The President's UN Visit

President Mahinda Rajapakse accompanied by his usual jumbo entourage made a visit to New York to attend the opening of the current session of the UN. The only distinguishing thing in his speech to the UN was that it was delivered in Sinhala. As even most of his entourage did not actually attend the session this speech would not have conveyed much to his audience even if the translation was accurate. The President gave a conflicting account of his attitude to the LTTE terrorists, affirming that he was committed to the elimination of terrorism, but at the same time saying that he was for negotiations with the LTTE. He can have one or the other but surely not both. With the international political leaders and the Western press ignoring him the President did the usual temple round in Washington and gave an interview (see below) to Asian Tribune. Most of the interview dealt with the human rights questions. This is a brief comment on this interview.

The President explained that the US and the West believed the alleged abuse of human rights and 'dissapearances' because they listened to "rumours and myths" spread by "locals and officials". The question remains why GOSL had not been able to persuade them of the truth. And who are "officials" he says gives them the wrong information. Are they officials of GOSL or of the LTTE or the NGOs? If it is the first it shows that the President has no control over his own officials; if it is the second it seems to imply that the LTTE is recognized as a legitimate body to have its own officials; and if it is the third the question is why these lying NGOs are allowed to operate in Sri Lanka. In any of these situations GOSL has much to answer.

The explanation that Commissions have been appointed to investigate the truth of these matters no longer seems to cut much ice as Commissions appointed to investigate a whole range of questions have failed to uncover the truth and so lack credibility. The President does not seem to realize that so long as the LTTE is allowed to operate the Human Rights question will continue to be raised. Despite the celebrations after Thoppigala the LTTE continues to rule over area of the country effectively cutting the Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the country. Still there is only conflicting talk on the elimination of the LTTE.

The President emphasises that there is no discrimination against minorities in Sri Lanka now. Certainly with the euphoria after the Hela Revolution of 1956 vanishing there has been a volte face on many questions. Thus the catch-cry of that revolution 'Sinhala Only' has been quietly buried and the tri-lingual policy restored. In fact now the pendlum seems to have moved to the other extreme. Insurgent minority groups like Tamild and Muslims have been given unusual favours. This they attribute not to the generosity of GOSL but because of the fear that has arisen as a result of the LTTE terrorist insurgency. Besides the discrimination charge is no longer the relevant issue. It is the homeland question to which some attention was paid in the latter part of the interview.

After the Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona joined the President the interview turned to the question of the cut in aid from the US in particular. Both the President and Kohona claimed that the US was aiding GOSL in ways that are secret and cannot be revealed. But the US has not been reluctant in showing that it is supporting Federalsim as the solution to the SL separatist problem. The question arises if the secret assistance which the US is said to be giving GOSL is predicated on an undertaking to grant Federalism but under a different name board like 'pwer sharing' or 'devolution'.

Both President and Kohona was at pains to emphasise that a majority of Tamils now live in South, especially in the Capital of Colombo. The question that this raises is that if this situation continues with Colombo ultimately becoming a Tamil city what is the rationale of giving devolution to areas in which only a minority of the Tamils in Sri Lanka live? Yet the Government seems to be in favour of giving devolution on an ethnic-territorial basis. This question however was not raised in this interview.

What the President's New York visit revealed is the international isolation of his government. His explanation for this is rather curious. He said with reference mainly to the Western powers: "They did not want a commoner at the helm of political affairs in the country. They did not want a small man from a village rising to the pinnacle to govern the country." He even called this a "class struggle". Whether the President's description of himself is correct may be debated. But he could well consider why he lacks credibility not because of alleged class origin but because of his contradictory position, especially on the separatist issue, and the inefficiency of his Government to effectively convey a consisted argument to the world.

Here is the full text of the interview given to Asian Tribune, and his foreign secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona assisted the president during the course of the interview.

Asian Tribune: With Sri Lanka's serious battle against the most ruthless terrorist organization, the Tamil Tigers, to protect the nation's territorial integrity, sovereignty and democracy while trying to check human rights violations, why is the international community, especially the United States, is reluctant to buy your cogent story that Sri Lanka is in fact in a battle against terrorism and not and ethnic struggle?

President: The problem is even the U.S. State Department gets its briefings from locals and officials. Sometimes what happens is their briefings are based on rumors and myths. Adverse media propaganda and the international network of Tamil Tiger propaganda with the support of others have succeeded in beating us.

For instance, take the missing list. Some have gone on their honeymoon without the knowledge of their household is considered missing. Parents have lodged complains that their children have disappeared but in fact, we have found, they have gone abroad. When they return police are not informed. When a child is missing from the home the first thing that happens is to lodge an entry in the police. These disappearance lists are all figures. One needs to deeply probe into each and every disappearance. I do not say we have no incidents of disappearances and human rights violations, but I must categorically state that the government is not involved at all.

