Interviews - Page 2

Interview: Gotabaya was sincere in his intentions – Nitin

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3 mins read

“During the extensive interview with him, he laid out a very good roadmap for progress and prosperity of your beautiful country. He was sincere and genuine in his intentions,” Nitin Anant Gokhale, one of South Asia’s leading strategic analysts, said in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. However, he concluded that “a combination of factors—some politically naive decisions by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (cut in VAT, fertiliser ban), circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, skyrocketing fuel prices after February) and sins of commission and omission by his predecessor governments and family members—meant that a political novice like him could not cope with popular angst.”

While talking about India’s multiplied responses to the port call of the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 in Sri Lanka, he says that Sri Lankan “officials could have handled it better by informing India in advance about the ship’s programme and avoided a public discussion which would have prevented maximalist positions on all sides.”

Gokhale started his career in journalism in 1983. In the past 38 years, he has led teams of journalists across print, broadcast and web platforms. A specialist in conflict coverage, he has lived and reported from India’s North-east for 23 years, writing and analysing various insurgencies in the region, been on the ground at Kargil in the summer of 1999 during the India-Pakistan war, and also brought live reports from Sri Lanka’s Eelam War IV between 2006-2009. Gokhale is also a popular visiting faculty at India’s Defence Services Staff College, the three war colleges, India’s National Defence College, College of Defence Management and the intelligence schools of both the R&AW and Intelligence Bureau. He now owns and runs two important digital platforms, bharatshakti.in and StratNewsGlobal.com. His most recent books are Manohar Parrikar: Brilliant Mind, Simple Life and R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Certain Indian media channels are accusing Sri Lanka of being “ungrateful” to India by allowing Chinese research vassal Yuan Wang 5 to dock in one of the ports in the country. Being one of the most senior journalists on defence affairs, what’s your take?

Answer: I don’t Sri Lanka is ungrateful but its officials could have handled it better by informing India in advance about the ship’s programme and avoided a public discussion which would have prevented maximalist positions on all sides.

Q: Do you think that Sri Lanka has violated or dishonoured any agreement signed with India by allowing this Chinese vassal to dock in one of its ports?

A: If one assumes that the ship is a military vessel (India certainly regards it as one), then it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, which has mentioned not undertaking/allowing any activity on their soil which may be inimical to one another.

Q: On the other hand, many Chinese analysts think that “India regards Sri Lanka as part of its sphere of influence which is hegemonic ambitions toward Sri Lanka”. What is your take?

A: It’s ironic that analysts from a country that has expansionism as a policy and hegemonic tendency in its culture, should object to so-called sphere of influence. India is certainly a leading power in the region and would have legitimate interests in its immediate neighbourhood as all big powers including China have. So, the Chinese criticism is invalid

Q: One day before the arrival of this Chinese vessel, India was gifted a Dornier 228, maritime patrol aircraft manufactured in 1981, aiming to enhance the surveillance capability of Sri Lankan water. It is a milestone in the long-standing defence cooperation between the two countries. What are the major security threats that the two countries are facing at the moment?

A: Irrespective of the occasional bumps in the relationship, New Delhi will continue to help Sri Lanka wherever possible. The gifting of the Dornier is part of the long-standing defence cooperation between the two countries. The threats in the region are manifold as enunciated by the statements after every meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave, which again is a sign of robust defence and intelligence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka

Q: Last question Nitin; Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave you the first interview moment after assuming the presidency. In a little more than two years, he has to resign from his position due to popular protests. What do you think about his political journey? Is he a failed president? What factors do you think led India to reject his demands?

A: Over the years (since 2006) I have had several occasions to meet Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The interview he gave me in November 2019, was extensive and laid out a very good roadmap for progress and prosperity of your beautiful country. He was sincere and genuine in his intentions. Unfortunately, a combination of factors—some politically naive decisions by him (cut in VAT, fertiliser ban), circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, skyrocketing fuel prices after February) and sins of commission and omission by his predecessor governments and family members—meant that a political novice like him could not cope with popular angst. His ouster was tragic. He, in my view, only has good of the country in his mind. But it was not to be!

Stop Fighting like Kilkenny Cats to Regain Sri Lanka

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13 mins read

“Dr. Singh allowed me to formulate all taxation reforms and I worked them out with some brilliant officers of the Indian Revenue Service,” he recalled when I asked about the secrets behind the success in solving one of the most difficult economic crises India ever encountered. In his mid-twenties, he was the youngest collector ever in India and his journey is a very important trail to understanding what India is today. Revenue Secretary M R Sivaraman, who transformed the structure of excise and customs duties in India, shared his experiences not only on his personal journey but also on the institutions he worked for, including the International Monetary Fund. 

