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Interviews


Anura wishes Nirupama Ďgood luckí

ďAs long as sheís out of our hands!Ē

Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike has been a big player in local politics since the 1970s, leading the party when the SLFP was reduced to eight seats in Parliament in the 1980s and his mother stripped of her civic rights. During the tenure of his sister, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Bandaranaike served a short term as Speaker of Parliament, even though at the time, he was a member of the main opposition, UNP. Mr. Bandaranaike stole the spotlight in the political theatre once more recently, when he made adverse remarks about Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao, who was soon afterwards transferred to Beijing. A member of the founding family of one of the countryís main political parties, Mr. Bandaranaike shared his views on the ethnic conflict, the transfer of Ms. Rao and the problems within his Ministry with The Nation this week.

By Keith Noyahr
Following are excerpts:
Q: Prabhakaran has responded positively to the government call for a personal commitment from him before talks. What is the next step now for the government?
A: Has he responded? Well the government in my view Ė I donít know what the government will do Ė but in my view, first of all it should find out from the UNP the maximum they are willing to go and then the other parties also and then come up with our views because our views are relevant. My personal view is that we should seriously consider a federal form of devolution. That is my personal view; I donít know what the othersí views are.
Q: In 2000 President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe reached almost a 90% agreement on a package for devolution. Do you think that is where this administration should also start?
A: It is a good starting point. The maximum we can go within a united Sri Lanka is a federal form of government. There is no question of division of the country; that is out of the question. And this is something we should seriously look at because I donít think the LTTE will accept anything less than that. If Prabhakaran has given his personal commitment Ė and I donít know how much that is worth Ė at the end of the day. However if he has given his commitment if we assume he is serious Ė and I emphasise Ė assume, I will accept no promises from them. Assume that it is genuine then we should seriously negotiate on that. This is what the Indians and the Co-chairs have been telling us to do. And apart from what they are telling us to do, that is what we could do. My father proposed this in 1937.
Q: You are of the opinion that strict conditions Ė such as the laying down of arms and even the talksí venue Ė should not be placed on the LTTE at this stage?
A: Laying down arms is out of the question because they will not accept it. If we put that down as a condition that means we donít want to talk. And that should not be the case. I said so openly in parliament. And the venue also should not be a problem. Those are mundane matters. There must be a total ceasefire agreement, definitely. That has been the case throughout all the talks. Asking them to lay down arms is absurd.
Q: But given the LTTEís history of assassinations, stockpiling and recruitment during peace processes, should not there be a bar of some kind on this activity before the government commits to talks?
A: Yes, it should certainly stop. All activities of hostilities on both sides must stop. The refugees on both sides must be allowed to go back to their homes. Those are realistic conditions and necessary conditions. Now those Muttur Muslims have been asked to move out again. And here I must make a point Ė that the Muslims must be an integral part of the talks. Which no government has ever done before.
Q: Are you advocating tri-partite talks?
A: Yes I am Ė with a wide representation of Muslims, not only the SLMC.
Q: Do you think the Karuna faction should also be given representation at the talks as they have demanded?
A: I think if the Karuna factor is brought in, the LTTE will not come. I think we should leave that alone for the moment. If you bring in the Karuna factor, the talks will not get off the ground. It is worse than asking them to lay down arms. It simply wonít work. But there should be a total cessation of hostile action and the bringing in of weapons on both sides. Also the representation of the Muslims, it must be ensured that this happens.Coming back to federalism, both your father and your sister advocated this as a solution. But today, federalism has become the dirtiest word in the Sinhala lexicon and perceived as a stepping stone to a separate state. Your comments please.The lexicon of some Sinhalese, anyway. India is a federal state. The United States is a federal state. Canada is a federal state. There has been no break away in any of these countries, so why should there be a break away only here? You see, what I told the Indian Minister here was that the Indian system is very good, but we canít take it 100%. We are another country and another situation, a country with a smaller population. So we have to adapt it to our situation. He fully appreciated it.
Q: What is Indiaís role in the peace process?
