Last Saturday, Sri Lanka’s newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sat down with Nitin A. Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief of BharatShakti.in and sniwire.com, two Indian digital platforms with a global outlook to talk about his vision for a new Sri Lanka and his plans for making the country prosperous and progressive. He also spoke extensively about Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and his views on how Colombo looks at the two crucial relationships with India and China.
Here’s the full transcript.
Hello and welcome, I’m Nitin Gokhale and I’m privileged to have with me today Sri Lanka’s new President Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A former soldier turned administrator and now the nation’s chief executive. Welcome Mr Gotabaya to this interview and I’m really honoured and privileged that you’ve given this time to me. I think this is perhaps your first interview after taking over as Sri Lanka’s seventh executive President. What are your priorities as the new President?
GR: We have given the policy to the people. In that we have identified certain areas that we have to act on. Now, one is to ensure the security of this country and the people so I had to readjust certain things in these institutions especially in the military and also in the intelligence agencies, and next one is the economy. That’s very important at this time. So, I have identified certain areas where we have to focus and improve. So, security and economy are the two first priorities.
NG: But in security I mean you are well known for what you did during the Eelam war IV when you revamped the entire security structure. You got the intelligence set-up completely reorganised and of course led the entire war effort. What in your view has happened in these last five years where there has been some slippage and we, of course, had the Easter bombings on 21st April. So what do you want to do?
GR: It depends on the policy of the government. Unless you give priority and, in your government’s policy, if national security is not on the priority list then it is down to the lowest level and that’s what happened. The last government did not give enough priority to national security. And also probably they misunderstood the importance of national security to bring economic stability. First, you want to have stability in the country for the locals and the investors to invest. (For) Local businessmen to invest, entrepreneurs to invest, national security is important. So that is what happened during the last five years. Because that government did not give enough attention to the security of this country and there were other things that happened especially on certain investigations on officers who were involved in humanitarian operations that we had. That affected the morale of the security forces. And also there were things happening on national intelligence. Because see we have different agencies in charge of the intelligence. Intelligence is important. That’s starting with SIS—State Intelligence Services. That’s the number 1 civilian establishment. Then you have the military intelligence—the army intelligence directorate, the navy intelligence and the air force intelligence. But out of that, actually the Directorate of Military Intelligence, that is the intelligence arm of the army was the most experienced intelligence agency. Then you have the CID, that is (Q: of the police) and the TID, Terrorist Investigation Division. These institutions are more or less investigation units. They are good at investigation.
NG: Right. So, post-events they are good, not in anticipating intelligence.
GR: Intelligence is a different ball game but the previous government did not give this authority to the military intelligence so they were more or less not involved in even gathering information and liaising and in intelligence they were not involved. Mostly it was the CID and TID and probably SIS. But I should say that they were good at different areas. Not in this. This, not because of anything else but for the last so many years where we had terrorism in this country and anti-terrorism (ops). In that, major role of intelligence was played by the directorate of military intelligence and also, we train these officers and they have the experience. So, it is difficult immediately to stop that and give it to another (agency). I think that was another reason.
So the first thing is, of course, government policy. Then, the second thing is the institutions which are responsible for intelligence if they were not given (authority), if they change the role, then, of course, there is an issue. These are the things that ultimately led to this incident (Easter bombings).
NG: Yes, in April 2019. But, that we will move ahead because if I remember correctly and we have discussed this a number of times, Sir, that you had actually got them on a one grid kind of a thing, all these agencies when you were defence secretary.
GR: So now I have appointed a very good defence secretary who is very experienced in this aspect and a dedicated officer and I have given instructions to reconstitute this organisation and get all the intelligence agencies together and coordinate them and to work accordingly rather than restricting them into departments and working individually, they must share. It is quite important. So, he will do that.
NG: That’s right. Do you think he also needs to do a lot of cooperation with countries around, like India for instance and other countries, western countries maybe? Because today intelligence sharing is important.
GR: Yes. Intelligence sharing is very important. Not like LTTE terrorism. Of course, the LTTE also had support from outside. But that is the LTTE outside organisation itself, it was not a trans-national organisation. But here, it is not so. Lot of, I mean we are only a part of this. The bigger organisation is outside—international and global. So, it is very important that we get lot of help from outside agencies because those countries are also facing these problems. India or any other country, most of the countries in this world are facing this issue. So, they have advanced resources, technology and more resources and also the knowledge of Islamic terrorism. So therefore, we must use that knowledge and that experience. We must use.
NG: So in that context let me also ask you before I move on to the economy. There is always this criticism for the past 10 years now since 2010 when the war ended in 2009 that Sri Lanka does not need such a big army, such a big military. Your views on this.
