Interviewe by Namini Wijedasa
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa who is once again playing a central role in directing India-Sri Lanka relations last week refused to clarify whether President Rajapaksa had promised a visiting Indian delegation to implement the 13th Amendment in full. Excerpts from the interview:
How healthy are India-Sri Lanka relations?
I think very healthy. India’s vote in Geneva on the US-led resolution is only one incident. As a whole, there has not been much change in the relationship. It is very cordial, friendly and understanding. This was confirmed by the almost all-party and all-state delegation that came here. The government, opposition and regional parties were represented. From that I understood the relationship is healthy and that Geneva voting was an isolated incident.
How do you analyse the boycott by some Tamil Nadu parties?
I was very surprised. I felt there was a misunderstanding about the itinerary. It was not made by us but submitted by the Indian High Commission to me and the External Affairs Ministry. We thought it was their wish list and we organised it accordingly. In that programme there was no visit to the IDP camps or to a resettled village. We thought it was their desire.
But unfortunately Tamil Nadu members saw it differently, that we were not allowing them to go or that we didn’t like it. The day they were leaving, we got this request. I was not happy about it because it is very difficult for logistics when the programme is suddenly changed. But when the president got to know, he said ‘no, you have to arrange the trip to the IDP camps’.
So we did. When they (Indian delegation) went, they understood that there were only a few in the camps and that the majority was resettled. Then Mrs Swaraj wanted to visit a resettled village. We immediately arranged it for the next morning. She visited and saw with her own eyes an irrigation tank destroyed by the LTTE being rebuilt. She saw the cultivated farmlands and harvests. They went to some houses and to a training centre. They saw the poly-tunnels and new agriculture methods in which we are training people.
They heard the statements and comments. At one house there was a picture of a boy. They were told that the LTTE took this boy when he was studying for the maths A/Level and that he had died in the conflict. I think the Tamil Nadu members should have come.
Will there be a fresh invitation to them?
No, I don’t think so.
Indian Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj claimed that President Rajapaksa agreed to implement the 13th Amendment and beyond. This was denied by President Rajapaksa’s office. What is the truth?
The External Affairs Minister should have made a statement on this type of issue. I think I am not qualified to answer this. It is better that the government’s official statement is issued by him when he returns (from South Korea). I know the discussion because I was there. So I think it’s better not to confuse again by adding my comments. For national interest, I think we should be silent and let the proper authority explain this.
Looking back, the same confusion prevailed some months ago when Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said during his visit to Sri Lanka that President Rajapaksa had committed to implement the 13th Amendment and beyond. Newspapers reported that the president later denied this but there was never an official statement.
So I think we must request him (External Affairs Minister) to come out with a statement.
Do you agree at least that there is confusion?
No, from our part there is no confusion.
What is our current position on the 13th Amendment?
You can’t take 13th Amendment on its own if you are talking about some so-called political settlement or whatever it is.
It is very clear in the Mahinda Chinthana for which President Rajapaksa has a mandate that there should be a Parliamentary Select Committee. The president has said he will take whatever they decide to the people and after that implement it.
That is the president’s mandate and that’s what the president should do. In all his statements he has very clearly said what can be done and what cannot be done. One is that it has to be a unitary state.
There will be no federal solution?
No, that’s clear. That was the difference between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa in the election. Secondly, there can be no homeland or no ‘nijabim sankalpaya’. Everything has to be within this framework. And I think everybody must agree on that. He can’t go beyond his mandate and I think that is the people’s wish. But he has also said that if it is the majority’s wish that he does something else he will even sacrifice his own ideas.
What about police, land powers and full implementation of the 13th Amendment?
It doesn’t matter. If we are talking of a broader settlement or reconciliation process or a political solution, you must not pick here and there and answer or ask. Let’s think about it with an open mind. If you say come to the table with an open mind or without conditions, we must not talk about those.
You already had the All Party Representatives Committee. The proposals that came out if are not even mentioned now. Why are you again going for a PSC?
There were several parties in that process but not the TNA. Proper representation was not there.
Doesn’t the TNA refuse to participate in the PSC?
