Threat of terrorism is not so obvious today but it is every bit as serious as during the war’
In an interview with the Dailymirror Prof. G. L. Peiris, the Minister of External Affairs, spelled out the reasons why the country needs an executive presidential system and responded to the allegations and criticisms leveled against his ministry.
What are your reasons for maintaining that the country needs an executive presidential system?
The need of the hour is a strong and effective government. It is abundantly clear that terrorism could have never been eradicated from this country in the absence of a strong executive. During the war, the nature and the gravity of the threat was very obvious to everyone – the general atmosphere of intimidation which prevailed in the country. Today the threat is equally serious but not so obvious.
On what basis do you say that?
The events that are taking place indicate the nature of action contemplated against this country at the international level. A few weeks ago, there was a man called Krishnarasa who was found in the Wanni area with blank sheets of paper with signatures in his possession. Then there was a comprehensive police investigation that was conducted and he was questioned by the police. He was also in possession of a diary which contained 400 items – many of these were National Identity Card numbers of people who had been killed in the war. Under interrogation he said that he had been given the necessary directions, the money, etc by a man called Sun Master. And even while Krishnarasa was being questioned by the police, Sun Master spoke to him twice on the phone. We have evidence that there were as many as 67 telephone conversations between Krishnarasa and Sun Master within two months. There is photographic evidence which is clearly indicative of the connection of Sun Master with the prominent members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sun Master evaded arrest by leaving the county unlawfully. Now it is clear from the answers given in the police questioning that this was evidence being fabricated to be sent to the Human Rights Council for the investigation being conducted against this country.
The people who signed these blank papers were told that these were application forms for compensation from the UN. Now we understand the Attorney General is contemplating criminal proceedings against the people who were involved with a variety of serious offences.
At the same time a very strange development took place in Geneva. There was a statement by the spokesperson for the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights about the deadline the investigative panel had imposed – 30th of October. TNA member of the NPC, Anandhi made a written request that the deadline be extended because they were preparing additional evidence. It was in this situation that the spokesperson made a very strange statement that the deadline was not being officially extended but they were aware that some evidence will take longer to arrive and will not be received before the expiry of the deadline. He said the evidence that would be received after the expiry of the deadline will not necessarily be rejected. There is clearly a connection between the fraudulent evidence that was being concocted here and leaving the door opened in this highly unprincipled way for the reception of that evidence. There cannot be an unofficial channel of communication. That statement was the strangest thing I have ever read from any UN body. We have asked how these kinds of bizarre things happen but we have received no answer. This is an investigation that could potentially have very serious consequences for the leadership of this country and its military leaders.
Suren Surendran of the Global Tamil Forum made a statement that their sole objective was to have the President defeated and to haul him before a war crimes tribunal on serious war crimes charges.
That is the situation we are in today. Such threats are not so obvious to the public as the threat the country faced during the war. But the current threat is every bit as serious. Now the country is capable of facing this threat – for a government that achieved the impossible by eradicating terrorism, this is not a problem. But the fundamental need is for a strong, effective government. Now it is that that’s in jeopardy because of the totally confusing proposals which are being presented on behalf of the joint opposition candidate.
Why do you say that the proposals put forth by the common opposition are confusing and how will they deter a strong, effective government?
There is no consistency whatsoever. One person is saying the executive presidency will be abolished in 100 days, another is saying that it would be done in 24 hours. Mr. Sirisena says he will run the country from Polonnaruwa. He says he will retain the defence portfolio but earlier they said the President should not retain any portfolio. There is some speculation that General Fonseka will be given the defence portfolio. There are lots of issues here.
Also, Mr. Sirisena says that if he is elected he will hand-over all the executive powers to Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Is there political or moral legitimacy about that proposition? He is asking the people to vote for him, but he is a mere channel and he will hand over the power to a leader of another party. This is a distortion of democracy. The person with whom executive powers reside must seek elections himself – you cannot do it indirectly through another.
But what the opposition says is that this is only for a temporary period of time – to reform the Constitution – and thereafter they will hold General Elections to elect the leader of the country.
