Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera stated that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family at large had stashed away US $ 18 billion abroad. The Minister said that Sri Lanka is seeking the assistance of four countries to trace and recover this money, but he declined to name the countries involved. He said that the US$ 18 billion includes US $ 2 billion in a Dubai bank which is already known. The Foreign Minister said that Rajapaksa and family are number 2 among Heads of State and Government who had stashed away billions abroad according to a list prepared by Transparency International (TI) Germany.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Camelia Nathaniel
Q: US secretary of state John Kerry visited Sri Lanka in his official capacity last week, following the last by a US secretary of state 43 years ago. Having come and seen the situation here himself, what benefits can Sri Lanka expect?
A: The visit of the US secretary of State Kerry to me signifies the return of Sri Lanka to the centre stage of international affairs because it was the first official visit in 43 years. The last official visit to Sri Lanka was in 1972 under Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and of course Collin Powel did come on a brief visit for a few hours in 2005 just after the Tsunami, when I was the minister in waiting when we flew to Galle to access the disaster caused by the Tsunami. But that cannot be considered an official visit. Hence this visit by Secretary Kerry is a very important visit for Sri Lanka and what is more important is that we have now created a partnership dialog between the United States of America and Sri Lanka and we have now become a partner of the most powerful country in the world enabling us to carry on this process on a regular basis. We will be meeting at the top most levels on an annual basis and I think Sri Lanka will benefit hugely from this partnership. However I must say that it will not be at the cost of other relationships we have with other countries.
Q: There have been concerns that the new government is sidelining China who has been a very close partner and friend to Sri Lanka over the years, and moving closer to the west. How do you respond to these allegations?
A: We have certainly not severed relations with China and we will continue to forge greater ties with China. The same way we would also continue our close ties with our closest neighbour, friend and relative India as well.
Basically you have to look at the situation Sri Lanka was facing prior to president Sirisena being sworn in last January. Even though Sri Lanka is an island nation we have always welcomed the whole world to our country throughout history.
Since independence we had a policy that encompassed all the power blocks and those of the White House, Downing Street, Beijing or the Kremlin, were always open to the leaders of Sri Lanka and they were welcomed very warmly.
But unfortunately since the Rajapaksa regime took over, and their policies of alienating our traditional friends, Sri Lanka has virtually become a pariah nation in the community of democratic nations and we were basically being talked about and looked upon as being in the same league as countries like the Zimbabwe. But now within a very short period of time we have managed to change all that. As the foreign minister, within days of assuming duties, I went to New Delhi on the invitation of Sushma Suwaraj, who has been a colleague and friend for a very long time, and then to Brussels, as we had also alienated the EU, at a great cost to the nation and the people, through losing the GSP Plus. Also a fishing ban was imposed on Sri Lanka since the 14th of January this year.
Hence I went to Brussels to discuss these issues. My third stop was Washington, and I think the US still is the most powerful country in the world, which has helped us over the years. Even during the war the United States helped us in many different ways, even by helping us to curtail the fund raising activities of the LTTE and listing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation during Lakshman Kadirgamar’s period. But again due to our short-sighted policies and our vitriolic attacks on our friends they had moved away. However I had a very successful and fruitful meeting with Secretary Kerry in Washington and Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal, which paved the way for the visit of Secretary Kerry.
However, we also cultivated our friendships with countries like China. Even though people alleged that we had moved away from China we have not but we have in fact further strengthened our relationship with them. What I have done as the foreign minister is not to move away from any particular power or country. Its just that I have moved the foreign policy of our country back to the centre so that we can deal with all countries in a balanced equal manner. Finally I believe that Washington, London, the EU, New Delhi and Beijing are the access for peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka and it is very important that we deal with these super powers and we win their trust and confidence if we are to harness the economic development which has been eluded from the citizens of this beautiful little island for many decades.
Q: During US Secretary Kerry’s speech he mentioned that as Sri Lanka is on the right track for reconciliation, he was certain we will not come under harsh criticism at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Do you think we can expect some sort of respite at the next UNHRC session, and what have we done to gain that relief?
A: Within these 100 days President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe have lived up to their promises of turning Sri Lanka into an active democracy again and the 19th Amendment was the climax of our 100 day program. For the first time in the history of this country or perhaps in the world, a sitting president who has been elected with a massive mandate actually went all out to prune down his powers and I would say this heralds the end of the all powerful executive presidency and a return to parliamentary democracy, which was promised to us.
However we could not implement that fully because of some of the rulings given by the Supreme Court which insisted on a 2/3rd majority for some of the clauses, and that is why we went ahead with the 19th Amendment without the clauses that required the 2/3rd majority. However we hope that once the new parliament is formed, we will be able to bring forth a brand new constitution, not an amendment, which will bring Sri Lanka into a total parliamentary democracy and also we have a crying need for a new constitution. These amendments are very good and that needed to be done but we must remember that the abolition of the presidency is not the panacea for all our problems and evils.
Actually Sri Lanka needs a new constitution which would meet the requirements of all its peoples. A new constitution that not only will make Sri Lanka into a modern democracy but also a constitution that will meet all the grievances and aspirations of all communities living in Sri Lanka. We also need a constitution that can celebrate the diversity of religions and the diversions of ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, so that we can create a new Sri Lankan identity for all Sri Lankans whatever their cast, colour, creed, religion may be.
Q: There is a large population of Sri Lankans who fled the country during the conflict and are settled in other countries. Although most of them want to come back, perhaps to invest if not to settle down, they still feel that it is not safe for them to return, especially the Tamils who fled from the North. What is the assurance you can give them?
