Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka, former Army officer and brother of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was largely seen as the driving force behind Sri Lanka’s Eelam War IV that decimated the Tamil Tigers and ended an intense, quarter century long civil war in the island nation in 2009.
Considered a hardliner in the recently ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya has been accused variously of war crimes, of militarising the Sri Lankan society, of driving Colombo into Chinese arms and much more in the nearly nine years that he headed Sri Lanka’s defence ministry.
|Gotabaya Rajapaksa (centre) as Defence Secy|
Gotabaya, who lived in the US before returning to Sri Lanka in 2005 to help his brother fight the LTTE, has been under intense pressure from the new Sri Lankan government that is probing various acts of omission and commission allegedly committed by the previous regime.
Exactly a month after the Rajapaksas lost power in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya agreed for his first detailed interview with me on email. Although one short interview is not enough to understand the man and his action–“I have to be careful these days,” he says–here’s a short glimpse into his thought process and actions. Excerpts.
Q: You handled the Sri Lanka’s security apparatus for a long time. How do you react to the charge that your government has left the country more militarised? That you created a military disproportionate to Sri Lanka’s size?
Ans: We did not leave the country ‘militarised’ as you say. Quite the contrary would be true in fact. The Sri Lankan military establishment was expanded during the war to the extent that was necessary to win the war against terrorism. You have to remember that the terrorists that we were up against in Sri Lanka were categorised even by the FBI as the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation. Defeating such an organisation was no easy task. It took an integrated land, sea and air offensive to defeat the LTTE. One of the key requirements was to have enough manpower to hold the territory that the ground forces wrest from the control of the terrorists. We expanded the military for that purpose. But after the war there was no more expansion. Furthermore, after the war, we did not allow any of the anti-LTTE armed groups in the north and east to carry weapons any more. If we wanted to, we could have allowed the anti-LTTE and anti-TNA groups in the north and east to continue to carry weapons on the excuse that there were over 11,000 rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadres around, and therefore weapons were necessary to ensure the protection of the anti-LTTE groups. If these groups had continued to bear arms the whole voting pattern in the north and east would be different. It was we who brought freedom from armed conflict and terror to the north and east as well as the rest of the country. Today people are free to vote for whoever they like because of the achievements of our government.
Q: Have you left the country polarised?
Ans: I don’t think so. We were in government, so people opposed us and politically motivated people don’t usually say good things about their political opponents. Some say that we left the country polarised. There was no question about the fact that we had to take on the LTTE. But that was not a war against the Tamil people. It was we who liberated the Tamil people from the LTTE. When the Tigers were around where the Tamil people ever able to vote freely at elections? At the presidential elections held in 2010, the Tamil people of the north and east have voted in large numbers for the army commander who served in our government during the war. At the 2015 presidential elections, the Tamil people of the north and east once again voted for the cabinet minister who held the position of acting minister of defence when the president went overseas during the war. That should be sufficient proof that we did not leave the country polarised.
Q: Your critics allege that the President Mahinda and you ran Sri Lanka like a dictatorship with midnight raids, surveillance and intimidation of opposition being a common occurrence. How do you respond to these accusations?
Ans: Sri Lanka was never a dictatorship. We are a democracy and under the government that I served in, we held the most free and fair elections ever held in this country. After 2005 when our government was first elected to power there were elections almost every year. All those elections were free and fair. We lost the 2015 presidential election because the election was free and fair. As for these midnight raids, there may have been night time searches during the war, but never after that. This talk of surveillance and phone tapping is a figment of some people’s imagination. During the tenure of my government, none of the opposition parties were harassed or persecuted in any manner. On the contrary, the president had cordial relations with politicians of all opposition parties. The lines of communication were always open which is why so many members of the opposition joined our party at various times. Even a vociferous critic of our government like Mangala Samaraweera was on the verge of joining our government when he was having problems in the UNP. That was possible because there was never any enmity between our government and members of the opposition.
Q: Nearly six years after Eelam War IV got over, looking back would you have done anything differently?
Q: As defence secretary you took a decision to source most of your military hardware from China over the past decade. Was it a conscious move or was your hand forced by India’s reluctance to help you?
Ans: All Sri Lankan governments since the war began in the 1980s sourced most of their arms and ammunition from China. That continued under our government as well. When the final phase of the war began in 2006 under our government, India was unable to sell us arms because of pressure from Tamil Nadu. If it was possible to buy weapons from India we would certainly have done so. I explained the situation to Vijay Singh my counterpart in New Delhi at that time. He too agreed that given the situation that Sri Lanka finds itself in, she has no option but to buy arms supplies from whoever is willing to supply them.
Q: There was a period between 2006-08 when you had an excellent rapport with the Indian establishment but somewhere closer to the end of the war, the relationship seemed to have deteriorated? What really went wrong? If you can elaborate a bit?
Ans: I would say that the relationship with India remained on a very good footing until the war ended and even beyond. In the last few years however India may have misunderstood Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. We have always had excellent relations with China. In the last few years, a number of projects were initiated with concessionary loans from China. I think Indian policymakers misread this as a sign of Sri Lanka drifting into the Chinese orbit.
Q: How important was India’s help in your fight against LTTE?
Ans: India’s understanding of the issues faced by Sri Lanka during the war was crucial. On a mutual agreement we formed groups of key officials on both sides called ‘troikas’ with the external affairs secretary, defence secretary and national security advisor on the Indian side and myself as the defence Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga the secretary to the president and my brother Basil Rajapaksa as the advisor to the president on the Sri Lankan side. The members of these troikas could phone one another at any time of the day or night and Basil kept the Indian side informed about everything that was happening at the ground level in Sri Lanka. India was also aware of the threat that the LTTE posed to India as well. So this understanding helped.
Q: Were you disappointed with India’s stand at the UNHCR?
Ans: I feel that India should have stood by Sri Lanka in the UNHRC given the fact that she had a policy of not supporting country specific resolutions in the UNHRC. But given the pressure that Tamil Nadu was able to exert on the Indian central government at that time, I understand that India did not have much of a choice.
Q: How important is India’s support and friendship for Sri Lanka?
Ans: India’s friendship and support is very important to Sri Lanka. It is a matter of regret that India appears to have thought otherwise. There have been tensions between India and China for many decades, but Sri Lanka has traditionally had close relations with both nations. Sri Lanka’s relationship with China has always been of an economic nature. The docking of Chinese submarines in the Colombo harbour was only for re-supplying and not for any military purpose.
Q: Do you fear retribution by the new regime in Sri Lanka or even a witch hunt by Western nations now that you are no longer in power?
Ans: I do not fear any retribution from any quarter or Western witch hunts. We knew the risks involved when we took on the LTTE despite resistance from interested nations. We fought terrorism to a finish because that was our duty by our nation. The people of Sri Lanka still appreciate the sacrifices we made and the risks we took. Getting voted into office or voted out of office is a different matter. Churchill too was voted out of office soon after he won world war II but that did not mean that the British public did not appreciate the leadership he had provided during the war.
Q: Is there a possibility that LTTE rump or sympathisers of Tamil Eelam may try and make a comeback in Sri Lanka?
Ans: When we were in power, we were always vigilant about such a possibility. That vigilance has to continue. India too should be on her guard against any attempt by Tamil separatist forces to set up a base in Tamil Nadu. Tamil separatist ideology came to Sri Lanka through Tamil Nadu and Tamil separatism has a much longer history in India than it does in Sri Lanka. India made a bad mistake by encouraging Tamil terrorist groups in the 1980s. India should be careful about sending the wrong signals to the wrong people once again.