GR: It’s up to the military and the leaders to decide what should be the strength according to the threat perception that we have to analyse so that even after we increased the strength of the military when it was required during the conflict period. Then actually we did not recruit for the last maybe 10 years, we didn’t recruit people at that pace. So, normal attrition took place and today the numbers have gone down. But the focus also, see, during the conflict period we needed infantry people, armoured and also these other combat arms we needed but we can change this focus into different terms now. Even in foreign armies now, they are lot involved in national development. There are a lot of armies; even the American army is involved in national development projects. So we can change the focus and use them accordingly. But at the same time, now in this type of situation, intelligence is more important. So change the focus on them. Maybe we increase the cadres of intelligence. We may put more investment on training of intelligence gathering, mechanism. We have to change according to the threat.
NG: That’s right, the priorities will undergo a change that’s what you are saying. But, let me move onto a little bit to the economy because that’s something that has also suffered during the last couple of years, especially tourism had gone down. But now that you have come as the President there is obviously confidence building which has happened amongst investors and tourist operators. What are your broad plans for economy?
GR: We have identified certain areas where we have to focus, the new govt has to. We have to understand that agriculture and plantation is very important. Still one-third of our population is involved in agriculture. So we can’t forget agriculture. Sometimes the foreign advisors they say that we have to focus on different things. But, this is connected with our culture, our history so we can’t do that. And, this is an area; I mean any country presently in the world cannot forget the food security, it is very important. We can’t depend on outside and it’s in our culture and it’s an area where we can develop. So that is one I give priority. Not topmost, but priority. Because today there’s lot of technology. Now how much we assist in agriculture you know whatever the successive governments had many plans on improving agriculture but still the farmer is poor.
NG: He has not benefitted.
GR: This is bad because then their children will not go for farming. They see their parents are in a poor state. So this where we have to help specially but today there are enough tech in the world with less investment get more income, more prod, use in fertiliser management, use in organic fertilisers, then even in green houses, drip irrigation, vertical irrigation and also this in getting more proper advanced seeds. That’s very important. And also research and development. We have to develop these things by the government so that we can assist the farmer to get more income and also to develop the agriculture-based industries. So, make the farmer an entrepreneur.
NG: Instead of just a farmer…
GR: Make him a businessman. See, about 40 per cent of the produce of the farmer is wasted because of poor storage, packing and lack of proper transport. If you prevent these things then automatically the income of the farmers will go up and also now sometimes, people grow tomatoes and when you get the harvest now you can’t sell and the prices go down. So why not use this for making sauce, you know.
NG: Forward linkages have to be there.
GR: So that you know you get the proper value for your produce.
NG: I’m glad you’re focusing on that but also your strength has been building big infrastructure projects and getting them delivered on time.
GR: Yes, infrastructure is important otherwise you can’t take the development to outside. That was the problem. There were lot areas where we can improve in agriculture and plantation. For a long period, our main foreign exchange earner was tea, rubber and coconut, for centuries. But today because of poor management and other areas, the income of these things has gone down. So we have to focus on these things and not only these things, other products like paper, we produce the best paper in the world. Then cinnamon, we produce the best cinnamon in the world. So there are things that we can do now; unfortunately, we import certain items that we have in Sri Lanka. We have to improve these things so we can save foreign exchange and we have to export, not only just export, but important is value addition. So we have to do value addition and even in each and every thing move out from only traditional systems but improve the research and develop the product.
NG: And make it a little more modern.
GR: Yes, and also you find more markets and get the proper value for the quality. It is very important for us. Ceylon tea (N: is very well known). But today other markets have come up, other countries have come into the market so we have to get the correct value for the quality. I firmly believe that we should not go for quantity but for quality and get that market for Ceylon tea.
NG: Yes, today the world is ready to pay for quality.
GR: Yes, so that’s where we have to. And also, we need to talk about agriculture. It is very important to educate the farmer in how to use the correct amount of water. Otherwise, the farmers waste water. Then the use of fertilisers. We have to (very moderate use of fertilisers) and also the quality. And also gradually move to organic (farming), because today there is huge demand for organic food everywhere. So, this is where we have to educate; we have to assist and help the farmers gradually move into these areas so that they and get good income. So, this is one area. And the other thing I’m very interested in developing our economy on technology.
NG: I’m glad you said that.
