Will not harm Indian interests; leasing H’tota Port was a mistake – President
In his first-ever interview as Head of State, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told Indian media outlets BharatShakti.in and SNI today that he will not do anything to harm’s India’s interests. Dropping a bombshell in the same interview, Rajapaksa then said handing over the Hambantota Port to China was a mistake, adding that he hopes to renegotiate the deal.
Speaking to BharatShakti.in Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale ahead of his scheduled visit to India next week, the President reiterated his campaign promise to remain neutral in the power struggles of world powers, while also working together with all countries.
“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,” said Rajapaksa.
“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, a big country. Though we want to be an independent, sovereign nation, 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,” he added.
In order to do that, the President said, Sri Lanka would need to “open up” while protecting her industry and businesses.
“You have to open up. To get involved in the 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,” he said.
Rajapaksa insisted that Sri Lanka’s dealings with China under the presidency of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa were “purely commercial”. However, he said, the previous Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government’s decision to lease the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years was a mistake.
“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 geopolitical 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 control of the port to China. So that was a mistake,” he said.
“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,” he added.
Inviting world powers such as India, Singapore, Japan and Australia to come and invest in Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa said those countries are afraid of Chinese involvement in the economy.
“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,” he said.
Asked about his vision for reconciliation in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa said that economic development is key, instead of focusing solely on political negotiations.
“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 an 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 and 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,” he said.
Responding to a question about allegations that he is authoritarian or racist Sinhalese leader, Rajapaksa said he has been mischaracterised.
“I think it’s the wrong perception that was created during the humanitarian operation, 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 – (interrupted). 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,” he said.
The full interview is below: