If anyone wants to blame me for the Oxford fiasco let him – Sajin

Galle district MP Sajin Vaas Gunawardena who is also a coordinating secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as “Monitoring MP” to the Ministry of External Affairs last week. In an interview with the Sunday Times at his new office at the Ministry, he spoke of the duties entrusted to him in the sphere of foreign affairs as well as about the Oxford Union fiasco to which his name has been linked. Excerpts:
By Chandani Kirinde

What are the new duties that have been assigned to you in the Ministry of External Affairs?

New entrants to Parliament have been assigned duties as monitoring members with the aim of giving them new responsibilities in ministries. As part and parcel of that programme, I have been assigned to the Ministry of External Affairs. The role of the monitoring member would be to function as an understudy, assist the respective minister in whatever way possible as well as strengthen the work conducted by the ministry.

It’s the first time such an exercise has been undertaken? Why was such a move made?

There are 161 MPs in the Government so I think it is prudent that all those resources be utilized. There are 60 or 70 who have portfolios but what about the rest? It is best that each MP be given responsibility. The difference here is their task is going to be target-oriented. Despite the fact we are new MPs and only six months into the process, we have an opportunity to learn and perhaps one day go up the line of succession. The President wants to utilize the talents and youthful energy that young MPs have to deliver what the people want.

Why were you picked for foreign affairs?

I have been associated with foreign affairs for a long time. I have been a coordinating secretary to the President for the past six years and I have been handling foreign affairs on behalf of the President’s Office in terms of coordinating and liaising with the foreign office.

What are your targeted goals in this field?

It’s only my second day in office but I can say overall we have a lot to achieve. The attitude the West has towards us has to be tackled among other challenges. In particular one must understand that the LTTE is projecting itself as a democratic movement by floating a transnational government idea abroad.

In that context there is a huge challenge facing Sri Lanka as well as the External Affairs Ministry. If the LTTE is transforming itself, it must be done here and not outside Sri Lanka. It’s obvious that even today its aim is still Eelam. There is also the challenge in terms of enhancing relations with the west and making the west see the danger in this whole scenario where terrorism is being propagated in a different form and getting stronger. This is something in the west and in particular Britain.

You speak of enhancing relations with the west and the need to convince them about the new face of the LTTE, but hasn’t this government’s attitude towards the west been antagonistic?

We have definitely taken into consideration everything that the west has told us but when attempts are made to infringe on our sovereignty, we obviously have to protect our country. Our country comes first. Our people come first. We are only saying respect us as a country. We welcome anyone to come to Sri Lanka and visit the north and see the development taking place after 30 years of war. The priority of the people is to get back to their normal lives, to build a home and have food on the table. If there is evidence of crimes being committed, then the legal course of action must take over.

Isn’t there a difference between the government’s words and actions when it comes to inviting people to visit the country?

Our words of welcome may not to be acceptable to everyone because they want to come on their terms. But we are not willing to succumb to that. Why are we being penalized to a certain extent? Is it because we eradicated terrorism? If there are allegations of war crimes bring it to us. We have appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which is an independent body. Members of the commission are going around the country and it has given an interim report on which the government has acted.

The government seems to have a particularly sticky relationship with Britain. Your comments?

I would not say a particularly sticky relationship. The Oxford Union fiasco must be viewed independent of the British government. The British Foreign office had no involvement in it. They looked after us and gave us adequate security. The President met 25 members of the House of Commons, Dr.Liam Fox (Defence Secretary) and also the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. We made a request through our High Commission to the all party committee in the House of Commons on Tamils to meet with us but they refused.

Is the India-China centric foreign policy of the Sri Lanka Government driving the west away?

The issue is that the west by and large has a list of items they want us to comply with. First they came up with the GSP, saying you do this and then we will continue the GSP. Then it’s something else. The goal post keeps changing every month, so are we to pander to that? Our primary concern is what is good for our people. India and China are helping us commercially.

Bi-lateral relationships are one thing and commercial relations another. If we don’t go to where we get what we want, for the sake of our people and country, where do they expect us to go to? Will all these western countries together give us the money we need? Their (western nations) economies are also in the doldrums and they are trying to dictate terms to us .Today, Sri Lanka is not a small entity. We have grown to be a strong nation. We want relationships on equal footing.

