“International assistance welcome”

But we do not need Trojan Horses

Last week saw quite an unprecedented spirit of jubilation and celebration among the people of Sri Lanka, at the conclusion of 30 years of bitter civil war. Enough of celebrations; now, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work – the immediate task at hand is to resettle the 250,000 people who have been displaced in the North, and rebuild the infrastructure, social networks and civil administration in the areas. Spearheading the operation resettlement is Senior Presidential Advisor and MP Basil Rajapaksa. Having had the experience of vast displacement in the 2004 tsunami, and having successfully resettled the majority of the displaced in the Eastern Province, Rajapaksa is confident, that resettling the people in the North will not be a formidable challenge. “I think, we have a good record in resettling those people. No other country can claim that kind of experience. Just like our brave security forces fought a record battle against terrorism – and being the only country to have done this type of thing – we also have a record in looking after these people and resettling them,” he said in an interview with The Nation. The only challenge he foresees in this monumental task is the extensive de-mining that has to be done, prior to rebuilding and resettling. In his message to the international community, in this crucial moment, he said, “If they are our genuine friends, then be our friends. We don’t want ‘monitors,’ we need partners. Be our partners in this task to help our people.”

By Vindya Amaranayake
Following are excerpts:
Q: As of now, what is the total number of displaced people in the North?
At the moment, there are about 250,000 displaced people.

Q: The displaced in the camps are not from one area of the country, they may be from various places and displaced several times during the course of the war. Will these people be able to return to their original place of residence?
Yes, definitely. It will be according to their will. As ordinary civilians, they have the right to live in any part of the country. Our responsibility, as the government, is to assist them, if they want to go back to their original places of residence. But, if they volunteer to settle in another place, we are not going to stop them. It is their choice.

Q: The displaced people may not be in possession of proper documents, for example, deeds to their properties. How are you going to identify their properties, in the process of resettlement?
That is not an issue at the moment. This IDP issue is not new to Sri Lanka. In the 2004 tsunami, we had a bitter experience. Almost all the coastal districts were affected, except a few in the west coast such as Mannar and Puttalam. Even Gampaha and Colombo Districts were affected. In the tsunami, people lost lives, properties and valuable documents as well. If we take the very recent history, a similar number – 250,000 – were displaced. I think, we have a good record in resettling those people. No other country can claim that kind of experience. Just like our brave security forces fought a record battle against terrorism – and being the only country to have done this type of thing – we also have a record in looking after these people and resettling them. We know how to do it. This is not a problem, because we have addressed the same issues in the Eastern Province as well. It does not matter what they have in their possession; if they are alive, that is all that matters. The President will give them back everything.

Q: Rebuilding does not only mean building new houses for the displaced. The entire civil structure, including electricity, water, hospitals, schools and transport, needs to be re-established.
That is exactly what the President has set out to achieve. That is exactly what we have done in the East. When the people of Vakarai left, there was no electricity, proper roads, places to live securely, schools, health facilities. But, when they went back after three months, there was everything waiting for them there. There were good roads, electricity, health facilities and now, they have the best school in the entire Eastern Province. They also have a livelihood programme, the village tank was reconstructed and the fishermen are given their own boats and nets. So, actually, we will ensure that when everybody in the North, return to their homes, they will go back to a place where there is security. That is the number one requirement. They will not have to fear anybody. They will have democracy. They will be able to think and talk freely. They will also have all the facilities; electricity, roads, schools, hospitals – all these will be provided. We are well experienced in doing this. The northern areas will be better than any other areas in the country. We are talking with such confidence because, we have done this before.

Q: What is the target date fixed for the completion of the entire project?
We must not stick to such a target, but ensure reaching the goal of resettlement. We have established a target. It is two-pronged. Just like in the Eastern Province, we will have a 180-day programme, that will conclude on December 31 of this year. Then, we will have another two-year programme. It is a mid-term programme, to ensure providing all the facilities. It is not resettling per se. It is a programme to strengthen the economy and establish democracy as well. This will be put to work over many tiers; on Provincial, District, Local Government, DS Division and also village level. There will be consultations in all areas. And the plan will be home-grown. We will consult the people in the North, some who are professionals living in Colombo and outside, all the people’s representatives, all the political parties as far as possible, all the Chambers, we will get the help of the Universities. We will discuss amongst all of them and work out the plan.

Q: There is a considerable number of Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu. What is the procedure for them to return to the country?
Actually, there were a fair number of people from the East there. They returned. So, I hope the others will also return. On the other hand, I don’t want to call them IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons. I’d rather call them ILPs, meaning, Internally Liberated People. They were in the clutches of the LTTE and now, they have been liberated. So, we must call them internally liberated people.