Joining the I.A.S. cadre of Madhya Pradesh in 1962 Mr. M. Sivaraman Ramanathan has worked in various departments in the state of Madhya Pradesh and the Central Government. With over 40 years of experience, he has held important positions at various levels in the Department of Finance, Planning, Finance Commission, Economic Affairs and Ministry of Commerce and Finance. He has worked as Director-General of Civil Aviation & Ex-Officio Additional Secretary of Government of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation & Revenue Secretary, Government of India, Ministry of Finance, New Delhi. He has also worked as Executive Director, International Monetary Fund and was an Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Committee to Counter-Terrorism. Currently he is engaged in delivering lectures on Budget, Banking, Fiscal and Monetary policies. While talking about the crisis in Sri Lanka he says, “Sri Lanka should not be attracted toward models of other countries. There is a temptation that the Chinese model is great or the American model is superb. These countries do not offer assistance for charity and they have their own agenda.” Acclaimed author on fiscal and monetary policy issues Mr. Sivaraman reaffirmed that, “dynasty rule should be avoided at all costs,” while identifying the foundation for a regime that sincerely respects liberty, equality, fraternity without hesitating to admit India’s mistakes in the past in dealing with certain issues in Sri Lanka.   

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Mr Sivaraman, as a Chinese saying goes, we are living in an interesting time. Aren’t we?  The unpredictability of social calamities is becoming the norm. I, most of the time, was surprised to realize the gravity of the old Hegelian saying later popularized by Marx, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  Let’s start this discussion on your early years as a dynamic youth. Born in British India in the 1940s and became the youngest collector ever in India at the age of 25, your footprints are a trail of what India today, as one of the main economies on the planet.  Let’s recall your early professional experiences and challenges such as corruption and bribery you saw, and how do you overcome them?

A: My first encounter with corruption was when as an assistant collector I was asked to trap a corrupt forest range officer.

The man who was asked for the bribe carried marked currency notes to the RO in a remote forest guest house and I was (all of 23 years) was waiting behind a tree near the guest house at around midnight. As soon as the notes were handed over to the RO I pounced on him with a few cops and arrested him. He tried to set his dog on us but it was caught. Then when I was collector I had caught red -handed, a senior Government of India official with a hefty bribe in his hands. Corruption is endemic in every society in different forms. There is also moral corruption when you see something going wrong and you do not stop it for fear of personal consequences. This is the worst form. In my 39 years service I was never afraid of speaking the truth almost following the Kantian categorical imperative excepting when I had to deal with my country’s safety. I had not tolerated corruption in my vast revenue department as its permanent secretary and sent a few to jail and a few I dismissed from service using a rarely used constitutional provision and my orders were upheld by the courts also.

Q: India faces several financial downturns. One of the known scenarios was during the late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure. Political instability was on a rampage, social insecurity is at the helm and the forex balance was shaking. But, Rao’s political wisdom changed the fate of the nation. He took the firmed decisions to restructure the Indian system to benefit all walks of the society. Everybody knows, that his handpick Dr Manmhohan Singh was the man behind this remarkable achievement. However, it is a smokescreen that an individual thinks that he/she alone can succeed in complicated social issues without the genuine support of a reliable and efficient team. You were the Revenue Secretary of India when Dr Singh was the Finance Minister. I know you have discussed the secrets behind this success story in many national and international forums. But I would like to have glimpses of your role and memorable incidents that you could like to recall today?

A: I had known Dr. Manmohan Singh since 1977 when I joined the Department of Economic Affairs as Director and he was my Secretary. Later he was instrumental in my getting posted as Joint Secretary there giving me opportunities to lead many intergovernmental talks and also accompany the PM on her state visits. Dr. Singh allowed me to formulate all taxation reforms and I worked them out with some brilliant officers of the Indian Revenue Service. Never did he reject any proposal of mine in the 4.5 years we were together. On one occasion I had a serious difference of opinion with him in the matter of relieving from the post of chairman of a Tribunal (equal to a High Court Judge in India) I relieved him using my position as administrative head of the Department and Dr.Singh was under political pressure to continue him not because he considered him worthy but the pressure was intense including from the PM. I declined and offered to proceed on leave. He then took the papers, studied them and agreed with me and told the PM that he would not like to overrule me. The PM P V Narasimha Rao did not overrule me. Dr.Singh was gentle and humane and kept a clean conscience as Finance Minister.

Several political luminaries including senior Cabinet Ministers came under a cloud with the SC monitoring a case of corruption under investigation by my department. Never ever I was asked to do anything contrary to my conscience and some of the cases involving surviving politicians are still pending in the court.

