On his first visit after being sworn in as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi. Mr. Mahinda told The Hindu about his hopes for debt-restructuring, and also about projects now on the anvil, although his government will not carry forward the projects agreed to by the previous Sri Lankan government.
You have had discussions at some length with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but no agreements were announced, especially on the $400-million Line of Credit offered by India for infrastructure. Tell us about the talks.
We did speak about several agreements and we have agreed to some of the projects that [the Indian side] were interested in. It was a fruitful and successful meet, for both sides, I would say. The housing project is something that is a priority area for us, and we asked for more funding for that. We have a new initiative, to cover the whole country, every village, and we should like to get some support for that. Apart from housing, there were several projects we discussed.
In April 2017, the previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had also signed a MoU on economic cooperation for infrastructure projects, including energy and oil projects in Trincomalee that India has been keen on. Were those discussed?
We didn’t discussed the Trinco projects, but we did talks about the Eastern Terminal [in Colombo] which India and Japan are jointly investing in, and the LNG terminal. Whatever was signed [in 2017] was not even pursued by the last government. President [MRS Sirisena] actually rejected all the projects PM [Wickremesinghe] had signed. We are not responsible for those projects. The Mattala [airport] project is also out. Our government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control.
An additional $50 million from the LOC have been earmarked for security cooperation, especially after the Easter Sunday bombings last year. What was decided about that?
We have decided that we must have more intelligence sharing now, and increase the technical assistance [from India], as well as training. On the Easter bombings, we have an ongoing investigation into the conspiracy, and a commission is looking into it. We hope that India will continue to help us on that. In addition, we want to continue our earlier [pre-2015] project for trilateral terror and security cooperation between Maldives-India- Sri Lanka. We might have the meeting for that as soon as possible, possibly in the Maldives and discuss how to take the trilateral idea forward.
Your defence secretary has also spoken of security and intelligence sharing Pakistan. Won’t the balance prove difficult, given India’s concerns about terror emanating from Pakistan, which has also held up the SAARC process?
Yes, but we are friendly country and we have friendly ties with all countries in the region. We are friendly with China too. But the Indian relationship is much stronger and very important for us. I couldn’t discuss the SAARC process with [PM Modi], as I know that India is not very interested in the summit, especially since the next meeting is due to be held in Pakistan. I do believe that we have already gone a considerable distance with building SAARC and that should be continued. Now there is also the BIMSTEC grouping.
Both PM Modi here and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, when he visited Colombo have made a point of their concerns for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, and the expectations India has from your government. How do you respond?
We have always understood these concerns. Soon after the war ended [in 2009], we had elections, and we allowed the North to select their own Chief Minister. We held those elections despite knowing we would lose them. But nothing moved after that. We are now expecting to hold our parliamentary elections this April, and after that the provincial council elections. We will appoint a team to go to Jaffna to discuss the way forward.
The way forward on devolution of powers, as was promised in the 13th amendment?
Well, it all has to be discussed. We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for the [Tamil] areas. So the best thing is to hold elections, and then ask for their representatives to come and discuss the future with us. At the moment the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) is not interested in talks. They are asking for things, which the majority community in Sri Lanka will not accept.
President Gotabaya has prioritized development over devolution as the way forward. Is there a difference between your positions?
No, no. People need development. They have suffered for 30 years without it. So first they have to develop the area.
There has been a controversy over the decision to drop the National Anthem in Tamil during Sri Lanka’s national day ceremony. How can you reassure Tamils if this is the signal sent out?
But if you look around the world, the national anthem is sung primarily in one language. In India, you have so many languages, yet on your national days, you sing it one language. Our structure is the same. When I go to Jaffna, to a Tamil school, they sing the anthem in Tamil. We have no objection if people want to sing it in their way. Some political figures are raising this issue; the general public is not interested in this issue.
Your biggest challenge this year will be servicing the domestic and foreign debt, which totals about $60 billion. How do you plan to deal with this issue?
Yes, it is a worry. This is something we discussed with the Indian government as well, and have asked if we could get a moratorium on all loan repayments for three years, until we can revive the economy. If the Indian government takes this step, then other governments might agree to do the same thing, including China. The previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess. It all depends on the stand India takes.
This year alone, you have to pay about $5 billion to service the debt, the highest in Sri Lankan history. Will you be able to do that?
We have to do it, and we will manage somehow. We don’t want to default on our debt no matter what happens.
At the same time, you have said that you want China to give back its control of Hambantota port. Is that something President Gotabaya will raise when he goes to Beijing?
We are discussing it, but it is difficult, as the previous government had already completed the handover of control. I think China may agree to our request on some terms, and we will keep the negotiations going.
During a visit to Colombo, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China will ensure that there is no outside interference in Sri Lanka…What did he mean? Was it an indication to the US, or to India or some other country?
I don’t know, you will have to ask him that (laughs). We didn’t take the statement too seriously, as no one has yet tried to interfere in our matters… other than during the last elections . Then, all the countries got involved in [the elections]. But now we would like to have good relations and work with all the countries.
You mentioned upcoming parliamentary elections. Assuming that you win, as the recent Presidential election results indicate, will you move forward on the 19th amendment, that shifts power from the Presidency to the PM and parliament?
First of all, we have to get rid of the 19th amendment. Then we will think about how we will move forward. [Former Law Minister] G.L. Peiris is already studying it, and we will take opinions on what to do. At the moment, neither the President nor the Parliament has clear powers. So we do have to decide on the division of power. The majority of voters in Sri Lanka voted for President Gotabaya, and that means people want him to have some control of the country’s development and governance, and we must respect that.
Given that the President is also your brother, could the tussle over the 19th amendment cause problems between you?
No, no, no. The way the present constitution is structured and the confusion with the 19th amendment, only two brothers like Gota and I can handle this (Laughs). Otherwise no President and PM will ever agree on this issue.
Finally, what does it feel like to be back here as Prime Minister, after five years, when you visited, but were out of power?
Well, I am grateful to PM Modi for inviting me and receiving me both when I was out of power and now. I never felt the difference, in that sense. Whenever he is ready to visit Sri Lanka now, we are ready to welcome him.