Rajasingham Thambirajaj might be a name not known to the world, but it should be! For last 18 years, he has been running an online newspaper, which has lots of contributions in Sri Lankan politics as well as regional and international affairs. He is well known in Sri Lankan political arena and maintains extremely good relations with country’s armed forces. Recently, he accorded an exclusive interview to Blitz. Here are the excerpts:
Q: You have been the editor of Asian Tribune for last 18 years. Can you kindly tell us what prompted you in bringing out this news portal?
A: I started my journalistic career somewhere in the early 1960. Today this is my 58 year in journalism.
It is said that, I am the living witness to the social, political and historical development of Sri Lanka.
I am a septuagenarian and one of the veteran journalists, who are still active in this part of Asia and continue as Chief Editor, facing the challenges thrown at me – nationally and internationally.
Right throughout my life, I was opposed to threats, intimidation and violence and believed only on a negotiated settlement for any issues connected with people of this country as well as other countries in the region.
If I remember correctly from 1990 to 1992, I have visited Tunisia and met with Yasser Arafat – the PLO leader and persuaded him to give up the violent approach and start negotiating with Israel and respect the due right of the Jews, peoples’ their right for life, freedom and of coexistence. I think my friendly persuasion in some small way contributed in the change of the stance of Arafat.
You know in the eighties, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began to emerge as one of the leading terrorist organization in Sri Lanka. I don’t know whether you all know that I am from Point Pedro – my birth place in Sri Lanka and LTTE leader Prabhakaran was from Valvetiturai, located a few kilometers along the north-west coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. I knew Prabhkaran, when he was young as 14 years old, as the son of my friend Thuruvenkadam Velupillai, who was also from Point Pedro.
When I was the Chairman of the Puloly MPCS – multi-purpose primary cooperative society, which ran the Puloly Rural Bank, I employed V. Balakumar, who later was the leader of EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students). In 1976 he engineered the robbery of the rural bank and that was the only bank robberies of those days, solved. To apprehend the culprits led by Balakumar, it was Prabhakaran who was during that period, must be around somewhere around 22 years old. (DB – November 26, 1954, Valvettithurai)
I was thankful for Prabhakaran for giving useful information to apprehend the bank robbery culprits and developed a good relationship with him. By 1983 he approached me to be his advisor in his terror organization, which I bluntly refused to take it up.
He continued to persuade me and I clearly told him that I don’t believe violence would be the right answer to the problems of the Tami’s and insisted for a negotiated settlement. Prabhakaran was adamant and he began to unleash threat and intimidation and I was forced to run away from Sri Lanka stayed out of the country, until 2010. I was on the run carrying my wife, sister-in-law, two daughters and for some time even my father-in-law, all over the world, until such time the Government of Sweden invited me and my family and gave initially the political asylum and subsequently their nationality for all of us.
Before coming to Sweden I was freelancing as an Advisor to the President of Angola, for some time worked in my capacity as advisor to the undivided Sudan and also worked with a few other countries and I can’t release names of those ‘other countries’, as I have to abide by the understanding I had with those countries – protocol.
For some time, I wrote for “The Nation” of Bangkok, also to “The Independent” of Bangladesh and few other newspapers. In the year 2000, I wrote to “The Asia Time,” – Sri Lanka: The untold Story for 52 weeks.
During those period of time, I had problems in writing to international media as the LTTE as well as the Sri Lankan authorities used to contact those dailies which publishes my writings not to publish them. LTTE would alleged that I was the spy of the Sri Lanka Government and Sri Lanka Government used to allege me as an intelligent agent of the LTTE.
So when I discussed my problems with a few of my friends, they suggested me with the idea of the online news daily and hence it is here today.
Q: What were the initial challenges in publishing a news portal like ‘Asian Tribune’, which has always been promoting unpopular opinion?
A: It took some time to pick up. I never had any funds to promote the ‘Asian Tribune’ through advertisements. I had the vision and the mission and the concept and experience and in the beginning “it did not pick up” as I said earlier. In 2000 to 2004, I was on the run and I have to safeguard myself from the lethal attacks of Sri Lankan terrorists – LTTE and also from the Burmese intelligent agents. As I was, during those days living in Bangkok, it was easy for the Burmese agents to reach me.
