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'We will hang him!’ - A glimpse of Gotabaya

As Sri Lanka’s new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa takes up office, we look back on a brief selection of interviews he gave to international media outlets during his tenure as secretary of defence.

 

‘We will hang him!’

In 2010, whilst still Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave a particularly insightful interview to BBC Hardtalk, where he touched on several different issues.

When asked about claims from former army commander Sarath Fonseka that Rajapaksa personally ordered executions, he responded by accusing Fonseka of treason and threatening to hang him.

See the transcript below.

Interviewer: Are you worried that you personally may be accused of war crimes?

Rajapaksa: No I am not worried because I have not done any crimes. Is fighting terrorism a crime? Is fighting terrorism a crime?

Interviewer: Depends how you fight it. Depends what you do.

Rajapaksa: There is only way to fight terrorism. Fight.

Interviewer: If you believe you are involved in a war on terror it would not allow you for example to give an order to one of your senior officers telling him to shoot people who are trying to surrender waving a white flag.

Rajapaksa: No. I have never any instruction. Nobody has done that. Nobody has done that.

Interviewer: Well you know that the army commander at the end of the war has since given interviews in which he says he has information that you gave an army commander the instruction to shoot…

Rajapaksa: That is political issues, you know who he is. He contested for his personal gains. Don’t drag him in to this.

Interviewer: This is General Fonseka who says he has information that you gave the order to shoot the…

Rajapaksa: That is a political game.

Interviewer: Well I want to talk about that. You keep saying it's a political game. Is the fact that General Fonseka is now in detention…

Rajapaksa: He’s there. He’s lying!

Interviewer: … faces court martial. Is that because he in essence accused you of a war crime? And he also…

Rajapaksa: That is one point! That is what I mean. Yes.

Interviewer. And he also said he would testify before an independent war crimes investigation. Is that what you are frightened of?

Rajapaksa: Yes. It is that one point. He can’t do that. He was the commander. He is responsible. That is treason. We will hang him if he do that! I am telling you. That is treason. How can you tell that? How can he lie that? How can he betray the country? How can he... by such lies. If he says that, he's a liar. He’s a liar!

Interviewer: You would have him executed for testifying before an independent tribunal investigating war crimes.

Rajapaksa: What I am saying is for betraying a country. Lying. Betraying soldiers. Isn’t that a crime? Is that a treason?

 

‘Obviously federalism is out’

In the same interview, Rajapaksa said he was against devolving power to Tamil provinces. 

See the transcript below.

Interviewer: Are you saying then that for the moment you are not prepared to consider federalism? Changing the arrangement by which this country is run?

Rajapaksa: Obviously federalism is out. I mean… I’m not a spokesman for politicians. Nobody is prepared to talk about federalism and all those things because that is not for our… we have agreed according to the constitution it is a unitary state. We don’t want to talk about all those things. 

Rajapaksa went on to claim there was “not a single case” of war crimes.

 

‘These are LTTE propaganda’

When asked about the murder of journalists who have been critical of the government, Rajapaksa claimed that the killings were “LTTE propaganda”.

See the transcript below.

Interviewer: There is an authoritarian tendency in Sri Lanka. Is it justifiable for example...

Rajapaksa: No, see this is very unfair to use these words. It is very unfair. We have a democratically elected president. A democratically elected government

Interviewer: But you don’t for example have a free press, do you?

Rajapaksa: These… I don’t know why people are harping on these things.

Interviewer: I’ll tell you why because there is great concern that journalists who write, perhaps critical pieces about your government…

Rajapaksa: No

Interviewer: … perhaps end up in serious trouble and some of them end up dead, as you well know.

Rajapaksa: These are LTTE propaganda. These are propaganda by people who are against the government. So the international community goes on…

Interviewer: Forgive me, it’s not propaganda that Lasantha Wickremetunge…

Rajapaksa: No this is propaganda.

Interviewer:… the editor of the Sunday Leader was assassinated on the streets of the capital. That’s not propaganda.

Rajapaksa: No. Read the papers. Read the daily papers. Read the weekend papers.

Interviewer: I’ve read all the papers.

Rajapaksa: How many tabloids criticise the government, criticise the… not… criticising is fine, but how many bogus reports? How many mud slinging? You know, all these things…

Interviewer: Hang on a minute, when Mr Wickremetunge wrote his valedictory piece, he foretold his own death. He wrote this, he said, and this is just days before he was shot dead on the streets of Colombo. “Murder,” he said, “has become the primary tool whereby the state seems to control the organs of liberty…”

Rajapaksa: Don’t go by these people who are writing against… you know there are enough people…

Interviewer: Well, he’s not writing anymore. He’s dead

Rajapaksa: Today, I can show you enough papers written against the President of America or Prime Minister of UK.

Interviewer: Well of course you can, and when I criticise the prime minister of Britain I do not end up with a bullet in the head.

Rajapaksa: Criticising is different! I can show you enough tabloids, you. know quoting a lot of parliamentarians, ministers in the UK… but you know, are you going to believe all this and are you going to question people on those lines?

 

‘He is a terrorist!’

In 2009, Australia's Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) program Dateline interviewed Rajapaksa and asked him about arrested Tamil journalist Nadesapillai Vithyatharan. "Mentioning the editor's [Vidyadaran's] name provoked a surprising response," said Amos Roberts.

See the transcript below.

Interviewer: Is Mr Vidyadaran, the editor of Sudar Oli….

Rajapaksa: He’s involved in the recent air attacks! I am telling you if you try to give a cover up for that person, you have the blood in your hands! We have definite information on that and if somebody tells he is arrested because of media, that person also has blood for innocent civilians that died in Colombo.

