Political settlement ‘very important’ in Sri Lanka: Minister

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : Now that the Tamil Tigers have been defeated, it is “very important” to have a political settlement to end Tamil grievances, a senior Sri Lankan minister said here. Home Affairs and Public Administration Minister Sarath Amunagama also said in an interview that Sri Lanka considered itself “closest to India” despite the huge support extended by Pakistan and China to the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

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“A political resolution is very important. We never fought the Tamils, we fought the LTTE,” Amunagama, here to attend the World Economic Forum meeting earlier this week, told IANS.

The minister said President Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to make “several proposals to win the hearts and minds of (Tamil) political forces” after presidential and parliamentary elections that may take place in the coming months. He said Colombo would unveil for the northern province a political map similar to the one implemented in the east where now a former LTTE child soldier, Pillayan, heads the local administration.

“There will be a Tamil chief minister and a cabinet (in the north), that’s our model,” said the academic-turned- politician. “The chief minister may be (present cabinet minister) Douglas Devananda, may be someone else… We have to be accommodative.”

Amunugama is also the deputy to President Rajapaksa in the finance ministry and in that capacity plays a key role in rebuilding the war-ravaged northern and eastern provinces.

The minister said Sri Lanka was committed to releasing from camps the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who took shelter with the government after fleeing from the LTTE region before the rebels were crushed in May. Colombo says their number has fallen from the earlier nearly 300,000 to about 164,000 now.

“The government has no intention of hanging on to the civilians,” he said. “There is no logic in that. How do we benefit? By the middle of next year, almost everyone will be back (in their original places).”

But he addded that it was important to provide basic facilities in the areas where the war refugees hoped to return to.

Amunugama sought to deny Indian media speculation that Sri Lanka was now tilting towards Pakistan and China because of the huge military backing the two countries gave in the campaign against the LTTE.

“When we were at war with the LTTE, we had a problem of resources. So we had to rely very heavily for weaponry on India, Pakistan, China and Iran. In fairness to India, they helped.

“All these countries were giving concessionary credits. For that we had to establish very strong relations with these countries,” he said, adding that at times India was not in a position to aid Sri Lanka as rapidly as China and Pakistan.

He added that China was “very forthcoming” with investment funds. “They are awash with dollars.”

“(But) we are closest to India. No way we can give India a second place. Our (bilateral) relations are at their best now,” the minister said.

Sri Lanka also had major plans to develop itself economically, now that the dragging military conflict has ended, he said.

The northern region in particular needed a lot of investment to develop its infrastructure – to make up for the lost years in war – as well as to revive its once booming farming sector.

“We need to help the farmers in Jaffna and other places. That region is known for potatoes, onions and chillies. Once they get on their feet, they will do very well.”

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])