In my 36 years of service in the IAS never had I done anything against my conscience and nobody ever asked me to do anything. Mr. Arjun Singh the CM of MP had to quit because of a court judgement that upheld my view as correct opposing a cabinet decision. Even opposition party chiefs were always happy with the actions being taken by me.  On a few occasions there were differences of opinion between me and Montek Singh Ahluwalia Secretary Economic Affairs but invariably Dr. Singh went along with me and so did Ahluwalia.

When I approved action against Sasikala the friend of Jayalalitha then CM of Tamil Nadu there was uproar in TN and a few people committed suicide. The PM who had the support of Jayalalitha did not stop me.  Was it sheer luck or a considered decision by the PM and the FM to stand by me in my tough actions so that the people of India would know that the govt. will allow rule of law to take its course. 

I would not know. But this puts the two political leaders on a pedestal at least during my time. Consistency in such an approach makes a person a great leader. But many fall on the wayside, unable to resist pressures or suffer personal consequences.

Q: You have redesigned and reengineered the function of the Central Excise and Customs of India. Why did you think it was such an essential area that needed to be addressed immediately?

A: The Customs and Central Excise department was characterised by corruption and the only way to reduce it was by making it rule based by removing discretion and all other changes in the tax system were toward that end. When for the first time the Delhi customs was to go online in a new building the construction of which I had supervised the then current Chairman would not come for its inauguration by Dr. Singh when four other former chairmen were present. He thought that it was my project an IAS officer’s and so he should boycott it. While all the 4 former chairmen lauded the effort this gentleman was absent. He was fired by Dr. Singh later when he refused to attend to even budget files. The Custom House Agents tried to sabotage the system with the assistance of subordinate customs officials whose outside incomes disappeared. But we did not budge. Similarly computers were introduced in the management of Central Excise also.

The Permanent Account Number (PAN) was introduced during my time and now it is ubiquitous in India, a dream of mine that has been realised. It is also the basis of the registration for the GST also which I had suggested when the PAN became a reality. This wholesale computerisation removed discretion at the hands of officers and drastically reduced corruption, speeded up procedures facilitating commerce and business and reduced transaction costs. Dr. Singh supported every one of these decisions. Today India’s taxation system is computerised from end to end thanks to the initial unfailing support by Dr. Singh and also the PM. Today’s GST Council of India has its origin in the first State Finance Minister’s conference organised under Dr. Singh to consider the introduction of the VAT in all the astes.

Q: Before we are going talk about your experiences at IMF, let me ask you about an existing socio-political issue on political leadership in South Asia and elsewhere. As Plato quoted Socrates, “no man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness”. I find this statement is remarkably true, not only in ancient Greek but its validity holds even in most of the social affairs today. Mr Sivaraman, Why do leaders fail, though they tried their best to revamp the rotten system?

A: Reforms have to be thought out in all its dimensions of their short, medium and long term impact on a nation’s people and also its external ramifications. When a government has formulated reforms with those considerations in view Leaders who do not devote their heart and soul in implementing those reforms and who are morally imperfect fail. This is true also of Bureaucrats who implement reforms and Political leaders who defend them in public and parliament. A leader must have a high moral calibre that he/she is incorruptible, courageous enough to sacrifice, put public welfare above self and be above suspicion. In today’s world you have to search to find one unfortunately. 

(from left) Expenditure secretary K. Venkatesan, minister of state for finance Chandrashekhara Murthy, revenue secretary M.R. Sivaraman, finance minister Manmohan Singh, finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia and chief economic adviser Shankar Acharya, in 1994.  ( Photo Courtesy: HarperCollins India)

Q: After successful years in Indian Administrative Service, your next hold was in International Monetary Fund (IMF). What triggered you to join the IMF? Who are the remarkable economists you worked with? 

A: Mr. P C Chidambaram a brilliant lawyer every inch an aristocrat succeeded DR. Singh as the Finance Minister but from a different regional political party of TN having resigned from the Congress.

I had a very good equation with him and we put through one budget together.

I never looked for any major assignment as I was certain that I had no political back up. But surprisingly Chidambaram called me in June 1996 and asked me why I had not approached him for a posting in the IMF or the Word Bank as ED, both the posts being vacant. I told him I was not aware of those vacancies. So I also offered to be considered. But after a few hours Mr. Chidambaram called me and said the PM Deve Gowda and some members of the cabinet wanted me to be the next Cabinet Secretary. I was taken aback as there were a few seniors in the service. Chidambaram told me that the seniors have been considered and were rejected and two of them could be appointed to the IMF and the WB. I told him I would accept whatever the government offered me. But political pressure mounted on the PM for Cabinet Secretary’s post as well as for the others. Finally, the PM called me and said that he was making TSR Subramanian a 1961 batch officer and senior-most, although with only 3 months service left as the Cabinet Secretary. He was a fine officer and richly deserved the post. So I had to choose between the World Bank and the IMF.