GR: Because the 21st century is known as the knowledge-based century. This is a good thing because it’s not a secret that our industrial base is not that huge. We have small industries on high tech but it’s not at a higher level and also we don’t have much of natural resources—oil, gas or silver. But, what is important is we have a very skilful, easily trainable human resource. So that is where we have to focus. Today, we know the centre of gravity of development and also the economy is moving towards Asia. (A) lot of countries, if we take only this side, you know, starting from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, China. So all these countries have come up and also if you see most of these countries have come up, they have developed their economy based on tech and human resources. So, this where we have a good opportunity, we should not miss this window. So, this is where I’m focusing. But information technology and digital-based technology, these are lot of opportunities for young people. And they can earn lot of money; the other important factor linked with that is education. So you have to prepare this generation of young people to suit that economy. So this is my next focus. Lot of focus on education, this is one area that actually I have to get assistance from all these countries. Also, there are other fields that I have concentrated on, actually on fisheries because we are an island, so we have to develop fisheries and then also tourism. Very important. Also we have to understand that the global development, today, in all these countries I mentioned there is a huge middle class, from India to China, I think it’s about 400 million, I think it is growing in India, these are the people who go from country to country, these are the people who go as tourists, so we have to attract, we have to improve our advertising in these countries and we attract people, create different segments.
NG: It’s a naturally beautiful country.
GR: Even if you take the Indian tourists, in religious areas, even for Buddhism, this is the ideal country; these are the areas where we have to improve. So agriculture, technology, tourism, fisheries, these are the areas where we can easily improve and also foreign direct investment is important. We have to encourage the business people. My request to these high-tech companies is to come and invest in Sri Lanka, as we have very easily trainable high-skilled people, therefore I think it is good for them, even for them it is beneficial to invest in Sri Lanka. So, these are areas I’m really focusing on.
NG: Let me move on to foreign policy. When you spoke first after becoming President, you mentioned that we are equidistant from almost every power in the region and you want to be neutral. If I am reading correctly, national security and national priorities are your first priorities, rather than looking at who you align with. But this question always crops up, that’s why I’m asking you—is it China versus India in Sri Lanka? What is your view on this?
GR: I have mentioned this even in my acceptance speech that we want to be a neutral country, it’s possible, there are examples in the world. But, we know the Indian Ocean plays a very important role in present day geo-politics. So we are geographically situated in a very strategic location. All the sea lanes are passing close to Sri Lanka, from East to West. You know the importance of these sea lanes. Specially, when Asia is developing and their produce has to go to the world. And at the same time when you develop, you need energy. The energy resource is still in the Middle East, it has to come. The minerals are in Africa, those things have to come. This is very important but the thing is these lanes must be free for the whole world, no country should control the sea lanes because that’s very important.
And when I say neutral, we don’t want to bandwagon one country or get into a balancing act; we don’t want that. That is why I said neutral. We are so small that we cannot survive if we get into this balancing act. We don’t want to get in between the power struggles of superpowers or world powers so, basically, we want to work with all the countries and we don’t want to do anything which will harm any other country.
We understand the importance of the Indian concerns; we can’t specially act or engage in any activity which will threaten the security of India, that we know. We are in the region and India is a big power, is a big country. Though we want to be an independent, sovereign nation but we don’t want to get involved. We have to understand the points of view of other countries and act accordingly. But (what) everybody wants today, the most important thing, is economic development.
And to do that you cannot be a restricted soul. You have to open up while protecting your country, while protecting your industries, while protecting your business, still you have to open up. To get involved in world’s economy, for that we are ready. That is why we want to get assistance from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, this is very important, but then you have to face the reality.
So, in our case, our involvement with China, the last few years especially during Mahinda Rajapaksa government period, it was purely commercial, but because from the very beginning, world analysts, the geo-political analysts put us also into the orbit. Even Hambantota harbour, they tried to show as part of the String of Pearls, which circles India. But in our (scheme of) things it was not so, the requirement was ours, we understood, we should never give the control of the port to China. So that was a mistake.
NG: Yeah, unfortunately the previous government…
GR: Gave a lease for 99 years. And even though China is a good friend of ours and we need their assistance to develop, I’m not afraid to say that was a mistake. I will request them to renegotiate and come with a better (deal) to assist us. Today the people are not happy on that deal, we can think of one year, two years, five years, we have to think of the future, what will happen? So giving a small land for investment is a different thing. To develop a hotel or a commercial property is not a problem, that’s not an issue. The strategically important, economically important harbour, giving that is not acceptable. That we should have control. We have to renegotiate. Giving a terminal for an operation is a different thing, giving some location to build a hotel is different, not the control over a very important place, it is not acceptable. So that is my position. We want to work with India very closely.
And we want to work with China as well. Diplomatic relations and economic relations are everywhere. India is working closely with China. I know Indian investment goes to China, Chinese investment comes to India. Like that, we want investments and help but we will not do anything, we don’t want to get involved in military and geopolitical rivalry. The other thing that I want to tell the world powers like India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, you know, the reality is they are scared of Chinese involvement, that’s a reality. But in our point of view it is commercial. We are a small country and we want foreign investment to improve our economy. So I invite India, Singapore, Japan and Australia to come and invest here. Don’t allow only China to invest. These governments must encourage their private companies to come and invest, come and help us. Without leaving it to one country and then grumbling.
