At the peak of the war against the LTTE, then defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the most feared and powerful man in Sri Lanka. The UN Human Rights Council had asked Sri Lanka to probe war crimes in which Gotabaya was accused. Nearly a decade later, the 68-year-old is being talked about as a possible presidential candidate, with brother Mahinda Rajapaksa not able to contest again due to the constitution’s upper limit of two terms. He lives in a small two-storey house in Colombo, guarded by not more than two security personnel.
In his first interview since 2010, Gotabaya spoke about the geopolitical situation in the region, the changing character of Indian diplomacy, the meaning of peace, and his own role in the war:
India helped Sri Lanka during the war, but there is a feeling that Colombo is betraying India by moving closer to China.
If you read Shivshankar Menon’s book (Choices — Inside the making of India’s foreign policy), the former Indian National Security Adviser has categorically said that Sri Lanka had given India assurance and shown that it was concerned about any threats to Indian security concerns. Our government never allowed Sri Lankan soil to be used by any foreign country against India… Diplomacy is an art of reciprocity, it is about engagement, conversations and mutual trust. In diplomatic relationships, you cannot replace empowered diplomats with intelligence officers. India has to come out of this ‘China phobia’ with regard to its relationship with Sri Lanka.
But will India’s concerns lead to a change in your approach?
We had a very good understanding with the Congress government in India, especially its bureaucrats. We were able to get their fullest support in defeating the LTTE. But the new government, especially the bureaucrats of the Narendra Modi government, look at Sri Lanka in a different way… Without understanding it properly, without knowing the real facts on reports about submarines being docked at a Sri Lankan port… even the Indian media played it up. Bureaucrats should have (talked to us).
There are concerns here too, such as among Sri Lankan patriots about India working against the interests of Sri Lanka. For example, it is a known thing that (Indira) Gandhi supported and trained the LTTE in India. That created a huge anti-India feeling… The Sri Lankans feel there is unnecessary influence by Indian governments in its internal affairs. That was seen at the time of change in the last government too (in which Mahinda was defeated, and Maithripala Sirisena became President)… The Indian government has to be more concerned about this and study the situation, rather than act in haste.
Are you in touch with India?
No, they don’t talk to us (laughs). That’s the other problem. During our time, it was normal for diplomats to meet opposition leaders here. Not only diplomats but even visitors from India would meet opposition leaders. But now, even the Indian High Commission is frightened to meet us. I don’t understand why. I don’t know why the Sri Lankan government is also worried about them meeting us.
A decade after the war, do you think ‘peace’ is at hand?
The war lasted 30 years. I consider the post-war developments in Sri Lanka a bigger victory than defeating the LTTE. But that has not been recognised by international organisations as well as the international community. Within a short period of 2009 to 2014, we achieved a lot. Not only infrastructure development, but political achievements too. In 1998, the provincial system was introduced, elections held in the north after the war (2013) were not mere polls but free and fair elections.
There were many friendly groups who fell out of favour with the LTTE, like the EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party), Karuna (Amman, former LTTE commander)… Before the elections, we disarmed them. We could have conducted the polls without disarming them. If we allowed that, the Tamil National Alliance wouldn’t have come to power. That means Mahinda Rajapaksa would have remained President. But we ensured a fair election process. We knew we were going to be defeated, still we gave them a chance to select their own people…
By the end of 2013, about 90 per cent of houses and land had been released to the people. Massive development works such as roads, railway, electricity projects were completed. We also rehabilitated almost all the terrorists who surrendered…
You have to understand that peace doesn’t come overnight after three decades’ long war. There are people who were brainwashed ideologically. I won’t say wounds are healing now, as I don’t know what has happened in the last three years. But I strongly believe that what is important is economic freedom for people, before talking about political freedom. Political freedom is necessary, but what they are talking about is devolution and all that. That is secondary. What people needed was food, employment and basic necessities to rebuild their lives… But Tamil politicians put their political interests above these essential needs of people.
Are these going to be major priorities if you come back to power?
Yes. We will continue to do what we were doing… To give them opportunities, to make them feel they are equal, like the rest of the country.
Tell me about your two brothers (Mahinda and Basil, who served as advisor to Mahinda when he was president). How often do you talk to each other? What is the secret behind this relatively tussle-free relationship in power?
We always work as a team (laughs). We think about the country. (But) we rarely talk (laughs again). During the war, we used to interact more often.
This unity comes from our (earlier) days. Unity is strength, that is what our father (D A Rajapaksa, the founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) taught us… It is the basic principle for all countries as well. If you divide with ethnicities and religion and all that, outsiders and foreign powers can influence your country. Our aim must be to forget other things and unite.
Many believe that you have blood on your hands. That as defence secretary during the war, you defeated the LTTE but were also behind the killing of thousands of civilians. What do you say to these charges? And how did war affect you personally, did you have sleepless nights?
I know I haven’t done anything wrong, I know I have done the correct thing. My conscience says that. When you ask about civilian killings, you must understand that war is not a rosy thing, whether it is in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan or India or Pakistan or Iraq. War is not a good thing, it is not a nice thing. But in Sri Lanka, I didn’t create the war, I ended the war. Ending the war was much better than what it was. Our country is a better place without the LTTE. Today, the President of Sri Lanka can go to Jaffna and speak there… Today it (Jaffna) is a free country.
It is not only soldiers but innocent people too died due to terrorism. Bombs do not understand who is enemy and who is friend, or if it is a civilian or military van. So I do not regret. I used to sleep every day during the war too.
Were there any last-minute negotiations with the LTTE before the end of the war? Did LTTE leader Prabhakaran reach out?
I didn’t believe in negotiations with the LTTE, I still believe it would have been a waste of time. Prabhakaran was not a wise (enough) man to call me, but look at KP (LTTE No. 2 Selvarasa Pathmanathan, widely known as Kumaran Pathmanathan or KP). When he was brought to Colombo from a foreign country, he was shivering, he thought it was his final moment… He is living very happily still because we were willing to understand his past and mistakes, and we allowed him to lead a normal life. The rehabilitation of KP was a great thing. We still believe in that.