Convenor SLFP (M) and former SLFP strongman,
Mangala Samaraweera calls upon all
journalists to shed differences, as they are
a group under attack.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday
Leader, Samaraweera alleged government
involvement in the violence unleashed
against the media and vowed to do everything
in his power to have the perpetrators
accountable for their actions.
The MP said a meeting will be sought with
the US State Department shortly to urge
action against US citizens and Green Card
holders who are violating US laws by
committing human rights violations in Sri
He pledged to write to all embassies urging
the imposition of a travel ban on such
violators and to have the international
community target individuals behind this
culture of impunity without penalising the
people with sanctions.
He warned it was useless to cry foul after a
Robert Mugabe is created in Sri Lanka and
called for immediate preventive action
against an emerging dictatorship.
He added that a 'Colourless platform for
democracy' was in the making to unite all
forces willing to rise against the
increasing tyranny and said the suppression
of dissenting voices was no longer ad hoc
but systematic. Excerpts:
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Q: In the past, you have made crucial
political alliances to secure electoral
victory. There were recent moves to create a
broad opposition alliance. What's the
progress with regard to that?
A: We have been discussing the
formation of a broad front to meet the
threat of the Rajapakse regime for a while.
We have about four parties working together
based on our common desire to protect and
nurture democracy. We were in the process of
broadening discussions to include some
left-of-center parties when the recent
tragedies occurred - the attack on MTV/MBC
and the assassination of your Editor
In a way, these twin incidents more than all
others have crystallised our society's need
for such an alliance. It has brought in many
other parties who were uninvolved before.
The civil rights groups are also keen on a
genuine people's movement to prevent this
administration from becoming a dictatorship.
Two days ago, civil society representatives
met all political parties. We have decided
to create a 'colorless platform for
democracy.' This platform will avoid party
politics and overlook parochial
considerations. It will be an inclusive
platform that could bring together all the
people who wish the democratic traditions of
this country to continue.
All those who want freedom of expression and
right to life - two rights that are
repeatedly violated by the state can be part
of this struggle. Together, a genuine
people's movement can take on this heinous,
dark regime. Without the support of civil
society, it will not be possible.
Since leaving this regime, I have repeatedly
said this is a government led by extremist
forces that are keen on building a police
state in a democracy. In fact, it was in the
wake of recent killings that the enormity of
what is happening had finally hit home. The
general public often tends to remain silent
in situations like this.
We see the big brother attitude, the
doublespeak and the war mongering to the
exclusion of civil liberties.
We recently saw a top defence official in a
frenzied interview on state television
calling journalists all sorts of names and
ordering the arrest of one journalist for
the sin of giving an interview to CNN.
The evolving situation is such that key
journalists are fleeing the country. More
than a dozen have already left and others
are on the verge of leaving. The moment has
come for all of us who cherish democratic
values to ask ourselves whether we are going
to yield to these threats or willing to shed
differences and fight for justice.
In many ways, Lasantha's death may not be in
vain, if we manage to crystallise this
alliance with more enthusiasm and vigour.
Q: You were one vocal critic of the
Premadasa administration and called it a
demonic era. In comparison, which era
appears to be the darkest?
A: This is undoubtedly the darkest,
the most brutal and the most ruthless. I can
say this because even in the darkest days of
President Premadasa there was never a
culture of fear as we experience today. It
was during President Premadasa's regime that
Richard de Zoysa was killed. But on the
other hand, there was a thriving media
culture with over 30 odd newspapers of
various sizes ranging from leaflets to
broadsheets especially published to attack
the Premadasa regime relentlessly.
Q: In comparison, could you see there is a
general sense of apathy and silence?
A: Certainly, but it is
understandable. The slightest criticism they
see, either editors are threatened with
death by the President himself as in the
case of your Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge
in 2006 or purportedly threatened personally
by a top defence official as in the case of
the Daily Mirror Editor.
Most other journalists who will not yield to
such pressures are either compelled to leave
the country or take the easy way out and
write sweet nothings.
This is a well-planned systematic attempt to
stifle the media unlike the ad hoc attacks
during President Premadasa's time.
I was the media minister for several years
under President Kumaratunga. I had a very
robust relationship with Lasantha. He as was
customary, attacked me with his acid pen
time and again for what he thought was
wrong. When I felt some of the charges were
unfounded, I responded in kind verbally. It
never went beyond that which is the hallmark
of a dynamic democracy.
