Saturday, July 4, 2015

I have more support than 2005 and 2010, says Mahinda Rajapaksa

Former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been a dominant figure in the country's politics for decades. Even after his surprise defeat in the January 2015 Presidential elections, he continues to be in the news creating ripples in the Island nation's public life and in the polity. In what is perhaps a first detailed interview in recent times (conducted over email), Rajapaksa has speaks about his decision to contest the upcoming Parliamentary elections, his relationship with President Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Read on: 

Will you be a Prime Ministerial Candidate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections? If yes, will you be SLFP candidate?

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR):  I will be contesting the parliamentary election with a view to forming the next government. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has extended an invitation to me to contest on their ticket which I and the constituent parties of the UPFA along with the majority of the former SLFP parliamentary group have decided to accept. We contested the 1994 parliamentary election as the People’s Alliance. Ten years later, for the 2004 parliamentary election, we reconstituted our alliance as the UPFA. It was being discussed whether a new alliance should be formed to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election but that will not be necessary now that everyone has made the decision to contest under the UPFA banner.  I have been a loyal member of the SLFP from the inception of my political career.

How do you assess your support in the country?

MR:The most visible political phenomenon after the presidential election of January this year is the groundswell of support that has built up for me in the country. There have been unprecedented crowds at any event attended by me or held on my behalf. The large number of politicians at all levels of government supporting me have done their own assessments and they know that the people are with me. In many ways this support is now more obvious than it was in 2005 and 2010 when I won the presidential elections.

How is your relationship with President Sirisena? Have you mended your differences with him?

MR: The fact that politicians contest against one another does not mean that they have to be enemies. I contested against Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005 and I won. But I never regarded Mr Wickremesinghe as an enemy. I have always maintained cordial relations with the opposition which is why so many opposition politicians ended up joining my government. As for president Sirisena, I maintained good relations with him during and after the presidential election. Going your separate way at times, is a part of politics. President Sirisena and I have been members of the SLFP for decades and we both want to see the SLFP remaining united.

If you win and do become PM, wouldn't it be odd for you to work under a man who was a minister under you when you were President?

MR: The position of prime minister is now different to what it was before the 19th Amendment to the constitution was passed. The PM has a certain defined role to play. I do not see any problem at all in working with president Sirisena in that capacity.  

How do you assess the six months of this government since January?

MRThe past six-month period can in fact be described as the worst period of economic failure in our post independence history. We have had unsuccessful and reckless economic management in the past but never of this magnitude. Although some of the political reversals can be put right with a change of government, the economic fallout will be more difficult to rectify because investor confidence has been very badly damaged by this government. When I handed over the government to the present set of rulers, the country was experiencing the fastest growth in the whole of Asia. The inflation rate had been at single digit levels for more than 6 years. Interest rates had been at a reasonably low level in the single digit range. The exchange rate was steady for over five years. Our foreign reserves were at an all time high of USD 8.2 billion. The national debt ratio had been reduced from a high of 92%  in 2005 when I took office, to a more manageable 75% by the end of 2014, notwithstanding the massive infrastructure development carried out by my government. The per capita income had increased from USD 1,240 in 2005 to  USD 3,650 by 2014. Many foreign investors acknowledged that we had the one of the best run economies in Asia. But today, just six months later, everything is in shambles. The economy has slowed down; all infrastructure development has stopped; foreign reserves are going down sharply; unemployment is soaring; government finances are in complete disarray with revenue in decline and government expenditure going out of control; the rupee is sliding rapidly against the USD. In addition to all this the apex institution of the banking system the Central Bank is mired in a financial scandal that has so far cost the government over Rs. 55 billion. Never in living memory have we had an economic catastrophe of this magnitude in such a short period of time.

What will be your main campaign plank in the upcoming elections?

MR: We have three main priorities - to put the economy back on track, to dismantle the police state apparatus set up by the UNP government and to restore democracy and to deal with threats to our sovereignty and national security that have arisen since January this year. 

How will you win back the trust of the minorities who it is widely believed, voted in large numbers against you.

