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March 15, 2000
The Rediff Interview/Lakshman Kirelale
'India has big role to play'
For the Deputy Foreign Minister of a nation at war,Lakshman Kirelale looks evenly poised. Yet, the jovial face expresses concern and every word is weighed before being uttered. It could not have been otherwise, as in Madras he is a host of India and the government he represents expects India to play an important role in ending not just the war but also the long-term ethnic problem in the island nation.
But questions remain: what's a Sri Lankan Minister, that too someone sharing the burden of as important a portfolio as Foreign Affairs, doing in Madras when war drums can be heard in his backyard? Kirelale says that he was in India for nearly a week to deliver a keynote address at the White Field sojourn of Satya Sai Baba, near Bangalore, and had President Chandrika Kumaratunga's permission. Considering that even the Sri Lakan Chief Commander of Armed Forces spent time in Bangalore, at Indian Air Force bases in recent weeks, suggests something more, but Kirelale denies it.
"Whatever had to be done was done when my senior minister was here for two months," he said, referring to the hospitalisation of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in New Delhi recently. Excerpts from an interview to N Sathiya Moorthy in Chennai:Sri Lanka has been talking about a role for India in solving the ethnic crisis. What exactly do you have in mind?
India has a big role to play. And we are sure that it will fulfill it.
Is the role military or diplomatic?
We are not asking India for weapons now. We are seeking India's help to negotiate peace in the island.
What has the Sri Lankan Government got to offer this time?
Our President has already said that the government is ready to negotiate with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam anything short of a separate State. She has said this repeatedly.
The LTTE had rejected the peace package offered by Kumaratunga after she took over as President. It naturally has to be more than that. What do you have in mind, a federation, a confederation...?
This needs to be discussed and decided. But the peace process has to commence before anything concrete emerges. We are clear that we want a negotiated settlement without a separate State.
Any specific offer?
No. The 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution has conferred federal status on the provincial council. Now provinces in Sri Lanka have equal powers and rights as States in India.
That needs to be discussed.
For any negotiated settlement to hold, there should be unanimity of views among Sinhalese parties, but that has not happened...
It's not true. There is unanimity among the Sinhalese parties and people now on the need for a negotiated settlement.
But the last time when Kumaratunga offered a peace package, the Opposition United Nationalist Party (UNP) refused to ensure two-thirds vote in Parliament for effecting constitutional amendments. That's how it failed...
It will not happen this time. There is unanimity on this count. But what real offer can be made will depend entirely on the LTTE's willingness to talk. People there say that let the LTTE come for talks, then we can make a concrete offer...
But the Tigers are not known to talk from a position of strength, where they are in right now...
That's why we are seeking India's help. India knows the LTTE better. It had talked to the LTTE earlier and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force had fought the LTTE and even suffered casualties...
After the experience India has had...
The public mood in Sri Lanka is in favour of a major role for India in a negotiated settlement. The Government, political parties, Sinhala and Tamil population and Buddhist monks want India to play a role.
What about non-LTTE Tamil parties?
They cannot be ignored. The Tamil United Liberation Front and other moderates have 20 members in Parliament and their voice needs to be heard and their concerns addressed.
Parliamentary elections are due in October. Will they not come in the way of a negotiated settlement?
Under the Constitution, the elections cannot be delayed. That should not affect the talks.
We mean competitive politics between the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party and the UNP for the majority Sinhala votes, which scuttled a unanimous Sinhala solution to the ethnic issue...
That will not happen this time. Let the LTTE talk, then we can see...
What then about the battle situation?
We suffered initial reverses. But the Lankan armed forces have started gaining ground in the past weeks. We have started getting weapons from abroad and this has improved our fighting capabilities. The LTTE's advance has been halted. Our President has declared that we will not withdraw at any cost.
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