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Interview

 

ĎWell-wishers will fund northern developmentí


Keheliya Rambukwella

Government Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella believes that the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) would require an additional 50,000 soldiers to maintain law and order and to secure the territory once under LTTE control.

In an interview with The Sunday Leader, Rambukwella claimed that some 16,000 sq kms were lost to the government together with two thirds of the sea but following the unification, it was of paramount importance to safeguard the entire country that could effectively curb the emergence of militancy in the future. Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: How many IDPs camps are there in the demarcated zones?

A: There are approximately 275,000 people living in about eight zones.

Q: The IDPs are now seeking their family members. What has the government done so far to reunite IDP families?

A: There was a sudden influx of people and naturally there were teething problems.

It is the top-most priority in post war Sri Lanka but an extremely difficult task.

Yet, we must put the families together and fast. The administration though disrupted, was intact in certain areas. We seek the assistance of the Government Agents and other officials to help immediately locate the members of those rendered IDPs now.

Q: You spoke of the psychological aspect. What kind of programmes are in place?

A: It is only basic counseling that is there already but soon there will be special medical teams attending to this vital need. We want the IDPs truly healed, their scars gone. 

Q: The JVP has proposed a truth and reconciliation commission in a bid to psychologically heal the people whose lives were devastated by the prolonged war.  Are you willing to consider this proposal?

A: There will be formal processes like that. I donít know who copied whose plans but we certainly had something like that in mind. People have to heal. The final phase of settlement is not just about physically settling them, not about homes and lands but about a reunion of people.

Q: How feasible is the deadline of 180-days to resettle the IDPs?

A: Countdowns and numbers donít work. I am not a believer of deadlines. It is more important to set oneself a task and work towards it and the 180 day plan is all about setting a target with the hope of at least meeting part of that target by the deadline.

The idea is to have at least 50% of the IDPs resettled at the end of that deadline.

A deadline is also for planning, forecasting and implementation. Things wonít happen overnight. We have set ourselves an ambitious target and intend meeting it at least partially.

Q: How does the government intend raising funds for the rebuilding task given the extent of devastation? The present estimates are said to be in the range of Rs. 5 billion.

A:  In my opinion, Rs. 5 billion is a paltry amount for a task of this magnitude. I think funding will come because the world views Sri Lanka today in a positive sense. We have crushed terror and here is a golden opportunity to help develop this nation. There will be enough well wishers who want to contribute now that there is peace in this resplendent land.

Q: Do you currently possess a comprehensive investment plan for the north?

A: It is currently being formulated I believe. We want both local and foreign direct investment and the north to experience a complete resurgence like the proverbial phoenix bird.  The Japanese Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi repeatedly said it was available as long as there was peace in the country.

Q: So you think the government qualifies for the cash?

A: Yes we do. It will be good if they can direct the funds immediately. It is none other than the head of the Co-Chairs who speaks of funds being available.

Q: Is there a fresh undertaking in this regard?

A: No. It is not an undertaking but an understanding. For example, GSP Plus had certain criteria. But they added new criteria that did not exist when it came to Sri Lanka. Why did they overlook the criteria? To my knowledge, this is the first time that they added conditions and they were related to the war situation. It was very unfair to try and penalise Sri Lanka in this manner.

The IMF also has criteria and repayment schedules and spending for scheduled tasks etc. We have fulfilled all that but they deviated and tried to add fresh criteria.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed it was not a good time to release the money. But we think there is no better time than this to play a decisive role in helping Sri Lanka to rebuild itself. If not, they are acting mala fide.

The international community too must evolve and mature.  They should stop pushing agendas of their choice down our throats.

Q: Whatís the budget for demining and what progress has been achieved so far?

A:  It is the most vital pre-requisite prior to human resettlement. We are going ahead with systematic demining. We also intend bringing in some of the best teams to Sri Lanka. This must precede all else.

Q: In the northern rebuilding exercise, what role will the INGOs and the NGOs play?

A:  To be candidly honest, we are going to be extremely careful with the INGOs. We have burnt our fingers before. We have bitter experiences with some. Of course some others have made excellent contributions to Sri Lankaís growth.

But we will be very selective and we will carefully check the credentials, loyalties and performance records when it comes to the INGOS.

Q: What are the dire needs of the IDPs at present?

A: The next hour. They still canít think long or mid term. Thatís why they need counseling. Their minds need strengthening. The next hour is about finding their families. Only then will they start thinking about shelter and other needs.

Q: Speaking of IDPs, there are also the Muslims evicted from the north currently living in Puttalam and those living in Tamil Nadu. What programmes are there to reintegrate or repatriate them?

A: For those in Tamil Nadu, there will be systematic reintegration through a repatriation scheme which is currently underway. This was launched sometime back and people even came in small batches but stopped when the war intensified. But now they can return home to a peaceful country. 

The Puttalam IDPs and all others will be resettled under a massive resettlement plan. It will take time. It is an enormous task of resettling these families who have been scattered and made to live elsewhere due to LTTE tyranny.

Q: President Mahinda Rajapakse has gone on record that the IDPs entered the safe zone carrying large amounts of money, approximately Rs. 400 million, now deposited in two state banks. If this is the case, is it a matter of simple resettlement of the IDPs?

A:  No. I donít think these people are wealthy to the extent that you imply. If you divide the Rs. 400 million among 300,000 people, it is not that much of money is it? That was the answer I gave the Bank of Ceylon Chairman also when I was told of the same.

Q: It was learned last week that IDPs are said to be queuing up for chocolates and Coca Cola at the camps. Could this be a reality?

A:  Colombo people may queue up for that, not the IDPs.

Q: But it was none other than the President who made such a statement at a meeting with the media heads last week...

A: These are luxury items the people earlier had no access to. They had no normal life. One third of the country was denied so much when the LTTE leadership enjoyed ultra luxuries. They denied basic facilities to the people and crushed their political identity. Why should people be made to live like second-class citizens?

The free market theory had no application in the north and pockets in the east controlled by the megalomaniac Pirapaharan. But that phase is clearly over.

Q: There is a strong belief that there is gold buried in the Jaffna soil and the delay in permitting IDPs from resettling where possible is due to this. Your comments?

A: All I can say is it is a farfetched idea. And of course, good luck to the deminers!

Q: As the Government Defence Spokesperson, can you explain how the troops would be best utilised now that the war is over?

A: We need 50,000 more people to be enlisted. One third of the land area and two third of the sea were under LTTE control and now we have full control over both aspects.

We now have larger areas under control after years. They need to be secured. We need to safeguard our country in such a way that it would not happen again. This requires more numbers.

Also we will maintain law and order with more commitment. Some 16,000 sq km were demarcated and offered to the LTTE together with two thirds of the coast. We need to now administer the entire country with more commitment. It is no mean task. And also prevent the emergence of militancy in the future.

Q: Contradictory figures have emerged about those killed in action during January-May when there was an escalation in the war effort. What are the actual numbers?

A: In the aftermath of the military victory, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse disclosed the figures. Thatís the official figure. Nothing else.

 

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