Mangala Samaraweera, founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana Wing), a breakaway group of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), says that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has "reversed" the "excellent" relations, which his predecessors had established with India.
"Sri Lanka-India relations had been strong from the time of SWRD Bandaranaike and Jawaharlal Nehru onwards. As recently as 2005 (before Rajapaksa came to power) Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had declared that Sri Lanka-India relations had reached a level of irreversible excellence. But the present government reversed it in just four months!" Samaraweera told Hindustan Times.
"As Foreign Minister, I had seen how Rajapaksa was trying to mislead India," he added.
"We Sri Lankans must restore the excellent ties we have had with India. We have to take into account India's political compulsions. When thousands of Tamil refugees arrive in India, we cannot expect India to remain a silent spectator. India has a justifiable interest in what is happening in Sri Lanka in regard to the Tamil problem."
"Cooperation and understanding are necessary for the future of Sri Lanka and India equally," he said.
On the economic front too, cooperation was necessary, said: "We have to move along with India to be able to become an economic hub of the South Asian region. Strengthening of ties with India is more important than ever before."
On the controversial issue of UN monitoring of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Samaraweera said that such monitoring might be "inevitable" given the policies of the Rajapaksa government.
" As Foreign Minister, I did oppose foreign monitoring because I believed that Sri Lanka, being one of the oldest democracies, had the institutions to monitor rights violations. But these institutions had become defunct due to the pig headed policies of the present government. In the present juncture, perhaps some kind of UN monitoring may be inevitable. The government has to take the blame for this," he said.
Samaraweera said that the opposition to foreign monitoring or foreign interest in Sri Lanka's conflict reflected the "xenophobia" which was being systematically fostered by the Rajapaksa government, an attitude which didn't fit in with the traditional Sri Lankan ethos.
"Right through history, Sri Lankans have been outward looking, welcoming the world with a smile. We have always been at ease with the rest of the world. But now, we have become xenophobic because of the government's policies," he said.
The Rajapaksa government had been "short sighted" and made a "strategic error" by antagonising the international community, he said.
"Due to the antagonistic policies of the government, Sri Lanka has lost its role in international affairs. Under the Bandaranaikes (who founded and steered the SLFP for decades) Sri Lanka had an international role, much bigger than its size and economic power warranted," Samaraweera recalled.
Samaraweera, who was sacked earlier in the year by Rajapaksa for questioning his policies, said that the international community was playing a "strong but cautious" role in restoring democracy and curbing human rights violations in Sri Lanka.
"US, India and EU are taking some strong actions. But these are done behind the scenes, as the world is sensitive to the fact that Sri Lanka is a sovereign country."
"But whatever sanctions they may impose, should not affect the people. Some sanctions like travel restrictions on defence officials and others who had violated human rights will not affect the masses, but will be useful," he said.
Samaraweera described the on-going war as being " political" because it was "primary aimed at ensuring the survival of the Rajapaksa family in a position of power."
"I am not at all satisfied with the way the war is being fought. It is being fought in the media. It is used to cover up all the sins of the regime. Soldiers are being sacrificed unnecessarily," he contended.
"The truth is that the LTTE has become stronger during the present regime. It has acquired air power. Under the previous regime, the LTTE was getting internationally isolated. Many countries had banned it. But now, the international community is criticising the Sri Lankan government, not the LTTE!" he pointed.
"It was necessary to capture Sampur because the LTTE was threatening Trincomalee harbour from there. But Toppigala (which the army is hoping to take now) is only a vast empty land. We should have gone for talks after taking Sampur," Samaraweera said.
On the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up by President Rajapaksa, Samaraweera said that it was a needless exercise.
"We have many devolution models already. There was the 1997 proposal for a Union of Regions, which was watered down and presented in 2000. What we need is the political will to implement an existing proposal, not to start working on another proposal," he said.
SONIA'S ROLE FOR CHANDRIKA
Having invited former SLFP chief and former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga to "guide" the party and the country towards "a multi-ethnic and centrist democracy," Samaraweera said that Kumaratunga could play the role Sonia Gandhi was playing in the ruling alliance in India.
Kumarkatunga had declared her retirement from active politics and had left for the UK following the drastic reduction of her security and other facilities on the orders of a court.
"I have extended an invitation to her, but it is for her to take a decision. Her two children are very concerned about her security in Sri Lanka. I believe this is what is holding her back," Samaraweera said.
He denied that Kumaratunga was like a medicine which was past its expiry date, as many think.
"She enjoys a great deal of respect in the SLFP. After all, she had made the party come back to power in 1994 after 17 years in the opposition, and she had led the party to victory in 14 consecutive elections. But for her, Rajapaksa would not have become President. And on the military front, it was she who had taken back Jaffna from the LTTE," he pointed out.
Samaraweera contended that 90% of the SLFP members were disillusioned with Rajapaksa, as the silence during his speech in parliament showed. And among the masses, the "silent majority" was with him.
"Things will change when the silent majority raises its voice. Conditions for this to happen will have to be created by political leaders. I am talking to the UNP (United National Party) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). I do not think that the JVP is an extremist party anymore. But I will never talk to the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is an extremist party. At any rate JHU is an urban party with little support outside," he said.
However, Samaraweera's bid to work out an alliance with the JVP failed on Thursday, when the JVP said that it would not join any grouping which had the UNP in it. The JVP said that it was going to form and lead an independent front to fight the Rajapaksa regime.
PK Balachandran has interviewed Mangala Samaraweera, former Foreign and Ports Minister, who recently broke away from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and formed his own group, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (Mahajana Wing), with the aim of restoring to the SLFP, the "centrist, socialistic, democratic and internationalist" ideology given to it by its founding father, former Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, in 1951.