Q: Civil administration in the liberated areas has not been functioning for several decades. To what extent do you expect the assistance of the security forces in re-establishing administration?
This is a fact that not many people were aware; in all the areas under the LTTE’s control, the civil administration was still in place. Until the very last moment, we had AGAs and their staff there. Every administrative function was run by the government; the hospitals were maintained, funded, doctors’ nurses’ and other personnel’s salaries were paid by the government. The schools were maintained by the government. Other than the judiciary, election commission and the Police, the rest was there. Even the Banks were functioning; branches of the People’s Bank and the Bank of Ceylon were there. The LTTE had their own administrative system, but government civil administration still existed. That does not mean that democracy was there. Free voice was not there. Establishing that, is what we have to do now. The President has already instructed to hold Local Government elections there. Then, there should be Provincial elections, followed by electing representatives to Parliament. At present, those people’s views are not represented in Parliament. We have to have that. Before we resettle, the civil administration will start functioning. We have already established seven Police stations. And the democratisation process has to be there soon. That is very important. It cannot be done overnight. That is not under my purview. The President is directly in charge of the process of democratisation and finding a final solution. From our end, we will handle resettlement, development and security.
Security is very important. If there is no security, resettlement cannot take place. For example, if we invest in a tourist resort and the private sector establish hotels; and if a bomb goes off there and a tourist dies, the whole investment is gone. Also, for example, there is one recorded terrorist attack on US soil in history. That is 9/11. But still, they have very tight security there. That is good, because it prevented a second 9/11. So, we also cannot relax, saying that the war is over now. The US never took it easy after the attack. They did not relax. They strengthen and improve their security network daily. We have to look into everything: To achieve resettlement, development and establish democracy, there has to be security. It is the number one priority, not only in the North, but also in the entire country. We must understand that, we should not relax. Even in Britain, the worst terrorist attack came after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. So, we need to be vigilant.

Q: In that sense, the role of the security forces is not over yet?
Yes, the developed countries, even the small ones, take security very seriously. Consider countries which have never experienced a terrorist attack – particularly a country such as Singapore – it is seriously concerned of its security. They maintain a very good security force, and they allocate a significant percentage of their annual Budget for this purpose; their Defence Budget is very high. It has to be.

Q: The process of reconstruction and resettlement is a costly task. What is the estimated cost of this process?
I think it is premature to make an assessment at the moment. In fact, we are very confident that we can find the money. If the people of Sri Lanka and the government are willing to work towards it, we can make it happen. And it is not really a cost, it is an investment. Already, we have received the benefits of investing in the Eastern Province. I cannot give the figures now, because we are still in the stage of planning and identifying the priorities. We are confident, we can do it, and find the necessary funds.

Q: Do you expect assistance from the international community. If so, do you expect to appeal to only our traditional allies, or is the door open for every country?
I would say that the international community’s assistance is welcome, but, as in the Mahinda Chinthanaya policy statement, it has to be according to the wishes of the people of Sri Lanka, including those in the North. So, it will be according to what has been stipulated in the Mahinda Chinthanaya. It cannot be something outside that; if so, we will not accept it in that case.

Q: India has already declared that they are willing to lend a helping hand. Isn’t this a positive development?
Yes, India has come forward. I’m happy about it and most grateful to them. Not only India, but several other countries have also come forward. We will have discussions with them. And, if it is purely money, meant for the development of the people and the country, we will accept it. Otherwise, we will not. We have learnt our lesson. We will not forget. For the last 30 years, this country suffered. Our position is, we do not want Trojan Horses. We will not accept that.

Q: Certain European countries, critical of the government, if willing to grant aid, would want to channel their funds through NGOs what is the position of the Government towards such a scenario?
The channelling method has to be very carefully studied.

Q: What is your message to the international community, in this hour of urgent need to rebuild and resettle?
The international community must understand that it is we, the people of this country, who had to endure this problem. There is nobody else, who understands the repercussions and the sufferings than us. The suffering was not confined to the individual communities of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or the Burghers. Every single person in this country suffered. Not those who are outside the country. If a person has a wound in his body, only that person knows the pain of that wound. They must not be under the impression that, they are the pundits who know everything. That is what we expect the international community to understand.
The other thing is, if they are our genuine friends, then be our friends. We don’t want ‘monitors’, we need partners. Be our partners in this task to help our people. Also, most of the international community helped us in our fight against terrorism. The international community does not mean one or two countries. In certain countries, one or two representatives who criticised our government, do not represent the majority view of the people there. We know that, the people in those countries are very understanding and sympathetic to our cause. They know exactly what is happening in Sri Lanka, and they feel for the people in this country. We must not make judgments based on the statements made by one or two individuals. We have been friendly with every country in the world. So, some countries should not regard the defeat of the LTTE as their own defeat. Unfortunately, some people have felt that they have been defeated. But, we never defeated them, we only defeated terrorism.

