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World Affairs








President is taking
India for a ride

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

India must avoid
blame game

By Sonali Samarasinghe

Ranjan promises to deliver Sabaragamuwa in one shot

Ranjan Ramanayake

UNP’s chief ministerial aspirant for Sabaragamuwa and film idol Ranjan Ramanayake is confident that the beginning of the UPFA rule’s end will commence on August 23.

In an interview with The Sunday Leader, Ramanayake said that Ranil Wickremesinghe was the only leader with a vision for the country and it was not Wickremesinghe’s fault if voters were easily fooled.

If elected to office, Ramanayake promises better welfare schemes for migrant workers, a disaster mitigation and prevention plan, improved infrastructure, upgraded schools and health facilities to the province.

The actor/director turned politician said that he offered to run, as he did not like to see the UNP being humiliated by an indecisive candidate whose loyalties were obviously elsewhere and pledged to work for Sabaragamuwa with commitment from August 23. Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: Are you the UNP’s fallback candidate in Sabaragamuwa? What made you want to enter the fray?

A: I don’t think I am the party’s fallback candidate, but I certainly was a man the party could count on at a time when the UNP was humiliated by its choice of candidate.

I have the courage of my convictions that this is the party that has answers to the people’s myriad problems, the leadership we need and deserve.

I am an honest man and I speak the truth. So when the nominee made an ambiguous public statement like, ‘I am not accepting it or rejecting it,’ I found the doublespeak amazing. What option did he give the UNP?

Sadly, this is the first time that a candidate refused to contest. He had four rounds of discussions with the leadership and agreed to stand. My honest feeling is that this government twisted his arms by allegedly dredging some tax issues in violation of our nominee’s basic rights. By doing so, a man was prevented from making a free choice.

I was scandalized by what happened and decided to move in like ‘One Shot.’ By then, our party was in a critical situation by what the nominee did. He could have personally conveyed his reluctance to contest but he went before the media and made ambiguous statements.

I love this party and the current leadership. Whatever happens, I think I took the best decision I could have taken to help this party.

Q: In your films, you often refer to politicians with scant respect. Why are you playing this role in real life?

A: I speak the truth and nothing but the truth. In my film One Shot, I had a character based on my relative, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga which was not at all complimentary to her.

Since 1948, our political leadership has somehow failed to take this country to the heights that are possible. All you have to do is look at India which is fast becoming a super power to know that we are about to become a failed state.

As a citizen, I don’t possess an inch of land in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. I have no allegations leveled against me. For example, if I have not paid my taxes as the country’s highest paid actor, then the government would give me a hard time right now.

If I were to contest, then it was to be from Katana. When I accepted the organiser post that too was a huge challenge because I had a formidable opponent, the late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle representing the government there.

I am a great believer in the ability to change things only from within. All the artistes working with the UNP pledged support to President Rajapakse after the 2005 election. Only I came to the UNP.

So instead of fearing the government’s strength in Katana, I moved in.

It is true that I don’t like politicians, but I do like politics. We all like politics in some way or the other. The bread we eat has politics in it.

As for my reasons for being here, let me say that Sri Lanka now needs a vacuum cleaner. It cries for a leader who can cleanse the system. Ranil Wickremesinghe has a vision and is not corrupt. He is an internationally accepted figure and the only man who can give this country a future.

The President’s rule has already been tainted by charges of corruption and inefficiency. There are no truly ‘pure’ politicians, but there can be less imperfect people. Ranil is that.

I don’t care whether he wants to smile a mile or carry children in his arms to hoodwink the people. I only want a leader who can be trusted with this nation’s destiny. I am here to make my small contribution by strengthening his hand.

Q: You speak with a lot of respect for Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and sound very convinced about his ability to deliver. If that is so, why do you think the majority of the people did not choose him to lead the nation?

A: I can only quote Bob Marley here and say, "You can fool some people sometime, not all the people, all the time."

For a long time I was noncommittal and unimpressed by what I saw. But the country is at a critical stage and I think we all must play a proactive role in society.

As I said, this is the best leadership we currently have. Why do you think everyone attacks him mercilessly? They are jealous of his strengths, his knowledge, international recognition, his English, the quick brain — all that.

