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21th May, 2006  Volume 12, Issue 45

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Interviews

• ‘We consider the LTTE a part of us’

Keheliya Rambukwella

‘We do not care if the whole world bans the LTTE’

Defence Affairs Spokesperson and Planning and Plan Implementation Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella says if the government was accused of entertaining paramilitary groups within government-controlled lands, then it calls upon the international monitoring agencies to provide evidence that the Karuna faction was aided by the government. "If anyone has proof that there are paramilitary groups existing in government-controlled lands, we invite them to come and show us proof and hold thorough investigations so that we all know what the real truth is. The government cannot be blamed for something it is not doing," the Minister said in an interview with The Sunday Leader.

Following are excerpts:

By Jamila Najmuddin

Q: Is there a peace process now and if so, what is its status?

A: The peace process is on and both the government and the LTTE are aware of this. According to the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), if either party wants to withdraw from the ceasefire, two weeks notice has to be given.

However, up to date, neither the government nor the LTTE has officially announced that they have backed away from the ceasefire. Therefore, the peace process will continue but as the whole country knows, the government and the LTTE are both facing their share of problems. Even the international community is aware of this.

The LTTE has been violating the CFA even during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s regime. Therefore this is nothing new. However, taking into consideration the present climate in the country, the international community, the Co-Chairs and the government are trying their best to restore normalcy especially in the north and east of Sri Lanka. As a civilised and a democratically elected government, we are doing our best to continue with the peace process.

Q: Since Mahinda Rajapakse became President, over 200 security forces personnel have been killed and several navy crafts destroyed. Apart from stating the obvious, that the LTTE has violated the CFA, does it also not show that the government forces are losing control in the north east?

A: Well, for a terrorist organisation like the LTTE, violence is nothing new. This is not the first time that Sri Lanka has signed a CFA with the Tigers as there have been several CFAs which have been signed over a period of 25 years. During this period the country has faced violence.

When we take world history into consideration, it is obvious that every country that fought a terrorist organisation faced a similar situation to the one we are facing with the LTTE today. Especially in the South African situation, there have been numerous occasions when one of the negotiating parties walked out of the negotiating room, putting a deadlock on the peace talks. Even after both parties had signed certain agreements there was violence.

We must realise that just because both parties sign a piece of paper, things are not going to be perfectly normal. Things will never be perfectly normal when a government is dealing with a terrorist organisation. The deteriorating situation in the country, especially in the north and east, is something that the government is very concerned about as the lives of the security forces and civilians are at risk.

We are also deeply concerned about the attack on the Army Commander. However, we are trying our best to deal with this situation and the government must not be blamed for the present crisis as even during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government, I can remember that 700 policemen were taken out of the station, blindfolded and killed by the LTTE. Even though immediate instructions were given to the Police Headquarters to deal with the situation, 700 policemen were massacred in just one attack.

These are the unfortunate events that we have to face in a peace process because we are dealing with a bunch of terrorists who have unleashed terror over a period of more than 25 years and the government is trying its best to get them to return to the negotiating table.

Q: What are the major violations of the CFA by the LTTE in your view and what steps has the government taken to address this issue?

A: As we know before President Mahinda Rajapakse was elected President, CFA violations committed by the LTTE exceeded the 2,500 mark. Within the past few months we have seen major CFA violations committed by the Tigers such as the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and the suicide attack at Army Headquarters targeting the Army Commander.

While such attacks have caused a lot of panic in the island, the people must realise that the government is making all necessary arrangements to regain stability in the country.

However, as I said earlier, it is not an easy task to regain 100% normalcy when we are negotiating with a terrorist organisation. We must also note that 72 hours after the attack on the navy ship where the lives of 700 security forces personnel were at risk, there was an immediate reaction by the Co-Chairs, the SLMM, UN and EU, denouncing terrorism and terming the LTTE as terrorists.

The government is trying to show the world the true background of the LTTE. In a situation like this we cannot have only achievements as we have to face several drawbacks as well. However, while the attacks are continuing, the government is doing its best to get the support of the international community in pressurising the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. We have been successful to a great extent.

Q: The government agreed in Geneva to uphold and respect the CFA. Has the government done so?

A: As far as the CFA and the joint statement are concerned, the government has respected and implemented them both fully. However, there have been clear violations on the part of the LTTE that have been brought to the notice of the relevant authorities.

The authorities have taken action and made a serious note of all the violations. The government, with the help of the international community, is working towards peace even amidst such violence and we are definitely mounting pressure on the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.