Earlier, my father Kanapathipillai Thambirajah was the Chief Accountant of the Inspector General of the Military Police of Burma. In June 1932 when he was attached as an Accountantant at the Deputy Military Inspector General of Police, Sir Charles Alexander Innes, then Governor of Burma, honored him and presented him with a Silver Watch.
Except me, all my brothers and sisters were born in Burma and we had a house in Rangoon until 1960.
Our house in Point Pedro, Sri Lanka, is still called “Rangoon House.” Right from my student days, I had the interest in visiting Burma. When the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi,her parliamentary election, and House Arrest, cropped up, I always sided with democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression.
As I was opposed to the Burmese Army and its rulers, they refused to grant me visa to visit Burma and also an opportunity to meet the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But presently I am not interested in meeting her, as the rule under her leadership is involved in the genocide of Rohingiyas.
Unfortunately, I never underwent any arms training and I was not in the know of adopting any security measures to safeguard me. By trial and error, I learnt a few techniques to safeguard myself and my family. Those days when I wrote something about the LTTE I was aware that I was inviting some form of a clandestine attack on me.
Therefore, whenever I write about the LTTE and the Burmese army rulers I have to do it only adopting all possible precautionary measures – changing my residence, hiding my wife and children and taking adequate all other precautionary measures. As I continued to write, I was to keep on changing my residence and was forced to take adequate precaution.
While I was in Thailand there were nearly ten attempts on my life. I managed to survive those known attempts, but still unaware whether there were more attempts undertaken against me.
But once I move to Sweden I was able to write without any fear or restrain. Subsequently, “Asian Tribune” was considered as an authority and leader in fighting the terrorists.
In Sri Lanka the Sinhala readers believed in the news published in the “Asian Tribune”. Even the Buddhist prelates trusted me and “Asian Tribune”.
When the LTTE’s and Rev. Rayappu Joseph, Bishop of Mannar took the holy statute of the Lady of the Madhu and placed it inside Vanni, at St. Sebastian Church located at Theavanpiddi, around 70 km northwest of Madhu.
Theavanpiddi is situated north of Iluppaikkadavai in the Tamil Tigers controlled Manthai West DS division.
I worked with Sri Lankan Ambassador Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (Late) in Italy to retrieve the statute and reinstall it in the Madhu Church.
Asian Tribune took up this issue and managed to bring back the Statute of the Lady Madhu back to its original place in the Madhu Church.
Though “Asian Tribune” turned out to be an online newspaper, but not only publish latest news and views, but also it became a hope of the people to spearhead the issues of the general public and bring those issues with desirable results.
With the view to bring to an end the LTTE Arm conflict “Asian Tribune” worked to bring an end to LTTE’s Tamil TV network, National TV of Tamil Eelam and another Tamil TV run by the LTTE and all three TV’s of LTTE were mainly transmitted from Paris and London and also I managed shut down a total of five Radios of the LTTE’s broadcasted from Europe.
On top of it all the Sri Lankan Army and other armed forces began to trust in the suggestion made by ‘Asian Tribune’ to bring an end to the conflict.
It was not that easy to win the hearts and minds of the readers and we managed it successfully.
Reporting about arms conflict is always a new technique and it has to be done taking into consideration the mass psychology. The world has to be a peaceful place, without arms conflict and ‘Asian Tribune’ is always prepared to lead the right path.
But unfortunately, to our dismay and regret, Sri Lanka Government and the rulers were not prepared to honor the patriotic services rendered by the “Asian Tribune” to date.
Q: Asian Tribune and you are promoting the concept of Asian Union. Can you kindly elaborate this perception?
A: ‘Striving for Asian Solidarity’ is our motto. Right from our inception we are inching towards the solidarity of Asia. So far 18 long years have elapsed, but our aim of uniting Asia’s 48 countries, (three of them Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey, having part of their land in Europe) continues.
According to Wikipedia – Asia covers an area of 44,579,000 square kilometers (17,212,000 sq. mi), about 30% of Earth’s total land area and 8.7% of the Earth’s total surface area. The continent, which has long been home to the majority of the human population, was the site of many of the first civilizations. Asia is notable for not only its overall large size and population, but also dense and large settlements, as well as vast barely populated regions. Its 4.5 billion people constitute roughly 60% of the world’s population.”