It is not Ranil Wickremesinghe’s fault if he is not understood, but a nation’s misfortune. It is not Pythagoras’ fault if those who failed in their mathematics cannot understand his theory. Same with all the great people this world produced but was misunderstood by the people. It is the limitation of the people but not of the unique people who are of timeless quality.

To me he is like Vladimir Putin. Putin was once rude to a journalist and answered all questions in 10 minutes and walked off immediately saying he had work to do. But the journalist later on commented that Putin was the best politician he ever met for not offering mental bribes to him, or trying to show how media friendly he was. That’s how the UNP Leader is.

Also, to me, Ranil is like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha whereas Mahinda Rajapakse is like a thrashy novel.

Now I know why Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, despite many challenges, did not opt to debate against Ranil Wickremesinghe. He would have miserably failed. Rajapakse does not possess Wickremesinghe’s profound knowledge on anything. It is not his fault that he is out of power. It is our problem for being ill informed voters.

Q: Wouldn’t you have been more comfortable in the SLFP where you actually began your political journey?

A: It is natural to raise that question. Let me say this clearly. I have huge problems with the SLFP regarding its economic policy and the approach to the national question. I always did.

It is the SLFP that disenfranchised the Tamil people with an overnight language policy that made them feel aliens in the country they call home. How would we feel if French is declared the official language here overnight? Language was the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s tool to suppress minorities.

Besides, the SLFP was also created for selfish reasons. It was not based on an ideology. It was because Mr. Bandaranaike was denied his place in the party. He felt deprived. In turn, he deprived the Tamil community.

I have read that Lee Kuan Yu had commented that "Sri Lanka has sowed seeds of a civil war," following the Sinhala Only policy. Bandaranaike was assassinated and the country was left with a problem that continues to keep the communities divided.

As for the present government, it is only good for arms dealers, terrorist groups, commission makers and coffin makers.

It has caused a severe brain drain and people are migrating at an alarming rate. I can’t see myself working with the SLFP.

Q: You are not a Sabaragamuwa native. How do you explain your sudden appearance in a province that is alien to you?

A: I am not an American citizen, I am Sri Lankan through and through. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, Transport Minister Dulles Alahapperuma and Presidential Advisor and MP Basil Rajapakse are American citizens or Green Card holders.

Mervyn Silva from Tissamaharama is now stationed in Kelaniya. Sajith Premadasa is doing great work in Hambantota. President Premadasa worked in Yatiyantota. Anura Bandaranaike contested from Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya.

I am not an outsider, I am Sri Lankan. People from all over the country view my films and if I have to, I will not hesitate to contest from Jaffna. I consider it my inalienable right.

Q: Are you running for the chief minister’s post to politically test your popularity that was built upon your film idol image?

A: Our country is full of contests that assess popularity through SMS polling and coupons. A rich person can buy more newspapers and SIM cards and create a false image.

My popularity as the most popular actor was certainly coupon based. But then, there are other ways in which I have been assessed like the SLIM Award for being the People’s Actor last year. I have been the Most Popular Actor for five years and then won the Best Actor award. My films have been super hits. So I don’t need to test my popularity.

Sometimes I am scared that I am losing it. It happens to every popular artiste. As I campaign, now I feel I am a much loved man; I feel honoured that a party like the UNP selected me to run for public office. I was a guy who did not have a job, from that, I have reached this position. I don’t need to test my popularity anymore, only I got to use that popularity to be of service to the people.

Q: What kind of security threats do you face during the campaign?

A: There is a Buddhist belief that one who lives according to the Dhamma will be protected by it. I believe that. I have thousands gathering around me. I feel loved and care for by these people who surround me and show me love. They are my security. I am most secure in their midst.

Q: What is your development plan for Sabaragamuwa?

A: let me mention the problems first. I have done an ad hoc survey and come to realise that lack of infrastructure is the main problem. The region’s economy is in peril and then the schools are really backward.

Sabaragamuwa is a sorry sight in many ways. The roads are bad, schools are in a dilapidated condition, hospitals lack facilities and its economy destroyed.

The plantation sector is devastated. There are neither visitors nor investors anymore. There are no proper gem pits and gemming has caused unique problems. People are migrating to the cities and overseas.