Montek Ahluwalia a fair man told Chidambaram that I should be sent to the IMF as there one had to actively participate in policy making and will be confronted with the views of some of the world’s leading economists and Surendra Singh the outgoing Cabinet Secretary not an expert in financial management who had been promised one of the posts by PM P. V. Narasimha Rao should be sent to the World Bank. That is how I got posted to the IMF.

Q: When you listen to many talks in day to day discussion it’s clear that many people do not know much about what IMF is and its structural functionality. Correct me if I am wrong, IMF is not a charity but another bank with enormous commitments and different capabilities compared to our local banks. It borrows money from various nations to make it work and lends guarantees or other financial packages to countries in need. So my question is what are the basic principles you need to keep in mind when you approach the IMF for relief?

A: The IMF is an institution which basically tries to maintain the International Monetary System and exchange rates stable, for an orderly conduct of global trade and prevent crises in one country affecting other countries. That is why the Fund has Article IV consultations with member countries built into its charter. In most cases it is an annual exercise and in some it may have different periodicity also. These consultations enable the Fund to evaluate a country’s policies from global a perspective as well from its national objectives. Its advice is not mandatory supplies but the Fund cautions a country when it sees dangers ahead.

When one approaches the IMF for assistance a country has to be sure that they may have to renounce populist decisions and adopt policies that initially may be unpalatable like pricing power and other forms of energy supplies like petrol and diesel at economic cost. Reform sales and income taxation to ensure that they are collected properly. To take measures to promote exports by having realistic exchange rate and monetary policies. On the fiscal front governments have to give up profligate policies. IMF these days are careful to ensure that their conditionalities do not affect the poor. Governments can negotiate conditionalities with the IMF.

Q: Do you think IMF is the panacea for the economic downturn? What are the success stories of IMF?

A: The IMF is not a panacea for all crises. IMF succeeded in the SEA crises by arresting the exit of international banks from the affected countries even though critics condemned many conditionalities of the IMF. I was there and some measures I had opposed myself. The IMF realised its mistakes as can be seen in the evaluation report on its performance during the crisis.

Q: Among other accounts, I was engrossed by a critical analysis of IMF and World Bank where the authors suggested these organizations are turning poor countries into loans addicted countries. I quote, “Once countries accepted the conditions of structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF rewarded them with still more loans, thus deepening their indebtedness—rather like a fireman pouring gasoline on a burning house to stop the blaze.” What do you think? Is there an example you would like to tell that the IMF could have done better than they did?

A: Some criticisms of the IMF are valid as the economists there are mostly theoreticians and have had very little practical experience in handling crises of any country. There are very few, probably none in the IMF who has been a Finance Secretary of a country handling such a crisis. Mere theoretical solutions to every crisis do not work as economics is not an exact science.

Q: Mr Sivaraman, let’s talk about Sri Lanka. I’m sure you need no foreword about the situation in Sri Lanka. You are one of the few who have in-depth knowledge reference to economic condition in this beautiful Island nation, your immediate neighbor. How do you read the situation, and what went wrong here in Sri Lanka? 

A:  I had the honour of representing Sri Lanka in the IMF. It is a beautiful country which successfully controlled its population, achieved near universal literacy, promoted health of every citizen and was attracting the attention of tourists and also administrators elsewhere on its success in achieving a satisfied society.

But political struggles amongst various groups became intense after the elimination of the LTTE. Actually, the return of peace should have catapulted the country to higher growth. This did not happen as the country could not resolve the Tamil issue. The hatred for Tamils by the Sinhalese and vice versa if not eliminated Sri Lanka will never be able to achieve its full potential. Both Tamil leaders and other leaders in Sri Lanka have to adopt a policy of give and take. Tamils must think as Sri Lankans and Sinhalese too have to cease being Sinhalese and be Sri Lankans. They cannot fight as they say like kilkenny cats as then only two tails will be left.

Q: You and one of the known intellects with whom I was fortune to keep fruitful communications for decades, Dr V Suryanarayan from the University of Madras, recently wrote an article about the Sri Lankan situation. The article ended by quoting the famous lines of Shakespeare in Macbeth echoes in our minds: “Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be called our mother, but our grave …” This, I believe, is an attempt to get the worse scenario correct. What is the way out? Apart from giving priority to monkey politics, how can the country’s resources be mobilized to overcome this tragic situation? 

A: Sri Lanka should not be attracted toward models of other countries. There is a temptation that the Chinese model is great or the American model is superb. These countries do not offer assistance for charity and they have their own agenda. Similarly putting one country against another is a game that should be avoided. You may ask what about India. Yes India has its own interests to protect like it does not want to have countries hostile to it having bases economic or military in its neighbourhood.

