Ranil Wickramasinghe, leader of Sri Lanka's United National Party, spoke with TIME's South Asia bureau chief Michael Fathers shortly before the Dec. 21 elections on his plans to end the war against the Tamil Tigers and where he hopes to take the country
TIME: How are you proposing to seek peace with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)?
Wickramasinghe: The existing options have failed. One was the military solution. The other was constitution making. My approach is to do what is possible first. And there are many steps we can take. We can allow food and medicines to be sent to the uncleared areas in Wanni [the northern part of Sri Lanka below the Jaffna peninsula]. We can lift the restrictions on fishing and farming in the north and the east. We can review the whole question of the harassment of Tamils as a result of the security rules and regulations. Those steps will create a better atmosphere for a political solution.
I am ready to initiate a dialogue with the LTTE. I want to keep the major opposition party [Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance] informed of my intentions and seek their cooperation. I will talk to the LTTE about ending the war and returning normalcy to the north and east. I will tie that up with the establishment of an interim council to administer the northern and eastern provinces. Its work will include the rehabilitation of those areas. The LTTE will be represented in the interim council. Once it starts functioning there will certainly be a better dialogue between all sides--the government, the opposition and the LTTE. It will create an environment in which we can discuss constitutional changes. The interim council itself would be a laboratory where we can test out some of the concepts of government established under the normal law of the land. And with that experience we can then look into the final constitutional restructuring that is necessary for lasting peace.
Wickramasinghe: My proposals have been publicized and are obviously known to the LTTE. Many of these issues have been discussed by the LTTE publicly. I talk to people who are sympathizers of the LTTE, people such as journalists and others who have met with them. So I feel that the proposal put down here will certainly not be opposed by the LTTE. I would even say they will get the support of the LTTE and by other Tamils. My proposals in no way encroach on any sensitive questions that the constitution making brought about.
TIME: Why do you think your efforts will succeed?
Wickramasinghe: We have reached a stalemate. People have come to realize that there can be no military solution. Capturing and re-establishing control over Jaffna is not going to bring the war to an end. People are more interested in their day-to-day lives. They realize that the war has been a major drain on the economy and this has effected everyone.
TIME: Are you willing to accept international mediation as the LTTE wants?
Wickramasinghe: I have not ruled out third-country assistance in resolving this issue. I use the words "third-country assistance" because as usual in Sri Lanka there is a lot of discussion about the meaning of the words "facilitator," "mediator," etc. If a country helps in bringing about a meeting of minds then certainly we should not rule that out.
TIME: The LTTE wants you to win. Do you think you're being used?
Wickramasinghe: I cannot be used by the LTTE. My program is discussed by my party and put out by us. There have been large numbers of people in the uncleared areas including LTTE sympathizers and cadres who see my program as ensuring that they can carry out their day-to-day lives without any problem. I cannot be blackmailed because I have already fought for dialogue with the LTTE. In parliament I have taken up the problems of the Tamil-speaking people. At the very beginning I said that to re-establish control of Jaffna would not end the war. You would see a different war and it would be even worse than the one we had to face earlier. We may not have the same ideas about what a final political solution is, but I think many Tamils have supported the views I have expressed. When I was prime minister there was no harassment of Tamils.
TIME: Do you see the recent military setback as a turning point in the war?
Wickramasinghe: It may be a turning point. This time we have lost many chaps. This had not happened earlier. There is a lot of rethinking going on in the army over strategy and the best option.
Wickramasinghe: If I prosecute the war the way this president [Chandrika] has prosecuted the war there would be nothing left. There is no strategy. You stretch the army too much. You open the gap for the LTTE. I will not follow this president in the way she has conducted the war. At the end of the day there has to be a political solution. You cannot get away from that. You have to go down this path. There have been many setbacks. But I know we can make it succeed. I am determined to make it succeed.
TIME: And if you don't?
Wickramasinghe: Once we have established peace in the north and the east, I don't think anybody will want to break the peace. But the talks can break down from time to time on different issues and we will try to make the best bargain possible. I will not link the breakdown of talks with the start of renewed fighting. As long as there is normalcy in the north and the east we will take the next step forward. If you don't take the next step forward you lose the support of the people.
TIME: Have you set yourself a time limit?
Wickramasinghe: No, I want to do it quickly. Whatever the final agreement, it will have to be put to the people in a referendum to change the constitution of Sri Lanka
TIME: When campaigning in the Sinhalese-dominated south you seldom mentioned the war in the north. Why?
Wickramasinghe: I mentioned the war in the north and the east in the first round of campaigning in the south. The government made that the issue. But people want to know more about what there is for them as far as the economy is concerned: about jobs, about unemployment, the cost of living. That is the main issue. My emphasis is on the economy and how we can get the country moving.
TIME: Will you reinstate the power of the prime minister and remove the executive authority of the president as the previous government planned?
Wickramasinghe: We have given two options. One is to modify the power of the executive president and make him accountable to parliament. The other is a directly elected prime minister who will be in parliament. I want to have a separate discussion in the country regarding these two options. And then I want parliament to decide what is best. UNP members will be given a free vote on the issue. So in six months the country will discuss it after a new parliament has been elected.
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