Q: Over the past few days, the entire country was united in celebrating the end of the war. Most have expressed their desire to help the Government in its process of rebuilding. How do you expect to capitalise on this?
Actually, I’m very surprised and proud of the response of the people, not only in the southern parts of Sri Lanka, but also, all over the world. Whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher, they have all come forward. Even people who are not affluent, professionals, the private sector; everybody has come forward. So, we are devising a mechanism, to better utilise their support. They definitely have a role in the process of rebuilding. Also, we are not only thinking of the North, we have to think of Sri Lanka in its entirety. I was told by a certain political party leader, who represents the Indian Tamils in the estate sector, ‘Now, all of you are talking of the North, and we are forgotten. Why, because our youth didn’t take up arms? All of you are working towards solving that problem, and forgetting us.’ So, we must be very careful. While we concentrate on the North, because it was neglected more than the other parts of the country, we must also think of the entire country. We must address those issues as well. While we ensure rapid development in the North, we must also develop the other parts of the country. Mahinda Rajapaksa actually did this. While he was developing the Eastern Province, through the Negenahira Navodaya programme, he never forgot the villages. Under Maga Neguma and Gama Neguma programmes, every village in the country, whether they be in Uva, Wayamba or Sabaragamuwa. It shows in past election results, how grateful people are for that. We will not forget the other parts of the country.

Q: You have established a Task Force to expedite the resettlement process. Could you elaborate on that?
The mandate of the Task Force is to see the displaced people back in their homes and start their livelihood in a peaceful, secure and normal environment. And also, to present the Northern Province as the province of opportunity. So, every opportunity will be there for the people to rebuild their lives. That is what we hope to do. I know that, when we provide the opportunity, people of the North and the Wanni will take the maximum benefit out of it. So, they will contribute to our economy. And it will be one prosperous Province in the country.

Q: Do you expect the support of the Tamil political parties in reaching this goal?
Already, the President has invited Tamil political party representatives and other parties that represent members of the Tamil community, and we had two meetings. We have also invited civil society members representing Tamils. We have also met some members of the professional community. So, there will be very close consultations with Tamil political party members and Tamil representatives at all levels.

Q: There is an allegation that children have been abducted from IDP camps. Your observations?
That is a total lie. There cannot be any abductions in these relief villages. We don’t have camps, actually. That is a concept of the West. The villages have everything a village should have: They have banks, post offices, schools, health centres, counselling centres, playgrounds, youth centres. So, the concepts of President Rajapaksa are really in practice there. We could not establish all these facilities at all the relief villages, because suddenly, there was a great inflow of people, as the military liberated them, sooner than we actually thought it would happen. In some villages, we have formed IDP committees, so that, they could manage their own villages. In one village, there are about 10,000-15,000 people. I doubt, anything like abductions can take place, it is just rumours. However, not in the northern areas, where the recent displacement had taken place, but in some other place there have been incidents reported recently. I learnt that from the newspapers. Other than that, I don’t know much about it. If such a thing had occurred, I’m ceratin that, Law enforcement authorities there must have done the needful.

Q: This is a monumental task. What are the possible challenges that you expect to encounter when fulfilling this task?
As I said earlier as well, we have a good record. For the people and government of Sri Lanka, it is not a big task. We are very confident, and we will definitely fulfil this task. There is no challenge as such, the only challenge I see is de-mining. In the Eastern Province too, we had this problem. I must say that most of the de-mining activities have been done by the military. But suddenly, we had to release them for the northern operation. The Engineering Regiment of the military will be handling that task. Then, I’m also glad, that the Indian delegation that came on the 21st, who, on our request, agreed to provide us with four more de-mining teams – two teams are already here. Some other countries have already agreed to help us carry on de-mining activities in the northern areas. That is the only challenge I see, and there are no other problems for us.

I would like to stress on the point that, in Sri Lanka, we have a history of dealing with IDPs. And I’m proud to say, compared with the rest of the world, where IDPs and refugees have been living in camps for over 50-60 years, without receiving any assistance, we have been quite successful. I’m also proud to say that, under President Rajapaksa, we have a record of resettling the displaced populations, much sooner than any other country in the world. The first displaced people were from Dutuwewa, Anuradhapura, then Kebithigollewa, after that Serunuwara. All of them are Sinhalese. Now, they are all resettled. Then came the 40,000 displaced from Mutur. This is a Muslim population. We resettled them within 44 days. Then, there were the displaced from Ichalampattu, Vakarai, Verugal etc. They were resettled within three months. Altogether, within nine months, we were able to resettle all these people. We have a very small percentage left in the Eastern Province – most of them are there due to personal reasons. Some of them have been living in Batticaloa Town and now, they don’t want to go back to Toppigala or other areas in the Eastern Province.

The first displaced people in the North are from the Aruppuwa, Silawathura areas. These people are being resettled now. We have a policy of ‘first to displaced, first to be resettled.’ We have already started this process, even before the military operation was concluded. We started on April 30. So, I must say, our resettlement records are the best in the world. And we also have the record of defeating a brutal terrorist organisation. I think we will be able to break our own record in resettling the people in the North.