A: Basically our goal is to make Sri Lanka an investor’s paradise. Sri Lanka is known all over the world as a tourist paradise but now as a middle income country that no longer gets foreign aid. It is important for us to attract foreign direct investment if we are to move forward and kick start our economy. That is why the government is doing everything possible to create an environment conducive for investors. On one hand we have to ensure a rule based investor climate, unlike earlier where the criteria for investment was dependent on the bribes given to the top people of this country, or how well they oiled the palms of the various members of the first family then. We want to get rid of that system and it will be a level playing field for all investors.
Investment also does not depend on only infrastructure development but it also depends on the political climate of a country, and then while investors look for good roads and airports, communication, etc. they also look for a strong political democratic system. They also want to make sure that the rule of law is in place and see that there is judicial independence and in a country like Sri Lanka we also have to ensure that there is peace based on national harmony. These are the measures we are taking to set up these ground work.
However, I agree that there are certain shortcomings and there are certain bottle necks, especially in the defence establishment and other government offices and in the bureaucracy. Some members of the bureaucracy are still members of the old mind-set and there is an element of sabotage and they are not proceeding with our policies or at the speed that it should be taken forward. However, its only been three months since we took over but we are basically clearing all the road blocks.
But just as much as we are looking for investors from abroad, we also must not forget the Sri Lankan diaspora, because we have some of the brightest and the best in the diaspora. They are also some of the richest who have the ability to and would like to invest in their mother country. By the diaspora I don’t mean one particular race but all races, who are Sri Lankan. I think therefore it is high time that. We welcome these people who can contribute immensely to the economic march forward of this nation. However, unfortunately one section of the Tamil diaspora has been totally marginalised and cut away.
Last year the previous government even listed and proscribed many Tamil individuals on the basis that they were proscribed as terrorist organisations. There may have been a few organisations within that list, which may have had links with the LTTE at one time. But I know most of them have had no links to the LTTE but may have spoken of the grievances of the Tamil people and their rights in open forums.
Our bureaucrats must also realise that just because a person talks about the rights of the Tamil people or the rights of the Muslim people, it does not automatically make you a terrorist. These people, because of the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa doctrine which was basically adhered to during the last so many years, look at all Tamils as terrorists. Anyone who talks about the rights of their people were looked upon as terrorists and that must come to an end. In fact they must all be brought back or given a chance to come back and participate in the development of our country.
Q: How do you plan to get them to come back and take part in the development or investment?
A: I have a plan to invite them or maybe have a large scale conference in Sri Lanka and get all the diaspora people to attend and to discuss how they can participate in our developmental program. I am thinking of the foreign ministry organising something like that perhaps toward the end of the year.
Q: One of the main reasons for the presence of the military in the North during the previous regime was the perceived threat of terrorism still looming and they claimed that the LTTE was still active on foreign soil. In your view do you see such a threat?
A: The last government basically lived off selling the war victory. Once they achieved the war victory, which was in a way admirable and thanks to the armed forces, there was a collective sigh of relief in the country when terrorism was eradicated. Everyone also hoped that it would usher in a new era of peace and development thereafter. But unfortunately without using that great window of opportunity, which no other leader had ever got in this country, to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people and other minorities, they went on an orgy of triumphalism, alienating the Tamil people who had suffered a great deal and creating the background for another uprising in maybe another 15 to 25 years. If the system followed by the Rajapaksa’s was continued, I would say we would have had to kill a section of our own population every generation to keep and maintain the sovereignty and dignity of the country. However it is our belief that we must win them over. We must address their grievances and there must be an element of power sharing within the different communities of this country.
But instead of going on that path, the previous regime used the war in order to establish a dynastic rule. The fear of terrorism was instilled in the people in order to divert the attention away from the massive corruption that was taking place within the country at the time. Hence all that talk was a smokescreen to divert the attention of the masses from the real problems of the day while the Rajapaksa family continued with their plan to install a dynastic rule in Sri Lanka. But fortunately the revolution on the 8thof January changed all that.
Q: Sri Lanka ambassador in Russia, Udayanga Weeratunge, a relative of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is alleged to be a dealer in weapons, and this has been brought to light that he had supplied arms to terrorist groups in Ukraine. What measured has the government taken with regard to this allegation?
A: I can’t say too much about it yet, but there has been a complaint by the government of Ukraine last December that our Ambassador in Moscow has been dabbling in arms. So now we are looking into these allegations and I even got down the Ambassador who is based in New Delhi to Colombo and we are sending a team of police investigators and foreign ministry very soon to the Ukraine to meet with the public prosecutor and other officials to get more details. This is merely one example of shocking revelations where the embassies were places for the so called ambassadors to do business.
The Sri Lankan Ambassador in the US even stole 350,000 dollars or pocketed it from the sale of the Washington residence. But once it was exposed he had returned it. But that does not make it any less of a crime. Basically embassies did everything but diplomacy.
Q: Under the previous regime military personnel were deployed in the foreign diplomatic front. Are you going to continue with the same policy?
A: No, we will in certain places have military attaché’s like all countries do. We may also send certain retired military officers if the request comes from the president or the prime minister.
Q: How do you think the President will balance his loyalty to the SLFP and his dependency on the UNP?
A: I would say that president Sirisena has proven beyond any doubt within this 100 days that his loyalties are to Sri Lanka and to the people of this country. He perhaps is the first leader who has had the courage of his convictions to go beyond party political mind-set, and work for the people of this country.
(Courtesy The Sunday Leader)