But what they are saying is not legally possible. The executive president doesn’t have the power or the purview to abolish executive presidency – he can only discharge the powers of the President’s office but he cannot abolish the office to which he has been elected. That is a matter for the Parliament. Our Constitution is very clear on these matters. Article 4b deals with executive presidency while Article 3 deals with sovereignty and they are intertwined. Article 83 of the Constitution spells out the provisions which cannot be changed even by a two-thirds majority and require a referendum as a necessary condition for the amendment of those provisions. So, abolishing the executive presidency or a fundamental restructuring of the executive presidency will require not only a two-thirds majority but also a referendum.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the handing over of the power is not possible. Under article 37 (1), in any situation where the President is unwell or if he is leaving the country for some specific reason and for a temporary period, that is when power can be transferred to the Prime Minister. It is not constitutional for the President to hand over the power completely to another person.
In order to face the kinds of threats I mentioned earlier, we need a government with a clear policy and a clear direction. But what Sirisena is promising is a hodgepodge. He is backed by a loose combination of parties which have one objective alone – that is to dislodge Mahinda Rajapaksa as President. But they have not carefully considered what happens thereafter. The parties that are backing Mr. Sirisena have totally contradictory policies which even at the basic level cannot be reconciled with one another. The government is based on policies but the Opposition’s alliance is a cauldron of confusion. There is no coherent or consistent policy that could be formulated or implemented at all. Now, more than ever before the country needs a strong government with clear, coherent and consistent policies. That would be impossible in the situation offered by Maithripala.
But even the government is an alliance of various parties with different polices. In fact most of these parties were a part of the UPFA before. And if the UPFA could make it work, why cannot the Opposition do the same?
But UPFA had a very clear sense of direction and other parties associated themselves with a common set of policies. That is not the case here at all. They are contradicting themselves every day.
But the common opposition have their policies and priorities spelled out in the MoU they signed.
No they have not. How will they deal with the Executive Presidency? What is their stance on the 13 Amendment? Who will be Defence Minister? How will they deal with the threats now confronting the country? What will be their economic policy? None of these are spelled out. Their only objective is defeating President Rajapaksa. What happens thereafter is a very incidental consideration to which no thought has been given. The country is certainly going to have to pay an exhorbitant price for that situation because what is being eroded is a stable, effective government. Also, the impetus is hatred directed toward the President and leaders of the Government.
Why do you think people should vote for President Rajapaksa for a third time?
In 2005 the President promised peace, in 2010 he promised economic development, in 2014 he is promising a disciplined society. He delivered what he promised in 2005 and restored peace to the country. In 2010 what he said was that he was going to use peace and stability to accelerate development and to uplift the living conditions of the people. Today Sri Lanka is the second fastest-growing economy in Asia. The real achievement is not statistics but that the economic development is reflected in the lives of people up and down the country – equitable distribution of fruits of economic development. That has definitely happened. Today the children who are scoring the highest marks at public examinations are from rural schools. That is a social revolution in the most important sector – education. The President has achieved equality of opportunity across the board.
Then infrastructure: apart from the mega projects, the schools in the rural areas, clinics, drinking water, electricity. It is a different world. We have to protect these hard-earned victories. That is why there is no room for complacency. Nobody must believe that all challenges ceased with the end of the war. The challenges are very much there and that is why we need a government capable of delivering and has delivered in the past.
But the President did not deliver the promise to abolish executive presidency. What is your response to that?
People who are in the Opposition – have they delivered? President Kumaratunge was President for 11 years. It has to be looked at holistically.
What have you got to say about the allegations levelled against the External Affairs Ministry and the criticism that it is not effective in handling the diplomatic problems which has led to a negative global opinion about Sri Lanka?
There is a lot of envy and jealousy directed against individuals. Criticisms spring from a personal animus. In some cases it is very obvious that the motives are personal. That is unfortunate but we are not deterred or discouraged by any of that.
With regard to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, we can even stop this pressure tomorrow – that is by giving into their demands which we believe are not in the national interest. The country is being pursued by only one section of the global community – to talk of the world opinion is ridiculous. Where is the world opinion without China, India, Russia, Japan, entire Arab world, Asia, and the vast majority of countries in Africa? Out of the 36 countries which sponsored the resolution against Sri Lanka, 33 were from Europe and North America.
Look at the double-standards that are being employed. We are told to co-operate with the investigation but I have shown you how irregular the investigation is even with regard to basic matters such as a deadline. People who are using very harsh language for not subjecting this country to an international investigation, what did they do when other countries outright refused to have any sort of investigation? There cannot be clearer evidence of double-standards and the use of human rights as a political tool.