A: This is a misconception which has been created by the press. Public opinion is that India has a role to play but India will not play that role. Thy have told that to my sister, they have told me as Foreign Minister, they told Mr. Wickremesinghe and they told Minister Kadirgamar and now to President Rajapaksa. That they are not going to get involved in the Sri Lankan problem, they will not even act as mediators or moderators, which is what President Rajapaksa went and asked them to do. They are very clear on that and they told this to the former President as well. That they will not act as moderators, they want us to negotiate through Norway, they will not help us militarily, which has been reiterated by the Indian Minister of Defence, Mr. Pratap Mukherjee and they have said that they stand for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the maximum form of devolution. That is Indiaís official position and they wonít change it.
Q: India enjoys great leverage with the two southern parties do you think they want a consensus on the part of the UNP and the SLFP?
A: They tried hard with President Premadasa and also with Mr. Wickremesinghe to try and forge a consensus on this. They may play a role in this which is very good and welcome. Because you see, 85% of the Sinhala vote is with these two parties. So a vast majority of the people are with us.
Q: Having said that, what about the progress of the SLFP-UNP talks?
A: Iím not a part of it, but from what I hear from sources attending, is that they are progressing quite well. Of course there could be a break-down at any point, but I hope it wonít happen.
What are the steps that can be taken to ensure that this break down wonít happen? Since however much you talk to the LTTE it wonít serve a purpose if the UNP walks out.
That is a matter for the President really. Because he is the one who initiated the talks, which is a good thing and it is up to him to ensure that they donít break down. And if he asks for my advice I will tell him so. He hasnít done this so far. I refused to be involved in the talks, because if anything goes wrong they will say Anura was supporting the UNP or Ranil. I washed my hands off it.
Q: At the last Presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe promised to work together with the SLFP. Now that the President has invited the UNP donít you think he is bound to work together?
A: Thatís why he is coming for the talks.
But there is speculation that he has some reservations.
About the role of the government? I think the President is sincere about it. I donít think our whole party is for it but certainly a majority of the SLFP is for it. They also realise that this is a serious matter. We have reached the end of the road virtually on the ethnic problem. So any sensible SLFPer would approve of it. And any sensible UNPer would also approve of it. You see you canít afford to play political games with this issue any further. This is what both parties have been doing since 1956.
Q: Any alliance with the UNP will sideline the JVP who have put forward several conditions to ally with the SLFP again. What are your comments?
A: The JVP has to see sense. The JVPís conditions are absurd. There is no question of getting Norway out now, the President has said so very clearly. There is no question of breaking the ceasefire. And there is no question of asking them to lay down arms. The breaking of the ceasefire- they must think about the larger interests of the country rather than think of a vote bank.
Q: The JVP leader has made a sweeping statement likening the SLFP to a prostitute. As a member of the partyís founding family, what are your comments?
A: Yes, well of course it is an insult to the entire SLFP. To my sister, to Mr. Rajapaksa and all of us who are in the SLFP - to every member of the SLFP. If the SLFP was a prostitute then the majority of the country wouldnít vote for us and give the country for us to rule. My sister won 12 of the 13 elections during that time, including two presidential elections. So the party that is equalled to a prostitute has enormous powers. The whole SLFP is up in arms, so it will not be easy to forge an alliance after this statement. I have nothing against the JVP; I am the one who first proposed a marriage with the party when the whole party opposed it. It was only myself and Mr. Mangala Samaraweera who were for it at the time. We believed there was a contribution for them to make. They are young, energetic and they are committed. And I thought since they had now entered the democratic process, we might as well make use of them to help the country. That was the basis I went on. That was obviously not on their agenda. Theirs was something very different.
Q: Your own political track record Ė you have also changed from party to party over the years. You fell out with your mother at first and joined the UNP. Could you explain your shift of allegiances?
A: I never fell out with my mother. Certain elements of the SLFP, whose names I will not mention here, because some of them are still in the cabinet, plotted to get me out of the party in 1993. That is why we had to go to court, Mr. Maithripala Senanayake, myself, Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, now senior advisor to the President, Mr. Wijesiri Ė a vast number of SLFPers were taken to court because we were sacked from the party without even an inquiry. You canít sack people from a political party without an inquiry. So that is completely wrong and so I thought that if they didnít want me I would get out of politics and then the UNP invited me and I joined them. After my motherís death Ė you said I had changed parties several times whereas I changed parties only once and both parties were founded by my father so it was just a case of switching homes. The SLFP and the UNP are very similar in everything they do Ė from corruption to good rule. So when my mother died the President wanted me to come back because she needed someone to assist her and so I joined her and became Speaker. I became Speaker three days after my motherís funeral. President Rajapaksa knows very well why I had to leave the SLFP. He supported me that time.
