Claiming that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India conspired with “Western agencies” CIA and MI-6 to rally the opposition led by President Maithripala Sirisena against his presidency, Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa says he does not, however, believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the government was responsible.
In an exclusive interview to The Hindu , his first to any Indian media organisation since his surprise defeat in the presidential polls in January, Mr. Rajapaksa says he raised concerns with the government over his belief of a conspiracy. “I said the man [RAW station chief] who is here in Colombo, should be moved out. They agreed, but only at the very last minute before the election, and by then it was too late,” he said at his residence in Colombo.
In January, a report by international news agency Reuters had claimed that an Indian intelligence official at the Indian Embassy in Colombo had been recalled over allegations he was part of a plan to unite and organise the opposition to President Rajapaksa. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had categorically denied that the transfer of the official was anything but routine, and “in natural course.”
While Mr. Rajapaksa alluded to the “RAW hand” in Sri Lankan politics in interviews to Dawn and South China Morning Post , this is the first time he has spelt out his accusation, saying that the plan to try and oust him began “two years ago”.
When asked pointedly if he felt the RAW was working under political guidance, he said, “No, no. I’ve never accused Mr. Modi.
“Because he only came in less than a year ago. It was a long term plan. They misunderstood me over the Chinese question. And that is why they planned this,” he added.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s comments come hours ahead of Mr. Modi’s visit to Colombo, where he is expected to meet the former President. Sources said the meeting was sought by Indian officials on behalf of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Modi met with President Rajapkasa three times last year, including the last meeting — reportedly very cordial — during the SAARC summit after the release of five Indian fishermen on death row in Sri Lanka.
Confirming that he will meet with Mr. Modi on March 14, Mr. Rajapaksa said, “Yes, I met him three times before. When he comes to my country, I felt I must meet him.”
Mr. Modi’s visit comes at a time of speculation in Sri Lanka over when parliamentary elections would be held by Mr. Sirisena. Under Sri Lanka’s system, while the Presidential poll is a direct contest between individuals, the Prime Minister is elected through Members of Parliament. This could lead to the hypothetical scenario of Mr. Rajapaksa, who still belongs to President Sirisena’s party, the SLFP, returning to government if he were to win enough support from MPs.
Fuelling the speculation are Mr. Rajapaksa’s daily meetings with the public, while two big public rallies have been held in his absence by his supporters.
In the interview to The Hindu , Mr. Rajapaksa would not confirm that he was considering a political comeback, but was angered by the cases filed by Mr. Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe against his family members and associates. “If they didn’t, I would have just supported this government. But now they want to probe, put us in jail, take our passports without any evidence. How can I retire like this? I never said I would retire. At the moment I am taking a rest.”
Full transcript of interview with former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa by Suhasini Haidar.
This was an election you were so confident about; you called them ahead of time. What do you think contributed to your defeat?
I misjudged the North and the East vote. In the South I have won, but I didn’t expect the North and East vote to go this way. Even in provincial elections, the turnout of people had been 55%, this time it was over 80%, I don’t know how. When I saw that, I knew that I am going to lose.
You are saying it was the high turnout in the North and the East, but you lost votes across several groups….the rural population, the poor, minorities all felt cut out of your regime?
That’s not correct, in the southern areas I have won, in the south province, in Uva, north central, north-western province we won, but lost our majority.
Once you knew you were losing what did you do? Because the government has alleged, specifically the Foreign Minister Samaraweera accused you of trying to use the Army to ensure you stayed in power?
No that is nonsense. As I told the Vatican cardinal who called me, and asked what would happen if I lose….I said within 5 minutes, I will leave. And I left. This government wants to throw mud at me. I mean how can you start a coup with every other government being within two hours to thwart any attempt by me? I think they were speaking to Western governments and they had this idea about me.
You have said the election was a betrayal. What did you mean? Who betrayed you?
My own people left me, one night they were eating hoppers with me, the next morning they had left. I couldn’t imagine it. But this had been going on for two years.
Rajapaksa accuses RAW
You’re saying the betrayal was from President Sirisena and other members of your government. Yet in an interview to the Dawn newspaper of Pakistan and SCMP of China you implicated RAW for what happened in Sri Lanka...do you believe that?
Not only RAW but also the Western agencies, working together, possibly for the first time. (Laughs).
It sounds like a conspiracy theory, what is the proof you have against them?
It was very clear, and if you ask them they will say yes. They won’t deny it.
The Indian government has denied it.
Officially yes. But agencies are active in this region.
Are you saying the election was rigged?
No, I think it was a free and fair election at least as far as I could tell.
So without putting words in your mouth is what you’re saying is that the coming together of the opposition against you was facilitated by RAW and other Western agencies?
In India, the RAW works under political guidance, so are you saying there was a political sanction for this? Are you accusing the Indian government under Prime Minister Modi?
No. I’ve never accused Mr. Modi. Because he only came in less than a year ago. It was a long-term plan. They misunderstood me over the Chinese question. And that is why they planned this. When they would ask me, I said I have a duty for the development of my people. I won the war, and my next step for economic development.
I do want to come to the Chinese question, but first, in the interview you gave you said: “It was very open, Americans, the Norwegians, Europeans were openly working against me. And RAW. You said you asked the Indians, why are you doing this? “Who did you ask, and what was the reply?
I don’t think I ever said that.
But did you take up your concerns with India that you felt RAW was working against you? What was the response?
I did. I said the man (RAW station chief) who is here in Colombo, should be moved out. They agreed, but only at the very last-minute before the election, and by then it was too late.