Q: The government agreed to disarm all armed groups outside LTTE territories in the north east in terms of the CFA. The CFA states all paramilitary groups will be disarmed. Have you done that?

A: How do we define paramilitaries? In Sri Lanka there have been some groups which have not agreed to the terms and conditions of the LTTE and have decamped. When these groups decamp and come into the democratic process, do you expect us to arrest them and put them behind bars and term them as terrorists?

The government is not going to do that and as far as we are concerned, we will do every possible thing to maintain law and order in the country. Under that scenario, any armed group found particularly in the government-controlled areas will be dealt with in accordance with the law of the land.

Q: Are you saying that there are no paramilitary groups existing in government-controlled lands?

A: If anyone has proof that there are paramilitary groups existing in government-controlled lands, we invite them to come and show us proof and hold thorough investigations so that we all know what the real truth is.

Q: SLMM Chief Ulf Henricsson in an interview with The Sunday Leader last week said they have evidence that the Karuna group is working in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). Do you dispute this?

A: The government does not have any evidence that the Karuna group is working with the SLA. There are no paramilitary groups present in government-controlled lands. You can easily point your finger at me and say I am lying but you and I do not have any concrete evidence that the Karuna faction is present in government-controlled lands.

Q: Although you and I do not have any evidence, the SLMM does have evidence and the SLMM Chief says that if you see a member of the Karuna faction walking into a SLA camp, then this is satisfactory evidence that these two groups are working together.

A: If the SLMM has evidence, they have the right to bring it to the notice of the government. If there is satisfactory evidence, then the government will take appropriate action. What I need to make clear to you at this point is that you must understand the definition of the term ‘paramilitary.’ Paramilitaries to my knowledge are groups that work in coalition with any terrorist organisation. So I reiterate that we do not, never have and never will entertain such groups within the disciplined forces of the government.

Q: If you are not prepared to accept the SLMM’s position with regard to charges made against the government, then how can you take the benefit of their charges of the LTTE violating the CFA?

A: How can you compare the government to a terrorist organisation? It is not only the SLMM which has concrete evidence against the LTTE, but there are various other monitoring bodies which have also provided proof against the LTTE violating the CFA. Even the international community is aware of this.

Just because someone comes and says something that does not mean the government accepts it. As a government we have a right to conduct our own investigations and every time a complaint is lodged against the LTTE, we have investigated the incident thoroughly and made our own judgments.

Q: The security forces have been accused of a massacre in the north last week where even a three-month-old baby and a four-year-old boy were killed. What is your view?

A: The matter is being investigated and the results will reveal who is to be blamed for the massacre. Once the investigations conclude I will be able to comment further.

I must also add that fingers cannot be pointed at anyone as there were two other attacks during the Vesak period. One was a grenade attack at a temple in China Bay and the other was the attack on the navy ship, the Pearl Cruiser II, which was carrying 700 unarmed troops.

These two attacks are also being investigated by the government forces and it is evident that these were sinister moves by the LTTE in order to create a backlash during the Vesak period. However, with the help of hundreds of informants, the LTTE failed in both attempts.

What the LTTE now has to realise is that it is no longer being accepted as the sole representative of the Tamil people. There are many Tamil groups that have emerged recently and won seats in parliament, which are representing the Tamils. Therefore, the LTTE is now struggling to regain the confidence of the Tamil people, especially in the north and east.

Q: The President has called for a probe into the massacre, but is calling for inquiries after the killing of innocent civilians good enough, as this happened even after the murder of the students in Trincomalee? Shouldn’t the President take responsibility for those failures since he is also the Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief?

A: Are you trying to say that the President should be held responsible for every criminal activity which takes place in this country? Why do you think the country has an IGP, law enforcement authorities and a legal system? I do not think it is fair for you to point fingers and hold anyone responsible, especially the President.

Q: If not the Commander-in-Chief, then who should be responsible for all these killings?

A: Are you trying to say that the President should be held responsible even if a girl is raped in a jungle? Of course, in the overall picture, everyone of us should be held responsible, including you. Every citizen should show a responsibility in maintaining law and order in the country. Since criminal activities are taking place in this country, institutions have been established to maintain law and order. It is very unfair of you to even ask this question because you cannot pin point at one particular person in a scenario like this.

Q: The LTTE breached the security of Army Headquarters and carried out a suicide attack targeting the Army Commander. Has anybody taken responsibility for this security breach?

A: This is a very valid question because serious investigations are being conducted by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to crack this case. However, in countries which have terrorist organisations, we have to expect such attacks because even when we take into consideration the situation in Ireland, the IRA had said, ‘the government can take 364 days to do anything, but all we need is a day.’