We have many country groups in Asia such as: ASEAN, SARC,BIMSTEC, SASEC, Four Asian Tigers, economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, underwent rapid industrialization and maintained exceptionally high growth rates, now developed into advanced and high-income economies.; Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. A regional intergovernmental political and economic union consisting of all Arab states of the Persian Gulf, except for Iraq.; Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), A Eurasian political, economic, and security organization comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan.; SENA: Southeast, East, and North Asia
I am presently in negotiation with a few Asian countries and wait for those countries to come forward to openly work with me to adopt the lofty idea of uniting Asia into one Union.
Asian Union – a lofty dream and wait for the day for the dream to come true.
Q: You are promoting democracy in Asia, but unfortunately in many of the Asian nations, for example Maldives, Cambodia etc, democracy have been buried by cruel dictators. What the people of those countries need to do for getting back democracy on track?
A: Democracy is the yearning of many and dictatorship a greediness – showing excessive desire for authority and power by a few.
Once Asia is united and brought under a Union, emergence of dictatorship in any one of the Asian countries could be well controlled. There will be, though 48 different countries in Asia, we will be having them under an accepted united formula – rules and regulations and bring them under one umbrella.
We have a divided Korea – two separate states – North and South Koreas respectively in the Korean peninsula.
Thailand though is ruled by a constitutional monarchy Thai Army staged coup against the democratic elected governments nearly for 12 times since 1932 and the latest was On 22 May 2014, the Royal Thai Armed Forces, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), launched a coup d’état and since then it has the Thai Government under their control.
Also there is Maldives as a thaw in the Indian Ocean down south of Sri Lanka. Recently, Dr. Subramanian Swamy, a maverick politician, an Indian MP and an Indian RSS stalwart, suggested to bring Maldives under control by invading it.
Recently, Dr. Subramanian Swamy tweeted, “Why is the present Govt of Maldives upset by my “If then” statement that if Maldive’s Sept 24th general election is rigged then India should invade that nation? Already Indians in that nation are fearing reprisals. We have to protect our citizens.
I have visited Male, capital of Maldives and met the then President Mohanmad Nasheed. I found him a genuine, democratic minded president. I approve what Dr. Subramanian Swamy suggested about invading and bring the country under control.
Q: Pakistan is the unique nation in Asia, where true democracy has always been dented by the military establishment. Lately we have seen the emergence of Imran Khan as the Prime Minister. Can you assess the entire situation?
A: I have met Madam Benazir Bhuto in Bangkok, Thailand in 2002, when she came to participate in ‘The International Conference of Asian Political Parties’ (ICAPP) and had the opportunity to discuss politics about, Pakistan Sri Lanka’s relationship and also about South Asia in particular and Asia in general.
To that conference, the present Sri Lankan President Maithripala Srisena led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s delegation. I was also interacting with him at Bangkok during that conference days.
Recently, he reminded me of the meeting with Benazir Bhutto and the discussion had with her.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to meet Maithripala Srisena in his capacity as the President of Sri Lanka, at the residence of the Governor of the Northern Province.
He reminded me of the conversation we had with Benazir Bhutto.
What a lovely lady?
It took several years for Imran Khan to win over the Premiership of Pakistan. I think he was a good cricketer and a good captain for Pakistan. But we have to wait whether he would be able to push the country for a long period of time.
Q: Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence are accused of providing training and logistics to various Islamist terror outfits. How do you look into this issue?
A: There is no two words about it. Pakistan is very good friend of Sri Lanka. It helped in a very big way to end the LTTE terror menace. That does not mean one should ignore the ISI’s involvement in promoting terror groups.
Q: There have been many ups and downs in your own country – Sri Lanka. We have witnessed the LTTE crisis, corruption of Mahinda Rajapaksa and then his fall, and now the rule of Maithripala Sirisena. Do you think Sri Lankan democracy is under cloud?
A: No second word about it. In Sri Lanka we have leaders affected by ‘selective amnesia’. There is no one exception to this statement.
One must remember that I too contributed in bringing an end of the LTTE menace by May 2009. Unfortunately, the country has failed to enjoy and experience the peace dividend after the end of the terrorist menace up to now. President Rajapaksa tried to keep alive the LTTE menace to win elections. He succeeded in winning the 2010 Presidential election, but failed miserably in the 2015 election.
Maithripala Srisena was the common candidate in the 2015 election and won against Mahinda Rajapaksa. When he became the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa made a very tactical move and made him the President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Maithripala Srisena who won the 2015 Presidential election because he was a common candidate. Suddenly when he became the president of the SLFP, he began to approach issues in his capacity as the leader of the SLFP. A partisan approach which is being hated by the voters who voted for him.