Interviewer: I just heard on my way to the interview this morning…

Rajapaksa: That is the good thing you asked for that. Good thing that he asked for that. I am telling you with responsibility, he is a terrorist. He was in charge of… he is responsible for teams co-ordinating air attacks in Colombo, I will arrest…We have arrested him! And it is this thing, the right thing to do. And we will take legal action against him.

 

‘You are supporting the terrorist cause!'

Speaking to the BBC in 2012, Rajapaksa accused the organisation of “supporting the terrorist cause”. When asked about disappearances, he flatly denied such incidents had occurred.

See the transcript below.

Interviewer: There have been many, dozens of disappearances, many of them in Colombo just since October.

Rajapaksa: That is wrong actually. You are taking this from some website, no?

Interviewer: No I met some of the families of the victims myself. In particular the wife of a man called Ramasamy Prabhakaran who was abductyed from outside his house in March in front of his wife and daughter just after being released from police custody where he’d been for two years. And he’s not the only example.

Rajapaksa:…There are certain people who are in the underworld who are responsible for a lot of crime and who are drug dealers who do various things here. It’s various easy to go to India… These are wrong. Wrong allegations.

Interviewer: They are wrong allegations because I’ve met the victims

Rajapaksa: Don’t get angry! Usually I get angry so you don’t get angry! Ok. You don’t get angry. I am the secretary of defence, I have investigated this. You don’t take the word from these people, take the word from me. These are lies… to give a wrong image of Sri Lanka by the rump of this LTTE which is remaining outside and trying to damage the image of Sri Lanka.

He went on to state,

"All this we have stopped... but you don't talk about that. You are supporting the terrorist cause!”

 

‘Who is Lasantha?’

In 2009 he was interviewed by the BBC and asked about the murder of Sinhala journalist Lasantha Wickremetunge, just weeks after he was gunned down in Colombo.

See the transcript below.

Rajapaksa: Who is Lasantha Wickremetunge? That is just another thing… There are so many murders in everywhere, in the whole world there are murders, why are you asking for Lasantha? Who is Lasantha? He is somebody who was writing for a tabloid. Who is he? I am not concerned about that.

Interviewer: But you know what’s been said…

Rajapaksa: People are... these are, why people are so worried about one man? There are LTTE killed so many people, why are you not asking about them? Who is Lasantha? Tell me , what is important about him?

Interviewer: Well, people think he was killed because of what he wrote. And I guess

Rajapaksa: What did he write?

Interviewer: … for a lot people that's important.

Rajapaksa: There are other people. If you are saying he was criticising the government, he was criticising all the past presidents. All the past prime ministers. Everybody he was criticising. So anybody can kill if that is the… argument. So anybody can kill him! Because he was criticising those people than the present government…. That is… it was his style, it’s a tabloid. 

He went on to state that any criticism of dissent at a time of war was treason.

Interviewer: Let me put this very frankly. People seem to be scared of you. Should they be?

Rajapaksa: What should…? I don’t know. These are again, you know, wrong propaganda. The only thing I have done is fighting terrorism. I have only two groups. That is people who want to fight terrorism. And the terrorists. Two groups. Either you are a terrorist or you are a person who’s fighting the terrorism.

Interviewer: As George Bush said, ‘You’re either with us or against us’? 

Rajapaksa: Exactly. That’s it. Because. Remember, for some people when they talk about terrorism, it is only a car bomb or a suicide attack. Or some action, you know like what happened in other countries. But remember in Sri Lanka it has gone far beyond that. 

 Interviewer: Well, let me ask you one more thing then. You said, ‘You’re either with the terrorists or you’re fighting the terrorists’. Does that mean you think that dissent or criticism during a time of war is treason?

Rajapaksa: Yes.

 

Hospitals are legitimate targets

During the height of the Sri Lankan military’s 2009 offensive, which Rajapaksa was overseeing at the time, he told Sky News that contrary to international law, hospitals were legitimate targets.

He added that "nothing should exist beyond the No Fire Zone”. These zones were repeatedly bombed by the Sri Lankan military.

See the transcript below.

Rajapaksa: Nothing should exist beyond the no fire zone. Nothing should …

Interviewer: So just to be clear, if this hospital is operating…

Rajapaksa: No hospital should, no hospital should operate now…

Interviewer: If it’s outside of the safe zone, it’s a legitimate target?

Rajapaksa: Yes. No hospital should operate in the area, nothing should operate. That is why we clearly gave these no fire zones.

***

Rajapaksa: We have to take certain measures for them to… to send them out from the country. That had happened previously, that has happened in other countries. It’s not a new thing. I mean if you are a threat tot he national security, then of course the government has to take action.

Interviewer: Do you think broadcasting the TamilNet footage is a threat to national security?

Rajapaksa: Of course. That’s wrong.

 

‘There will be no investigation... Take it from me’

When asked by the BBC in 2010 about the possibility of investigating allegations of war crimes, Rajapaksa replied with a lengthy monologue.

See the transcript below.

Rajapaksa:

Any international community can ask for any investigation. There will be no investigations in this country. I will oppose anybody who is trying to do because there is no reason. The … thing we have to do is to bring this country, develop this country, bring peace to the country, reconciliation. By bringing out all these things will not… these are the people who wanted… who have other motives who are asking. Whether it is United Nations or whether it is any other country, we are not, I am not, allowing any investigation in this country. There is no reason. There is nothing wrong happened in this country. Take it from me, there will be no investigation for anything in this country, I will not allow. That is not what public wants. That is not what this country wants. Don’t ask anything about an investigation. Don’t talk to me investigation. There will be no investigation in this country, take it from me, I am the secretary of defence and I will oppose anybody who wants to have this thing… This is my final word.