Your name has figured prominently as one who advised the President to undertake the visit to address the Oxford Union. Your comments?

When the President addressed the Oxford Union the first time, we faced the same threats. Even when he was delivering the speech, there were large scale protests taking place and helicopters were deployed for surveillance. Then came the second round invitation, from Dilan Fernando, president of the Sri Lanka Oxford Union.

But of course the main invitation came from Oxford Union President James Kingston. It was the first time a head of state was addressing the Union for a second time. There was particular emphasis on Sri Lanka because of the end of the war. The victory in eradicating terrorism is a huge achievement not only for Sri Lanka but also globally. They wanted to hear the other side of the story but the whole world missed out on the President’s speech in which he was going to introduce what the devolution package was going to be based on. We thought this was a good forum which is why we accepted the invitation.

We are not fools. We knew that a certain buildup was taking place and that the Diaspora was gathering. Then they simultaneously also brought up war crimes allegations. If the President decided not to go we would have faced more allegations--that he has committed war crimes and was scared of going abroad. Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation and the president is an executive president, the head of a sovereign nation. He is not Sajin Vaas Gunawardena or anyone else.

So we took the decision and we went. We had other meetings also planned regarding strengthening of our relationships. Then after that we found that the President of the Oxford Union had unilaterally decided not to proceed with the speech due to huge protests that were expected. We can’t take a foot backwards just because the LTTE exerts pressure. Sri Lanka will never take a foot back. We will do our best to educate these countries that they are dealing with fire. The LTTE is very powerful there. It has control over constituencies; balance of votes and over some individual members of the House of Commons. The prevailing danger signs are more pertinent to Britain than Sri Lanka. We will ensure that terrorism never raises its head again in this country.

Was the President advised by the Sri Lanka High Commission in London not to travel there?

That is factually incorrect. What was sent was a note explaining to us the prevailing situation which was general knowledge. It was not something we woke up to find out after reading the note. Having taken into consideration those reports that were sent about the general condition we took a decision that we have to go and face the situation.

You keep saying “we’. Who is “we”?

As a government we made the decision.

You did not play a big role as an individual in the whole thing?

I don’t have a big say in anything. I basically fulfil the task I am entrusted with. I am not a deciding factor but if someone wants to put the blame on me, on behalf of my government and my President, I will take it. There is no problem in that but from our perspective nothing went wrong. We actually gained. We proved one point to the world that the LTTE is a force to be reckoned with even politically and needs to be diffused now before it becomes a threat in the future.

You didn’t think it was an embarrassment to the country?

What was the embarrassment? From my point of view absolutely no embarrassment was caused to the country. The President didn’t proceed with the speech due to security concerns. That is one aspect but we attended to our full programme. It is not an embarrassment to the country but an eye opener for everyone that the LTTE threat still looms. Perhaps it is an embarrassment to the likes of (UNP MPs) Jayalth Jayewardene and Karu Jayasuriya who wanted to get the President arrested in Britain.

Will your new appointment inpinge on the work of the Minister and deputy Minister of External Affairs?

Absolutely not. The minister has carved out certain areas of work for the deputy Minister and me and we work as a team. Issues will only arise if we don t work as a team. There is a vast area we have to handle .I report to the minister of External Affairs. He is a learned person and one of the best foreign affairs ministers we have had.

What additional perks will you get with this appointment along with what you get as an MP?

I continue to be an MP and the coordinating secretary to the president and now this additional post. I only take the salary of an MP.I don’t even a use a government vehicle except the security vehicles assigned to me.

The performances of our missions abroad have come in for severe criticism. Even a Cabinet minister recently castigated them for leading a cushy life abroad and not doing their duty by the country?

There is an element of truth in that. I don’t want to go into details. We have to change the archaic way of doing diplomacy as the field has changed drastically over the years. What was good 20 years ago does not hold good today, because the forces against us have also advanced especially with technology at hand. We have to upgrade our missions and have more interactions with them.

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