This is what we call terrorism. To terrorists, such attacks are not new because even when we look at the September 11 attacks, the terrorists were able to hit the Twin Towers in New York despite all the security facilities the Americans maintain.

If you are saying that we should have 100% security in the island, then my answer to you is that to do that with a group of active terrorists, you need 50% of the population to be in the security forces to secure the remaining 50%. Otherwise it will not be humanly possible to secure everyone.

You can argue with me or discredit the government or say that this government is weak, but there have been serious security lapses even before President Mahinda Rajapakse was elected to power.

Take for example, the assassinations of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. This is how the terrorists behave. However I am not denying that there have been serious security lapses in certain areas during the recent months.

Q: The government is reported to have ordered a large number of bullet proof vehicles to protect VIPs and no doubt, given the security situation in the country, it is a necessity. But who is there to protect the people from the possibility of bomb attacks in the city if the government cannot protect its own Army Headquarters?

A: Well, the people who should be providing security to the public must first live and protect themselves in order to protect the city from possible attacks. You might look at me in a very unreasonable manner but as I told you before, to have 100% security, 50% of the public have to join the security forces to protect the remainder.

By asking me this question, are you telling me that the government should provide bullet proof vehicles to all the citizens in this country? There are many people who are currently under threat, so we need to protect these people in order to plan strategies to save the public.

You cannot be very sinister in saying that only some are having bullet proof vehicle while others are not. If I ask this same question from you, you will not be able to answer it. That is why I say that journalists like you have a responsibility in bringing the nation together and the only way you can do this is by reporting the facts.

Q: Are you saying that journalists in this country do not report facts?

A: All I am saying is that journalists must not report stories only for their political advantage because all of us as citizens of this nation have a role to play in achieving peace.

For example, at the fifth All Party Conference (APC), I was proud to be a Sri Lankan because all political parties had gathered together to discuss the current crisis in the country and even during stubborn issues, the parties became very flexible and were prepared to sign a document denouncing terrorism. This, to me, was one of the greatest achievements by all the political parties in this country.

Q: Why did the government not keep the LTTE tied down to the table by providing them the transport facilities required without haggling over sea transport, sea planes, etc., at the cost of many lives of security personnel and civilians?

A: Since I was involved in this issue right from the beginning, let me tell you that the LTTE wanted transport from one part of the country to another and it was the responsibility of the government to see that the LTTE members were transported safely. I do not know if it is right for the LTTE to put forward their demands and ask for air transport, road transport and sea transport because once we take the responsibility, it is our responsibility to see that they are transported safely. Therefore the government agreed to offer sea transport.

The LTTE members had promised to board at 7:30 in the morning but even at 10 a.m., they had not arrived. This the government tolerated. Then when they finally arrived, all 38 members were taken on board when they had said that only 16 members would be traveling. When the boat was about to take off, there was a navy vessel in sight and the LTTE members said they wanted to get off the ship.

Now in the sea movement agreement it is clearly stated that the navy will provide escort for two reasons. One is that in this particular area that the boat was taking off from, there have been a lot of ship wrecks and there was no radar system in the boat. It was only to facilitate the boat that the navy vessel was accompanying it and there was also an LTTE member monitoring all what was said in the navy vessel.

However, the LTTE then demanded air transport. We agreed, only to have the LTTE say there was a capacity problem. The government said the planes could be used numerous times to transport all the LTTE members but they refused and demanded two planes, which too the government granted.

The easiest way to transport the LTTE members was through sea transport and the government provided it. It is not a question of whether the government was providing it or not because the government provided what they asked for. However, the LTTE only introduced fresh demands on a daily basis. So the LTTE had to limit its package of options because even you, as a person, will not tolerate it.

We must also not forget that after the assassination of Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, there was a clear government policy that helicopters used by the forces will not be given to anyone. However, we did not want to go on these lines where the LTTE was concerned but it is just that we all have to analyse and see if the LTTE is being fair at this point of time.

Q: President Mahinda Rajapakse, the JVP and JHU agreed to completely revise the CFA stating the document paved the way for separation. Have you not gone back on that pledge to the electorate?

A: Even with the CFA, we have had times when we faced a no war-no peace situation. However, considering the deteriorating situation in the country, the government agreed to try out what had been agreed upon initially at the Geneva talks. If the situation had settled, the CFA would have been the best option. However we cannot hold onto the CFA as the CFA was an agreement signed by the government and the LTTE only to stop shooting at each other. After the CFA, the joint statement was released and even during future discussions there will be several other agreements signed to achieve lasting peace in the country.