The influence of the diaspora is what is driving this. How is a member of the diaspora permitted to address a foreign parliament in Tamil? We have evidence of a foreign leader writing to Tamil groups thanking them for the support at a referendum held in that country and saying that they understand their concerns about Sri Lanka and they can rely on their empathy.
This has nothing to do with the well-being of Sri Lanka – it has to do with the core political interests of politicians in other countries. Sri Lanka is only the stage on which this drama is being enacted. Many other countries have no choice but to support these resolutions because they are dependent on these Western countries for security and economic development. The voting pattern has nothing to do with the assessment of Sri Lanka. It has to do with bilateral issues involved in the relationship between the countries proposing the resolution and the countries whose votes are being canvassed. With so much chaos in the world and people dying by the thousands, the focus is on Sri Lanka. Where is the balance in this? That is the reality.
You mentioned international pressure for an investigation. But it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who did promise for an investigation and the implementation of the LLRC. So how can you now shun the pressure to keep a promise that was made?
LLRC made about 280 recommendations and some by their very nature take longer to implement than others – matters which have to do with attitude, language, and so on. Which country has been asked to implement all the reforms in five years? That is an unrealistic demand. Why is Sri Lanka being singled out on this? These are special standards being applied to Sri Lanka for political reasons – not for equity or justice.
Another criticism is that your Ministry has not done enough to keep the terrorism threat away. Why did this government not even send a lawyer when EU decided to lift the ban on LTTE?
This was a litigation to which Sri Lanka was not a party. If Sri Lanka is to intervene we have to make a special application to the Court. If it accepts, then we are submitting this country to the jurisdiction of the European Court which is something we have consistently held, to be against the interest of Sri Lanka. And what is the advantage of doing so? This was not a matter that was decided on evidence relating to specific details to the Sri Lankan situation. The judgment was based on a procedural, technical issue. That is a legal issue. So we had retained our lawyers in Brussels and we were in touch with both the European Council and with the 28 countries. So that succeeded. Now the European Council have decided to appeal and we have appreciated that.
There was nothing to be gained by Sri Lanka itself becoming a party. If there was something only we could contribute – some special knowledge – then we could intervene. But when that is not the case and the decision is taken on legal, technical grounds, we would have lost far more than we would have gained had we intervened with the consequence that Sri Lanka is accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court.
There was a controversy about President Rajapaksa running for a third term. Do you think, him contesting at the Presidential Elections again, would make the international community look at us as having a dictatorial regime?
Not at all. If they want a leader or a certain political party that is fine. In our part of the world, people don’t change governments for the sake of changing governments. If a government has delivered and given a level of satisfaction to the people, they want to continue it. They will have their chance to decide on January 8 and we will see what their verdict is. We have every confidence about their verdict.
There have been several crossovers from the Government to the Opposition. Don’t you think the crossovers have a negative impact on the SLFP and the Government?
No, I don’t think so at all. I don’t think the public opinion is going to be determined by that. What is important in this election are the issues. This is the most decisive presidential election. We have to lay the issues before the people. We have an intelligent electorate and we have a very high political interest. In Western countries less than 50 percent vote at elections but in our country it is closer to 80 percent.
Another criticism is the family-bandism in the regime. What is your view in this regard?
Why was the same criticism not made against the Kennedys? What about other countries, Pakistan, India, Philippines, Thailand? If people have the confidence in them, that is what matters. This criticism is very wrong because the family members of the President were elected. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa all secured victories at elections. So are you telling the people that they cannot vote for them because they are a family? If you belong to a family, is that a disqualification from holding office? There is absolutely no substance to that criticism. It is because of jealousy.
Finally, let’s speak about the SAARC summit which was held recently. One of the key issues of this year’s SAARC summit was regional security. How relevant do you think that topic is to Sri Lanka?
It is very relevant to Sri Lanka. Take the whole issue of human smuggling which has been de-stablising many of our countries in terms of law and order, money laundering, proliferation of arms. Then there are issues relating to piracy – fortunately not so serious in the Indian Ocean as in some other waters.
Most importantly, had terrorism been flourishing in this country it would have de-stablised the whole of South Asia. So Mahinda Rajapaksa by eradicating terrorism from this country has served not only the interests of Sri Lanka but the entire region.