When we felt defamed by him, the harshest
step we took was to seek redress in court
like any other citizen. President
Kumaratunga did the same when another Sunday
publication wrote of a bachelor's birthday
party she supposedly attended at midnight
when in actual fact she was sleeping at
home. It was a complete fabrication. She did
not pick up a telephone and tell the editor,
"I will rest only when you are no more" or
things to that effect. We never sent white
vans or groups to intimidate Lasantha or any
other. We merely filed a criminal defamation
We worked within the legal parameters. Some
of the government apologists trying to
whitewash Lasantha's death refer to a
'Kumaratunga-Samaraweera stewardship' during
which human rights violations occurred. We
are certainly not going to deny that they
happened. But the difference was the absence
of this culture of impunity.
When we assumed office in 1994, there were
unidentified bodies of Tamil youth floating
in the Diyawanna Oya. The government
immediately ordered an inquiry, the entire
case was cracked by the CID and the culprits
were brought to book.
In Krishanthi Coomaraswamy's rape incident,
a trial at bar was conducted and the
perpetrators were indicted. In Iqbal Athas'
case, we gave him protection and also
indicted the responsible SLAF officers.
There was never a cover up in the face of
When Lasantha's house was attacked, I
telephoned Raine Wickrematunge to make
inquiries and offered Lasantha police
protection which he refused. The other black
mark of our regime is the killing of Rohana
Kumara. We appointed a high level team but
evidence was scarce.
During the previous eras of Premadasa and
Kumaratunga, there was no systematic witch
hunt against dissenting voices and
particularly journalists. Over 12 top
journalists have already fled the country.
Over a dozen media workers have been killed
and J.S. Tissainayagam is held under the PTA
for almost a year now. Manusamy Parameshwari
was kept in custody for a year merely to
harass the Mawbima newspaper which they
thought I had something to do with.
From these things it is apparent that the
Rajapakse regime has fast-forwarded its
blueprint to create a police state.
The senior SLFP members are now sidelined.
The decision makers are brothers Gotabaya
and Basil, Sarath Fonseka, Wimal Weerawansa
and Champika Ranawaka. All these characters
are slightly psychotic. They have a dream of
creating a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist
dictatorship here. They can only smell
This is why we should not underestimate what
is happening. The elected government is
threatening media personnel. The government
apologists should now speak up if they care
In any other country, our top defence
official's psychotic and frenzied interview
over national television should have raised
a hornet's nest. That requires analysis not
just by politicians and civil rights groups,
but also by psychiatrists.
This is why we need a broad alliance to
combat these evil forces at play.
Q: Do you recognise any role for the
international community here?
A: Of course yes. I understand the
limitations within which the international
community operates. The thinking appears to
be that little can be done beyond
The international community has been
exerting pressure on this deaf, blind and
mute government to mend its ways.
Unfortunately, this is increasingly becoming
one of those African rogue regimes that can
simply disregard all legitimate
international concerns as international
conspiracies. That seems to be the manthram
of this government to protect themselves
from outside criticism.
The international community should not be
deterred by the attitude of the government
because the Sri Lankan people have not been
a xenophobic nation. Our history bears
evidence that Sri Lanka had diplomatic
relations with the Imperial House of Rome
and China. It is not our nature to be
isolated, despite the extremists' attempts
to isolate Sri Lanka.
I believe that the international community
instead of considering actions against
should target the individuals behind this
culture of impunity. The state should not be
allowed to come up with excuses. If they
cannot punish wrongdoers, then they should
be made to take responsibility for these
atrocities and for their failure to maintain
law and order and to protect precious lives.
My suggestion is to have travel bans issued
on individuals suspected of human rights
violations. Let not the country suffer. Make
them accountable. It is going to hurt them
the most because the key suspects are
American citizens or US Green Card holders.
The United States government can play a more
proactive role in trying to control some of
their people. These are US citizens
undermining one of the oldest democracies in
Asia at a time when the
US is calling for democracy within and
I know Lasantha was in the process of
compiling a dossier on some of these people.
Now I will finish what he started and
complete the same with some others. Now that
President Barack Obama is in office, we will
soon seek an appointment with the US State
Department and the incoming Secretary of
State, Hilary Clinton and offer all our
proof relating to Gotabaya and Basil
Rajapakse as well as Sarath Fonseka.