I know India’s record dealing with the LTTE has not been correct to say the least. But neither India nor Sri Lanka can forget that they are linked for over 2000 years culturally and historically. History may contain many mistakes but they have to be forgotten and move on for a better future.

India has a moral responsibility to ensure peace and stability in Sri Lanka so that its people live in peace.

As regards Sri Lanka’s future I would strongly advise that when once the situation stabilises fresh elections should take place and Sri Lanka should have a Cabinet controlled government accountable to its Parliament with a President as its titular head having limited powers. Dynasty rule should be avoided at all costs. I am not prescribing any measures for its economic stability as I do not have full details on its economy.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP speaks after years of silence

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12 mins read

The story of a man who transformed his life to shelter and educate hundreds of kids affected during armed conflict and due to social disparity in Sri Lanka. He is widely known as KP. Selvarasa Pathmanathan is now a social activist and founded the North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organization

When the world’s one-time most wanted man is given the chance to speak, what does he say? When he is given the chance to walk freely, where does he go? When he is given time and freedom, what does he do? 

His name is Selvarasa Pathmanathan, but most people refer to him as a terrorist. Known as KP, he was a driving force behind the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world, the LTTE. Where is KP today and what has he been doing during the last decade since the brutal conflict ended in 2009?

In the second week of April this year, I visited Kilinochchi in the Northern Province and sat with a man, who today weighs his words more than he ever did. His life depends on his work and words more than ever before. 

He is a case study in searching for the true meaning of reconciliation. He has shown that reconciliation is not merely a game of rhetoric at international forums to gain personal desires but commitments toward helping society uplift livelihoods of ordinary men and women. 

Following are excerpts from the interview:

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Q: Tell me about Sencholai?

Thank you for visiting me and for your organisation to give us some publicity. I have to thank the President for giving me this opportunity to start Sencholai. While I was in custody in Colombo, I made a request to the President, who was at the time the Defence Secretary; I told him I wanted to do something useful for the rest of my life, particularly for children and elders. He gave me permission and allowed me to visit Kilinochchi and to select a place and start a children’s home. It was in 2010. 

We started Anbu Children’s Home in Mullaitivu then Bharathi Children’s Home in the same area. These lands were previously occupied by the Army and when we requested these lands they handed it back to us. Over 100 girls who were affected by the war were enrolled and we are successfully running the school. Most of them are without parents, others with single parents. They lived a very difficult post-conflict life. We wanted to support them through their education. At the beginning in Anbu we had 30, within six months we had over 100 children. And then we started Bharathi. There are over 100 girls there. We are very successfully running this orphanage. This one we opened in 2013.

When I was arrested I thought that they were going to deport me. When I landed here, I thought to myself that my life was over. When I heard of the Defence Secretary who is the President today, I conjured up the image that he was a very serious, stern and tough person. When I landed here I thought they would take me to the cemetery. I said bye to my family in my heart and thought to myself that this life had ended, that maybe in the next life I could meet them again.

They took me to the Defence Secretary’s house. When I entered I noticed in the entrance a statue of the Buddha. When I saw the light I got a feeling that I was safe. I was feeling very low at the time but when I saw this light, I felt a little energised. I sat down with the Defence Secretary and he came and shook hands with me. When he sat down and began to talk, I was thinking to myself, ‘What is going on? This cannot be happening to me. This is the opposite of what should be happening to me.’ 

He was seated so freely and talking casually, contrary to the picture people painted and propagated of him. I got the belief that I was safe. Within a minute, I went from hell to heaven. It is because of this experience that I know what it is like. We discussed both the past and the future. He gave many chances for the LTTE to come to a peaceful solution but they didn’t accept it, he told me. He asked me to forget the past and told me that they were not the kind of people who would take revenge. He told me I could live comfortably without any worries. We spoke for two hours that day.

From time to time he spoke to me and we also met. Within two to three days he let me speak to my family. I think it was the next day. My wife and daughter were worried but when I called them they were happy and he told me that my family could visit me anytime. Within one or two months my family arrived. I spoke the truth. The war had ended and we had to work for the betterment of the society and the country. A friend of mine told me that I was the only one from the LTTE to win him over. The politicians here have a different image of him. If I have a chance, I’d like to write about these stories.

Sencholai – when we took this land they had already named it Sencholai and we kept the name.  Neither the President nor the other officials said anything. This is not for military purposes. There are 140 girls and 40 boys.

Q: After going through all that you went through, how do you introduce yourself?

I am a social worker, I am going to devote the rest of my life to society and children. My life should end with these children.

Q:  Why did you choose to help children?