Q: Has not the government lost credibility with the international community due to the civilian casualties following the arial bombardment in the north east, or would you say this is collateral damage?

A: As a responsible government we have to take certain measures to deter any further action by the LTTE because during the last few weeks we have seen devastating attacks caused by the Tamil Tigers such as the suicide attack at Army Headquarters. In order to protect our people, we had to retaliate immediately.

If the government did not take any deterrent measures in order to avoid any further attacks what would have been the plight of the country? The country would have been in panic, especially on Vesak Day when 700 unarmed troops would have seen the bottom of the sea or the bodies would have been transported to the villages in the south. Just imagine the state the country would have been in today if this had happened.

In situations like this the government has to act as you cannot expect us to sit and watch silently. Within 72 hours of the Pearl Cruiser II attack, the international community acted favourably towards the government and termed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. Therefore I do not think the government has lost credibility with the international community.

Q: Has the government not lost the propaganda war to the LTTE in the last few weeks?

A: No. I honestly do not think so because after the Trincomalee incident, the LTTE expected a backlash. However they failed and the incident was termed as barbaric terrorism. The LTTE then tried to kill the Army Commander and attack Pearl Cruiser II – two incidents which failed miserably. Taking into consideration all these attacks, the LTTE tried its best to have a backlash and I am thankful that the people in the south did not fall prey to the LTTE’s trap.

Q: The government has called for the LTTE to be banned in Europe. Don’t you see a contradiction in doing so without first banning them in Sri Lanka?

A: We have not asked Europe to ban the LTTE but we have told them to take serious note of the events that are taking place. Even if the whole world bans them, we consider the LTTE as a part of us because we have to sit with them and solve a crisis relating to this land. We do not care if the whole world bans them, we will try our best to solve the issue with the LTTE.

The Tigers have to realise that this government, including the previous government, have only been extending the hand of peace. We only hope the LTTE would grasp it rather than bite it. We must work as a civilised society.

Q: The JVP has said the government must now go to war since there is no peace process. Do you accept this position?

A: I accept one position, and that is everyone has the right to say what they feel. I do not want to interfere in that right.

Q: Can the government survive without the JVP?

A: That question does not arise because at the moment they are working with the government.

Q: The SLMM Chief has said the security forces are badly-trained and not motivated to fight. Would you agree?

A: The SLMM has no right to say this as such a comment can only be made by the Commander-in-Chief. The government does not mind if the SLMM Chief wants to take the army in batches to Norway and train them if he thinks they are badly trained.

Q: Do you believe that the security forces can defeat the LTTE militarily if all out war is to resume today?

A: I cannot comment on that.

Q: What do you see as the ultimate solution to this problem?

A: Well, terrorism has to be denounced and controlled.


‘Peace vital for economic growth’

World Bank Vice President, South Asian Region, Praful C. Patel says the country has the necessary ingredients to reach its targeted growth rates, but aired his concern on the future of the peace negotiations. "All the fundamentals are in place but of course we are concerned about the future of the peace negotiations. It could affect the economy," Patel said in an interview with The Sunday Leader. He also noted that if the peace process goes off track and in the wrong direction, it would affect the bank’s functions in the country.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

Q: How do you see the country’s economy at present?

A: All the fundamentals are in place and it remains quite positive, but of course we are concerned about the future of the peace negotiations. It could affect the economy. However, I feel Sri Lanka’s economy is on track to continue to grow at the levels of growth that it has achieved. As a matter of fact, I feel the potential of growing is much higher even without too much of change in the peace negotiations.

Q: The World Bank had earlier said that funds would be tied to the peace process, and since of late the country has seen an increase in violence in the north and east. Has the bank altered its criteria?

A: No, as you can read from our Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) report the bank has laid out the conditions under which we would fund our programmes. What we’ve put in the CAS is not tied to anything. The core programme we are funding now is not tied to anything. What we have done rather is that we are willing to substantially increase, even double, the support we are providing in a situation there is no security problem and the peace process is underway. Here we are not looking at the resolution of the issue, that is for the leadership and the people of the country. We are talking about stability and peace without any hostilities and an environment where development can carry on. That’s what we are doing.

Q: The bank’s CAS report for Sri Lanka has said that violence would affect funding...

A: Yes, we have said that if the security situation and the peace process go off track and goes in the wrong direction, then what we are doing will be affected. If we cannot send our staff to the sites, to the field, then that for us is a proxy. There should be a peaceful environment for development, not just for our staff, but for all Sri Lankans. So in that situation I’m really concerned that if that happens and it begins to affect the core programme of the bank and we are to back out of that, it would be a serious issue.