Asian Tribune: I understand that you have certain amount of control to minimize human rights violations, and in fact you were, most of your political life, was a champion of human rights. Aren't those credentials, your credentials as a defender of human rights are sufficient for the international community to at least acknowledge that you are genuine in your effort to safeguard human rights?

President: We have transparency in this whole exercise. Who has invited international eminent persons to have closely observe the steps we have taken to check human rights abuses. I have appointed a commission. Remember, Sri Lanka is a democratic country. We have checks and balances. We have rule of law in place. We need to have cogent evidence to bring charges regarding human rights violations. We have taken steps.

What the U.S. State Department, international human rights organizations and the United Nations should do is to help my government to strengthen the bodies we have created to check human rights violations, and help the checks and balances process. We have an independent commission. They should be given all the facilities and strengthen the process.

There are foreigners arriving in Sri Lanka to monitor and assess the human rights situation. They do not get the correct picture. They come for a day or two; assess the situation which is not reflected as the correct one. They must strengthen the government to take these checks and balance process forward and allow the government to strengthen the independent commissions.

Asian Tribune: Knowing fairly well how the U.S. State Department works they have their own way of monitoring, researching and reporting events, men and matters. Why does not the international community understand that there is a contrast between terrorism and minority grievances?

President: There is no discrimination against minorities in Sri Lanka. No one can point a finger at us and say that we are discriminating minorities. Government employment, education, health services etc, are equally divided among all communities in Sri Lanka. This is the only country in the world that feeds terrorists. The government feeds them. We send food, medicine and other essentials to areas that are controlled by the Tamil Tigers in the north.

Asian Tribune: Has your government taken steps to convince the international community that Sri Lanka's struggle is more a terrorist issue than an ethnic issue?

President: We must understand that the pro-Tiger lobby is very powerful. The human rights organizations act in such a way that benefits the Tamil Tigers. In 88/89 (during the Sinhalese nationalist Marxist uprising where thousands were brutally killed by government forces) tell me a single human rights organization that took up the cause of human rights violations. Not a single.

Asian Tribune: Is there an explanation as to why all these human rights campaigns emerged after you took over as president?

President: The answer to that is 'class struggle'. They did not want a commoner at the helm of political affairs in the country. They did not want a small man from a village rising to the pinnacle to govern the country. That's one reason they don't like me.

Asian Tribune: What you say, Mr. President, is that the elites were running the country since independence and that they lost the grip of political power.

President: Yes. In fact, the West was supporting Ranil Wickremasinghe, they bet on him confident that he would succeed.

Asian Tribune: What steps has your government taken to maintain a balance between national security and protection of human rights?

President: We have checks and balances in place. There is a legal system in the country. Laws are in the statute books which are equally applicable to terrorists as well as armed forces. When one is taken into custody there is a process involved and we adhere to those legal principles. If the country's laws are violated we definitely take action.

We have taken steps that have prevented the security forces from breaching the laws. We have created human rights cells within armed forces. We have trained officers who constantly give orientations to the armed forces and police about the rule of law, protection of human rights and legal procedures. That is why there is not a single complaint against our armed forces of abuses such as even rape. When the Eastern Province was cleared of the LTTE there was not a single incident of harassment to civilians. Absolutely not a single incident of civilian abuse.

Asian Tribune: What we in Asian Tribune cannot understand is, with all your explanations and cogent arguments recently by the foreign minister, Dr Dayan Jayatilleke and Prof. Rajiwa Wijesinghe at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and your government's representations to the international community, the West does not seem to have totally accepted your position.

President: No, they won't. The West won't. This is our real problem. The West does not believe us or accept our explanations. What does the West want? Do they want us to treat terrorists like freedom fighters?

Asian Tribune: Well, one of the arguments, Mr. President, forwarded by the former American Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jeffrey Lunstead, in his last May analyses to Asia Foundation, is that LTTE terrorism is confined to Sri Lanka and has no connections whatsoever to the global terrorism the United States is combating. So there is no link between the two, one is home grown confined to a single country and the other a global network.

President: You know, there are no good or bad terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists. Whether they detonate explosives in London, Chicago, New York or Colombo they are terrorists.

(At this moment Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona joins)

Asian Tribune: Allow me to bring to your attention two things that the Asian Tribune has monitored. Mr. President, you said there are cells within the armed forces to check human rights violations. Having said that, Sri Lanka receives socio-economic assistance from many countries. Our investigations have reveal that economic assistance from the United States to Sri Lanka has drastically reduced since 2005, and again for the Fiscal Year 2008.