 Elders have completed their life but these children are like flower buds. If they go to the wrong side, the wrong hand, their life will be over. But if you give them a good life and make them independent, they can live a better life. Even after the end of the war, society is messed up. The children are not safe, there’s poverty, the girls are leading an unsafe life devoid of parents to care for them. We are looking after 300 girls and they are happy. During the last Government I couldn’t do much but now I wish to continue the good work.

Q:  What in your view is the biggest mistake you made?

 I believed the politicians’ lies and I missed the life I could have lived. When I was a student I was studious but upon hearing these speeches by various politicians I went over to the other side.

Q:  Tell me about your parents?

 We lived a very difficult life but they wanted to send me a good school as well as university. I did my Bcom at Jaffna University. But at the end of the second year, I was hunted by the Military. I didn’t enjoy my life as much at university because I became involved in politics.

Q: When was your first visit to Colombo?

In the 1970s by train. Life was different here. People were happy and lived by their culture. 

Q:  Tell us about your teachers growing up?

 I remember each of my teachers and both my principals. This college made me different. They were the real teachers. It was never difficult to learn from them, they even came home and taught us.

Q:  Why did society deteriorate from what you saw when you were schooling?

Certain countries prospered and others were far behind. It was all about the management. Some welcomed the changes and here we took those changes in a different way. They spoiled our country.

Q:  You mentioned that you were emotionally influenced by the politicians at your time. Tell us more?

 Yes, there were several politicians who gave emotional speeches and we were students at the time. They not only misled me, they misled the entire younger generation.

Q: You are a case study of reconciliation, how do you view it?

 Reconciliation is not an easy task. Many people do not follow it. Every day when the situation or occurrence comes to mind, I compare and analyse it myself. So even from 2009 until now I am with security personnel; sometimes I feel something but I analyse myself and find that they are right. There’s no need for me get nervous or worried. I make mistakes but this is a chance they gave me so I accept it. I can’t go back. I have to keep my dignity and also prevent others from going back.

Q:  Tell us why you chose to teach political science and history?

 Every person ought to know their history. Children now grow up with little or no proper knowledge of the country’s history. They need to know how so many visionaries built this country from the time it gained its independence; it is only if they know that they can help build the country in the same way. 

Q: Do you think the current education system fails to teach this?

 It’s all there in the syllabus but there is a lack of teachers. At certain times teachers need to teach particular subjects in-depth but fail to do so. We have struggled all these years because politicians ruled the game but if children are taught what political science is, they can decide what is right and wrong. If they know the country’s law, they won’t go against the law. But if they are not familiar with the law, they will break the law. When we were younger we broke the law because we felt if the leaders were doing it, we could do it too. Children should acclimatise with the law of the land.

Q:  You mentioned you were reading up on biographies. What titles do you recommend?

 Our country’s history, how the kings at the time sacrificed, how they kept the peace. They never compromised the sovereignty of the country for the sake of anything. You see where Japan is today; when the children learn of their country’s history, they are very proud of it. We also don’t have movies about the lives these kings led and wars they fought. We need to bring this to the younger generation.

Q:  When you take your life, you have two eras, one is your involvement with violence and the other one is right after that. You are the best person to understand what reconciliation means and how we should reconcile with each other. Your views?

 Humanity, who a human is, then you realise that Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, it is only a symbol, a mark of religion. We have to respect your religion as much as we respect others. If you understand it, you will find that there’s no difference among people regardless of their faith. Moreover, if children go to mixed schools, they know they co-exist. Even if we have a bitter experience in the past, we need to forget it and move on. What is the point of these differences, what makes one superior to the other? Nothing. If we had to go to France, we would end up speaking French, so why don’t we speak both languages here? It’s the politicians here who urged the villagers not to learn Sinhala, but their children are taught both languages in Colombo.

Q:  If a kid comes up to you and says they had a dream and want to achieve it, what would you say to them?

 I will try my best to see that they are able to achieve that dream. I would advise them not to look at the differences of each other, to respect elders and to be ambitious. Nowadays everyone talks about Geneva, but they don’t realise how much a Sinhalese mother weeps for her child. They don’t realise how many died. It happened on both sides, that is what a war is.

Q:  Now that you are in your 60s, how do you see violence, do you realise that it is not a means to achieve anything?

Most certainly. The only way we can achieve is through negotiations. Violence can help win a war or two, but how many lives and generations are lost in between?

Q:  Since you are well aware of this issue regarding Sri Lanka at the HRC in Geneva, what do you see as being misleading messages regarding Sri Lanka?

 This will not damage our motherland. This is a tool being used by politicians to show these people that they are working on their behalf.  They know very well that both parties made mistakes.  It’s been 12 years since the end of the war, what’s the point of talking about the end of the war?*

Q:  You mentioned that you were reading about Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew. What makes them your favourite leaders?