Today in a very desperate position he is searching for supporters within the SLFP. Even those SLFP candidates who were rejected by the people in the last elections were made party list parliamentarians and now they too are not supporting him.
It is alleged that the Presidency is being influenced by powerful ladies in the Presidential secretariat. It does not augur well for the president it is alleged.
Furthermore, it is also alleged that a sizable number important ministers in the ruling United National Party are in homosexuals. Right from the top it was alleged of involved in abnormal sex behavior, something uncommon in this region.
After the 2015 Presidential election the country witness a bank scam, something which is unheard of in the country ever before. The ruling United National Party was blamed as involved in the scam.
Also UNP is affected with cliquish approach. As far as I am aware there was a very efficient Minister of Finance – Mr. Ravi Karunanayake.
President Maithripala Srisena got rid of him and made him the Minister of Foreign Affairs. While he was Foreign Affairs Minister, stories against him were planted in the Presidential Commission that was investigating bank scam.
‘Asian Tribune’ in its 03 August 2017 issue wrote as follows: Ravi Karunanayake presently the External Affairs Minister, gave evidence before Presidential commission inquiring into a series of alleged securities frauds, made an innocuous statement, “I did not know, Perpetual Treasuries group paid the lease of an apartment I stayed for several months and my wife and family did the negotiations. I answered all the questions truthfully. I have nothing to hide,” he said.”
The Minister’s statement has to be taken into its face value and believed until such time it is proved wrong.”
“A powerful group within the ruling UNP was involved in forcing him to resign from his foreign Ministry portfolio and it was reported that the UNP Committee appointed by PM stated that MP Ravi Karunanayake should not exercise any duties as UNP Assistant Leader.” In view of this, the Committee appointed by Hon. Leader of the United National Party has recommended that until a finality is reached by the Attorney General and/or the Bribery Commission that no legal action is to be filed against Mr Ravi Karunanayake or if such action is instituted, until the conclusion of such action, steps should be taken to ensure that Mr. Ravi Karunanayake should not exercise any duties as an ‘Assistant Leader’ of the United National Party.”
They tried to make Ravi Karunanayake MP and the Assistant Leader of the Party, a scapegoat in the Bond Scam Issue.
There are serious allegations levelled against the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the last Presidential Elections, but now nearly three years have elapsed and no action has been taken by the present Government to indict and convict Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Recently, we witness the Malaysian Parliamentary elections and Mahathir Mohamed 93 years old won and the first action he instituted was to stop the former Prime Minister leaving the country
On May 12, 2018 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad barred his predecessor, Najib Razak, from going overseas, saying there was enough evidence to investigate his links to a multi-billion-dollar scandal.
Immigration authorities issued a travel ban on Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor just minutes after the ousted prime minister said they were leaving on a weeklong trip overseas to rest after his thumping electoral defeat.
Those who won the 2015 Presidential elections failed to take necessary steps to indict former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his siblings Gotabaya Rajapaksaya and Basil Rajapaksa and also against his three sons and wife.
During the Presidential election time in January 2015 they nauseated with so many corruption charges. But once they won the elections and started running the country, they failed to indict with any serious charges levelled against former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Also allegations were levelled against former the President Mahinda Rajapaksa and against a number of Sri Lankan Security Forces leaders and charging them for crimes against humanity. It was unfortunate that this government is shielding them against charges levelled against them by the international community.
Sri Lanka today is compartmentalizing between India and China. Today European Union and European Countries as well as United States of America are simply ignored. It is high time Sri Lanka should come up to seek the help and assistance of the Western Countries without any strings attach, instead of selling West and South of the country to China and North and East to India.
Q: Presidential election in Sri Lanka is scheduled to be held in 2019. It seems that people of that country do not have much choice. What is your opinion?
A: The next Presidential election is expected by the end of 2019.
It is expected it would be a three cornered fight. In the fray there would be then present President Maithripala Srisena, according to information it seems Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe would be the ruling UNP’s choice and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defense Secretary and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother would be also contest.
In Sri Lanka major and important elections are determined not only by the voters in the country but also by the foreign forces.
It is expected India to play an important role in the President election. According to a confidential report, it seems India will not support all those three candidates as they were playing in a puddle with China.