The alternative to these trends is to vote the UNP into office. People rally round me and express new hope about our leadership. We will soon have a development plan that will address key areas of importance in which I will explain what I seek to offer the Sabaragamuwa people.

Q: You are contesting from a district that is extremely disaster prone one. What do you propose to do if elected as chief minister in the area of provincial disaster management?

A: I want to introduce a comprehensive disaster mitigation and management plan when elected. The district has some special concerns due to excessive gemming that has caused several imbalances in the ecology.

I would like our programme to be part of a massive national programme that addresses disaster mitigation and management. I also want to train people on evacuation methods and on technologically sound construction methods that could withstand disasters.

China had a problem and the Great Wall was built. We need to look at the larger picture and come up with solutions, specially in a world that is fast becoming more and more vulnerable to disasters.

Q: As an artiste, if elected do you intend giving special incentives to the provincial artistes?

A: As a person, I am personally opposed to any form of censorship; I believe in the free flow of information. I will take a stronger stance with regard to these two beliefs when I get elected.

As for special privileges for artistes, I would not promise that. When elected, I want to help all, not only a section of the community.

MGR helped all, Ronald Reagan helped all. They create space within their programmes for artistes as well as others.

I want to be like that. The Sun does not grudge sunlight to the brightest or the darkest corner. It gives the same light in same measure.

When we come to power, all will benefit. Not just the artistes.

Q: You have been a great sympathiser of the problems faced by the migrant labour population and have often intervened to seek justice on their behalf. What is the percentage of migrant workers in Sabaragamuwa and what welfare programmes do you propose for them?

A: I believe if anything makes me happy about my human existence, this was it. I assisted our poor and ill-treated migrant workers when the Foreign Ministry, the Labour Ministry and the Foreign Employment Bureau collectively turned their backs on these people.

They are the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy and if there is any steady revenue for Sri Lanka, it is through them. Their rights are violated often, but get harassed, penalised and treated with absolute disrespect.

At present, I am directing all my energy to protecting the young life of Rizana Nafeek. So many others have been killed before her, but I want to fight the judgment against her.

If I become the chief minister, for the first time in my life I will have people’s power. That political power can be used effectively to mobilise opinion and campaign for our migrant workers. I will then have a greater opportunity to intervene on their behalf.

My pledge to the migrant workers of this country is that I will use my political power to ensure that you are not harassed, your rights are protected. Your dignity is intact.

If I get elected, no Sri Lankan will be beheaded.

For the stance I adopted, I am not granted a visa to the UAE easily. There are threats and I don’t get to be on tour in the UAE countries. But I have not given up. I also request my bothers and sisters working there not to give up and not to give in. We will fight on your behalf always, tooth and nail.

President is taking India for a ride

Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera

Former Foreign Minister and Convener, SLFP (M) Group, Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera says that a colossal sum of Rs. 3 billion is being spent to boost the image of a faltering leader. "Trying to create an imaginary picture of a prosperous Sri Lanka is ludicrous. The expenses incurred for the SAARC Summit could have been used to make Colombo a better city and relocate the shanty dwellers. This is an absolute waste just to boost the faltering image of President Rajapakse," he told The Sunday Leader in an interview. Samaraweera also says that even if Pirapaharan was brought to his knees the war would not end till a durable and an acceptable solution to the Tamil people is given where there is a genuine effort at power sharing. Excerpts of the interview:

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

Q: The government and the Foreign Ministry in particular are spending billions of rupees on SAARC entertainment and other arrangements. As a former Foreign Minister do you think all that expenditure is essential?

A: On principle, hosting the SAARC Summit is a good thing at a time when Sri Lanka is rapidly getting isolated internationally, and hosting this summit is a boost to the country’s image. Having said that, I agree with critics of SAARC who say huge amounts of money are being wasted which could have been used in many other areas, at a time when we are facing much hardship. The financial crisis we are facing is the worst since Sri Lanka gained independence. At such a time, spending Rs. 3 billion on this tamasha is unforgivable.

It is not the first time that SAARC is being held in Sri Lanka. It was earlier held during late President Premadasa’s tenure in office in the early 1990s. In 1998, Sri Lanka hosted one of the most successful SAARC Summits under President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was a quiet, understated, but a highly dignified affair where all SAARC leaders attended. Even at that time, Sri Lanka was going through a war situation.

