BBC Interview with
The Hon. President Chandrika B. Kuraratunge
of Sri Lanka

31 October 2001


Following is the transcript of the much talked of Hardtalk interview President Chandrika Kumaratunga had with BBCís Tim Sebastian.

Sri Lankans all over the world have been critical of Kumaratungaís handling of the interview

TS: President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a very warm welcome to the programme.

CK: Thank you.

Q: Do you think youíre often sold too short?

A: No not quite.

Q: Youíre quite into saying that, September the 17th, when countries like Sri Lanka fought against terrorists, developed nations worried only about human rights and terrorist organisations, wasnít that you?

A: Yes

Q: So the implications from that would be that you think youíve been sold short?

A: I didnít use those words quite like that, but yes, I did mention that in a memorial lecture which I gave on the date that you mention, yes because countries like ours, especially the poor countries, many of them have had this scourge of terrorism. For several decades, Sri Lanka for example, for nearly two decades, we have been fighting wars against terroristic violence, almost alone until maybe two, three years ago.

Q: .... Double standards you have reportedly urged the so-called super powers to change this double standard?

A: Yes

Q: Thatís what you feel? Double standards?

A: Yes, well a little bit more than that, it was a long lecture that I gave and I donít think I have the time to explain all that. But er... Especially in the era of the cold war several of the big powers did support one insurrection or terrorist organisation as against another state, or another organisation in their own self-interest. And this kind of thing has a shortsighted policy perhaps.

Q: There are people who are legitimately fighting for their rights who are labelled terrorists, Tamil Tigers in some way, although they have committed attacks, huge number of attacks against you, your government, your securityÖ

A: The largest number of suicide bombings in the world have been done by the Tamil Tigers, one third of the total number of the suicide bombings the world has known has been carried out by the Tamil Tigers.

Q: So you want help from the world leaders?

A: Yes, we have been asking for help for a long time

Q: The LTTE, the Tamil Tiger organisation, is proscribed in Britain, thatís help?

A: In the last few years, I must say we are very appreciative the world has heeded our call. The United States of America was the first western country to ban the LTTE, and two or three years later Britain did this at the beginning of this year.

Q: So youíre satisfied with that, and the world is also very concerned about human rights, and human rights policy of your government, rightly so, what would you say?

A: Quite rightly so.

Q: Its okay when you say that not once have you allowed any physical excesses against the Tamil people, you said this in a BBC interview the other day. You would stick by them? Not once have you allowed any physical excesses...

A: Not once have we promoted...

Q: You say that you have allowed...

A: I said this in a very specific context, in a context of what happened during the last government which was in power fraudulently for 17 years, where the government organised its own mafia, and policemen and military men in civil to attack innocent Tamil civilians five times over and the fifth time was a huge pogrom carried out against the Tamil people in July 1983.

Q: But Tamil civilians have been attacked under your ruleÖ

A: No, never

Q: Never?

A: Never.

Q: Simply doesnít accord with the facts -

A: --

Q: Let me quote the state department report on your human rights practices, Ďsince April Ď95 at least several hundred persons have been killed extrajudicially by the security forces, or have disappeared after being taken in to security forces custody, theyíre presumed dead.í That doesnít accord with your, not once have you allowed any physical excesses against the Tamil people.

A: Well, thatís exactly what I was coming to. This is as opposed to what the last government did where hordes of their, of government mafia, ran on the streets burning down houses, burning down business places belonging to Tamil people,

Q: So you are saying that it was intentional under the last government? And you are saying this is just carelessness under yours.

A: No, thatís not what Iím saying. They burnt people alive, I was witness to some of these, as I tried to stop it, whereas what the type of thing they are talking about is something that happened in 1995, there has been absolutely no violence against the Tamil people, or any people at all encouraged or promoted or given a hand to by my government.

Q: But its happened nonetheless. Or is the state department completely wrong on this? Is Washington lying?

A: The state department is talking about only one incident.

Q: No, itís talking about lots of incidents

A: In 1995, no not lots, can you tell me what the others are?

Q: Yes I will.

A: Can I explain the Ď95 one? In 1995 there was heavy fighting in the Jaffna peninsula up in the north where 80 percent of the Tamil people of the northern province live it was completely under Tamil Tiger control, and we tried to talk with Tigers for 8 months, there was a truce, and we were talking with them. We lifted all the economic blockades which were put in by the last government, and they are still lifted, and they broke the truce and started fighting again for no known reason yet, and then we...

