This is not the first time you are contesting at General Elections. What is the difference you see this time compared to the last?
There is a marked difference from the previous elections. There are a lot more defections from the other side at the ground level. UNP supporters are much more motivated and they are doing the campaign enthusiastically. Previous election campaigns were dominated by the UPFA candidates, but this time the UNP is dominating. We are definitely in the lead.
The Opposition has continually been claiming that the LTTE would re-emerge under a UNP Government and the safety and the security of the country would be compromised. As the State Minister of Defence, what is your response?
The story that the LTTE will re-emerge and the country will be separated under a UNP regime is the usual rhetoric the Opposition has been using for the last 10-15 years. It is nothing new. We have President Maithripala Sirisena, who is the Minister of Defence. So, we will always give top priority to national security. We have a very competent and professional Armed Force and an Intelligence Service. There is no threat to national security – we will never allow anyone to threaten national security.
I think the only time national security was threatened was under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, especially when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen shaking hands with one of the biggest drug kingpins from Malaysia, who is reported to have sent several containers of heroin to Sri Lanka. I think that was a huge breach of national security.
There is an allegation that the Government has ignored the security in the North. Mahinda Rajapaksa has pointed out that during his regime gang rapes did not occur in the North. What is your response?
Well, with regard to the recent gang rape in the North, it has been revealed that one of the main suspects – a Swiss national – was with the Rajapaksas and he had been supporting their campaigns for the last several years. I think that gang rapes have happened during his regime too, but they did not come to light.
The law and order in the North has to be tightened. I think the Police needs to be given more priority and more power in that area. And, it cannot be a Southern-dominated Police in that area; it has to be a compromise of Police officers, who speak their language, understand the culture and the traditions of the North and their ways of life. So the police in the area needs to be beefed up.
Another huge issue in the North is the high level of alcoholism – that is the biggest issue in the Northern region now. The President, the Prime Minister and I are quite shocked at the level of alcoholism and drug abuse in the province. Measures need to be taken in order to curtail this problem, especially amongst the youth.
”We have a very competent and professional Armed Force and an Intelligence Service. There is no threat to national security – we will never allow anyone to threaten national security.”
We know that the TNA and the other Tamil political parties have been constantly asking for Police and land powers being given to the province under the 13 Amendment. Since you mentioned strengthening of the Police, does that imply that you will be giving into these demands?
No, we are firmly going ahead with what we have already agreed on regarding the 13th Amendment and Police and land powers. The TNA and the Chief Minister will have to negotiate about the Police and land powers, but we are not compromising on what we have already decided on regarding this issue.
The Geneva Human Rights Council is due to meet in September. As the State Minister of Defence, how are you planning on facing the allegations of war crimes and human rights violations as well as the pressure for an international investigation?
We have always been of the stance that we would defend our forces. We will not let an international court or anyone else make criminal charges against our military.
We are committed to implementing the recommendations in the LLRC report. We will carry out an independent domestic investigation. I think that is sufficient. I don’t think it is necessary for any international investigation team to come in and probe into what happened in Sri Lanka. I think we are capable of carrying our own investigation.
But critics say that your Government did not focus enough on reconciliation?
Well, we have only had about six months. We have done quite a bit. In this Government, we could not just concentrate on one issue – we had to look into so many areas and do so much within a short period of time. But reconciliation will continue. Now, you saw that we changed the former Governor, who came from a military background. We reduced the number of checkpoints and we started giving back some of the lands, which was a major issue in the area.
We were hoping to go for an election soon after the 100-Day Programme and after the election, start the reconciliation programme and the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. Unfortunately, the elections came a bit late. But I think after this election, we can start the process.
As the Minister of Defence, is it difficult to find a balance between ensuring national security and reconciliation, especially with the Tamil politicians demanding a reduction in the armed forces in the North, claiming that it is one of the most significant steps towards reconciliation?
Yes, definitely there are challenges, when trying to balance both sides. On one hand, national security has always been and will always be a top priority. On the other hand, we have just come out of a bloody civil war and the northern people should be given their rights. But, the central Government should always have authority over the armed forces and should decide where they are placed. If the Central Government feels that certain areas are under threat, we will deploy our forces there. In any country in the world, that is what they do.
But yes, we do have to be sensitive towards the people of the North as well so we have to take it step by step. We don’t want to withdraw the Armed Forces from the North, but there could be a possible reduction in the future. But right now what we want to concentrate on is building up our intelligence and naval services. Once we have a top class military service, it would further increase the security and safety of the country.
One of the criticisms that is constantly hurled at the UNP is that the party is led by Western Conspiracies. What is your response?
We are definitely not led by any ‘conspiracy’. The UNP has always maintained good relations with the Western countries as well as countries of the East.
However, the previous Government was China-centric and they alienated themselves from the rest of the world. On the other hand, we want to maintain good relationships with all the countries.When it comes to national security, the previous Government was of the view that national security only had to do with winning the war. But there are so many other factors that come into national security. One thing is, you have to make sure that the economy is stable because if the economy falls, people will start demonstrations and protests which could threaten national security. Then you have to maintain healthy international relations; you cannot antagonise other countries. I think the whole idea of Western conspiracies was a political propaganda of the previous Government to drum up nationalism among the people. The UNP has nothing to do with conspiracies; it is all about maintaining good relationships with our neighbours and the rest of the world.
