Interview with Senaka Walgampaya


Late this week, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, Mr Senaka Walgampaya, bought into the debate over the future of his country. Among other things, controversially, he claimed there was no reason for Australia to accept Tamil refugees from the civil war on either political or humanitarian grounds. At the same time, international calls are emerging at the UN and EU levels for a war crimes investigation into the behaviour of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government in the last days of the conflict, which has left as many as 300,000 people, mainly Tamils, displaced. George Negus spoke with the High Commissioner from Canberra.

GEORGE NEGUS:  High Commissioner, thanks very much for your time. After so many years, a quarter of a century of bitter conflict between Tamils and non-Tamil Sri Lankans, it is really almost impossible for the rest of us to understand that that can ever be resolved, particularly by a military victory. You are not suggesting that’s really going to change the deep-seated antagonism between the two sides?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISSIONER TO AUSTRALIA:  I like to distinguish between the Tamils and the LTTE. The Sri Lankan Government has been waging a war against terrorism. It’s war against the LTTE, but the Tamils are part of Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese have no problems at all with the Tamils. In fact, more than 50% of the Tamils live in areas outside the north and east. They have been living so for last centuries. There have been no problem between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is really a handful of terrorists that have been causing all these problems.

GEORGE NEGUS:  Could we talk about the area where the battle was fought so ferociously in the last few weeks? What about the people who were displaced there? We hear figures like 300,000 people are displaced as a result of that conflict. What is your government actually doing about that? And why, in fact, can’t aid agencies, media like ourselves, get into that area now, that you say the military action is over, to see for ourselves what the situation is?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: There are, in fact, 52 NGOs who in the LTTE camps now, so they are permitted to come there now. And the government is facing a colossal task – about 270,000 refugees are in the camps at the moment – and the government is stressed to the maximum but it is providing housing, sanitation, food, humanitarian assistance, medical supplies.

GEORGE NEGUS:  Why is it then that this week the Red Cross have said they can’t work there, given the conditions that apply from your government? The Red Cross have pulled out.

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: No, Red Cross is there today. By my understanding the Red Cross is still there. It is functioning, the ICRC is there.

GEORGE NEGUS:  That’s not my information. That said, what about the media? What happened for instance if I said to you that on Monday morning, I would like to have on your desk an application for a visa to visit your country with a television crew and go to the areas where that battle was fought over the last few weeks, and move about the north and east, and anywhere in your country they wanted to go, to see for ourselves the situation as it exists now. A, can I get that visa, and B, can I go anywhere in your country if I did?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA:  No, now that the battle is finished, I think the concerns of the security of the media and the people that the government entertained earlier, would no longer be there.

GEORGE NEGUS:  You think? But could I apply for a visa and get it?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: Well, you could certainly try, and we’d have to get instructions from Colombo, but I don’t think there should be any problem now. Earlier, the media was not allowed to come into the conflict zone purely for the safety of the media personnel themselves. Because, as you know, the area was heavily mined by the LTTE and if one media person got killed or injured, then the Sri Lankan Government would be held responsible.

GEORGE NEGUS:  But at the moment, with your military in control, that shouldn’t be a problem now, should it?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: It should not be a problem now.

GEORGE NEGUS:  Right. So there would be freedom of movement, we could go to the camps where the displaced people are, see for ourselves the condition under which they are living? Because that situation has been described as being in the same class, bad class, in the same state as places like Darfur, in Africa, and Gaza, in the Middle East – that people are living under appalling, horrific conditions.

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: I completely reject that suggestion. The reason that the government – up to last week, they had 190,000-odd refugees – and they provided them the maximum facilities possible. Now sadly, in the last week, another 50,000, 60,000 came in, so the government, the facilities, are stretched to a maximum, but under given circumstances, the government is doing its best to provide everything for them. So the government has not been remiss at all.

GEORGE NEGUS:  How do you feel about the fact that there are, the EU, for instance, and the UN, and even the British Foreign Minister, David Miliband, said that there are very grave allegations of war crimes that went on there, on both sides of the conflict, that they should be properly investigated. I know it is a pretty horrible term to use with a diplomat, but war crimes is very serious stuff and there are people in the world who believe that possibly went on in your country, not just over 25 years, but particularly, most recently, and that needs to be investigated.

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: No, I must state quite categorically the Sri Lankan Government cannot under any circumstances be held to be guilty of any war crimes. As you know, in the last, maybe a month or so, the Sri Lankan military forces carried out the largest humanitarian relief operation ever – all the people were held hostage by the LTTE as human shields. And it is the Sri Lankan Government forces which provided, at the risk to their own lives, when the Sri Lankan Government gave two humanitarian pauses, the LTTE built fortifications and with the equipment that was given to the NGOs at the time of the last tsunami, probably contributed the Australian government too, the LTTE did not use all this heavy equipment and machinery for development of the humanitarian system, but kept them to build fortifications.

GEORGE NEGUS:  I don’t think anybody would try to absolve the way the LTTE behaved. It was quite abominable and inexcusable on so many occasions. Nobody is disputing that. But if, as you said, there is nothing for the Sri Lankan Government – well, the Sri Lankan Government is not trying to hide anything, if there were to be a UN request for an inquiry into what actually went on there, on both sides, would your Government agree and be party to that if you have nothing to hide?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: But allegations of war crimes itself is a very serious thing. Only if there is some prima facie case of war crimes such allegations should not be made. It is for that reason the Sri Lankan Government has rejected the allegation. There is not an ounce of evidence to say that the Sri Lankan Government has been guilty of any war crimes.

GEORGE NEGUS:  I take that as a no, that you wouldn’t cooperate with even the UN if they wanted to investigate.

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: As I said, there is no evidence whatsoever to say that the Sri Lankan Government is guilty of war crimes. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan Government must be commended by the international community for wiping out terrorism. You know that the LTTE was the most ruthless terrorist organisation and our government has suffered so much, our civilians have suffered so much, our security forces have suffered so much in this process and they – at the risk of their own lives – they rescued – nearly now 276,000 civilians from the clutches of the LTTE.

GEORGE NEGUS:  Mr High Commissioner, just finally, 25, 26, some people say even longer years of bitter conflict in your country as a result of this civil war – how long do you think it will take to rebuild your country so there is any semblance of peace, unity, democracy, the sort of things that you and your Prime Minister, your President, are aspiring to?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: The Sri Lankan Government has pledged to hold elections, local elections by the end of the year, and thereafter, hopefully (inaudible) elections.

GEORGE NEGUS:  And the displaced people? How long will it take you to make those displaced people no longer displaced?

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: The government hopes to settle at least 80% of the displaced people in their own homes by the end of the year. That is a bit of a task, for the reason that the LTTE has heavily mined all the areas. So as soon as the de-mining operations are complete the government has pledged to do that.

GEORGE NEGUS:  High Commissioner, thank you very much for your time. We know it’s a very, very complex situation and thank you very much for sharing your views with us today.

SENAKA WALGAMPAYA: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Thank you.

Interview Producer/Researcher



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