In fact, the LTTE at the time was attacking financial targets in and around Colombo. The government never put the people through so much inconvenience in the name of security. In fact, most people did not even know that the summit was being held in Colombo, that was how professional and efficient it was. Trying to create an imaginary picture of a prosperous Sri Lanka is ludicrous.

There is ruthless demolition of shanties in and around Colombo. One government leader has said that the SAARC leaders should not be exposed to poverty in Colombo. SAARC is all about how we can combat poverty. Instead, the government is using the SAARC conference as a smoke screen to send these poor people away without giving any alternatives.

In 2000, as the Urban Development Minister, I too demolished unauthorised structures in Colombo, especially commercial rentals in Fort and Pettah, but all that was done legally. We did not evict any poor family. We started a shanty relocation programme called REEL and through that we built as the first project, modern high-rise flats in Wanathamulla. We also had plans to continue with the programme and even acquired land for it.

However, the Rajapakse government has not continued with it. The people have instead been given Rs.8,000 and kicked out. The expenses incurred for the SAARC Summit could have been used to make Colombo a better city and relocate the shanty dwellers. This is an absolute waste just to boost the faltering image of President Rajapakse.

Even the government’s total lack of protocol has been displayed in the many cut-outs put up in the city. Any country that hosts such a summit displays the flag and the picture of the leader of the host state at the end of the board. However, in Sri Lanka, the picture of the leader of the host country is projected twice the size of those of the visiting heads of states. Also the host country leaders’ picture has to come last, but it has not happened. It is an effective display of the uncouth manners of this administration.

Q: Despite the heavy expenditure, arrangements are reported to be disastrous especially given the power struggle between the Foreign Minister and his Secretary Palitha Kohona. Apart from this issue how seriously has this internal feud impacted on the handling of the government’s foreign relations?

A: The foreign relations of the government and the workings of the Foreign Ministry have reached an all time low. Not only the ongoing conflict between the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary, but the unnecessary interference of the President in the workings of the Foreign Ministry has also caused a problem. To make matters more confusing, the President has appointed his toyboy, Sajin Vaas Gunewardena as an advisor to the Foreign Ministry, which has resulted in the chaotic situation that has arisen today.

Most of the ambassadors are appointed by President Rajapakse and the number of professionals and foreign service personnel have drastically reduced to make way for the President’s relatives, friends and henchmen.

The two most important diplomatic posts — Washington and Moscow — are filled by his nephews whose knowledge of international affairs and diplomacy are almost nil. During Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s tenure and when I held office, we had a ratio of 65:35, meaning 65% of the officials were from the foreign service and 35% were political appointments and even the political appointments were of the highest calibre.

Unfortunately, that situation is totally reversed, which is very unfortunate for us because this is a time when Sri Lanka needs the brightest and the best of our diplomats to put forward Sri Lanka’s face in order to prevent us from becoming a pariah state like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government seems determined to commit diplomatic hara kiri in the international ring.

Q: What real benefits does Sri Lanka stand to gain by hosting this year’s SAARC Summit ahead of Sri Lanka’s turn?

A: None. Other than the fact that the President perhaps wants to impress the Sri Lankan voters by propaganda overkill that is bound to follow the SAARC, by portraying him as not only the great leader of Sri Lanka but of the region. I know that SLFP leaders island wide have already been instructed to put up banners, cut-outs and posters immediately after SAARC is concluded hailing the new ‘leader of the region.’ Therefore, Rs.3 billion is basically spent to boost the image of a faltering leader.

Q: What in your view are the critical foreign relations issues the government is confronted with in dealing with SAARC nations?

A: To begin with, I would say our relationship with our long-standing friend in the region, India, is now on shaky ground. My predecessor, Lakshman Kadirgamar once said that the relations between India and Sri Lanka have reached a point of "irreversible excellence." However, had Kadirgamar been alive today, even he would have been surprised at the way the Rajapakse administration has begun to reverse what we thought earlier to be an irreversible friendship.

Duplicity is the hallmark of the Rajapakse administration and it is not only with the people of Sri Lanka, but also with the international community. Rajapakse’s government has been duplicitous with the government of India. When our interaction should have been open, frank and honest, this government has gone out of the way to mislead and hoodwink the Indian government.

