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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

BBC World ‘HARDTALK’Programme - Allan Little interviews Rohitha Bogollagama - Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Allan Little Sri Lanka stepped up the war against the Tamil Tiger separatists. The five year old Ceasefire Agreement is in tatters and the Government seems more and more determined to pursue a military solution. With widespread reports of abductions and disappearances, extra judicial killings and torture, is today’s Sri Lanka to be like to General Pinochet’s Chile. My guest today is the Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister.

The 'Hard Talk' program was aired in the BBC World Service on 15 March.

Given below the full transcript of the Hard Talk programme – the Talk show by one of BBC Hard Talk Show anchors Mr. Allan Little had with Rohitha Bogollagama, - Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who was in London recently on an official visit.

Question: Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Welcome to the programme. It seems to your critics around the world that you’ve finally given up from seeking a political solution and your intention now is to impose a military solution on the country’s civil war. Is that true?

Minister: I must tell you straight off that we are pursuing a negotiated settlement. There is no military solution that is inside nor is it in our minds and our Government, President Mahinda Rajapakse is committed to seeking a negotiated settlement, entirely 2006 was spent on building Southern political consensus and today we can approach a negotiated settlement with greater confidence and today we are negotiating even with the LTTE and we want them to come to the negotiating table.

Question : Nonetheless, those negotiations are backed up and very determined in a sense on a highly successful military offensive, you cleared a whole patch of territory. What used to be in rebels hands is now under Government control. Your entire force is bombing from the air, your Navy is bombing from sea.

Minister: What do you expect us as a sovereign state to do? We need security for the people. We need national security to the utmost and rebels are terrorists and we are prepared to negotiate with the terrorists in order to bring about lasting peace for the country. No way are we going to target civilians. They are the subjects of our country.

Question: But the cost of this military operation parallel with the political process is 200,000 internally displaced in the last year or two. 20,000 fled to India on small boats and dumped on Sandy beaches and many drowned on the way.

Minister: Where do you find these figures coming from the people going about by small boats? 20,000 numbers? Where do you find these figures coming in? In the first place, the fact that there are 90,000 Muslim refugees still living in camps they have been in camps because of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE in Jaffna. They are still living in camps for the last 15 years. They are also seeking to get back to their homes in these locations.

Question: Nobody denies the nature of the LTTE, the enemy that you face, but nonetheless the decision to go for at least a partial military solution has displaced 200,000 more people.

Minister: I am glad that you have reduced the impact from a total military solution to a partial military solution. I am glad that you change your mind so fast and that is what I am also trying to see by the end of the discussion. I am sure you will be convinced that we are not pursuing a military solution. We are committed to a negotiated settlement. We have to protect our people, their security against the tyranny of the Tigers and after all you also say that they are not good ones. After all there are no good terrorists in the world and that is the unfortunate reality that we have to face with and we have sacrificed a lot.

Question : Was Amnesty International is accusing your failing to, in your duty to protect civilians, they say that the civilians have died as a result of the action of your armed forces.

Minister: When? I would like to know when?

Question: For example, November the 8th last year, 45 civilians were killed at Vakarai in the East of the country.

Minister: Not a single civilian has died.

Question: According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, they counted 23 bodies and 145 injured as a result of bombardments of your forces.

Minister: There had been enough and more incidents where the civilians have become casualties and because of that there is a conflict. At the same time Vakarai operation has been one of the most successful operations where we have cleared the area of the LTTE.

Question: And civilians got in the way, you accept that?

Minister: Civilians never got in the way in Vakarai and that is one of the most endorsed operations military has in terms of cleaning an area from the clutches of LTTE where they were depriving the lives of the people.

Question: Let me give you another example last year. 15 Aid workers were killed probably murdered not caught in crossfire at Muttur and again the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission said that the security forces were responsible and the Government denied the monitors access to the area to carry out investigations.

Minister: After all they are carrying out an investigation on that. We have got even the Australian Forensic experts to determine that. In fact Muttur was under the control of the LTTE at that very particular moment and how the forces could access to that location and that is the concern that we have. After all Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission is not a judicial body to determine in terms of forensic evidence and eyewitnesses have been called in to testify. This is the biggest problem that we are facing today distortion of facts.

Question: Why is the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission distorting facts?

Minister: No, I don’t say that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, but I say…

Question: Those people who were murdered by Sri Lankan security forces and the question I ask is why no one is charged on this.

Minister : How can we charge people unless we have a police investigation and an inquiry? There is a rule of law in our country.

