Basil on American intervention during final phase of war: “We should no longer be subservient to the US”

  • US tried possible intervention during the final stage of war   
  • US tried to block IMF assistance 
  • Support of India was crucial in ending the war 
  • China always stood by us, came forward in post-war development efforts 

In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who was actively involved in handling foreign affairs on certain matters during the previous regime, shared his thoughts on the US intervention during the final stage of war, the role of India as well as current politics. Excerpts of the interview: 

Q  How do you view the outcome of the US presidential election? 

mahinda-and-indiaWe should look at it in a broad context where internationalism is superseded by nationalism as a global trend. This is seen today in a country that fostered the tradition of regional integration. American people are opposed to internationalism as they have spoken out at this election. They believe more in nationalism than in internationalism. Even Lenin once said, “if one does not love his motherland, he will never become a communist.” A nationalism-driven trend is apparent in the approaches of world leaders such as Vladimir Putting in Russia, the people’s verdict in Britain for Brexit and the subsequent policy attitude of the current British Prime Minister.

We see a similar uprising against international interference in countries like the Philippines. However, the people have spoken out in the United  States. The US focused more on international matters regardless of its people engulfed in a myriad of social problems. In the name of internationalism, the US pried severely into the internal affairs of helpless countries.

It was clear how Hilary Clinton was hostile to the interests of Sri  Lanka. The US citizens rejected that approach. On the one hand, the US was fighting against manifestation of terrorism on its soil. On the other hand, the US was aiding terrorism in other countries.

Q  What is your experience in dealing with the US? 

mahinda-hitlerWhen the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa went before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance in post-war development activities, the US, Hilary Clinton and the group for that matter, placed hurdles in our way. On behalf of the government, I, along with the then Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, went before the IMF. First, we went to the US State Department, where we were subjected to insolence and insults. Despite such hostility, we engaged with the countries friendly towards us and secured some IMF assistance. We did not succumb to any condition that entailed disastrous consequences to the country.

When I met with one official at the State Department, he referred to a news report published in a Sri Lankan English daily. That was about President Rajapaksa vowing not to bow down to any unreasonable condition. Referring to it, he asked how a loan could be raised from a bank without accepting its terms and conditions. He questioned if there would be any bank in the world surrendering to customer demands in granting loans. Yet, I replied that Sri  Lanka would not agree to any loan if the set conditions were unreasonable from our point of view. Accordingly, we secured a Standby Arrangement with the IMF under conditions reasonable to us. We got it.
They even offered it for the second time, but we said no because we had turned around the economy to a level by that time. Today, we see the US citizens themselves rejecting such attitudes of their government towards smaller nations.

Q  In that sense, do you think the US policy towards Sri Lanka will change under the new President elect? 

More than that, I think the government of Sri  Lanka should look at the US from a different perspective. We should no longer be subservient to the US. Even Americans do not favour it. The lesson we should learn from it is that a country’s foreign policy should be handled according to national interests. At least now, the government leaders of Sri Lanka should not get carried away by the niceties shown by some world leaders, hosting them for a meal or removing hand glows when speaking. We believe they would not cow down to international power blocs. Rather, the country’s sovereignty should be upheld. We should have a change of policy attitudes here.

Q  Then, what is the kind of role the US played in the final stage of the war here?

At one point, the US cooperated with us in combating terrorism. We, in fact, secured that support in the beginning. For example, we received their cooperation to locate some arm-smuggling ships of the LTTE. I, functioning from the Presidential Secretariat, coordinated that support in consultation with the then Navy Commander and the US Ambassador here. Thus, the US, in some way or another, assisted us in eliminating terrorism. 

But, during the latter part, it is doubtful if the US deviated from this original stance. Especially, their military aircrafts and naval crafts were brought close to Sri Lanka in a gesture for any intervention if the situation demanded. Actually, the US proposed to bring trapped families in the war front to Trincomalee by sea routes to be handed over. For that, the ICRC was proposed to be the facilitator. Although the US offered us transport facilities, the LTTE did not agree. We too had our own concerns in that regard. We wondered whether the LTTE would exploit this opportunity to re-organise militarily. 

