‘India is an experienced player when it comes to tackling terror’: Former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa
Talking to Hindustan Times, Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lankan President and the leader of the Opposition said that India is one of the most experienced players when it comes to tackling terrorism. and will be taken very seriously by Sri Lanka.
Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Sri Lanka visit on Sunday, Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President and the leader of the Opposition, shared his views on the security situation in South Asia in the wake of the Easter attacks in the island nation that killed over 250 people. He spoke to Padma Rao Sundarji
Q. PM Modi is arriving on Sunday. What are your expectations from his visit?
A. PM Modi coming to Sri Lanka soon after his re-election and the invitation to Bimstec leaders to his inauguration this year is a good gesture. Not only is India the largest country of this region, but PM Modi is also one of its senior-most politicians.
Q. What is on your agenda for Sunday’s meeting?
A. It will be mostly about the Easter attacks, the security situation here and terrorism at the hands of the [terror outfit] Islamic State (IS). Given its size, terrorists may feel that the easiest place for to go and hide is India. These attacks would not have taken place had our government acted upon the information given by India in such detail. It didn’t do so. Its negligence is to blame for the carnage.
Q. You are credited widely for being the president who ended 30 years of civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What would have your government done to prevent the Easter attacks?
A. As an early riser, the first thing I would do as president– sometimes at 6 am – is to meet the chief of national intelligence every single day. Gotabhaya [Rajapaksa], my brother, who was defence secretary at the time, would compile dozens of intelligence reports from seven intelligence units into a single one for the Security Council every week. That’s how we knew what was going on.
That should have been continued by the current government. Instead, they gave 43 intelligence officials third-class treatment. They were taken into custody, remanded and later dropped altogether.
My government was alert to Islamist terrorism. We knew that it is a matter of time before they strike Sri Lanka...India gave us many prior warnings and we always took them seriously... India is one of the most experienced players when it comes to tackling terrorism. We will take them very seriously.
Q. Observers who have watched you and PM Modi found a similarity: zero tolerance approach to terror... Will that similarity come in handy to improve relations over the next five years?
A. Everybody sees that similarity and is expecting us to have good chemistry. Unfortunately, the last time PM Modi and I met, we had no time to get to know each other.
However, I naturally feel that we can work together. But the Indian PM has always been very kind.
Even after I had lost the last presidential election to the current incumbent, he invited me to come and see him.
Q. For you, Pakistan is a close ally and friendly nation that supported you with weapons against the LTTE. How will you see eye-to-eye with PM Modi on Islamist terrorism without re-calibrating your relationship to Pakistan?
A. We are very open; we don’t want to suspect any country. I don’t think our relationship with Pakistan will change and I doubt whether Islamabad would be interested in backing terror in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans would never allow that.
Q. What are your thoughts on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and its frightening similarity to the Easter attacks?
A. The  Mumbai attack was carried out by outsiders. The Easter attacks here were carried out by Sri Lankans.
Q. The United States is pushing for some form of military presence in Sri Lanka in the name of anti-terrorism. Would you agree or even allow any other government to put boots on the ground to help you combat terror?
A. The United States is a close ally and an even bigger investor than China. Yet, putting boots on the ground here is out of the question.
Q. Speaking of China, India is concerned about Chinese control over Sri Lanka and so are the remaining Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue] countries: the US, Japan and Australia. Will you consider recalibrating that, if your party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), comes to power later this year?
A. Look, be it the [China-run] Hambantota harbour or the Mattala airport, we offered India first preference each time. New Delhi declined so we had to turn to China to rebuild Sri Lanka that was devastated after the long war. I do not believe that PM Modi’s government will expect us to alter our relations with China; it would not be that unreasonable.
Q. What are your two biggest expectations from PM Modi and his government for Sri Lanka?
A. Our economy is in the doldrums. We need cooperation. We need India to help rebuild and invest in tourism. But for all this to happen, we need a stable government in Sri Lanka. We can’t have two power centres as at the moment, given a president and a prime minister at loggerheads.
Q. Sri Lankan citizens are demanding the resignation of the current government. They want you back to restore security. Will you contest the presidential polls in six months?
Unfortunately I can’t contest. With the 19th Amendment to [the Sri Lankan Constitution] being passed by the current government, they deprived me of my right to do so. They don’t want me as a candidate.
Q: But President Sirisena sacked the current PM with whom he doesn’t get along and installed you as PM at the end of last year, albeit briefly. He may surely repeat that move to allow you to contest again?
A. No, unfortunately, he has no authority. He has lost most members of his party. They have either crossed over to the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) which I mentor, or to PM Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). So he can’t support my return.
Q: Still and with the fluid security situation and abject lapse of intelligence on Easter Sunday in mind, people are looking at you and your SLPP to provide the next president.
A: Yes they are. But also because our SLPP is well-organized, even at village level. We won the important local council elections too.
Q: If not you, who would be your choice?
A: There are a few candidates. We will have to confer with other political leaders of the SLPP to identify a strong, disciplined leader for the post from within our party. Former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has already announced himself as a candidate and has the support of some of the other MPs. He is my brother but I have to second his name myself. I am only a ‘mentor’ to the SLPP – others have to decide.