Questio: Sri Lanka is a net recipient of foreign aid, partly as a result of the damage suffered in the tsunami couple of years ago, and for longer term development as well. One of the donors is the United Kingdom. Now Hillary Benn, International Development Secretary has written to you in Sri Lanka to remind you that the money comes on certain conditions. One of these conditions is no instigation of hostilities. Of course, your argument is that you have not instigated hostilities, and no unjustifiable rise in military spending, nonetheless you have up graded your Navy and Air force. Haven’t you?

Minister: Of course, countries have to upgrade their military capabilities.

Question: Like China & Pakistan?

Minister: Which is the country that can go sleeping without developing their military capability. I mean, we are a sovereign state that’s what we are meant for. At the same time if we give up a reasonable assessment our military expenditure has gone up from 3% of the GDP TO 3.3% of the GDP and that’s how we have looked at it in 2007. We have budgeted our military expenditure and at the same time I must also speak on what the Minister Hillary Ben has written to and we have also replied to that letter and in fact I have the good fortune of discussing with his deputy yesterday at a meeting with Gareth Thomas and which we have explained and there was no issue in terms of one’s writing and being able to explain and our being able to explain appropriately.

Question: Margaret Beckett your counterpart here in the UK was pretty explicit. In her comments after meeting you she said UK remains seriously concerned about escalation of violence and the terrible humanitarian impact that has had on the civilian population. Both sides need to do more to protect civilians and we look forward to the publication of proposals for a peace offer, which meets legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankan ethnic groups. That is a pretty clear indication to you that she expects you to take action.

Minister: In fact that is very clear. That’s what we are doing right now from the time we came into office under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency, 13 months ago, we have been committed to do so. We raised matters at the discussion in Geneva 1 in February 2006. Then we went back to talks. We wanted the LTTE to come to talks in October 2006 in Geneva once again and at all places we were trying to deescalate violence that is one commitment that we wanted out of the LTTE. There must be de-escalation of violence for us to continue addressing humanitarian interests of the country because it is a major hindrance when the LTTE started hitting the civilian locations, they are targeting diplomats, they are targeting politicians etc. I also say that what the Foreign Secretary has said that it is totally in line with what I was also discussing with the Foreign Secretary, a negotiated settlement. We have a democracy prevailing in all parts of the country not only in the Southern part of the country, but we also want democracy to prevail in the two small districts where the LTTE is now trying to control by themselves.

Question: Let me ask you regarding the part of the country where the LTTE used to hold sway on which it no longer does, the interesting thing that has happened is the split in the LTTE. Col. Karuna used to be the member of the Tamil Tigers and now has fallen out with them. What sort of a partnership do you have with them?

Minister: We don’t have partnership with anybody. Why should we have partnerships?

Question: Karuna’s forces are operating as a paramilitary organisation on territory controlled by the Sri Lankan Government.

Minister: Why do you say that there is a paramilitary organisation? They are a political party. They have registered Karuna’s political party.

Question: There is endless and total evidence from NGOs and other observers in those regions who are watching Karuna’s men go around brandishing their weapons under the very noses of the Sri Lankan security forces

Minister: That is where we now we are prosecuting everyone who are carrying weapons. We don’t won’t weapons. We don’t won’t the gun culture in Sri Lanka. That is something we are trying to put behind and that is the very thing that has cost lives of our President, Ministers and civilians.

Question: Do you think if he can play a role now as he left the Tamil Tigers? Could he play a role in the democratic future of the country?

Minister: Of course, why did he register as a political party if he doesn’t have an intention?

Question: If he is elected as the Chief Minister of that region

Minister: Why not, people have elected every Chief Minister in our country.

Question: If he had been elected would you support that?

Minister: Everybody can come in including Prabakaran. He can become Chief Minister contesting and winning the confidence of the people.

Question: So, the Government will work with Col. Karuna if he is elected as the Chief Minister.

Minister: It is the matter for the people. We can’t decide. Even I got elected by the people. I cannot tell whom to elect.

Question: Let me tell you, you must be aware about what the Human Rights Watch says about him. It says that Karuna faction has abducted and forcibly recruited at least 200 children in Sri Lanka’s Eastern district and at least since June, the Sri Lankan government has known about the abductions, the areas where they are taking place are firmly under Government control and with military and police, security check points and security forces.

Question: This is why we are going very hard on child recruitment. This is a country where we don’t have child labour and nor can we permit child soldiers and we took this matter up even with the LTTE that they had numbers considered by the LTTE in February 2006 was numbering around 5,400 and this came out at the Geneva round 1. Ultimately our declaration at the Joint Committee at the Geneva 1 talks spell out clearly that the LTTE should give up recruitment of children. At the same time I must come to Karuna’s factor. Karuna has conceded that there had been child soldiers and it is a matter that is concerning us and we now see that the areas that have been cleared of the menace will be dealt with a rule of law and even Karuna’s recruitment will have to be stopped .

