the north has come to realise that the government is honest in its belief and honest to the cause to which we are committed to: liberating the people from the clutches of terrorism and eliminating the scourge of terrorism from Sri Lanka, simultaneously empowering the people.

How do you see bilateral relations and concerns about the Tamil Nadu factor in Sri Lankas conflict resolution?

Bilateral relations [are] at the highest level of our relations. We are extremely candid with India in relation to what we seek in terms of cooperation, and also how we look at our own conflict in Sri Lanka. That has been shown to India without any holdback areas. I am sure the Indian leadership has come to appreciate that. Thats why it has reciprocated so well in terms of our bilateral relationship. There is the candid, honest relationship that prevails between the best of friends.

We recognise the Tamil Nadu factor as an important element in terms of Sri Lanka-India relations. Tamil Nadu has become a destination for Sri Lankan refugees. Tamil Nadu has a pluralistic society and a polity that is sometimes very sensitive to developments in northern Sri Lanka. With these sensitivities, it is important for us to understand, and to respect the concerns getting expressed.

India is a major player. Indias proposals have got into our Constitution in terms of the India-Sri Lanka Accord. It found its way into the Constitution through the Thirteenth Amendment, so India has played a major part in our political process and India will always be on board in terms of our relations.

With regard to fisheries, there is frequent mention of Katchativu.

Katchativu is not fisheries no. But it is linked to fisheries. Thats where they dry their nets.

What is your governments position on the statements on Katchativu coming from Tamil Nadu?

Katchativu is a settled matter. And to Sri Lanka as settled as Matara in the south of Sri Lanka. That is how Sri Lanka views Katchativu. There is no issue. And the fact that Katchativu is there in the northern part of Sri Lanka doesnt mean anything. It is as much a part of Sri Lanka in every sense of the word, so there is no further discussion needed on that.

You mentioned that there is no link between Katchativu and the fisheries problem. Could you elaborate?

There are some areas where fishermen are going beyond the maritime boundary. There is an established rule: we must not cross the boundaries of another country. Then there is room for very unpleasant consequences, which we have been very consciously avoiding. Thats why, particularly in the north, Sri Lankan fishermen are not permitted. There is a major demand from our fisher community seeking access to these waters because that is where the best catch can be found. It is unfortunate that we are unable to service that because of the movements in the northern sea, and we should not make it so accessible to other fishermen to get into these areas.

Then it becomes not only losing the catch; it also may leave room for terrorist movements. It is very wise to avoid such scenes. That is why the Sri Lanka Navy, along with the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, is working in a very coordinated manner. We are very careful. We want to see that the best of protection is available for Indian fishermen.

Would you like to elaborate on measures taken by the Sri Lankan government for the refugees in India?

Our Deputy High Commission in Chennai is taking every possible step to make accessible to them whatever opportunities the refugee communities could have in Sri Lanka.

Is there any message you would like to take across to the people of India, Tamil Nadu in particular?

Sri Lanka is looking at a lasting solution, politically, for this conflict. Sri Lanka will find a political solution to a political issue, and terrorism in the hands of the LTTE has to be eliminated in order to sustain progress for the people of Sri Lanka as a whole.

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