In an exclusive interview, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka countered questions on the forthcoming provincial polls in Jaffna, the manifesto released by the oppositional Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was sympathetic towards the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the TNA’s demands for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment engineered by India.
Rajapaksa said he was disappointed that the TNA was trying to ‘rouse the feelings of innocent people and divide the country” just to get votes but expressed confidence that India would never oblige by helping do so.
The president pointed out that it was normal for armies to be spread all over any country and that they could never be withdrawn completely from the Jaffna peninsula as the TNA was demanding.
He also pointed to the geographical and historical compulsions of keeping the army in place in the North and East, which were battered by the three-decade-long civil war and to the tremendous ‘scaling down’ of military presence in the peninsula.
The army was now largely restricted to the port of Kankesanthurai and the Palali air base in the Jaffna peninsula, he said. Much of the tedious work that the army was doing –like rebuilding public sanitation – would not be touched by the locals themselves, he said.
“Sri Lanka is one country. Whether the army is in southern Hambantota or northern Jaffna, it is one and the same thing.” Rajapaksa countered allegations of intimidation by troops of TNA candidates by pointing that there will be more than 20 election monitors from South Asian countries as well as the Commonwealth at the polls on Saturday. Asked what gave him the confidence to announce elections, given that the TNA was being seen as the favorite, he said that he wanted to keep his promise.
Rajapaksa also pointed out that several lower-caste TNA candidates had crossed over to his ruling UPFA publicly citing discrimination and that 80% of the TNA’s candidates were from the highest caste.
But he expressed confidence that the election is going to be a ‘good battle’ and urged the ‘best party’ to win. He admonished the international community for alleging that his government had not fully implemented the recommendations of a post-war commission, to come and see the tremendous development in the North and East for themselves and not base their opinions upon hearsay and the lobbies of the globally influential and pro-Eelam Tamil diaspora.
He said that he had taken the bold decision to release all former LTTE cadres because he believed that their inherent Hindu culture would help them reintegrate into mainstream Sri Lankan society.
Padma Rao Sundarji is a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered Sri Lanka for over two decades. She is based in Delhi.