Question: There is evidence that the vans carrying these abducted child soldiers pass through Sri Lanka security forces check points without being challenged, without being searched and at that point towards a level of collusion by elements within the Sri Lankan security.

Minister: I totally deny that. There can’t be elements of collusion by security forces with anyone taking children and in the event we are in a position to detect, we are the first to detect and bring them to law enforcement. But at the same time, Karuna has also released some numbers and also UNICEF has said that Karuna has these numbers that you are just speaking about and we want to see that no one is permitted to recruit children as soldiers or enlist them in terms of this conflict that we are currently facing.

Question: Do you know that Alan Rock Minister he came to Sri Lanka as a Special UN Envoy and did a detailed study on this, interviewed people who had witnessed people their children being taken away in unmarked white vans passing through Sri Lankan security force check points unmolested and taken away to camps. Their parents themselves visit these camps and they are within stone throw away in many cases where the Sri Lankan security forces are based.

Minister: In fact this is one unfortunate situation on a fly –by- night operation, I don’t know how people have gathered so much of evidence.

Question: Do you say Alan Rock, UN Special Envoy is a fly-by- night operator.

Minister: What I say is people make certain conclusions. But these conclusions have to be well tested. That is where law enforcement is absolutely necessary. I have the highest respect in terms of every distinguished visitor coming to the country to make an assessment and contribute towards bringing this conflict to an end. Having said that still, when it comes through, certain criminal elements have to be dealt with. After all kidnapping is a criminal issue and its an offence. These are matters that need investigation and thereafter prosecution.

Question: This claim investigated by Alan Rock, the Special Envoy and he says that I have concluded that certain elements of the Sri Lankan security forces are complicit in the abduction of children by the Karuna faction and at least some elements in the security forces have facilitated and sometimes participated in those abductions.

Minister: This is one problem, the facilitation, the participation, in various degrees of involvement and that needs investigation and the absence of such investigation, you go by hearsay you come up with conclusions is the most deplorable type of situation that one will be put to test. Currently, there are several commissions sitting on the human rights violations.

Question: But Alan Rock in the 10 days visit to your country seems to have uncovered more about what’s going on there then your police force.

Minister: In fact the police force now today, we had a serious situation.

Question: No prosecutions. Not a single prosecution.

Minister: Prosecutions lie on the basis of evidence. We have to seek evidence.

Question: Why is Alan Rock in a 10 days visit able to get evidence by interviewing multiple family members who have suffered?

Minister: So, this is where all reports are currently being investigated.

Question: When will we see a prosecution, Minister?

Minister: Of course, there will be prosecutions coming in shortly in every manner and this is why we need evidence to be brought out and that process is currently on. That is why we need, in certain areas of the country that had been held by the LTTE, we cleared of them, so that extended the law enforcement capability to cover all jurisdictions of Sri Lanka and that is one of the problems we are facing.

Question: The Foreign office issued a statement that we deplore these factors, we urge the Government of Sri Lanka to take these allegations seriously and to launch a credible investigation.

Minister: We have more than anyone outside, ones who are inside as a democracy, once who are elected by the people, all subjects of the country come under the responsibility of an elected Government and that is why we are concerned more than anyone else in order to have the best human rights record in Sri Lanka specially at the time a human rights activist is leading the Government of Sri Lanka in-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He had been a human rights advocate and this is the type of development that we are trying to see and we are also encouraged by the type of support that has been extended by the international community like that of the UK, we welcome that. At the same time we want to have the record straight ourselves and we will see that the record is brought out against all types of accusations.

Question: But the criticism has come in that you are fast and furious. Now the United States Human Rights report this month said that the Government’s respect for human rights has declined during this period of escalated conflict. Sri Lanka’s human rights commission reports a 100 abductions in Colombo and elsewhere alone and thousands across the country and accuses the Sri Lanka Government of doing nothing to stop them.

Minister: In fact all human rights issues are maters of great concern. The type of abductions that have been alleged, some say 100, some say 90, some say 110 whatever the number. When a policeman goes behind in order to seek a criminal in the areas of Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu what happens at the end of it. They have been taken hostage by the LTTE. How can we extend the law enforcement arm to all parts of the country?

Question: But your friends in the world who support the fight against the LTTE are now worried that you are closing down the centres of opposition systematically by the old fashioned use of intimidation. Human rights groups are comparing it to Pinochet’s Chile because of the atmosphere of intimidation.

Minister: I am very sorry to state how can one compare a country where there is such a good record in terms of public well being, public conscious, approaches, law and order situation beginning to improve and there is hindrance that we suffered in the past at the time several insurrections that have developed in the country. There were certain liberties that we have to put up with. But today our Government, we want to see that everything is put behind and we have the best culture in terms of good ordered governance in the country. That is what we are persevering.