 How they created their countries. Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s architect and it is the same for Nelson Mandela for South Africa. I always dream about our President in the same manner. I find him to be a visionary and serious about his aspirations.

Q:  You mentioned you had both Sinhala and Muslim students here. Tell us about how you teach them here together?

 Children are children, they are not taught nor do they see the differences among each other. When they come out to play, their differences disappear.

Q:  You also mentioned that you’ve read a lot about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, tell us more? What do you find fascinating?

 I learned about how when you cause harm, you have to also pay the price for it. I always weigh my words and never like to hurt anyone by any means even through words. But it took me over 20 years to learn this. It will not come to you in one day.

Q:  What is your dream?

 I want to see a peaceful, economically developed country where these children have the life they dream of. I’d like to see our people go to Buddhist temples and vice versa. No more mafia, killings and trucks.

Q:  What is your responsibility to achieve this?

 My generation felt it the most because when we were growing up there was no war.

Q:  How do you see the war?

 A game played by a few politicians. Even Prabhakaran misled the youth. When we were young, we were radicalised.

Q:  I’d like to know your view about Islamic extremism as we had a bad experience two years ago. How do you see it?

 We need to look at this seriously. Because believers of Islam are calm and devout people. But someone, people from somewhere, imported terrorism. It is a mistake of the past Government. If our President had been there at that time, it would not have taken place.

Q:  What is your message to the critics of this Government?

 To be patient. Because for over a year the President has been trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. But he is also engaged with Tamil politicians. But I am confident that he will deliver on his promise. What I find amusing are the speeches by local Tamil politicians. We call some of them ‘puthisali madayan,’ which means ‘intelligent fool’. They want to keep people under their feet because it is only then that they can control these people.

Q:  What is the alternative?

 It should come naturally, a better, healthier political climate.

Q:  Tell me about the Tamil diaspora? Do those living abroad play a responsible role or manipulate the locals here?

 There are few who are still manipulating but most of them know the truth. In a few years those who are manipulating will give up.

Q:  What do you see as being the role of the Tamil intellectuals?

 They should accept the truth and the reality, then only can they play a role as an intellectual. If they are bent on their views of a separate state, it’s in the past and there’s no need to talk of it.

Q:  When you pray, what do you pray for?

 A happy and peaceful life for all.

Q:  Who are your remarkable students?

 This girl who is the manager here and another girl at the Jaffna and Batticaloa universities, they are remarkable individuals. They are all special to me. I want to start a school and I want thousands of students to come here and study.

Q:  What is your advice to someone who believes that violence is a way to achieve their objective?

 When you speak to a child, you advise them not to put their finger into the electrical socket or fire, Sometimes these people will touch and return because of their experience. With our experience, our country faced very heavy losses, damage, loss of lives, but at the end of the day nothing was achieved. So violence never achieves anything. We can’t go forward with violence.

I lost more than half my life to violence. In 2010, I realised my life had gone by. There’s no point in crying over it. Even my mother, sister and daughter lost their lives when they travelled by boat to India, I never saw them again. It’s my feeling of loss. All of this happened because politicians messed up.

We have now learned from the past. We need to forget about the past and whatever happened in the past. It is our country and we should live happily and support each other. Everyone suffered losses, not just one ethnicity.

(This interview was originally published in Lanka Courier, an independent and non-profit initiative started in January 2021.)

Sanctions are bringing suffering and death – UN Special Rapporteur

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The use of economic sanctions has throughout history been an integral component of the foreign policy of most nation-states. As a blunt tool of diplomacy, the concept of sanctions has been around at least from the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbour Megara in 432 B.C. Since then, there has been a long history of countries blockading their enemies to compel a change in behaviour.

In the late nineteenth century, economic sanctions were generally used during times of war and took the form of Export controls on strategic supplies and blockades against targeted countries. But how did this tactic morph into today’s “targeted” or “smart” sanctions — measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on key individuals and organizations? They may be more humane and high-tech than a flotilla at sea, but are sanctions any more effective today than they were 2,400 years ago? History tells us, how sanctions failed.

The guest of this episode is Alena Douhan. Alena Douhan is a professor in the Department of International Private and European Law, Belarusian State University. Her research is focused on the law of international security, the application of sanctions by states and international organizations, the status of individuals in International law, Human Rights in the Cyber-Age, and the law of international treaties. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council, as the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. She took her office on 25 March 2020.

She talked to Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian from her residence in Minsk, Belarus. Click here to listen to the episode

Mafia group destroys my beloved nation Venezuela – María Corina Machado

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Unfortunately, a group of criminals have robbed and destroyed Venezuela in the last few decades. Therefore, the prevailing political crisis is deepening day by day; people are struggling to get rid of this highly sophisticated mafia rule, María Corina Machado one of the leading opposition figures in Venezuela said. In this episode of The New Normal, Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian talked to María Corina Machado to have insights about the situation in the oil-rich nation in Latin America.

