Three years after he was swept out of office, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former President, thinks he is in with a chance to return to power. Last month, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the party loyal to him, made a stunning comeback with a massive win in local body polls. And early this month, Rajapaksa’s rival and successor President Maithripala Sirisena had to declare a state of emergency for more than a week after Buddhist-Muslim clashes left the island-nation reeling.
Although elections are not due in Sri Lanka until 2020, these developments have prompted Rajapaksa to press for early elections. In an interview to The Indian Express, Rajapaksa spoke on the possibility of his return to power, his role in the next presidential polls, the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the Chinese debt trap.
Excerpts from the interview:
You had a massive victory in the local body polls. What does this mean for the party loyal to you?
It is quite clear that people of Sri Lanka want to see us return to power. They want to see an end to the chaos that has reigned in this country since January 2015.
Have you started talks with potential allies? Are new political equations emerging? How do you hope to reassure your critics such as civil society and human rights groups?
We have been approached by some ministers and MPs from the ruling coalition. Some crossovers may take place in future. You referred to civil society groups and human rights groups. In Sri Lanka, most of these so-called civil society groups are not real civil society groups but NGOs funded by Western nations. Such groups support only those who promote the agenda of their paymasters. In India, I believe things are very different.
It has been nearly a decade since the war ended. Has peace returned?
After the war was brought to an end, we concentrated on rebuilding affected areas with roads, schools, hospitals, irrigation works etc, restored civil administration and re-established democratic institutions. Our aim was, and will be, to have a united Sri Lanka where members of all communities have equal rights and equal opportunities and are assured personal safety.
What is left for the country’s Tamils? What is the status of rehabilitation and the reconciliation effort?
Sri Lanka is a textbook case of how a problem arose in the 1950s due to a series of misunderstandings and deliberate misrepresentations in a situation where there had been no problem earlier. This was started by opportunistic politicians who saw communal politics as an effortless way to win and retain popular support. In time, this escalated into a war that shook not just Sri Lanka but also India and the whole world. Unfortunately, even after the war, certain foreign powers and interest groups operating from overseas have not allowed things to stabilise in this country. Today, the biggest obstacle to reconciliation between the various communities living in this country is interference by overseas-based interest groups and various foreign powers.
How do you look at the recent communal tensions in Kandy?
In my view, the disturbances in Kandy were a natural outgrowth of a project that was started in 2012 to defeat my government. People were taken overseas by foreign governments, and some were granted multiple re-entry visas to powerful countries. Various organisations sprang up overnight and unknown people suddenly became public figures. This tension between the Sinhala and Muslim people was deliberately created 2012 onward. The mistake that we made was that we tried to do damage-control instead of dealing with it head-on. Muslims voted en masse against my government, thinking that we were behind these organisations. But by now, most Muslims in this country have realised that the people responsible for all these incidents, in 2012 through 2014 to this day, are all in the present government, and not with us. What is necessary here is for the Muslims to observe the manner in which they were manipulated and used for a political project in January 2015. The incidents that we saw taking place last year and this year is due to an attempt by the same parties to use the Muslim community to further their political agenda yet again.
You were in Delhi when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. How do you look at India given that elections are due next year?
When Prime Minister Modi was in Sri Lanka last year, I met him at the Indian High Commissioner’s residence in Colombo. The year 2019 will be an election year in India as well as in Sri Lanka. We got on well with the Congress government and I believe Shivshankar Menon, India’s former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor, made appreciative comments in his memoirs about the relationship that existed between our countries at that time. Prime Minister Modi was elected to power in 2014 and we did not have enough time to get to know each other better before I was voted out. Our aim will be to have cordial relations with both Congress as well as BJP-led governments.
What is your reaction to observations on Sri Lanka moving closer to China, Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region and the huge investments being made in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan?
There was no question of betraying India. Sri Lanka has had close relations with the People’s Republic of China since it was founded. The relationship that my government had with China was purely economic. Some of the key projects that China did… like the Hambantota Port was first offered to India but was declined and it was then handed over to China. When my government was in power, there was never any move to lease the entire Hambantota free port along with its precinct of 5000 acres to a private company. My government had made plans to lease only the container terminal the same way the terminals in the Colombo harbour have been leased to private companies. But the free port and its 5000 acres would have remained under the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. I must say that China also never asked us to lease the free port to them. This idea of leasing the entire Hambantota free port to a private party came up only after the change of government in January 2015.
How do you look at relations between Sri Lanka and China, and India’s complicated relations with Pakistan and China?
Sri Lanka has always had close relations with India, China and Pakistan and these friendships will continue in the future as well. Pakistan is a valued friend which has helped us at crucial moments during the war and on the diplomatic front. Likewise China is a valued friend with whom we have had many economic dealings. It has helped us on the economic front. Even though the present government of India may have had reservations about my government in 2014, I believe they will look at things differently now.
Since the 19th amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution doesn’t allow you to contest in the presidential poll for the third time, where do you place yourself in the next presidential poll?
My role in the next presidential election will be the same as the role I played in the recent local government election. I will lead the campaign on behalf of the candidate chosen by the joint Opposition and the SLPP.
You have issued statements on a failing economic situation. Is Sri Lanka facing an economic crisis?
What I was trying to show was that even though there was this talk of huge debts incurred by my government for infrastructure projects, the loans taken for those projects was actually quite small when compared with the foreign currency borrowings of the present government. Sri Lanka was never in any kind of Chinese debt trap during my tenure in office even though some sections of the Western media portrayed it as such. Today’s debt crisis has been brought about by the present government.
After the recent riots, you said a coalition comprising Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim leaders like the post-independence government should be ideal for Sri Lanka. What is your message to minorities in the country?
My message to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka is that they should not be influenced by the propaganda of overseas-based organisations and various other interested parties. The Tamil people of Sri Lanka should realise that there are Tamil communities living in India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and many other countries and they all lead normal lives. However, in Sri Lanka we see that the Tamil people are being deliberately denied a normal life by forces that want to use them to carve out an independent Tamil state. Even after the war ended, this attempt has not ceased because foreign parties are keeping alive the hope of incremental progression towards a separate state.
Where do you place your two brothers in your political and personal life?
Ours has always been a very united family. Gotabaya and Basil came from overseas to help me in my presidential election campaign in 2005 and on my request, they both stayed back to help me administer the country. I did not get them involved in my government simply because they were my brothers, but because they had abilities that the country could use. I think they both proved themselves in the tasks they undertook. But both have made their mark. After I lost power in January 2015, both have faced persecution by this government. We have never had any falling out among ourselves.