Q: The Indian Prime Minister was reportedly assured by the government even during your tenure as foreign minister that a political package to resolve the ethnic issue will be submitted at the earliest but still there is no progress on that front. How serious has this development impacted on Indo-Lanka relations?

A: As you know, as foreign minister between the period of November 2005 and January 2007, I made six visits to New Delhi — twice with the President. At each opportunity, I had the honour of meeting the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh to explain the evolving situation in the country. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee also participated at these meetings. In fact, at each meeting, first the President and then I assured the Prime Minister that the final report of the All Party Conference (APC) will be issued by August 2006, the latest.

However, as time went by, it was also clear to me that the government, especially with the pressure exerted by the likes of the JHU, Wimal Weerawansa and also the Defence Secretary, were all out to sabotage and cripple the workings of the APC. The APC, as far as the President and his people were concerned was a ploy to keep the international community at bay and also a means of showing the international community that the government was interested in negotiating a settlement while it secretly operated a military option.

In fact, when I met Dr. Singh later that year, it was very embarrassing, as I, in order to protect the government, had to pretend that a solution was forthcoming. In December 2006, the duplicity was evident when I accompanied the President to New Delhi to attend Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar’s daughter’s wedding and to meet the Indian Prime Minister to brief him on the latest developments in Sri Lanka.

At this meeting, we had in our delegation, Dr. Rohan Perera, who was an advisor to the Foreign Ministry and a member of the expert’s panel of the APC that was drafting the final recommendations. At the meeting, the President got Dr. Perera to give a brief presentation to the Indian side on the proposed recommendations.

Dr. Perera gave a concise presentation where he said they would propose absolute devolution of power similar to that of the quasi federal Indian Constitution.

However, we were in for a rude shock once we got back to Sri Lanka when President Rajapakse, who was extremely peeved by Delhi’s blackout of his photographers at the earlier visit, instructed that the experts committee of the APC be dissolved. Dr. Perera and other members were mercilessly attacked in government controlled newspapers and were forced to submit their resignations. The President presented a set of proposals to India, which he himself was to disown a few weeks later.

At the Non Aligned Summit in Havana in September 2006, President Rajapakse again assured the Indian Prime Minister and the delegation that there would be no demerger of the north and east. But he later instigated Wimal Weerawansa and the JVP to file action against the merger. Even today, it is a well-known fact the President is there behind the anti-Indian rhetoric of the JHU and the JVP.

It is also a well known fact that the President’s three key advisors are JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, Wimal Weerawansa and the Defence Secretary, who have a tendency to see an Indian under every bed. Duplicity is the cornerstone in his style of governance and has soured relations with many of our long standing friends, which on the long term would have serious repercussions for our country.

Q: The government has said India is cooperating with the government on defence related matters. Is this not indicative of the fact that the government’s strategy of projecting support from China and Pakistan on defence is working to the President’s advantage?

A: I would not like to comment on defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. Whatever government is in power, India has been a strong friend and helped in more ways than that which can be redeemed. I am glad that India is continuing with its defence cooperation in certain areas with the Sri Lankan government. But if we do not take them into full confidence, then we might lose our present position.

Sri Lanka always had good relations with Pakistan and China. China has been a staunch friend of the Sri Lankan government since Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike till President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Pakistan has also been a consistent friend of Sri Lanka.

However, when it comes to defence matters, we have to take into consideration the geo political realities and be sensitive to the aspirations of India as well. India happens to be our giant neighbour who is fast on track to becoming one of the major superpowers in the future. It does not mean we have to be subservient to India, but learn to work closely with India and reap some rewards and benefits from India’s ascendance.

The JHU and JVP types who always think Sri Lanka is the centre of the universe must understand that the island is a mere speck on the ocean, especially in a globalised economy, finally in an era where markets are very important.

Sri Lanka with its population of 20 million people is not on the priority list of many countries, as we would like to think. To all those rabid ethnocentrics who think the whole world is after the assets of our country, this is the sad and bitter truth we have to admit in order to move forward. Sri Lanka has more to gain by associating with bigger countries. The long terms benefits of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) are much more than India may have on Sri Lanka. But if there are discrepancies, we should instead of scrapping the whole of CEPA, renegotiate the areas of concern.