The US must deal with these people. They
have an obligation to deal with them.
Q: You mentioned sanctions. Do you fear such
possibilities in the present backdrop?
A: On principle, I am against
sanctions because they impact on a country
as a whole. Even the GSP + concessions this
government is to lose due to their failure
to meet some vital requirements to qualify,
would not affect the Rajapakse clan at all.
But they would surely impact on the people.
The Rajapakses are well cushioned.
Rather than thinking of sanctions against a
nation, let's concentrate on targeted
sanctions on individuals. Let there be
sanctions in no uncertain terms that they
would not be tolerated in the respective
countries. The international community must
also realise that it is useless to cry foul
after creating a Robert Mugabe. Action
should be taken before that happens.
Q: You made crucial alliances to create the
very government you vocally condemn today.
If it is a despotic racist regime, shouldn't
you be the one to be held accountable for
the creation of a 'dark regime' in the first
A: Hearing Lasantha was shot, as I
made my way to the Kalubowila Hospital, I
was struck by the horrifying thought that I
have played a massive role to unleash a
beast on this country. It hit me like a
claymore bomb. I kept cursing myself
repeatedly for my miscalculation for which
the price is so high.
I have to take a considerable amount of
responsibility for bringing Mahinda
Rajapakse to the exalted office. I was his
chief campaign coordinator and worked
towards his victory at a time when 90% of
the SLFP simply washed their hands off this
candidate of ours. Some of his newly found
monkeys who dance for their supper were
silent at that time and most were
discouraging others from supporting Mahinda.
I used to daily sit at my desk and telephone
co-ordinators to ensure that posters and
leaflets that were sent out were actually
distributed and did not end up under their
own beds or culverts nearby. Most ministers
and MPs hid the propaganda material.
I have been an SLFPer all my life, and
whatever my reservations about Mahinda were,
I overlooked them in order to ensure that
the SLFP candidate became the president of
this country. Of course we knew who he was
and his reputation in Beliatta. We were
aware of the allegations raised against him.
We believed he would turn a new leaf and
work for this country.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think we
would be bringing to office a person who
will pave the way for the darkest regime in
Looking back, I think one factor we did not
take into consideration was the role his
family members would play in this
administration. That was the fatal flaw in
When I saw this man in rubber slippers
aimlessly wondering about at Temple Trees, I
asked Basil Rajapakse who it was and he
said, 'that is Gota aiya." I thought he
must have come back naturally to help his
brother during the campaign and would be
going back eventually. He was soon appointed
a coordinator for Kurunegala. I never
thought he would become what he is today.
I never believed that Mahinda would unleash
his entire brood, his extended family and
more on the country. I thought it would be
another SLFP administration, travelling on
the same old social democratic path.
With the passage of time, I realised the
mistake. In mid 2006, I saw the writing on
the wall, especially with the killing of
Trincomalee students and the 17 aid workers.
I as Foreign Minister pleaded with the
President during three meetings, to bring
the culprits to book. Sri Lanka was getting
embarrassed and I had difficulty in
explaining these atrocities to the
I said even the best of armies had some bad
eggs. In the case of Krishanthi Coomaraswamy
and the floating bodies in Diyawanna, we had
the culprits brought to book.
It is incumbent upon the administration to
bring perpetrators to book. In one such
meeting, the Defence Ministry Secretary
vehemently opposed taking action on the
grounds that it would demoralise the army. I
argued when a few bad eggs go unpunished it
would demoralise the disciplined personnel.
The entire Sri Lanka Army which is a
disciplined army should not have the
reputation tarnished due to the actions of a
few, I said.
Finally, instead of taking action against
the miscreants, within one and a half months
since the final meeting, I was removed from
the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Two weeks
later, I was removed from the government.
Now it is obvious to me that they cannot
take any action against anyone and why this
In many ways, and I do not wish to evoke any
sympathy for me, I almost feel responsible
for Lasantha's death. I curse myself for the
efforts I put in to bring this
administration into being, for if not for
that, Lasantha may have well been among the
living. That is a difficult cross to bear.
I apologised to the nation at the Kalubowila
Hospital as Lasantha breathed his last.
Forgive me all of you, if you can, for
bringing this dark and evil regime into
Q: Is it possible, according to your
argument, for President Mahinda Rajapakse to
be under threat from those other than the
A: He may well be. But on the other
hand, I do know that the brothers don't do
anything without consulting each other. This
I know very well. Every night they meet. The
President need not necessarily approve
certain actions but a wink and a nod could
go a long way.
In fact I know some of these extremist
forces like Wimal Weerawansa and Champika
Ranawaka are much more comfortable with
Gotabaya than with the President.
If this militaristic attitude continues, the
President himself could be at risk - not
only from the LTTE but also from other
forces he seems to have unleashed. So one
Q: Given the war hype in the country, does
the opposition coalition stand a chance
against a popular government at the
A: I am of course not willing to put
down any bets on this one, because the
general trend is for the ruling party to
carry the provinces and local bodies. We
changed that just once, in 1993. That was
possible due to Chandrika Kumaratunga's
charisma and presence. But that was the odd
The UNP in 2001 even managed to win the
Attanagalla Pradeshiya Sabha but lost it two
years later by over 30,000 votes. The
provincial council polls are not an
indicator, but a general election is. With a
common symbol, the disgruntled elements
within the SLFP and many others could be
brought under one umbrella.
We have trod this path of military success
before. Pooneryn was re-captured by the army
in November 1993. The entire Eastern
Province was liberated during the Wijetunga-
Wickremesinghe rule. Unlike the recent one,
the UNP held local government elections in
the entire province, not just in Batticaloa
as Mahinda did.
One of the most significant victories in
recent times was recorded in 1995 when the
Jaffna peninsula was captured within seven
months. That was when the LTTE headquarters
were located in the Jaffna Kachcheri and
Pirapaharan occupied the Government Agent's
desk. That's when he fled to the jungles of
Mullaithivu. Then we took over Killinochchi
and Elephant Pass.
What I wish to stress here is - thanks to
our armed forces, their efforts and their
sacrifices - we have had very impressive and
significant victories. But the war still
continues. It has entered its 26th year.
What makes you think it will be different
this time? We may again hold Killinochchi
and Mullaithivu but they might fall again.
My firm belief is that the day we truly
defeat terrorism and end this war is the day
we address the genuine concerns of the Tamil
The SLAF has used more bombs than in Vietnam
just in a few months. All these bombs are
not going to take away this fact that unless
and until we win the hearts and the minds of
the Tamil people by a power sharing
arrangement, the problem of terrorism would
persist. Eve if Pirapaharan is captured and
killed as some people like to speculate, we
will only be committing another generation
to the war perhaps to fight a far more
ruthless LTTE than today.
We also must acknowledge that for terrorism
to thrive, land is not an issue. Take
Bombay. It just took five people to create
such anarchy and chaos. The LTTE is also
such a group.
The LTTE and the extremist Tamil politics
have always thrived on Sinhala chauvinism.
In fact the raison de etre of Pirapaharan is
that. Every time Sinhala chauvinism raised
its ugly head, the LTTE ideology grew
stronger and gained the moral high ground as
in the case of 1983 and even 1957.
The seeds of separatism appeared when the
Sinhala chauvinists forced Prime Minister S.
W. R. D. Bandaranaike to tear his agreement
with Chelvanayagam. Separatism will be
further fanned with a government officially
following a racist line with an Army
Commander who has the audacity to say that
the minorities don't have any right to make
Likewise, the US passport holding defence
official calls Tamils who have made this
their home for centuries as 'outsiders' to
justify the registration of Tamils in
Colombo while Champika Ranawaka calls this a
Sinhala Buddhist country to the exclusion of
all others. These attitudes will drive
moderate Tamil opinion also into the arms of
And that is why if we are to win this war,
we have to come up with a solution
acceptable to the Tamils and that may prove
more powerful than all the bombs and weapons
we have been using against the LTTE. Only
then will we find durable peace.
Q: You are the Convener of Defence Watch.
Why do you wish to counter the government's
war news in the first instance when the war
is the most popular thing today?
A: The reason for launching Defence
Watch was not to insult the forces but to
highlight the discrepancies of government
statistics relating to the war.
For example, the Prime Minister reads out
statistics in parliament which do not agree
with the Defence Ministry figures and at
great variance with the army website.
We as parliamentarians have the right to
know about war causalities. We wanted to
highlight the hardships faced by the
military personnel because of the Army
Commander's obsession to wage this war at
any cost, not just to highlight statistical
We highlighted once that most of the battle
causalities are transported to Colombo in
CTB buses without seats for the simple
reason that they did not want the people to
know about the casualty situation by
transporting them in ambulances with sirens.
It is an ugly fact but the truth.
When the Army Commander buys himself a Benz
car for Rs. 45 million as retirement
benefit, the soldiers who are battling in
the front are only given Rs. 75,000 as
compensation. We demanded that this be
increased to Rs. 5 million - the amount paid
When we try to show these discrepancies, the
military top brass have turned against us. I
constantly receive threatening calls. I
raised a matter of privilege in parliament,
complained to the Speaker and the IGP. But I
was not given enhanced security. Several
weeks later, I have no idea as to what
happened to the inquiry promised by the IGP
to the Speaker!
Subsequently I learned that a unit named K9
or 'Mahasona Group' is targeting me. Its
members have been following my movements. A
retired army officer whose name starts with
Z is the one who handles the wrecking
operations. The designated squad includes
one named 'Navy Sampath.' This is the same
unit that Gajanayake operated with impunity
and abducted many Tamil youths during
I am personally convinced, though I do not
have evidence, it was this group that was
responsible for the killing of Lasantha
Now they are after me. What is scary is the
same background is now being created for an
eventual assassination. On the one hand you
find the SLRC and ITN using government
mouthpieces like Wimal Weerawansa labeling
me as a Tiger sympathiser. It is laughable
given the fact that I have been on the LTTE
hit list for the past 12 years due to my
involvement in rebuilding the Jaffna Library
and the Sudu Nelum Movement and finally for
successfully campaigning for a ban on the
LTTE in the EU. That was a tremendous blow
to the LTTE.
The highest in this land have been, post
Lasantha's killing, stating all kinds of
untruths about my private life to various
journalists who visit him. It proves beyond
any doubt that the necessary backdrop to
divert attention is being so created in the
event of my murder.
Several journalists confirmed that they were
told the identical story which is of course
completely baseless. I do not find it funny
but sinister to have the Chief Executive
gossiping about my private life.
I have already informed the diplomatic
community here about this development just
so that they would know who would come for
Q: You mentioned discrepancies in statistics
and Defence Watch attempting to showcase
that. You said parliamentarians have a right
to know, but people have a better right to
have information. For the past three months,
statistics have not been mentioned in
parliament which is suppression of vital
information in breach of a long-standing
tradition. What has the opposition done to
oppose this withholding of information?
A: This is indeed a terrible
development. Once they realised the
statistics were at variance, the Defence
Secretary stopped giving any statistics even
to the Prime Minister. As you said, it is
total suppression of facts. People have the
right to know about the war which is
supposedly waged for them.
The excuse is that it would demoralise the
army. But soldiers would have a better
understanding of the conduct of operations
and the casualty rate. They must be
horrified by what's happening, hence the
high desertion rates.
These untruths, the way the personnel are
treated, how they get listed as missing in
action (MIA) to avoid full payment of
compensation are understood by them. This is
why this country's highest ever desertion
rate was recorded in 2007, nearly 30,000.
Hundreds of deserters are languishing in
jails everywhere. They would rather languish
in jail than fight a war under Sarath
Fonseka who is basically using them as canon
The war today has been synchronised with the
suppression in the south. For example the
Divaina newspaper carried the headline story
on the fall of Elephant Pass on January 6
but the government media was instructed to
announce it only on January 9. Why was this
kept a secret and published only on January
They knew that with the outcry following
Lasantha's murder, the horror would get
somewhat diluted if a so-called war victory
appeared in the press. Up to some extent, it
happened and diverted attention. In the
coming weeks, along with so called military
gains, how many more dissenting voices will
be silenced only time will tell.
Q: Do you have misgivings about your
decision to sit in the opposition?
A: Not at all. Had I not crossed
over, I could have led a fairly comfortable
life, as a minister of this government. But
as someone always driven by conscience, I
would not have been able to take this for
Even if they did not remove me for my
rebellion, I would have had to leave this
government anyway. That's why I did not
rejoin the government despite repeated
This is an evil government, an inefficient
one and a corrupt government with racism as
its foundation. I am glad not to be part of
I think it was providence itself that
prevented me from having my name tarnished
by the doings of this brutal regime. Perhaps
I was pushed out because I did not belong
there. It was never meant to be my kind of
Like Hitler did, the Rajapakses are now
dreaming of a 36-year-old rule. This evil
regime will crumble soon and the
perpetrators will be brought before the