Q: Talking about the methods used by your security forces...

A: In the on-going military conflict, finally Jaffna was taken back from the Tigers. Several years later, one or two years later, there was talk that 600, 700 people, young people, had disappeared, and parents began to complain. The government investigated it, quite unlike the last government, and they found some bodies that had been buried, purportedly by the army. About nearly a dozen army personnel are under arrest for this, and we have taken very serious action.

Q: Mrs. Kumaratunga, according to the state department, as this report, 24 pages of it, into human rights practices in Sri LankaÖ

A: Can you quote any others?

Q: Yes, the state department says that despite legal prohibitions the security forces and the police continue to torture and mistreat persons in police custody and prisons, particularly Tamils. This is in the latest report. It also says that your 1994 convention against torture does not implement several provisions of the UN convention, which results in torture being prohibited under specific circumstances and allowed under others. Thatís a direct quote from the state department report.

A: Well you do not...

Q: Have I got it wrong?

A: You fail to mention, that it was in Ď94, my government, as we came in to power in Ď94, we brought in those conventions, for the first time,

Q: But they are saying they are not being implemented properly.

A: Well I canítÖ

Q: Despite legal prohibitions the security forces and police continue to torture.

A: I donít accept that.

Q: Why would they say it if its wrong?

A: Well they have to give exact details of those, with incidents, and then we will reply, because Iím personally aware of what goes on, and maybe in some rare instances, one in thousand cases where we do get mad policemen, and we take strict action against them. There was one woman as opposed to thousands of them per year, who, a young Tamil lady who was raped a few years ago by the security forces in Jaffna, and that was the only caseÖ

Q: You say one incident, the state department cites a variety of methods of torture that are used, electric shock, beating, suspension by the wrists or feet, burnings, slamming testicles in desk drawers, near drownings. They donít say one incident. June last year, Iíll give you an instance as cited by the state department Ė June last year police at Kantale near Trincomalee arrested and tortured five Tamils, one died as a result. December last year the bodies of seven Tamils have been, who have been tortured and killed by the army in Mirusavil were exhumed after one person escaped and notified authorities. A commissioned officer and eight soldiers were arrested.

A: Exactly. We have arrested them and they are before a trial at bar in the same way that we have put the people who raped this one lady for trial at bar which is a very special legal procedure Ė judicial procedure much more expeditious than the usual one. Because we want to punish these people.

Q: You want to punish but they say little progress has been made in resolving many cases of extrajudicial killings or disappearances. Donít you see little progress?

A: I donít accept it.

Q: Why not so? Why would they lie?

A: Well there are all kinds of people who want to lie.

Q: This is an official state department report. It comes with the authority of the US government.

A: What is the date of that?

Q: This covers human rights practices of 2000, this is the 2001 report.

A: Can I quote to you a state department report of 1995 or 1996 which I donít have with me now but I can send it to you.

Q: But this is the latest

A: Which has said that about an year or two after my government came in, two years after, which has talked in very eulogistic terms of the huge change in human rights practices that were brought in by my government as opposed to the previous one.

Q: So you only quote the reports that suit you?

A: No, youíre quoting the one that suits you.

Q: No, Iím quoting the latest one. I am quoting the latest one which is surely the most relevant, isnít it?

A: No, not necessarily

Q: Why not? They were right then but they are not right now?

A: All Iím telling you is that -- when millions were being killed, well not millions, but tens of thousands being killed at a time before we came in, and we stopped all that and there are still...

Q: Not according to the state departmentÖ

A: I agree that there are excesses, of course it has been stopped, but there are excesses that happened which is an exception to the rule. Iím not saying that we accept that I personally will not ever accept that but one thing I would like to say is that we are a democratic government, we have 55,000 people in the police who were taken on by the last government who were trained to kill, to rob, to pillage and we have been able to take action against 950 of them, not only for human rights...

Q: But not enough according to the state department.

A: Not enough, I agree six years is not a long time to finish with 17 years of state terror.

Q: But Mrs. Kumaratunga, your statement not once have you allowed any physical excesses against the Tamil people, itís misleading isnít it?

A: Iím telling you, you are taking it out of context. I was talking there, of what the last government did, and that we do not do that. That is organised groups of mafia to go and attack people, not once have we allowed, this is not what we are allowing, these are things that are happening as excesses and every time it has been brought to our notice we have taken the strictest action, against the perpetrators of such human rights violations.

