Sri Lankan president responds to questions on camps for displaced Tamils

Narasimhan Ram from the Indian daily, The Hindu, has been given rare access to conduct an extended interview with President Mahinda Rajapakse at Temple Trees in Colombo. Also present at the interview were Lalith Weeratunga (Secretary to the President), and P.M. Amza (Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in Southern India.)

In an extended -three part- interview, Rajapakse talks to N. Ram about the Tamil Tigers, his attempts to negotiate with Prabhakaran, and what prompted him to go into an all out war against the rebels.

In part one of the published interview, Rajapakse addresses the situation of the internally displaced Tamil citizens currently housed in refugee camps.

"I sent some people close to me to the camps. They went and stayed for several days. They spoke to the girls, the Tamil children, and others. And they came and reported to me. I don’t rely on information only from the officials," said Rajapakse when asked if he was satisfied with conditions in the Vavuniya IDP camps.

Sri Lanka's camps for the displaced. Photo byForeign and Commonwealth Office. Used here under a Creative Commons license.

"There is a problem with lavatories. That is not because of our fault. The money that comes from the EU and others, it goes to the NGOs [Aid groups] and the U.N. They are very slow; disbursing money is very slow. We supply the water tanks; we have spent over [Sri Lankan] Rs. 2 billion. Giving electricity, giving water, now we are giving televisions to them. They have telephone facilities. Schools have been established. Some of the leaders are using mobile phones. I had a special meeting on the disposal of waste. I sent a special team of specialists to see how mosquitoes can be eradicated," added Rajapakse who says his government is trying to bring some normalcy to the lives of the displaced.

Rajapakse also claims that the decision to allow senior citizens - over the age of 60 - to leave the camps, had backfired. He claimed that a 74 year old senior Tamil Tiger (LTTE) leader had fled to Singapore after being released.

The man's involvement with the Tigers had only been identified after he had used the opportunity to flee. Intelligence reports pointed to the fact that the 74 year old was in possession of a 'money list' which Tiger supremo Prabhakaran had distributed amongst his most trusted comrades.

Rajapakse was quick to admit that, having spoken to the displaced about their concerns, he did not know precisely when the displaced will be allowed to move out, or how he could allow some degree of free movement at the moment.

He said, "Their problem is movement, freedom of movement. Since there are security concerns, I don’t know how to do that immediately."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to children at the Manik Farm camp for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) during a visit there to see first hand the humanitarian situation. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

Rajapakse assured Ram that returning these people back to their homes was priority, but he could not do so without "the certificate of de-mining from the U.N."

"As soon as we get the clearance, I’m ready to do that. But before that I must get the clearance from the U.N. about the de-mining," he said.

"I can’t send them to a place without basic facilities. Now we’re spending on electricity, on roads, on water. We can’t send them back to a place where there are just jungles. Every square centimetre has been mined by the LTTE. If something happens, I am responsible," added Rajapakse.

On Prabhakaran, and the LTTE after his death, Rajapakse said that he knew why Tamils felt proudly of the slain Tiger leader.

"My view is this. Most Tamil people believed they had a leader – whether he was right or wrong. This man [Prabhakaran] made them proud. It was a ruthless organisation, it killed people, those are all immaterial for others," he said.

"They thought: There is a leader who is keeping us up in the world. Suddenly that leadership vanished, after thirty years. Immediately they couldn't digest it. Many of them know he was wrong. It will take time. Some of these people, the older people, can’t accept it yet," says Rajapakse.

Rajapakse says he "fears" that the overseas remnants of the terror group would do everything in it's power to create a situation, in Sri Lanka, where it could portray it's self as liberators.

"My fear is this. Now, to collect money again, somebody will have to plan something here. Just one incident. Just to upset the world and then to show they have started the movement – so that they can continue to collect the money. They think that will help. But we are very vigilant," said Rajapakse.

Part one of the interview is located here, and part two here. The third and final segment of the interview is yet to be published.

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