India is a relative, China a friend, says Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda RajapaksaCHENNAI: Gearing up for a tough Presidential election in January 2015, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa described India as his relative and China as a friend.

“I will not allow my soil to be used against my friends and neighbours. That will not happen in Sri Lanka as long as I’m here,” Rajapaksa said in a rare interview to a Chennai-based Tamil television channel.

Thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his foreign policy initiatives, Rajapaksa in a 30-minute interview to ‘Thanthi TV’ telecast on Monday said: “The Indian PM has opened up his foreign policy to enable our two countries to have stronger ties. That is what enabled me to take the decision to release the (five) Indian fishermen, who were sentenced to death (for smuggling narcotics).”

The interview comes at a time when there is growing hostility against Rajapaksa among some pro-Eelam parties and aggressive posturing by mainstream parties in Tamil Nadu on the fishermen issue.

But in recent months the new bonhomie between Modi and Rajapaksa saw defusing of diplomatic tensions resulting in both sides releasing fishermen detained for maritime violations.

To a question on the nature of his relationship with Modi, the Lankan president said, “We have spoken many times. I think we have very similar visions for our countries, which is what has made it possible for us to further strengthen our relations. I believe our relations will continue to grow in a number of areas”.

On Chinese warships being permitted to dock in Lanka ports, Rajapaksa said India was aware of it.

“Whenever they (Chinese warship) come this side they always inform the Indian high commissioner in Colombo. They inform them that they are going towards Middle East and that they are going to be here.

“Close to the Chinese President’s visit, we had seven warships surrounding the country,” he said.

China President Xi Jinping had made a two-day visit to Sri Lanka in September this year.

On reports that India expressed displeasure over the issue, Rajapaksa said Indian authorities had only conveyed the request that they wanted to know about the movement.

“I told the authorities that any time, if any country wants to come for water, or fuel, it is open to anybody,” he said.

This was not the first time a warship has come to Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa added.

On the fishermen issue that often exposed cracks in diplomatic relations between the two countries, Rajapaksa denied allegations of attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen.

“We have nothing to do with any attacks. We won’t do it. We have given clear instructions that we must not attack anybody. That won’t happen. These are all propped up stories,” he said, adding that fishermen problem was a humanitarian problem.

“This is how I saw it from the day I became the minister of fisheries in the 1990s. Fish don’t know borders. They just go up and down.”

Rajapaksa denied allegations that though there was an elected government in Tamil-dominated Northern Province in Sri Lanka, it was not given any powers and that a parallel administration was being run by the Governor.

“They (elected Tamil National Alliance government) have the freedom to do anything they want. Unfortunately, they won’t do it. They don’t want to do it. They won’t say they are incapable of delivering what the people want. But they just put the blame on us and the Governor,” he alleged.

“If he (chief minister C V Wigneswaran) wants he can do it. We send money to them. It is up to them to decide,” Rajapaksa added.

To a question on whether he was anti-Tamil, the president retorted, “How can I be anti-Tamil? You better ask the Tamil MPs and ministers in my cabinet. I can’t go against the Tamils.

“My niece is married to a Tamil from Jaffna. Another niece is married to a Muslim from Kandy. We have relations,” he said.

“Inter-marriages among Tamils, Muslim and Sinhalese happen. I always treat everybody alike. I am the President of this country. I can’t be taking sides, thinking about religion, caste and race.

“The opposition is always trying to take votes from us and keep people away from us and throw mud at us,” he said.

Rajapakse seeking fresh mandate

The Sri Lanka presidential election will take place on January 8.

Rajapaksa called for elections two years ahead of schedule in an apparent attempt to seek fresh mandate before his party’s popularity tumbled further, after dropping over 21% in the September local elections.

The incumbent president faces a stiff challenge from his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, the opposition’s candidate.

But Rajapaksa argued that there was no united opposition against him.

“United opposition? Who are these people? UNP is the main party. The main party couldn’t find a candidate.

“The leader of the opposition (Ranil Wickramasinghe) did not want to contest. UNP is the biggest opposition party. Others are just individuals,” he said.

Queries about war crimes against Rajapaksa’s regime and demand by international communities and human rights organizations for a probe did not figure in the interview.

Meanwhile, few political parties including Vaiko’s MDMK and VCK objected to the Rajapaksa interview being telecast. MDMK cadres staged a protest in front of the channel’s office on Monday.

Journalist associations and a section of political leaders including BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan condemned Vaiko for ‘threatening’ the media. – From the Times of India

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