Q: Can I ask you about progress in a particular case?

A: I would like one second here. What the difference you have to make is that this government, my government does not in any way tolerate, and that was what I was trying to say there, that sentence you are quoting we will not tolerate, neither we will encourage in any form, human rights violation of the Tamil people, or even the Sinhalese people.

Q: But in most cases they say there was no investigation or prosecution, given the appearance of impunity for those responsible for human rights violence. In most casesÖ

A: That is not true. Wherever there has been any evidence there has been.

Q: You have to take this up with the US Government.

A: I havenít seen this report, which youíre talking about.

Q: You havenít? Then I will give you a copy of it. 24 pages here.

A: I would like to have that. But wherever it has been reported to the government, I mean to the authorities, the police or whoever, we have taken the strictest action.

Q: So theyíre involved? They are simply involved?

A: These are exceptions. I think you are taking it out of context; these are exceptions to the rule as opposed to what happened previously, and every one of those cases we have taken or we will take action, and very expeditiously. But what I want to underline and highlight is that when the police was made to take people up in the middle of the night, 50,000 young Sinhalese people were killed off; nothing to do with the ethnic problem, people from my party, democratic parties, simply because they opposed the government in power then, they used to be picked up in the night in unlicensed vehicles with the unlicensed number plates, or without number plates, it was the police or military that used to go in civil, in civil dress, kill them, they used to be, you know this was called, .. I donít know, necklacing or something, and rubber tyres put around their necks andÖ

Q: And you are saying the situation is better than what it was, there is one case which is causing huge alarm, which is the case of the journalist, Mr. Nimalarajan. He worked for the BBC, a much-respected contributor to the BBC programme. You ordered an inquiry but nothing has happened. Many people were deeply troubled by the lack of progress. Even the judiciary in your own country has commented on the apparently unenthusiastic approach by the police. How do you explain that? This is something we have taken a direct interest in.

A: We had ordered an inquiry; people had not come up with sufficient evidence which could be due to intimidation, from whoever has done it. There are people in the security forces. After I came in to government, about 13 or 18 young Tamil boys were picked up on the roads, and I heard that Tamil boys were disappearing and I was shocked, for normally it cannot happen, without the knowledge of the state, and then they were killed and their bodies were found floating along a river, which flows through Colombo and we discovered that it was a group of people of the special task force, which is a military body of the police, and the man concerned was in the personnel security in what we call the close protection of the leader of the opposition who was before me the prime minister.

Q: ----

A: We have got rid of them; we have taken serious action, but you know we are a democratic government, they were taken to court, and the case is taking years to be resolved.

Q: Why is it taking years?

A: You must ask the judges and the Supreme Court?

Q: An year ago, young Tamils held in a government rehabilitation camp, in central Sri Lanka were hacked to death, because police failed to protect them, from the organised Sinhalese mob, how did that happen?

A: These are organised things that are happening, we are taking... the investigation is on, there is a commission doing investigation, just before I came I told them, that they are taking too long; it happened six months ago,

Q: So why wereÖ Young survivors were actually cuffed to their beds, werenít they?

A: No, no, no, they were just hacked to death.

Q: This is something the Red Cross drew attention to?

A: Bindunuwewa, no!

Q: Your acting defence secretary says that he first learned about this from the Red Cross, that boys, young Tamil boys, were being tied to the beds.

A: You are not talking about the attack in the detention camp?

Q: Iím talking about afterwards; these are survivors from the attack, they were then cuffed to their beds.

A: There was no single survivor. There wasnít a single survivor.

Q: Then what is Mr. Perera talking about? Mr. W. A. S. Perera, your acting defence secretary.

A: You are talking about another incident or something.

Q: No, these were survivors from this particularÖ

A: No no no!

Q: As soon as we knew he said we transferred the boys. I instructed the authorities concerned not to repeat this because we will not be able to win their hearts this way. It must be the understatement of the decade?

A: The incident that you talked about earlier, there was a couple of dozen, they were all killed. There wasnít a single that was left.

Q: Well he is talking about survivors; clearly there is a gap.

A: No I think you are getting two things mixed up. This was I think another attack in a prison, impending attack, not a single person died, but we quickly transferred them all to a safe place.

Q: When you came in to power? You were elected on a peace agenda? You would accept that, wonít you? Seven years on...

A: One of three major things we were elected on was peace.

Q: And this has been a complete and utter failure hasnít it?

