Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa says the island nation and India should put behind them the misunderstandings of the past and move ahead

Newly elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa says the island nation and India should put behind them the misunderstandings of the past and move ahead. In an interview with Padma Rao Sundarji, Rajapaksa said: “We genuinely want to strengthen our relationship. I have always said that we don’t want to do anything which will jeopardise the security of India or act against the concerns of India in any way. This is genuine.” Edited excerpts:

President Rajapaksa, when you spoke briefly to the cameras after taking the Guard of Honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday, you said your expectations from your first official visit to India were very high. You are about to leave now. Were they fulfilled?

The entire experience was very good, especially the one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I am very happy with the outcome. There were a lot of misunderstandings on both sides during the end of my brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. Now, we have to put those behind and move forward. And with PM Modi, I think it is possible. I came to know that he is a very practical person, so he will understand our needs. We genuinely want to strengthen our relationship.

I have always said that we don’t want to do anything which will jeopardise the security of India or, act against the concerns of India in any way. We also want to be a neutral country and not get involved in world power rivalries. We are small, so we don’t want to get in the middle. But strategically, of course the Indian Ocean has become very important. And geographically, Sri Lanka is especially positioned at a very crucial location because of sea lanes which pass close to it. We have always have said that the Indian Ocean must be a zone of peace. We will do whatever we can to keep it that way.

When PM Modi meets world leaders, there’s a lot of talk of “chemistry,”: the rapport he seems to enjoy with some of them. Did you sense that too when you met him ? People draw parallels between you and your brother and Mr Modi and his administration, you know. They say that you share a “zero tolerance approach” to tackling terrorism. Is that an accurate perception?

Most definitely. But that commonality is not only on security but on matters pertaining to development too. PM Modi has done a lot for India and we appreciate his approach. “Chemistry”-wise too - yes, (laughs) it worked well.

Islamist terrorism is not new to India. But the Easter Day suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, in which 259 people were killed were certainly the first of their kind in your country. Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is small and very peaceful. There were no such instances of radicalisation until April this year. India is already the target of Islamist terrorists nurtured by its north-western neighbour, but also of sleeper cells supported by them in other countries surrounding India. What assurances can you offer India that Sri Lanka will not become a launching pad for such attacks?

Islamist terrorism has become a global issue. It is not specific to India or Sri Lanka. Every country is threatened. The only way to tackle it is to be very conscious of it. Our government has to be aware and give it top priority, especially on the intelligence side. You must have your own intelligence within the country. But at the same time and because the nature of the beast is global, you need to have intelligence-sharing with your neighbours and others. You also need to develop your technical capability for intelligence-gathering. It is important to work with others because today, a lot of technology is needed to monitor cyberspace, phone conversations etc.

We were very good at countering terrorism wreaked by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) because over the years, our intelligence agencies knew their whole background, history, modus operandi, their leaders and their whereabouts. Unfortunately, this Islamist terrorism is a new threat for us, so we have to develop the capacity and the capability to tackle it. And no, we will definitely not tolerate any terrorism of any kind at all in our country.

Your determination to end the 30-year-long bloody civil war against the LTTE, which killed 120,000 people, came under very sharp global criticism - and even sanctions - for alleged human rights violations. Still, your country then saw 10 years of peace. So what happened in April this year to shatter it? What made Sri Lankans so complacent ? Surely something went wrong within your society itself that allowed this seed of terrorism to take root?

Look, Islamist terrorism is not specific to Sri Lanka, it’s all over the world. We have a Muslim community. Many members of that community and others from Sri Lanka go to the Middle East to work there. Remember, anybody can be motivated or radicalised just by sitting at home. Because as far as fundamentalism is concerned, the preaching, the sermons -- they are all there on the Internet. Perhaps our previous government did not pay attention or give much priority. That is why the attacks could take place. But our intelligence agencies certainly have the capacity to immediately develop their skills, and that is what we have to do now.

In his brief press statement on Friday, PM Modi expressed the hope that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was based on the Indo-Sri Lanka accord signed by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is adhered to. It envisages maximum devolution to the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, where Sri Lankan Tamils are in the majority. That Amendment is dated 1987. Much water has flown under the bridge since then. Does it need revitalisation in keeping with the ground realities in those provinces today ? Or, can it be implemented exactly the way it was conceived?

The 13th amendment of our Constitution has certain areas which we can’t implement as they are, so we need certain changes. But why have we always been trying to approach the so-called “Tamil question” from only one angle? Our Tamil politicians have been speaking of devolution and other models since Sri Lanka’s independence. But even they must realise that they were not taking into consideration the development of those provinces, addressing the problems of the people there -- and those are employment, education, issues with fisheries, agriculture, etc. One has to move forward. These are issues that I want to tackle while discussing the overall framework. Otherwise, one gets nowhere. Now, our previous government was even drafting constitutions and such things. But you have to understand, without the consent of the majority, you can’t give solutions. If you come out with certain things that are suspicious to the majority community, they cannot be implemented. That is a reality. If you ask anyone in our government whether we must give our Tamil citizens the same opportunities, the right environment -- whether in religious matters or otherwise -- to live in dignity, nobody will disagree with you. That is no problem. But unfortunately, Tamil political leaders have been harping only on the one thing since independence and they are getting nowhere. So they have to be realistic. To them I say: go to the people of the area, look after their livelihoods, develop these areas, address their issues, work with them. I am willing to do so.

And what would you say to Tamil Nadu leader Mr Vaiko and several others who were protesting in New Delhi against your arrival here?

I don’t have anything to say. They are not really looking out for the people in those areas of our country. Our people of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka want to live peacefully and they want us, their government, to address their issues. So, Mr Vaiko and the other leaders, too, should address these issues realistically. They should help, rather than place roadblocks.

Security analysts express concerns over China’s growing commercial but also strategic presence in your country. Recently, you said that you will re-examine the 99-year lease on Sri Lanka’s China-built Hambantota port, that your previous government granted to China in a bid to work off your country’s huge external debt. Is it really still possible to renegotiate that lease?

I think it is possible. Remember, our party - today in government - objected to that 99-year lease. We protested against it. Nationally and strategically, this is a very important asset, not some land being given for a hotel or something ! Such assets must be under the control of the government. We should not think only of the present, we also have to think of future generations. They will curse us if we give our important assets away to other countries! That is why we are not happy. We want to discuss it and come up with a good solution.