Alongside, there were unjust demands from their end after peace was established. They became envious of us. We, as a small nation, successfully fought a ruthless terrorist outfit. When the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power came down to Sri  Lanka, I told her directly that she was jealous of Sri Lanka because they could not do many things we did. I told her, “you cannot secure your own Green Zone in Iraq, or even your own soldiers for that matter. After one and a half years, your President announced that the mission was accomplished. Yet, people are dying. But in Sri Lanka, we have finished the war.”

“When the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power came down to Sri  Lanka, I told her “you cannot secure your own Green Zone in Iraq, or even your own soldiers for that matter. After one and a half years, your President announced that the mission was accomplished. Yet, people are dying.” 

Then, I responded saying the US had all the sophisticated weaponry. The LTTE was the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world with its sea tiger and air wing. It even had underground submarines and an artillery unit.
After the war was ended, we built our economy. We achieved self-sufficiency in food crops such as rice. We contained inflation and reduced unemployment, and also built our reserves. We even received assistance from many other countries in the world. Furthermore, by the time I raised this matter with her, we had resettled as many as 80 per cent of displaced persons.

Q  How did you cooperate with India in pursuit of war efforts? 

Immediately after the formation of our government, the President, the Defence Secretary and everyone else realised that India’s assistance was fundamental to the military exercise. We became conscious of the importance of India’s cooperation. We did not foresee 100 per cent success without mutual understanding with India. There are examples for it. In the 1980s, the Wadamarachchi operation was making strides. But, it was halted due to India’s intervention. With India’s intervention only, the LTTE received military training.

Bearing that experience in mind, President Rajapaksa, soon after being elected to office, visited India and briefed its leaders on our intention. As a follow-up to this visit, I took charge of carrying forward this association. I recall the government of India had never issued a statement condemning the LTTE as a terrorist outfit by that time.

Secondly, India always said it would appear for a ‘united Sri  Lanka,’ not as a unitary state. The LTTE was referred to as militants. They were even called boys. For the first time, I managed to get India committed to declare the LTTE as a terrorist outfit to be eliminated at any cost. In fact, the government of India did it in a joint statement. India too committed to recognise the unitary status of Sri  Lanka and to stand for it.

When Tamil Nadu leaders such as Karunanidhi were fasting, I flew to India and met with the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, National Security Advisor N.K. Narayana and Foreign Secretary Shiv Sankar Menon to secure steadfast support for us.

In fact, we received it continuously.

We always kept India updated on developments at the highest level. We had a Troika comprising me, the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the then Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The three of us were in constant contact with Mr. Mukherjee, Mr. Narayana and Mr. Menon, who were similarly committed in India for the purpose. We met either here or there whenever it was necessary to discuss developments related to warfare.

We always had the support of India. It led to mutual understating between the two sides, and was certainly a source of strength.
In international fora, India cooperated with us. As a result, we were able to thwart attempts to pass resolutions on Sri Lanka at the behest of pro-LTTE elements during the war time. We received that support well up to 2009 /2010.

Q  A few days ahead of the conclusion of the war, a top-level Indian delegation comprising the officials you mentioned above arrived here. For what was it?

In a twist of destiny, the latter part of our war effort coincided with the elections in India. We finished off the war on May 19,  2009, and India had its elections just a couple of days before. The LTTE was using a human shield in the Northern warfront, slowing the military advance. They tried to give some hope for these people and asked them to be patient till the election was over in India. The LTTE leadership sustained some hope for these people for a brief period in this manner.

The Sri Lankan war effort was creating electoral compulsions in India. Hence, these officials came and met with President Rajapaksa. Subsequently, we took some steps backward in the military exercise. It was done with caution not to give any advantage to terrorists at the final stage. We agreed to certain requests by India to ward off electoral compulsions there. It was our duty.

We ceased the use of heavy weaponry in the warfront for a brief time. It was a boost for our friendship, and was no hindrance to achieving the final military target. If we had not taken such reconciliatory measures, we could have faced serious repercussions.

Indian intervention started with airdropping dhal and ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution during the time of J.R. Jayewardene as the President. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was also deployed here. We should not forget history. We got their support this time without making way for the repetition of that history.

Q  How do you look at the support from China, Pakistan and Russia? 