The last time you and Mr. Modi met at the SAARC summit in Colombo, he wished you good luck with the elections…now as he comes to Sri Lanka…will you be meeting him?
Yes, I met him three times before. When he comes to my country, I felt I must meet him.
Failed promises to Tamils, China’s entry
India said you failed to keep promises to Tamils, and you allowed China strategic influence in the region. Compared to 2009, where did India-Sri Lankan ties go wrong?
India changed its policy and voted against me under the influence of the West at the Human Rights Council in 2012, and that was a shock to me. I think it was a misunderstanding over the China issue.
There was a specific incident even with the Modi government, when you had a Chinese submarine dock here twice. That wasn’t a misunderstanding, surely?
Well, when a Chinese vessel comes through here they generally inform the Indian embassy in China. They must have done this time too. Everybody knew about it. And then after going out west towards the Maldives, it returned this way again. It was that simple.
If it was that simple, why was it so hard to clear the misunderstanding?
I guess they wanted an issue.
India’s relations with new government
In contrast, the relations with the new government seem vastly improved - four major visits in less than two months. How do you see this?
I think its good and I wish them well. Our government was never antagonistic to India. I always tried to get India’s support. Before I offered anything to any other country, it was offered to India. The harbour, port in Hambantota, the airport there, the port on Colombo, they were always informed, but they never bid for it.
Given the new relationship, I wanted to ask you your comments on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe’s remarks on Sri Lanka's right to shoot Indian fishermen if they trespass?
I can’t understand why he said this. He is a mature politician; I was very surprised to hear this came from him. I’ve always said you can’t blame fishermen because they always follow the fish. Indian government would arrest our people, one even died in prison. When we started arresting them, we would keep them for a few weeks and then release them. We wanted to discourage them. Unfortunately it was the trawlers that did bottom trawling that became the problem. This was introduced by the Norwegians. They gave us multi-day boats, but gave India bottom trawlers, that finished the Indian sea belt. It is very unfair that the government allows Indian fishermen to do this to Sri Lankan fishermen, most of whom were Tamils.
At the same time the new government’s ties with China seem strained…how do you view the suspension of Colombo Port City?
They shouldn’t have done this. My view is we wont get a port city deal like this in a hundred years.
But the government says you had no environmental clearances for it, you were giving away land sovereignty to this Chinese company. Also allegations of corruption against your regime and the port authority as well.
They have to prove that. The Chinese President came and set this up. You have to respect that. Tomorrow Mr. Modi will be here to inaugurate projects. What if some next government comes and says no we will not allow this, we can’t do that. Whether it is China India or the U.S., the principle is wrong. I deny this was a pro-China move
Charges against Rajapaksa and family
There are several court cases against your family now. Your brother has had his passport impounded, your son questioned, corruption allegations are you worried?
This is just harassment. They had to withdraw the case against my son. If there is any charge they can take me to court. The case against my brother involves a legal armoury that signed a contract with the Navy. Forget that he is my brother. He was the defence secretary with authority to do this. Is every decision going to be questioned like this?
You can dismiss these charges, but the most serious charge of war crimes remains. In the U.K., President Sirisena has agreed to start a war crimes investigation…
They can…who said not to. My instructions to former Army chief Sarath Fonseka were very clear, no matter what he says now, is that not a single civil casualty should be there.
Yet thousands of civilians died, thousands went missing, and no action was taken…
They’ve never proven that. We held several inquiries. We put the LLRC into place.
Yet you never accepted its recommendations….
We monitored the ministry doing that. But it had some recommendations on having two national anthems for example, to which I said nothing doing.
There was the allegation you were always surrounded by a coterie, that every member of your family had a position…your brothers, your son.
So what? My son was elected…There have been Rajapaksas in public life since 1931. Sometimes there have been no Rajapaksas. In 1977, I lost badly, that’s why I am happy to wait right now, take up another challenge. I’m used to it.
Coming to your political plans… you’ve been meeting the public, two rallies have been held in your name, a group of politicians calling for your return, are you ready for another fight? A comeback?
Not yet. I’ve seen many leaders losing before, but I have been surprised this time by how many people have come to see me after I lost, to ask me to come back. You can come to my home in the mornings and see. I have not decided.
What would make your decision?
Well see, I gave the party to President Sirisena. And see what they did. They harassed my party people. They sacked all the people we gave jobs to. These are the things that agitate us. If they didn’t, I would have just supported this government. But now they want to probe, put us in jail, take our passports. They have no evidence. How can I retire like this? I never said I would retire. At the moment I am taking a rest.
If you were to come back to power…what would you do differently?
I think in these two months I have seen many of the mistakes I made in my ten years. And I could have done much more. People may not have appreciated the work we did, but now I think they do. Because there is no development going on. Everything has stopped.
That’s as far as development goes, how about the war against the LTTE? Since this an emotive issue in India. Would you have done the war differently?
No. I did try to talk to the LTTE. I said I will come to your territory to talk. But I had to go ahead with the war. I couldn’t stop once we began. That hadn’t worked in the past. I was fighting a terrorist. The most dangerous brutal terrorist in the world, who created suicide bombs. Or we would have faced attacks everyday.
If war crimes were committed in the process, who should take responsibility?
Then we must find out who did them. You don’t ask during a war, but after it is over. We have taken some action when there were specific charges.
So to come back to that question, if you were to return to government, would you do things differently?
We must wait and see if that happens.