At a time when much more powerful countries than Sri Lanka are trying to access the Indian market, only we in Sri Lanka have the shortsightedness to object to it all in the name of patriotism. If things go on as they are, all we have left would be a nation of hungry, starving people with nothing else but the national flag to wrap around.

Q: The President has said he will finish the LTTE off soon and bring Pirapaharan to him on his knees. Is that not indicative that the President has the support of countries like India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict militarily?

A: Again, duplicity is a hallmark of the government and as far as the war is concerned, he is hoodwinking the people by making the war an issue spoken of 24/7 to cover the inefficiencies, mismanagement and corruption of the government.

During the last 30 years, the war has ruined our country. The military to their credit have had military victories from time to time. In 1992, under President D.B. Wijetunge and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the east was liberated from the LTTE and free and fair elections were held in all parts of the east. In 1996, under President Kumaratunga, the military gave a devastating blow to the LTTE by dislodging them from Jaffna. At the time the Jaffna Kachcheri was being used as Pirapaharan’s main office. It was then that the LTTE resorted to hiding in the jungles. But despite those victories, the war has not ended.

Even today, our soldiers have had some impressive victories in the last two years, but that does not mean the war will come to an end. Even if Pirapaharan is brought to his knees as stated by President Rajapakse, the war will not end till a durable and acceptable solution to the Tamil people is given where there is a genuine effort at power sharing.

Q: There is a perception in the country that the war effort has succeeded and that the LTTE is now fighting for survival. Is this not indicative of the fact that the military option is working?

A: Even the Army Commander has said something similar at a meeting with the foreign correspondents. He has said that the LTTE would go on for another 20 years, if a proper solution was not given. The present administration however does not want an end to the war, as the inefficiencies and mismanagement of the government will be revealed to the public.

The income of many people will also fall if the war comes to an end. That is why the President and the government do not want to end the war by getting back to the negotiating table and putting forward a proposal of extensive power devolution, which would be acceptable to the Tamil people. The Tamil people would then put pressure on the LTTE to accept the solution. The answer to the ethnic conflict is not in the MiG 27s the Defence Ministry purchases but the most potent weapon to end the war is a genuine political settlement.

Q: Many Western countries have come out against the government’s human rights record but countries like India, China and Pakistan are silent on the issue. Therefore does the government have any real cause to worry on the international front?

A: I lost my job as early as mid 2006 when the human rights violations such as the killing of the students in Trincomalee and the 17 aid workers in Muttur took place. There was a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. Actually had they heeded my advice and nipped it in the bud by taking action against the perpetrators we would not have faced all these problems internationally.

In fact I told the President that there was no shame in punishing the perpetrators in the army, who are generally straightforward and disciplined. Even in the best armies there are one or two wayward elements, but they can be brought to account. But the Defence Secretary and others were against taking action and later realised they were giving leadership to it.

Special units were formed within the army to carry out abductions and extra judicial killings. Even today it is these groups that are carrying out abductions and assaults even on journalists. I say with responsibility that all these acts are carried out with the knowledge of the high authorities.

Taking all these issues into consideration, I wrote a letter to the President on December 13, 2006 raising my concerns. However, on January 28, 2007 I was removed from my Foreign Ministry portfolio and on February 9, 2007, I was sacked from the government simply for trying to protect Sri Lanka and for advising the government to take the right path.

Today we are facing the consequences. His Excellency earlier did not even know of the GSP+ facility, now the issue has come to the forefront. Sri Lanka lost its seat in UN Human Rights Council and even lost its place as a recipient of the US Millennium Development Fund. Under the Millennium Development Fund Sri Lanka could have gained US$700 million as grants.

During my meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice we even discussed the possibility of getting the agreement signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Rajapakse on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The Sri Lankan government was dragging its feet and now the US government has formally informed that we would not receive the grant.

The European Commission has also stopped its funds. We are rapidly moving towards another Zimbabwe, if the government, even at this late stage does not rectify its ways. Although India, Pakistan and China have not made public statements on the human rights violations in the country, they have regularly expressed their concerns to the government. They are keeping a close eye on Sri Lanka.