MR: My government rescued the Tamil people of the North and East from the LTTE. Now their children are not being forcibly recruited by a terrorist organisation and they can  lead a normal life. Many Tamil people realise this which is why the number of votes I got from the Tamil people of the North doubled between the presidential elections of  2010 and 2015. But for the past six decades or more, the Tamil people have been misled by their leaders who have been showing them the mirage of a separate state. At presidential elections, Tamil people are told to vote for a candidate who would help them come closer to that goal. I can’t compete with that. But what I can do is to give the Tamil people the same facilities and opportunities that everyone else in this country has, and there is no leader who has given the Tamil people more in that respect than I have. Our party used to get a certain proportion of the votes from the Muslim community either directly or through Muslim political parties allied with us. From 2012 onward, Western powers promoted various anti-Muslim extremist groups to disturb the peace that our government had established. The leaders of Muslim political parties saw this as an opportunity to increase their votes and they spread the story that my government was sponsoring these extremist groups. Many of the Muslims who voted against us would by now have realised that my government had nothing to do with these extremist organisations and that the latter are in fact opposed to me.

How do you see the recent US report that all the overground support network of the LTTE is still intact?

MR: We defeated the LTTE’s war machine in 2009. But their overseas financial and political networks based in Western countries continued to remain active. The LTTE rump now uses these funds to buy influence in Western capitals through which they expect to achieve their goal of a separate state.

10. Prime Minister Ranil has challenged you for a straight contest? Will you take up the challenge?

MR: Absolutely. Mr Wickramesinghe contested against me in 2005 and thereafter never faced me at an election. This time around, he is compelled to face me because there is no way of escaping the contest.

Will the India-China rivalry in Sri Lanka once again be a political campaign point in the upcoming elections?

MR: Sri Lanka has always had close relations with China from the early 1950s onwards. India’s concern about Sri Lanka’s relations with China is a new phenomenon which has come about in the past few years in the context of the rivalry between India and China as the world’s rising superpowers in Asia. We need to maintain good relations with both India and China. Sri Lanka will never pose a threat to India, and we have nothing to gain by helping any other country to become a threat to India. In this context I wish to recall the role played by our late leader Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike who mediated between India and China in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. My government was too absorbed with domestic issues such as the war against terrorism and development to play a role in international affairs like Mrs Bandaranaike. But the role that she played during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 has great relevance today. I intend doing what I can to be a bridge between these two rising superpowers.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why AFSPA can be lifted in some areas but should not be repealed

        Latest figures figures available from the Ministry of Defence (MoD):

HR Allegations
Number of unverified allegations recd
Punished by Army Auth
* After detailed investigation. 


HR Allegations
Number of unverified allegations recd
Punished by Army Auth
*After detailed investigation