”We are committed to implementing the recommendations in the LLRC report. We will carry out an independent domestic investigation. I think that is sufficient. I don’t think it is necessary for any international investigation team to come in and probe into what happened in Sri Lanka. I think we are capable of carrying our own investigation”
Is it true that USA’s CIA and India’s RAW are interfering and calling the shots in our State affairs?
No, absolutely not. I have not had any RAW or CIA agent coming and telling me what to do. These are just fabrications; there is no truth in these claims.
The Northern fishermen’s issue and the clash with Tamil Nadu fishermen, who encroach on our waters still has not been solved yet. What are your thoughts on this?
We have had discussions with the Indian Government on this issue. There is an environmental threat with the Indian fishermen’s trawlers destroying our sea beds as well as security concerns. So we have voiced our concerns. We have to come to an agreement with India on this matter. I think the Central Government of India is in agreement with us. It is negotiating with the South Indian TN politicians that is the issue because I think most of these trawlers are owned by TN politicians. But we need to come into some sort of an agreement with them. But if they come into our territory, it is a threat to our marine life, it is a threat to our national security and it is infringing on the rights of our fishermen. Those are very important concerns and we cannot compromise on that. So, if that happens, the Navy will have to take actions.
With the events of the recent past, we realised that the threat of ISIS might not be as farfetched as many of us believed. How do you view the threat of ISIS?
I think the ISIS is something that needs to be looked into and security concerns regarding this group need to be addressed. We have seen what has happened with the ISIS in some other countries and we must ensure that something of the sort never takes place in Sri Lanka. We also need to address the security and safety concerns of the neighbouring countries.
Do you think this will affect the minority votes – especially Muslim votes – of the elections?
No, I don’t think so. I think the Muslim population in the country feels a sense of freedom from the previous regime. During that time, there were extremist religious organisations that were pressurising the Muslim population and the minorities but they are no longer there. And I think if you make them feel safe and as long as the minorities feel that they are included in the system and they are part of the country, they will not move towards extremist groups like the ISIS.
During the previous regime, we saw that the military was used for menial jobs such as road cleaning and park maintenance. Your regime stopped this practice in order to ensure the dignity of the military. But there have been accusations that the cleaning and maintenance work is not being carried out properly now. What is your response?
I agree on that to a certain extent. As you know, there is always a transition period. It will take a bit of time for the civil administration to take over the work and bring it to the previous standards. Once the election is over and the Government comes in, we can get these things back to high standards. However, we are not going back to the system where the military were engaged in these menial jobs. We are not going to use the military to clean up drains or do that sort of work. The military is there to protect the country and that is there sole job. So, we are not going to use them to do anything else apart from that.
The UNP previously said that they would contest the General Elections on its own. However, after the elections were announced you formed a coalition with various other individuals. However, now some of the individuals and parties in the coalition have conflicting policies with that of the UNP. In this context, why did you decide to contest as a coalition rather than contesting alone?
That was our plan – to contest as the United National Party. But there were so many individuals who were interested in coming into an alliance with us; there were so many civil organisations and political groups that wanted to join hands with us. We took them in but we maintained our ‘elephant’ symbol. We took that decision after much debate. We found that it would be advantageous to the country if we all went together.
Now, the UNP has claimed that they will form a National Government. Don’t you think that it is a great concept in theory but from what we have seen in the recent times, in practice it becomes a mess with parties and individuals unable to reach a consensus?
I think there is some truth to that but a National Government has its advantages. There are certain policies that should be national policies – issues such as health and education. These policies should not change every time a Government changes. That is what is happening now and it is a disadvantage to the people of the country. Therefore, I believe that there should be a National Government and they should come up with sound national policies on certain issues. So no matter what the differences in the ideologies between the UNP and other parties, our main concentration should be on how to develop the country.
A main criticism against Mahinda Rajapaksa and his regime is family-bandyism because several of his family members held high positions in the Government. However, we see that dynastic politics are also an element of the UNP. So, is it fair to criticise the Rajapaksas on these grounds?
Dynastic politics are present all over the world. You have dynastic politics in the US as well – it is a part and parcel of politics around the world. But the difference between the Rajapaksa family and the rest, is that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President, one of his brothers was the Defence Secretary, another was the Speaker of the House, his eldest son was a Parliamentarian and he was calling all the shots in Ministries, his nephew was the Chief Minister of the Uva Province -so that took it to a different level. That is nepotism right there in your face!
Here, in the UNP, yes we do have some hailing from political families. We have former President R. Premadasa’s son Sajith Premadasa, we have Gamini Dissanayake’s son Navin Dissanayake and some of us have roots in political families. But, we never took advantage when they were in power. Sajith Premadasa was not appointed to any Ministries or given positions in the Government because he was the President’s son. We were never into that. We do follow our families’ footsteps but that is to serve the country and the people, not to gain personal favours.