Q: What are the issues the bank intends to highlight at the Tokyo donor confab on May 30?

A: Not anything beyond presenting the development agenda of Sri Lanka and the need to maintain the macro economic programme and stability. Most importantly, you have all the negotiating to create an environment to carry out development activities on the ground. Beyond that no. We are not a part of the process.

Q: A sum of US$ 3.5 billion, including a US$ 1 billion debt moratorium, was pledged at last year’s development forum in Sri Lanka. How much of the money has the country received so far?

A: Out of that I can speak of the tsunami funding. About 85% of the funding that we have provided in the areas I visited in the south have been utilised. Exactly how much of the US$ 3.5 billion that has been pledged has come, is on record. At the development forum we pledged and the government pledged to put all of this on the web for everyone to see, donors, citizens, so the RADA or World Bank websites would carry the figures.

Q: Has the violence in the north and east affected development work in the area?

A: Yes, in fact the security situation does not differentiate. Wherever it is unsafe to go, for anyone, Sri Lankans or World Bank staff in our case, if I cannot guarantee their safety then we cannot carry on development in that area.

Q: The World Bank it is understood has given guidelines to the government for the bank to continue with its assistance. Have these guidelines influenced the country’s economic policies?

A: We work with the government in a very collaborative way, so if we are talking about the economic management side then if there are policy reforms that the government is doing that is right and is supportable by us, we would then agree on that, but I don’t think we have set any guidelines for our assistance.

Q: The bank has been an active promoter of privatisation. The UPFA government as a policy has denounced privatisation. What do you think is the way out?

A: When we advise our clients it is really to make use of the full range of options that they have. Here we have a public enterprise that is losing a lot of money from the government budget or if you have public enterprises that is best done by the private sector and I hate to show that the public sector sometimes goes to activities that really don’t belong to them and we would say that this is one of the options.

Even if it is not in the government’s own policy framework, it does not prevent us from talking about addressing the problem. We can say that in other countries this is what has happened so you might want to consider these options.

The point I’m trying to make is that Sri Lanka is not operating on its own, its operating in a global environment, so I reckon Sri Lanka has a choice if they want to be competitive, to use some of these opportunities where for example in the power sector and many other sectors, the private sectors role has shown that you can make a difference and address the issue. So I would put that on the table and see that as one of the options.

Q: The Central Bank has projected an upgraded growth rate of 6.9% for the second quarter. Given the present situation in the country, do you think it is achievable?

A: This country’s potential for growth is much higher than it is performing right now. We all know why it is performing at around 6%. Going from 6% to 6.9% I would say is not unreasonable and that it could be achieved. But rather than that my comment would be that this country’s potential is for a much higher growth rate than 6-7%. If any of these larger issues are resolved, I see all the ingredients for this country to go at a much higher rate. I would say all the ingredients are there for the country to achieve a 6.9% growth rate.

Q: There have been allegations of corruption against the government’s fund management. What mechanisms could ensure more transparency and accountability?

A: The World Bank takes issues of corruption or leakage of funds very seriously. I’m not aware of any real specific allegations that’s on the table, but if there was any allegation, yes we have processes, systems and ways of channeling it to us and if we do find something, we would take all the remedies that we have in terms of accountability of funds and transparency.

There are three particular areas that we have focused on and made suggestions. We’ve already seen the government follow through one of those and that is the new procurement guidelines that are more transparent and would be more effective.

The second is the question of auditing — the role of the Auditor General. We have recently agreed with the government on a programme for further strengthening the Auditor General’s Department to improve what we regard as a very good job by a very brave man.

The third, which is something distinctly lacking that we will soon discuss with the government is the strengthening of parliament. The oversight function, which is by everybody’s agreement is limited. Now these three — transparency in procurement, very strong auditing by the Auditor General and the development of the oversight, so there is another side that is looking over government expenditure and seeing if the government’s expenditure is actually buying things and done properly.

The one on procurement is going on and the other two, we have recently agreed and future programmes will be carried on it.

If this is jointly agreed, then it is the process of agreeing with the government that the procurement procedures may improve reforms and we are involved in that. If we find that we have commonly agreed guidelines that protect and safeguard the process and funds, then both sides are committed to acting on any diversions from that. So now we are in the phase where we first use the agreed approaches.

Q: With regard to the rising global oil prices, what strategy should the government pursue?

A: More saving, less consumption, more investment in infrastructure, price adjustments to keep pace with low costs and low cost power supplies.


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