Question: But your friends in the world want that tested, wants that opened to outside scrutiny. Amnesty International and other NGOs they want an international human rights monitoring group in the country. This is what Amnesty International says, nothing could be more effective in reducing the incidents of human rights violations then a genuine commitment by the security forces and the LTTE respects human rights and stop abuses. The test of the sincerity of such commitment would be a public commitment to agree without delay to the deployment of an effective international human rights monitoring mission.

Minister: Obviously, in the sense that we need the type of human rights record that we are today pursing in order to have the type of confidence building measures that had been brought about and that’s why several commissions are investigating, the alleged abuses of human rights. There are situations where the LTTE have abducted, people have been killed and gone missing and all types of situations are developing and we want the apparatus to be created, institutional framework getting strengthened. That is what is expected.

Question: There is another independent body called the Eminent Jurists Panel on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights consisting of 8 very eminent persons around the world and they visited South Asia recently and the Sri Lanka Government didn’t speak to them.

Minister: When didn’t they come to speak to the Sri Lankan Government, with whom were they trying to speak with?

Question: They want to do a study on the situation in Sri Lanka, requested and an interview with the Sri Lankan Government.

Minister: Sri Lanka is also not a location for the people to be experimenting in terms of their pursuit for study. We have structured elements, understanding, protocol procedures and after all how we work in a country, a sovereign country. Can you go to the United States and ask for a study to be carried out, with the Government, or with the type of situation prevailing in that country. That is what the prerogative of a country’s all about and we like to see that we have treatment and respect coming from such groups if they want to seek any type of interest on Sri Lanka.

Question: It is a known fact that the escalation of violence, the failure of 2002 Peace process to deliver a lasting peace is now damaging the reputation of your country.

Minister: Not at all. Ceasefire Agreement is meant to be practiced rather than to be breached. What did the LTTE do with the CAFÉ? They went into areas not in the hands of the LTTE. How did they pile up? Big arsenal of ammunition in order to attack the people, the military and other locations of the country. All these things happened during the period there was this CFA. But at the same time we want a ceasefire in the country and that’s why we went for talks. We are asking the LTTE to come to talks. We are encouraging that process because we want a negotiated settlement. We still need the LTTE to understand that the responsibilities in the event they can test their command over a given location. Let the people decide that for them and we want pluralism, we want a democracy prevailing in all parts of the country and we don’t want the Tamil community to be subjugated by the LTTE and that is their well being, taken care by us.

Question: Around the world your urged again and again to offer a solution which meets the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil minority. Do to have a plan to recognise the legitimate aspirations, what are they?

Minister: Of course, what we are looking at is the political process through which we can bring about devolution of power to the people of the country and all parts of the country. There is nothing called segregation in terms of communities. We don’t believe in a segregated element. That’s what the LTTE is after if they want to classify the areas in terms of other communities living. That’s what they have shown by cleansing the Muslim population of 90,000 numbers out of Jaffna and they are still living in the temporary refugee camps and that is what we want to avoid. We don’t want a situation in Sri Lanka getting segregated, fragmented in terms of ethnic ratios. We want to believe that all Sri Lankans are equally treated in our country and they have equal opportunities and their well being has been structured and had been taken care of by the country like any other country you have in good governance.

Question: But how can you separate the Tamil Tiger enemy that you face from the support base that they enjoy among the Tamil population.

Minster: Obviously, the voice has started coming out of the Tamil community. There are several channels through which they are voicing their concerns and they want to get out from the hands of the LTTE. We want the LTTE to understand pluralism that is needed in a democracy and we want the other political parties to be part of the other Tamil political parties that offer that leadership to the Tamil community of our country. And that’s what we are expecting in a vibrance in terms of a democracy. All parts of Sri Lanka must be there for all people of our country. And that’s what today you will see how many Tamil leaders have emerged outside the LTTE asking for a democratic area or democratically handled environment for them to pursue their political aspirations.

Question: Can you win the confidence of the Tamil people while continuing to wage a war against the Tamil Tigers?

Minister: Absolutely not. There is no war in the country. There are terrorists in the country. Terrorists have to be dealt with as terrorists deserve and we want the LTTE to get out of that terrorism character and become part and parcel of the legitimate process through which we can address the issues and that is where they must await the outcome of the all party proposals which will shortly be announced and we want to get that across to all sections and make the LTTE stakeholders in the process as much as all other Tamil political parties to be part of that process.

Hardtalk: Minister Bogollagama, thank you very much.

- Asian Tribune -

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