This government has a policy of shooting the messenger. I was the first victim and any opposition politician who raises concerns is labelled as an anti-Sri Lankan element. The Opposition Leader and former President Kumaratunga have been accused of spreading anti-Sri Lanka propaganda. Neither Wickremesinghe nor Kumaratunga have to do anything to harm the country as the government does most of the harm. The best agent for anti-Sri Lanka propaganda is the Defence Secretary. Even at this late stage, I ask the President to change this suicidal path that would destroy the country.

Q: Earlier this week, even a member of the European Parliament — Niranjan Deva Aditya came out against the EU and even apologised on behalf of the Conservative Party for critical comments made by the Head of the EU Parliamentary Delegation, Robert Evans. Is this not indicative the government has succeeded in dividing even the EU members?

A: I don’t think you should take what Niranjan says seriously. He changes his tune according to his whims and fancies of the moment. It is like running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Of course I must say President Rajapakse is good at dividing people, but the country is in need of a leader who would unite the people and not divide.

India must avoid blame game

Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani

By Sonali Samarasinghe

As most of Colombo head to the peripheries on holiday to avoid the traffic nightmares in the city due to the SAARC Summit, tense relations are brewing between Sri Lanka's two largest neighbours, India and Pakistan.

If the Kabul bomb that ripped through the Indian Embassy prompted Indian National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to immediately point fingers at Pakistan's Spy Agency ISI, calling it an 'Agency of Evil that must be destroyed,' India's covert Research and Analysis Wing has been viewed with no less animosity in many parts of the region.

Neither will the people of SAARC expect much from the 15th Summit which has as its theme "SAARC Partnership for People."

The food crisis, the rising price of oil, terrorism including state sponsored terrorism and a level playing field among the members as equal partners - these are the issues that SAARC leaders should get their teeth into. However India is in turmoil as more deadly bombs blister through its cities and its Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces a formidable election.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has domestic problems of his own. He must work with President Musharraf - a leader largely condemned by the world. Musharraf's only political sponsor, President George W. Bush will be back in his Texan home come January.

That said, Gilani's government is facing increasing challenges at home and President Bush in the twilight of his presidency has called on Gilani to deal sternly with rogue elements in the ISI. According to US media, American intelligence agencies have also concluded the ISI helped plan the deadly July 7 bomb. The officials also said there was information showing ISI was increasingly providing militants with details of the American campaign against them, allowing militants to escape American missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In the backdrop of the US-India Nuke deal these concerns have not only strained Pakistan-US relations but fueled tension between Pakistan and India.

There is also growing tension as Pakistan's commitment to take on the Taliban/al-Qaeda combine is being questioned and the stability of Afghanistan is in the balance.

Rising tensions in Kashmir, deadly bombs blistering through Indian cities with speculation that Muslim militants are behind the series of blasts, issues of nuclear power and prestige, these, rather than poverty alleviation of a third of the world's population who call this region their home, will most likely dominate the talks even as the summit winds down today. 

The SAARC region has one of the highest number of people living under the poverty line. And let's face it, SAARC is one of the weakest forums in the world. One is entitled to suspect that it is the very nature of this region's people and its selfish leaders that often make it so.

In negotiations it is more a focus on the differences rather than the similarities that hold sway. Its non cooperation is best reflected by the fact that intra-regional trade of SAARC is still said to be only approximately 5.5% of the total trade of the member countries.

Meanwhile both Pakistan's Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh are likely to hold talks on the sidelines of SAARC even as their bristling relations will be the focus of media attention. It would be their first face to face meeting.

Some in Pakistan are of the view India should consider surrendering sovereignty back to the struggling and dying Kashmirs and that Kashmir should join SAARC as a full member.

Be that as it may, as the two countries circle each other in a quiet diplomatic war the greater issues facing the SAARC region are unlikely to be addressed effectively as the talk show ends tomorrow.

Manmohan Singh in his previous meetings with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, had sought to push the peace process even though other experiments like the joint mechanism on terrorism have predictably failed. However Indian analysts feel that given the recent terror attacks and the apprehension of more to follow Premier Singh may be pressurised into conveying a stern message to Prime Minister Gilani.

Diplomatic sources earlier told this column Pakistan did not want to make Sri Lanka a playground for regional issues. Be that as it may, even as India reacts with anger over Pakistan's continuous military support for Sri Lanka's war Prime Minister Gilani in a written interview answers some questions put to him by this newspaper.