  • China always stood by us. Actually, we were able to strike a balance in our relationship between India and China. For that very reason, the then opposition UNP accused us of pitting one country against another. It is an unfounded allegation. These were the economically most-powerful nations at that time. Both of these countries were important for us in rebuilding our economy and eliminating terrorism. Of course, it is to our advantage that these countries are closely located to us.
  • Japan and South Korea too stood with us.
  • China assisted us militarily in the form of arms. It assisted mostly in the development of the country after the war. China never discriminated between the North and the South in extending their support. Some countries wanted to channel their aid only to the North. In addition to its support at the IMF, China supported us in demining activities as well. Other countries stepped forward only after that. Otherwise, they have stopped aid to us. We lost the GSP plus only after the war was over.
  • However, Pakistan and Russia helped us immensely in international fora. We commend it very much.

“We had a Troika comprising me, the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the then Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The three of us were in constant contact with Mr. Mukherjee, Mr. Narayana and Mr. Menon, who were similarly committed in India for the purpose “

Q  Leaving aside such international affairs during the war period, now that you have formed a new political party under the chairmanship of Prof. G.L. Peiris, what is the way forward for you? 

This is a response to public demand. We have to find a leadership for this party. This is a party being evolved from grassroot level. A party that evolves from village level will succeed. When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike directed such a party, he said he was only playing the role of midwife. The government, formed after independence, paid scant regard for the rights of people at the lower strata of society. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came into being in such a social context. We witness the identical political environment today. The two main parties have disregarded the general public. People need an organisational structure. The SLFP was relegated to the opposition in 1977. SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike was stripped of her civic rights. Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa is also victimised today.
In 1970, the UNP was defeated. But, Mr. Jayewardene started reorganising the party the very next day. We did the same after 1977. Today, there is no room because both parties have joined the government.
There are unique features in the Constitution of the new party. It is not the leader who is foremost. It is the member.

Q  How different is it to the SLFP? 

When a seed is sown, we get a plant. We are sowing an original seed. But, it will bring about hybrid yields. Apart from traditional SLFPers, we have attracted many from different walks of life. They have done politics earlier. People, disappointed with the UNP, also join with us. There is a nationalist element within some sections of the UNP. It was their right from the inception of it under D.S. Senanayake. This segment of the party puts the country before self. Whatever anyone might say, if not for colonisation schemes or settlements in areas such as Giradurukotte and Dehiattakandiya under the Mahaweli development scheme, there would have been more conflicts. Today, some stake a claim for the Moragahakanda irrigation scheme. There is one canal under the project to supply water to the Iranamadu Tank in the North. It is a benefit for people in the North. We carefully calculated it. Some try to give a separatist concept to it.

Q  When do you intend to launch the party? 

This is a party with a massive public support. We have registered three trade union federations. We are forming our Bhikkhu wing, a farmers’ organisation, an association of pre-school teachers and a lawyers’ wing. Then, we will have the party convention in the end. It will take us about three months to reach that level.

Q  How challenging is the task ahead as there are several court cases against you?

It has affected not only my political career but also my personal life. It is a painful situation. I am virtually under house arrest. I have been kept away from my wife, children and grandchildren. I could not see even the only baby born to my second daughter. Her first birthday was also over. But, I stand to such challenges. I receive enormous assistance from lawyers and other parties. People have also become a source of strength for me to stay courageous. Former President Rajapaksa is also encountering the same problem. All his family members are harassed. In the past, we witnessed post-election violence. After 1977, we observed the worst form of such violence with murders and arson attacks on houses. We witnessed it after the 2001 election.

Q  How do you respond to allegations levelled against you? 

Rather than talking about the legitimacy of such allegations, I would like to talk about the nature of them. In one instance, I was taken to task over the payment of gratuity to some employees. In the second instance, I was taken to task over the release of money for some people from their own deposits to build houses. It is from their compulsory savings. I was not involved in the distribution of such money. Actually, those serving in the current government are responsible for it. I only took a policy decision. In another instance, I was charged for giving flag poles.

“China always stood by us. Actually, we were able to strike a balance in our relationship between India and China. For that very reason, the then opposition UNP accused us of pitting one country against another”

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