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'For anything, we turn to India'

July 24, 2006 18:40 IST
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Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka's president, makes no bones about his government's desire for greater Indian involvement in resolving the ethnic crisis affecting his country.

Speaking to a nine-member Indian Women's Press Corps team, which visited Sri Lanka last week, including Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt, the Sri Lankan president explains the difficulties he faces negotiating with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, a man who he says, "will not understand democracy."

A conversation with President Rajapakse:

What are your expectations from India?

(Raises his eyebrows) Oh my God! Huge! (Laughs heartily) India is a very good friend of ours. For anything, we turn to India, in history and today. I was there (in New Delhi for a State visit) recently.

Earlier, I have visited India as a minister. Since 1996 I visit Dehra Dun every year. In Dehra Dun there is a human rights organisation (the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, an NGO that 'aims to spread and inculcate human rights culture' in South Asia and is affiliated to Visva Bharati university.) I used to interact with many leaders, friends, lawyers and former Chief Justices (of India) over there.

As an actor, were you interested in Indian films?

I am not an actor. I have acted only in one film and two tele-dramas.

Do you watch Indian films?

Do you know Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje? (A V Shantaram dance extravaganza, made in 1955, the first film in India to be produced in technicolour.) (Laughs.) Here most television channels are full of Indian films. South Indian films are very popular.

What are the challenges of your presidency?

When I took over, the peace process was in a crucial stage. The initial period was most difficult and I would say the most dangerous period. What all the LTTE has done! It is a terrorist organisation. They have killed your prime minister. There is a ban on it in your country.

I want to have peace with them. I have invited them for peace talks. In fact, I am trying my best. I would like your (India's) support, world support for peace in Sri Lanka.

Many people in Colombo feel India would be more appropriate as an intermediary than Norway.

I don't think the Indian army would get directly involved because of the history of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). Every possible way you must help us. I don't want to give you a list (but), I have nothing to hide.

What kind of help can India provide?

India is our neighbour. India has the capability to persuade this man Prabhakaran, (to bring him) to the table. I am not for war. I am not one to want war but see what is happening in Lebanon. No one is talking about it. The world is silent when innocent people are dying.

The West is silent but if I started a war a lot of people will come out and say... (does not conclude his sentence)

When Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran was here he came with some very specific proposals centering around greater autonomy for the north and eastern regions. Are you considering these proposals?

We have already appointed a committee of specialists. I have told them to study all these models, especially the Indian model. But I want the Sri Lankan model because this is Sri Lanka. We are a small country.

So you think federalism will not work in Sri Lanka?

Whatever the solution, everybody must be able to accept it -- whether the south, the west or the north. The Sinhalese, the Muslims or Tamils -- everybody should accept it. We may have the Sri Lankan model.

I have invited all the political parties, experts and the army for a round table conference. A meeting is going on. They will give me one or two proposals that I can put up to the LTTE because I also want their views on it.

Some observers are puzzled over the sudden breakdown of the talks, which seemed to be going well...

Because this man (Prabhakaran) is a man who will not understand democracy. It is very difficult to persuade a man like this! He doesn't understand things while living in the jungle, surrounded by his people. He is not moving out, no one can meet him except very few.

Can you negotiate with such a man?

He claims to be championing the Tamil cause. Does he have the support of the Tamils?

No. This is the whole trouble. There are other political parties. How many Tamil political leaders have been killed? From (Tamil Union Liberation Front leader A)Amritalingam onwards, how many have been killed? A man who came to help them, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed by them. He was not even a Sri Lankan.

In India, there is a DMK government in Tamil Nadu, which has an alliance with the Congress party in the state. The Congress is running a government at the Centre with DMK support. (Rajiv Gandhi's widow) Sonia Gandhi is the most important person in Indian politics. In this context, how hopeful are you?

We may not comment on this issue. They (the Tamil parties in India) can pressurise that group (the LTTE). All Tamils are not LTTE. Most Tamils live here in Colombo. In Colombo 39 per cent of the population is Tamil. In the Colombo municipality our deputy mayor is a Tamil.

Is this because the Tamils don't feel safe in the northern areas?

People are complaining. Some of them are sent to India. The LTTE is sending them to India. The LTTE wants Tamil people to go to India. They are organising it. We have our refugee camps. We have informed them (the refugees who are going to India) that they can come and stay here.

Are you trying to control the flow of refugees to India?

Yes, I am trying to do that, but in those (LTTE controlled) areas, the LTTE is very powerful. In the night they will come and shoot them! We have to be practical. The LTTE is not ready to accept other political parties.

Recently an Indian journalist went there (north-east Sri Lanka). I wanted to hear from him how things are (inside LTTE controlled areas). He said it is all slogans.

We must open talks with other Tamil groups. The LTTE has tried to kill the Tamil leader of the EPRLF (Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front) Douglas Devananda 15 to 18 times. He can't even remember how many times he has been attacked. Recently the LTTE tried to kill him by sending a suicide bomber.

Sir, do you fear a risk to your life?

Why should I? When you come into politics you have to accept anything.

Are the peace talks still on?

I have enough faith I can do it (resolve the conflict). I am ready to discuss. We are ready to talk to the LTTE, ready to work with them.

Prabhakaran is a Sri Lankan, not an outsider. I am ready to talk, but he is not ready.

After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination India does not have the leverage to bring him to the table. He is wanted in India for the assassination. India wants to try him.

We must do that. We must do that (try Prabhakaran for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination).

More news from Sri Lanka | The war in Sri Lanka

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