So I openly say this, because I want them to come and invest in this country. We are a small country, genuinely we don’t want to get involved in these things. Please understand that. Rather than putting pressure on us, understand us and get involved in the economic development of this country. There are many ways: I am not saying only money; take our products—we have tea, cinnamon, pepper, coconut—you can assist in agriculture, there is education, invest in high-tech companies, there are lots of ways. Definitely, I want to cut red tape; I want to cut difficulties in old rules and regulations for the betterment of the country. I will create an investment-friendly environment.
NG: That’s something that people should take note of. But you are going to India on your next overseas visit next week. What are three-four main points that you’ll talk about?
GR: I will reassure the Indian govt that we will work with India as a friendly country. We will not do anything that will harm the security interests and I will request them to help us in investments in many fields and also help us in education, that’s very important, and also the development of technology. I think the present Indian government, even Prime Minister Modi has changed how he approaches the neighbourhood.
NG: There’ll be a lot of things to talk about but I am sure you’ll have a better conversation with him as you come there. Let me just finally do two questions, one is of course the pattern of voting that happened in the elections and you mentioned it very clearly that you would have liked the Tamils and the Muslims to have voted for you but now you have been elected, you are also the President of the entire country. How do you take forward the reconciliation process with the minorities?
GR: I believe development is the answer. For the last so many years, Tamil political leaders and also the Sinhalese leaders were talking about things that were not practical, impossible, only to fool the people. We should focus on what we can do first, you know, give everyone a good opportunity to live as a Sri Lankan in this country, to get education, live a better life, get a good job and live in dignity, so I will create that environment. Let other political things go on; you can discuss but you can’t only focus on that, neglect the well-being of the population. What is important is to develop the countries, develop those areas, infrastructure development. We did what we can, we have continued with that. And push more private industries to these areas, to create more jobs and improve education, doesn’t only mean general education but develop vocational education. For a long period, kids who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school were fighting in jungles. Now give them some training so that they can improve their skills (and) they can get into certain jobs. Create these job opportunities. This is my focus: develop these areas so that they will get equal opportunities.
NG: So, the final question here is this: there is this western narrative about you, especially that you are authoritarian or a racist Sinhalese leader and then the Muslims have a lot to fear from your coming to power; how will you reassure the Muslims?
GR: I think it’s the wrong perception that was created during the conflict period. True that I was in the army for 20 years; I was fighting as an army officer against terrorism, then I retired from the army and went abroad to live nearly for 12 years in the U.S. Then I came back as the secretary defence but then people recognised me only as the secretary defence, they know me as the secretary defence so maybe because of that they think that this man is authoritarian. I am a disciplined person that doesn’t mean (you have nothing against a community). I have proved in my action that I’m not racist; I don’t work only for one section of the society. That is why I invited the Tamils and Muslims and everybody to join me in developing the country, in bringing the country up. You know, the opposition can show me as a dictator or authoritarian or whatever but I am not. People will see in my actions but I want to tell them to join me. At the same time, I want especially the media to not go by the hearsay or rumours and don’t propagate these things; understand me, speak to me, meet me and see how I am doing, how I work and give the correct picture. It’s a small country, developing country; people should help us, not put obstacles in my way. That will not help anybody.
NG: Those charges that were there against some of your officers, sometimes against you also, about human rights violations that have come up in the last phase.
GR: See war is not a rosy thing, whether you internally fight or whether the Americans come and fight in Iraq or Afghanistan or UK govt fights in Iraq or Afghanistan. Whether it is internal or outside, war is not a rosy thing and everything doesn’t go very smoothly but we are a poor country, we are a lesser power so our things are highlighted more. It’s very unfair to do that because as a nation we are Buddhist, we are a very peaceful nation, our history goes back thousands and thousands years and we have our values, our culture is rich.
NG: Existence is very peaceful in that sense.
GR: Yes, so rather than just criticising and I would like to even request the Tamil diaspora to forget these things, nobody is benefitted; rather we must work together to develop our country, help the people in our country irrespective of their (community). I’m sure if the minority community understand this, if they do certain things which create suspicion in the minds of majority community only then the majority community will react. They have to understand that. Everybody is a Sri Lankan citizen if they are born in Sri Lanka. They have equal rights, everybody, but they should not do certain things. They have to understand the reality. However much the society (may) move forward (but) even in the so-called advanced societies, these problems are there.
NG: There will always be differences between communities.
GR: We have to understand.
NG: On that note President Rajapaksa, thank you very much for the time and your very candid views on everything ranging from economy to security to development; it is always a pleasure to meet you. Thank you very much.