Meanwhile, below is my take on the subject from November 2014 (still relevant)
Two developments in Kashmir during the past fortnight have brought back the focus on the Indian Army and the much-misunderstood Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.
First, the killing of two teenagers in Badgam by troops of the Rashtriya Rifles and the subsequent admission by the Northern Army Commander Lt Gen D S Hooda that "we made a mistake," has given a handle to the critics of the AFSPA and fueled once again the oft-repeated demand to repeal the law.
However, the verdict in the high-profile Machil fake encounter case of 2010 that sentenced five army men to life under the Army Act, 1950 (the punishment will have to be confirmed by the Northern Army Commander) within days of the Badgam incident has silenced -- even if momentarily -- critics of the army’s justice system.
But going beyond the immediate, a closer look is needed at the army’s deployment, the application of the AFSPA and the circumstances under which it has come to acquire such negative connotations. Discussion on the law, however, gets clouded by emotions, distrust and even lack of understanding about the circumstances under which it is applied.
When the AFSPA was made applicable in the state of J&K in 1990, India was fighting a well-funded proxy war fuelled by an implacable adversary. In the past 25 years, the country’s collective efforts have brought down all known parameters of violence down to manageable levels with the help of the Indian Army. 
For a majority of the last quarter century, the army was the only functioning government agency in most parts of Kashmir. It ran schools, conducted vocational training programmes, built roads, set up micro-hydel plants and provided medical relief in remote areas. The army -- Rashtriya Rifles, to be precise -- was like the one-stop service centre for the local population. But it’s certainly time for the army to ‘step back’ a little in J&K and allow the civil administration to start playing its part in providing good governance.
That said, the army has sound reasons to resist the withdrawal of AFSPA. For instance, it says lifting of AFSPA from urban areas/large towns in J&K will result in terrorists seeking shelter in such areas and rebuilding their bases, as has been witnessed in Manipur’s capital Imphal post-2004.
While there may be a comparative decline in terrorist violence, there is no change in the Pakistani ideology and will to support proxy war in J&K. The infrastructure to support such a proxy is all intact and being regularly upgraded. Between 35 and 42 training camps are active in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Moreover, counter-terrorist operations by the army are not restricted to the Line of Control but cover the entire state.
Administrative support including convoys carrying army personnel and stores moving to the LoC pass through urban areas in the hinterland and are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Hence AFSPA cannot be applied in pockets of J&K along the LoC while withdrawing the act from the remaining areas, as is being advocated by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah or even former Home Minister P Chidambaram.
Critics have often chafed at the provisions under Sections 3, 4, 6 and 7 of the AFSPA for being ‘draconian.’ What exactly are these provisions?
Section 3: It lays down the authority which has power to declare areas as ‘disturbed’.  These authorities are the central and the state governments. So the army does not declare the area as disturbed. 
Section 4: It gives the army powers to search premises and make arrests without warrants, to use force even to the extent of causing death, destroy arms/ammunition dumps, fortifications/shelters/hideouts and to stop, search and seize any vehicle. 
Section 6: It stipulates that arrested persons and seized property are to be made over to the police with least possible delay.  
Section 7: It offers protection of persons acting in good faith in their official capacity. Prosecution is permitted only after sanction by the central government.
These provisions came up for scrutiny before a constitution bench of the Supreme Court in a case titled ‘Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights Vs UOI’.  The five-judge bench elaborately dealt with the challenge to the legality of deployment of the armed forces in aid to civil power. The court had then unambiguously ruled that AFSPA cannot be regarded as a colourable legislation or a fraud on the Constitution. 
The apex court said that the conferring of powers vide Section 4 of AFSPA could not be held arbitrary or violative of Article 14, 19 or 21 of the Constitution. In fact, having considered the role and circumstances under which the armed forces have to operate, the Supreme Court extended the scope of powers vested vide 4 and 6 of AFSPA so as to include by implication, the power to interrogate the person arrested. 
It also allowed the armed forces to retain the weapons seized during the operations in their own custody rather than to hand them over to police authorities.
The mere fact that the provisions of AFSPA have to be invoked in a particular area ex facie establishes that handling the law and order situation had gone beyond the control of the state government. The army personnel operating in those circumstances need to enjoy at least similar powers as the police force if not wider ones. So, just as Section 45 of the CrPC disallows arrest of public servants and just as Section 197 provides impunity against prosecution, Section 7 of the AFSPA gives similar protection to the army personnel. Nothing more, nothing less.
And yet, most opponents of the AFSPA have chosen to either downplay or completely ignore this similarity. In the case of J&K, the army needs legal protection all the more since applicability of CrPC is disallowed in the state that operates under a different set of laws called the Ranbir Penal Code.
So what is the way forward?
The revocation of AFSPA from any area needs a concerted view of all organs of the state and Centre. A suggested way is to convert these areas into police administered areas/police districts as was done for Srinagar initially without revoking AFSPA. Subsequently, as the situation improves, while evolving the revocation, an exit strategy needs to be worked out for gradual withdrawal of armed forces from the specified area leading to a smooth transition.
Lifting the AFSPA can certainly be attempted but the provisions of the AFSPA, as an emergency law that empowers the army -- the nation’s instrument of last resort -- must continue to remain on the statute books given the increasingly violent and uncertain times that the subcontinent is likely to face in coming years.
When needed, it must be applied in small doses. Every country has to balance the need for a stringent law with the basic principles of ensuring human dignity and human rights. Therein lies the challenge for India’s leadership.
Nitin A Gokhale is security & strategic affairs editor with NDTV.