Q: The mantle of party leadership slipped out of the Bandaranaikesí hands. Do you think that it will affect the party in any way?
A: No. It had to move out from us at some point or the other. Both my niece and my nephew are doctors and have no intention of coming back to Sri Lanka, especially not after what happened to their father and then their mother, who nearly died in a bomb blast. They are too horrified even to come here. So with me, the end of the Bandaranaikes will begin. After Mr. Rajapaksa someone else will have to take over. Thatís how it goes. Now after Dudley Senanayake, JR took over, then Premadasa, then Gamini. So it has to pass from one hand to another. If we all die tomorrow morning from some viral flu or the other, the SLFP is not going to end. They will find a new leader.
Q: The SLFP has always relied on coalitions to win elections. Could you tell us why?
A: The left vote is divided. The SLFP is actually centre left. Those terms are now irrelevant. The SLFP has moved right, the UNP has moved left, so we have both come to the centre now. There is no difference between the two parties now. The BJP was considered the right-wing bastion. The Congress was considered the socialist party. But if you look at the Indian situation today, the Congress is advocating the open economy more than the BJP. So we have had to form alliances with the LSSP, CP and also the JVP because otherwise the Left vote is broken. But the last Pradeshiya Sabha election saw a very interesting result as you know. We won 200 odd local government councils and the JVP only won one. The UNP won about 10 or 15. And we contested alone.
Q: Your own ministry has been in the middle of a controversy. There is a problem between you and your secretary. Could you tell us more about this?
A: I canít work with him and I have told the President this. In fact he was transferred out by the President when he took over and I stopped the transfer. I called the President from London and told him to stop the transfer because I thought this man was okay. But it was after this that I found him leaking all kinds of stories to a particular newspaper that I shall not mention. I have pulled him up several times on that. And then he botched up my visit to Nepal which was a big loss for Sri Lanka, because that is where I would have clinched this Buddhist trail which we were working on very hard to bring in Chinese tourists. All the tourist ministers of India, Nepal and China were there except us, so the Ministry lost a golden opportunity.
Q: He failed to inform the Presidential Secretariat?
A: He did not inform them. The normal procedure is that I write to the President and then the Secretary follows up. I wrote to the President and there was no reply, so I told him to follow it up which he didnít do. As you know he was sacked by Mr. Thondaman too, although he belongs to the same community. He was sacked within 24 hours. And the grandson threw him out physically. I am much too refined to do that. I wrote to go he has not, so I wrote to the President and asked him to remove the Secretary.
Q: What about the Tourist Board crisis following the Treasury take over of the Cess Fund? Has the President responded to your request to give it back?
A: I have not requested, the Tourist Board has requested. The Cess fund was begun by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and continued by my sister thereafter and we were doing all the propaganda work, countering the anti-Sri Lanka propaganda in the West. We were managing all that with the Cess Fund so it was no burden on the Treasury at all. Now what the President has done is taken the Cess Fund and appointed a three member committee to monitor it. Which is alright, I have no objection to that. They are the Presidentís Secretary, Secretary to my ministry, and the Chairman of the Tourist Board, to monitor the outflow of funds. As far as I am concerned that is excellent. It is better than one person monitoring it. But this is where I find the secretary playing games. The Tourist Board Chairman has written several letters on this already. So I think they are doing something about it now.
Q: Your comments about the outgoing Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao created some controversy. Now that she is on her way out, could you tell us a little more about this matter?
A: I have said what I have had to say about her in parliament and I donít wish to say anything further because she has been transferred out. I think that although they say that my speech had nothing to do with it, I understand from the Foreign Service in India with which I maintain contact, that the things I said about the friendship between the Bandaranaikes and the Nehrus have had an effect on that. I was very polite to her during the Ministerís visit, after all it was her Minister. But I wish to say nothing more about her because she is going off. And when an ambassador or High Commissioner goes you donít have to see them again. There are no hard feelings, I donít agree with what she has done, but I wish her good luck - as long as sheís out of our hands!