Q: India has repeatedly expressed concerns over Sri Lanka obtaining military support from Pakistan and China which they say is of national security concerns to New Delhi. How do you respond to these Indian concerns?

A: Being a sovereign country, it is up to Sri Lanka to make decisions in its best interest. Our relations with Sri Lanka are based on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non- interference in each others internal affairs. This time tested relationship is free from outside interference.

Q: There is a view in India as well as among several political parties in Sri Lanka including that of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that Sri Lanka has to look to India for support to resolve its ethnic conflict. Does Pakistan accept this fact despite the Muslim dimension to the conflict that India is the principal actor from the international arena in this conflict?

A:  Pakistan supports the unity, territory, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. We consider that the Sri Lankan nation can resolve all its problems without outside interference. We hope that a lasting and durable peace in Sri Lanka would be achieved soon.

Q: The recent bomb attack on the Indian diplomatic mission in Kabul has prompted the tightening of security in the Indian Mission in Colombo as well. Now the National Security Advisor to the Indian Government M.K. Narayanan has blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI for the attack. He has even gone so far as to call the agency 'evil' and an agency that should be destroyed. Given this development how do you see the prospects for South Asian regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism?

A: First of all, it may be recalled that we have condemned the incident in the strongest terms. Against this background, the Indian statement is not only surprising but shocking too. There were also bombing incidents in Pakistan subsequently, but we have not pointed fingers at anyone as we believe in carrying out investigations before laying responsibility. It is important that the blame game is avoided, as both countries have an institutionalised counter terrorism mechanism which is working satisfactorily.

Secondly, Pakistan is against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations as this menace negates the very essence of human values. We reject the Indian allegations levelled against our intelligence agencies and armed forces. Such baseless accusations serve no purpose other than vitiating bilateral atmosphere. We feel that such incidents urge us to strengthen cooperation in the fight against terrorism at the regional level too.

Pakistan has signed and ratified the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. We stand ready to fulfil our obligations in this regard and hope to see similar commitment from other countries of South Asia.

Q: There is a view, that states which have little respect for human rights gang up together in the international arena. Zimbabwe being a good example. Sri Lanka too has come under severe criticism for human rights violations as has Pakistan under President Musharraf. Do you see this as a Western conspiracy against poorer nations?     

A: Pakistan has always opposed politicisation of international human rights fora. We have also opposed country specific mandates in the Human Rights Council.

In our view, human rights issues should be addressed through purely human rights angle. Only a positive approach to issues will help eradicate violations of international human rights standards.

Q: Pakistan and Sri Lanka have a Free Trade Agreement. How effective is the agreement in mutually beneficial economic terms and does Pakistan have any concern over the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to be signed between India and Sri Lanka?

A:  Sri Lanka is the first country with which Pakistan entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Since its operation, bilateral trade received a boost. To enhance bilateral trade, the two countries are closely working together.  Pakistan's expertise in banking, finance and insurance, gas and petroleum exploration, road development, IT and telecommunications, higher education, pharmaceuticals and Sri Lanka's capability in the hospitality, retail marketing and   apparel sectors can be combined for collaborative linkages and joint ventures.  We would welcome economic cooperation among the South Asian countries which takes into account the principles enshrined in the SAARC charter and its various declarations.

Q: There have been international concerns on Iran's development of nuclear technology. How do you view these concerns given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear enabled states? Do you think each country has a right to develop its own nuclear technology?

A: Pakistan recognises Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. At the same time, we are confident that Iran will fulfil all its international obligations under the NPT. Pakistan supports peaceful resolution of Iran's nuclear issue within the framework of IAEA. We also support negotiations being carried out with the P 5 + 1 and oppose any coercive measures that could escalate tensions in the region. 

However Prime Minister Gilani chose not to answer the following questions put to him by this newspaper. 

(1) What exactly is the relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan on defence. Is it confined to training personnel or the supply of weapons as well?

(2) Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan face the threat of terrorism. Do you see the struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka in the form of terrorism similar and akin to the threat of terrorism faced in Pakistan?

(3) Some political analysts have opined that India has concerns about a possible Pakistan sponsored Muslim militancy emerging in the east of Sri Lanka. What is your response? 

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