Maria is a founding member of Vente Venezuela. She was elected a Member of the National Assembly of Venezuela in September 2010, having obtained the highest number of votes of any candidate in the race. However, for her role in civil society, she was accused by the Hugo Chávez government of conspiracy and treason and was forbidden from leaving the country without judicial authorization for several years.

On March 2014, she spoke before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, after the Republic of Panama, yielded its speaking rights so that she could denounce Human Rights violations in Venezuela. For this reason, according to her, she was arbitrarily removed from her elected post by the President of the National Assembly. She says it is a violation of due process and international customary law. She faces accusations of treason, terrorism and homicide, as well as repeated threats of incarceration. But her fight for democracy is continuing.

Claiming sovereignty is our right – Israel

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We are not planning to annex any part of Palestinian territory but we are planning to claim our sovereignty,” Director of Foreign Affairs at Israel’s Likud Party, Eli Vered Hazan said. Joining by Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, from his house in Jerusalem, Mr Hazan, a strong supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to justify every action of the incumbent government which is under fire due to a series of protests in locally and internationally as well as lack of majority in the Knesset. However, Mr Hazan did not hesitate to give us his frank opinions on reports issued by the international community including, The United Nations over Israel and President Donald Trump’s favourable policies on Israel.

Mr Eli Vered Hazan is also a lecturer at the S.I.D College and a regular guest and contributor to Israeli and international news channels.‏ He has served as an adviser to the Minister of Education; a Parliamentary adviser to the Chairman of the Likud faction and the Coalition; and a publicist for Israel Hayom Newspaper. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Eli has completed a German language course at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Click here to listen to this episode

Plight of Humanity – Israel doesn’t want peace

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Nilantha Ilangamuwa, former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, sat with the His Excellency Dr Zuhair Mohammad Hamdallah Zaid, Ambassador of State of Palestine to Sri Lanka to discuss the cordial diplomatic relationship between Sri Lanka and Palestine, as well as the impacts of prevailing crisis between Israel and Palestine.

Born in Ramallah and joined the Foreign Service of Palestine in 2000, Dr Zuhair earned his PhD in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia in India. In 2014 he was appointed as the Ambassador of State of Palestine to Sri Lanka.

Click here to listen to the episode

Secrets behind Cuba’s healthcare – Cuban Ambassador to Sri Lanka

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Cuba-Sri Lanka relationship is a historic one. It has mutually benefited both nations in the last few decades. Sri Lanka is one of the first Asian countries to establish bilateral relations with Cuba. Our guest today is Juana Elena Ramos Rodriguez, Cuban Ambassador designated to Sri Lanka and Maldives. She sat with Nilantha Ilangamuwa former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian at her residence in Colombo to talk about the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and Cuba, the Cuban public health system and challenges in post-COVID-19 society.

The Ambassador highlights among the main achievements of health in Cuba, the low infant mortality rate (less than five per thousand live births); the elimination of 14 infectious diseases in the national territory; the high life expectancy that exists, and the elimination of vertical mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a result that places Cuba as the first country in the world to achieve this.

Also, the Ambassador emphasized that the unjust blockade imposed by the United States on our country is the only limitation to achieving even more effective results in the field of health. The blockade poses extraordinary pressure on Cuba to guarantee the material supplies and equipment that support the public health system and the specific conditions to face the COVID 19 pandemic.

During the interview, the solidarity and humanistic work of Cuban medicine is highlighted. From 1963 to the present, more than 400 thousand health professionals have been present in 164 countries on all continents. In addition, in Cuba, 35 thousand 613 health professionals from 138 countries have been trained free of charge. In this regard, it was highlighted that the positive balance for the lives of millions of people in tens of thousands of communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean of ELAM, is unquestionable.

Likewise, Cuba has made an outstanding contribution to the fight against COVID in various parts of the world. In recent weeks, our country has responded to requests for cooperation without stopping to evaluate political coincidences or economic advantages. So far, 34 brigades of health professionals have been assigned to join the national and local effort of 26 countries, adding to or reinforcing medical collaboration brigades in 60 nations, which have joined the effort to combat this disease where they already provided services.

In this regard, the Ambassador expresses her rejection of the United States attempts to link Cuba’s international cooperation in the field of health with human trafficking or the practice of slavery. These actions are intended to denigrate the meritorious work that hundreds of thousands of Cuban health professionals and technicians have voluntarily carried out and have carried out throughout history in various countries, particularly in the Third World.

The Ambassador states that such actions are an attack against a solidarity effort that has received the recognition of the international community and the specific praise of the highest executives of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization.