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'US must act on its citizens violating human rights here'


Mangala Samaraweera

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 Lanka.

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 Lasantha Wickrematunge.

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 suit.

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 evidence. 

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 blood.

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 about democracy.

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 condemnation.

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 Sri Lanka 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 outside.

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 instance?

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 our motherland.

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 our decision.

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 international community.

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 impunity continues. 

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 power.

Q: Is it possible, according to your argument, for President Mahinda Rajapakse to be under threat from those other than the LTTE?

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 never knows.

Q: Given the war hype in the country, does the opposition coalition stand a chance against a popular government at the provincial hustings?

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 one out.

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 people.       

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 demands.

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 the LTTE.

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 lying.

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 to parliamentarians.

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 2006-7.

I am personally convinced, though I do not have evidence, it was this group that was responsible for the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

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 me.

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 fodder.

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 9? 

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 too long.

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 requests.

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 it.

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 government. 

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 people's court.


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