That is why they should come.
Are you negotiating with them?
I’m not talking. They are the people who want this so they must come. If somebody wants something they should participate. I don’t think anybody else in the whole country…the majority don’t want anything. I still believe that this issue is not one which is relevant to the people.
Do you accept that there is an issue, that the Tamil minorities have a problem because not enough power has been devolved into their hands?
No, I don’t think so. You must not compare the Tamil people with those who were under the LTTE. There is no development in those areas because of the LTTE. Only now is development taking place. You must compare Tamils in Wellawatte. Are they discriminated against? Tamils in Kotahena, are they discriminated against? Are Tamils in Negombo discriminated against? Compare these people. And compare a person in your office who is a Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese. Is there discrimination among them? Sometimes they get more advantage because they are fluent in all three languages so we believe all people must learn all three languages.
Do you think it’s wrong for the Tamil minority to expect to govern themselves, to have power over their affairs in their own areas?
Not only Tamil. If you say that, everybody must have it. What we say is no, definitely not on the basis of Tamil.
On what basis then?
If they want, as citizens of Sri Lanka. Do you think just because people in Colombo voted against the UPFA that Colombo must separate from us or have power separately? That is wrong. Nobody talks like that. The TNA also have no mandate because in the parliamentary elections they didn’t get 51 per cent of the vote anywhere.
What about at the local government elections?
Those are not relevant. In the parliamentary elections they did not get more than 50 per cent in Jaffna or even in Wanni. We got more votes from the North and East. In Jaffna the TNA got 43 per cent, in Wanni only 38 per cent, in Batticaloa 36 per cent, Digamadulla 10 per cent and Trincomalee 23 per cent. With all this, they have only 13 members and we got 12 MPs from the North and East. I don’t know how they are claiming (a mandate). And they are not sole representatives. These things have to be discussed. The TNA must participate in the Select Committee.
Will the government definitely implement whatever that comes out of the PSC?
No, because finally in this constitution the people have the power. If it is a normal Act, you can come to parliament and pass it with a simple majority. If it’s a constitutional amendment, you must have a two-third majority.
Don’t you have a two-thirds majority?
No, we don’t have.
You found a two-thirds majority to have the 18th Amendment passed, didn’t you?
For that, every party must agree. And here you must also have a referendum if the Supreme Court requires it. The people will decide.
When will the government hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council?
Government cannot decide on that. The elections commissioner and the court of law must decide. I think maximum within two years. Two years is a very small time.
Have we assured the Indians that we will implement the 13th Amendment in full?
Why should we tell India or anybody? We have to tell the people. The president has very clearly told parliament and the people what he’s going to do. You are asking about what we told India, USA or to other people. We will tell you rather than tell to anybody else. And we have said that any agreement will be open. We will discuss with the people openly and transparently. Why India? I don’t know why everybody talks about India.
In one discussion this time, one Indian MP suggested some things. When I was having breakfast I said ‘your advice is very useful to us’. He said ‘we have no right to advise, we are just making suggestions’. They are very clear.
Who came up with this ‘13th Amendment Plus’ concept? Wasn’t it Sri Lanka?
I don’t want to comment on the discussions we had.
The ‘13th Amendment Plus’ didn’t start these discussions. It started with President Rajapaksa saying a long time ago that he will go beyond the 13th Amendment.
That’s a thing I don’t like to discuss because it’s an issue you are saying there is a conflicting position.
Do you feel it’s unfair of India to keep pressurising us on the 13th Amendment?
No, it’s not unfair because they are the masters of the 13th Amendment. They definitely have their views on it and there is no harm. But as Sri Lankans we must have fresh thinking and find a solution. We will do that.
There are certain things we keep doing in India-Sri Lanka relations that are not diplomatic. Are we being complacent because we are confident that the Indian government will always support us?
I have said relations are very cordial. The Geneva issue is only one incident. I think there can be some faults from our side and also from their side, or some misunderstanding. But we also must say that the best relationship between the two countries in recent history has been under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. I think we will continue it.
Excerpts form longer article published Lakbima News