A: No, not at allÖ

Q: On the peace front how many thousands of people have died, since you came in to power?

A: Not at all. Well, Mr. Blair came in to power talking about peace, now it has been five years, he has still not been able to get the IRA to lay down their arms, hopefully...

Q: On the contrary there has just been destruction, decommissioning of IRA weapons.

A: That was just a, that is what we are -

Q: Thereís been a ceasefire for some years now.

A: But it took five years and in Great Britain it has taken 60 years of war with the IRA, of course we want peace, and equally committed to peace as I was 10 years ago. Well how can I quote it? Israel and Palestine; the most powerful nations in the world have tried to bring peace in that area of the world. And it has still not happened, in Yugoslavia much has happened, the most powerful nations of the world have gone in there with their arms and they are still fighting.

Q: Mrs. Kumaratunga just because there has been a failure in some areas is that an excuse in your affairs as well.

A: Itís not at all an excuse. But when you say -- you have failed in six years, six years is a short time, thatís all Iím trying to tell you, but we have done much, I would say that we have done, 70 percent of what needs to be done, to, well generally speaking, to achieve peace in Sri Lanka.

Q: How do --

A: Firstly the majority Sinhalese which constitutes about three fourths of the total population did not until we came into power accept that the Tamil people and the other minorities, especially the Tamil and Muslim minority in Sri Lanka, were discriminated against; they preferred to forget and sweep under the carpet that the minorities in Sri Lanka had problems, all Sri Lankan governments for the 53 years of independence did not accept that the Tamil people and other minorities had problems.

Q: And you have a economic blockade against the Tamil people now.

A: We came in telling the Sinhala people first that we have to apologise to the minorities of the country for all that we have not done.

Q: But do you apologise for the economic blockade?

A: There is no economic blockade, that is nonsense.

Q: No blockade?

A: absolutely not.

Q: Humanitarian blockade?

A: Absolutely not.

Q: Why are people living so poorly in the valley areas, and the areas that are held by the Tamil Tigers, why do international aid agencies estimate that 40 percent of children in the valley areas are under-nourished or malnourished?

A: 40 percent of children in the whole of Sri Lanka are under-nourished, we sent food, loads of food and medicine to the Wanni area.

Q: But you donít allow international aid agencies to distribute food?

A: Oh, they go there, UNICEF goes there, CARE America go there,

Q: Why is Oxfam talking about a humanitarian blockade?

A: I donít know. I would like to meet this Oxfam person. There was a very big economic blockade and an official one under the last government, but we lifted it within 10 days of coming into power in 1994.

Q: So you wonít accept there is huge suffering in the area?

A: There is huge suffering in the whole country, because itís a poor country. Nobody else in Sri Lanka gets free food and free medicine, this area gets it. The rate of undernourishment in the country is about 40 percent in the whole country, not only in the Wanni areas, and 80 percent of the Tamil population of the north of the northern province lives in the Jaffna peninsula right up in the north. I donít know whether if youíve seen the map of Sri Lanka, and that part has now been taken over by the Sri Lankan government by our forces, in the last five years, since December Ď95, and we have had elections, local government elections, there are mayors representatives, local government representatives, members of parliament, we have a minister, a Tamil minister from that area in our cabinet, in the coalition government.

Q: How much are you in control Mrs. Kumaratunga.

A: In the Jaffna peninsula?

Q: How much are you in control of your police, your security forces, how much control do you have?

A: Physical control yes, I would say we have a good control.

Q: Because the supreme court proclaims that police donít take any notice of what they say. The supreme court says that.

A: Thatís not true.

Q: In 1997, in one judgement, when they were looking at the fundamental rights petitions which were filed, and in one judgement the supreme court.....

A: You are talking of one isolated incident?

Q: No, actually the court refers to several, it says that it was not once or twice, we ordered the inspector general of police to take action against errant police officers, but the IGP has not acted on court orders, except in one case to give him another order, -- judiciary a mockery.

A: In what case was this?

Q: The one case? The one case was when a sub inspector was dismissed from service. This is 1997, this is the supreme court.

A: So then if the sub inspector was dismissed from service how can you say....

Q: This is just one case, there are plenty of others, they are saying it was not once or twice we ordered , but the IGP has not acted on court orders except one case, not acted.

Mrs. Kumaratunge: This maybe a couple of times that they have ordered, they may not have happened, I do not know.

Tim Sebstian: Mrs. Kumaratunga, thank you very much for being our guest on Hardtalk.