India is the opinion that those three Sri Lankan leaders were involved in bringing China into the Indian Ocean and help China in challenging India’s supremacy in the Indian Ocean.
If India is not supporting one of the three Sri Lankan leaders, Tamils in the North, East and upcountry as well as majority of the Muslims will not support these three leaders of the majority community – Sinhalese.
In Sri Lanka someone from the majority community – a Sinhalese, who should be Buddhist only can win in the Presidential election.
There has be a new face, someone entirely new but who could command the confidence, trust of te Buddhist prelates and Sinhala general public could win in the election with the India’s support.
The search is on for such a person to contest in the Presidential election.
Q: While a country like Bangladesh in South Asia has been rapidly achieving economic prosperity, other South Asian nations like Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even India aren’t yet in any position near to Bangladesh. What are the obstacles for these countries in attaining the rapid pace of economic growth?
A: I can speak about Sri Lanka. As far this country is concerned it faced a three decade long terrorist war and now facing a huge amount of loan repayment problem.
The country’s Central Bank’s latest records show Sri Lanka’s total outstanding debt was 10.3 trillion rupees as of the end of September last year.
Sri Lanka is facing a debt crisis and struggling to face an expensive loan repayment cycle which started this year. It must repay an estimated 1.97 trillion rupees ($12.85 billion) in 2018 – a record high – including $2.9 billion of foreign loans, and a total of $5.36 billion in interest.
The Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister – both has miserably failed to arrest the Sri Lankan Rupees steep fall against the Dollar.
It is nine years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, unfortunately no measures have been taken to shore up the economy of the country.
According to the former Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake – Sri Lanka is embroiled in a gigantic debt trap. The main reason is that the loans obtained by the previous regime for infrastructure development has not brought any returns on its investments. Further the national revenue and the export earnings constantly came down since 2011 up to year 2014.
The country must be given in an expert hand to bring it back to normalcy. Nearly 10 years the country had Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President during those days as the Minister of finance. A man without any financial management knowledge and experience miserably failed to build the economy of the country. He was involved in the negotiation of loans – on one side from India and on th other side with China. His mishandling of the economy brought to the country the loan trap.
After 2015 Ravi Karunanayake became the Minister of Finance. When he was the Finance Minister, the Central Bank was not under his control. All the state and private banks were not place under his control. Despite these handicaps, he tried his best to make the country rise up. Unfortunately, something went wrong – the President moved him Finance portfolio. When moving him from finance portfolio, Sri Lankan President failed to give an explanation for his act.
Now we have around 10 to 15 months left for the country to be gripped with elections. Local Government elections are over.
Local elections were held in Sri Lanka on 10 February 2018. 15.7 million Sri Lankans were eligible to elect 8,327 members to 340 local authorities (24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 275 divisional councils) in the country. It was the largest election in Sri Lankan history. This was also the first election under the mixed electoral system where 60% of members were elected using first-past-the-post voting and the remaining 40% through closed list proportional representation.
United National Front (UNF) in five, independents in two, National Congress in two, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in two, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in two, Ceylon Workers’ Congress(CWC) in one and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) in one.
The remaining 199 LA’s were hung with no overall control. Of these, the SLPP was the largest party in 95 LA’s, TNA in 36, UNF in 29, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in four, UPFA in four, Independents in three, CWC in two, Tamil National People’s Front in two, EPDP in one, United Lanka Great Council in one, Muslim National Alliance in one, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal in one and Tamil United Liberation Front in one. The remaining 19 LA’s were tied (SLPP/UNF in nine LA’s, ACMC/UNF in two, TNA/TMVP in two, CWC/UNF in one, SLFP/SLPP in one, SLMC/SLPP/UPFA in one, SLMC/UNF in one, TNA/UNF in one and UNF/UPFA in one).
Before the end of 2019 the country has to face the 9 provincial council elections, Presidential elections and the unicameral parliamentary elections.
The 15th Parliamentary elections for 225 members were held on 17 August 2015, ten months ahead of schedule. The period of the parliament has been reduced to five years instead of the previous six-year period.
The remaining 29 seats were allocated to the contesting parties and independent groups in proportion to their share of national vote.
As the country would be gripped with election pre and post-election fever and it would be difficult to make the country economically sound at least for the next two years.
Sohail Choudhury is the Executive Editor of Blitz.