President: That is true. But I must state here that at least the United States has helped us in other ways to combat terrorism although there is a reduction in development aid.

Dr. Palitha Kohona: The U.S. has been helpful in other ways to combat terrorism which we cannot disclose.

President: We cannot let those out in public for obvious reasons.

Asian Tribune: One other matter, Dr. Kohona, is that Sri Lanka was one of the 16 countries earmarked for assistance from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. At one state US$ 5,000 was pledged, then it was reduced to US$ 1,000 and now, it is in hold.

Dr. Kohona: You have to remember that those earmarks were never committed. It was never committed in our budget estimates. It was there as an offer but was never committed. The negotiating process was five years – and it was five years ago, and was reiterated one and a half years ago but was never committed. If someone talks about it been suspended there was no commitment to be suspended. It is fictitious. But hope that the United States, at some point, make a complete and firm commitment. To withhold development assistance to a country that is combating terrorism is actually playing into the hands of the terrorists.

Asian Tribune: You are aware that the U.S. Congress has already passed the budget with the Senate ratifying it in early September. It now goes for president's signature.
      In that budget, very clearly Senator Patrick Leahy (Chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance) has incorporated a clause that no military assistance should be given to Sri Lanka unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the country's human rights record has improved.

Dr. Kohona: We are in the process of convincing the American administration, Secretary of State and others that Sri Lanka has not only has met the international standards in relation to human rights, in fact we have done better than meeting the requirements.
      For instance, about disappearances; in our discussions with the International Red Cross, they have acknowledged that number of disappearances has declined. They were pleased. The government has insisted that these disappearances need to be thoroughly investigated. The Tillekaratne Commission in its report, several weeks ago, noted that some of the disappearances are not real disappearances. Complaints are being made to foreign embassies and to the Red Cross. Those complaints have not been lodged in the police.

Asian Tribune: Those explanations are taken half-heartedly by the West.

Dr. Kohona: There are individuals who are perpetrating terrorism-related crimes. It is incumbent of the U.S. Government to take legal action against them. There are things that we cannot talk about in public. U.S. has cooperated with us in a significant ways. It is unfortunate we cannot talk about these things in public.

Asian Tribune: What steps have you taken to separate the military offensive against Tamil Tiger terrorism and Tamil national grievances because even the LTTE is somewhat able to convince the international community that they are the sole organization that champion Tamil grievances.

President: Again I must emphasize here that there are other Tamil political parties, Tamil leaders who have presented Tamil grievances. The LTTE does not want them to take the leadership in presenting Tamil grievances and related issues. That is why the LTTE has eliminated most of the Tamil leadership and endeavor to marginalize those Tamil political parties and leaders who advocate Tamil issues. The LTTE has killed more Tamils than they have killed the Sinhalese.

Asian Tribune: We always highlight that 54% of Tamils are living among the majority Sinhalese in the Sinhalese-majority districts outside of north and east.

President: If a choice is given to the Tamils living in LTTE-controlled areas in the north where they want to live I have no doubt that they will leave Prabhakaran and opt to live in the south under my leadership.

Dr. Kohona :The Tamil choices and preferences are very clear. 54% of Tamils do not want to live in the so called 'homeland.' 39% in Colombo is Tamil. 20% is Muslim. In fact, Colombo is a minority city.

President: Mayor of Colombo is Muslim and the Deputy Mayor is Tamil.

Dr. Kohona: For goodness sake, if they are so connected to a 'homeland' why are they living in the south among the Sinhalese. In any given day, 20,000 Tamils live in lodges in the Greater Colombo area. Not very comfortable life but they prefer to live in the south than in LTTE controlled areas in the north.

Asian Tribune: Does your government believe that ethnic minority Tamils are the only community that has issues and grievances. Do you believe that other two, Sinhalese and Muslims, have equally face issues and have grievances or the latter two have fewer grievances compared to the Tamils?

President: All the communities have grievances. It is an economic problem. Affluent Tamils have no problems. So are the affluent Sinhalese and Muslims. It is the poor Tamils and others who belong to other two communities face problems and issues. My government has recognized that fact. It is an economic problem. We have understood that the Tamil speaking population when transacting with government departments have immense problems because of the language barrier. We have recognized hat there are fewer Tamil speaking officials in government departments and law enforcement agencies such as the police. These problems have been there or the past several decades. These are not the issues and problems that emerged in the past one and a half years after I became president.

Asian Tribune: But, how is that these issues are being highlighted, emphasized and reiterated after Mahinda Rajapaksa took the presidency in Sri Lanka?

President: Propaganda campaign of the Tamil Tigers joined by LTTE friend Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Dr. Kohona: One wonders from where these grievances come. Go to rural villages in the districts of Uva and Monaragala in the south. They have much more problems, issues and grievances.