Address by Hon. Mangala Samaraweera, MP.,
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka
International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)
Slovenia, 7 September 2016
Democracy, Reconciliation and Development: Vision for a New Sri Lanka
Prof. Dr. Ernest Petrič
Vice President of the Advisory Board of the International Institute for
Middle-East and Balkan Studies, and Members of the Institute
Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka in Slovenia,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour for me to be here today, at the invitation of the International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies, to speak to you about the changes that are taking place in my country.
Although Sri Lanka is situated far away from where we stand here this afternoon in geographical terms, this region of the Balkans and the region where we are situated in South Asia, are both inheritors of ancient civilisations and rich histories.
In classical times, the Balkans lay at the heart of the Greco-Roman civilisation, and was also influenced by Christianity and Islam. Today, this region is home to a diverse ethno-linguistic people, not very different from the region of South Asia that constitutes one-fifth of the world’s population comprising diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. Today, South Asia is a mix of the ancient and the modern – with the influence of western colonisation having left its mark as well, on language, religion, attire, food, architecture, culture, literature and every conceivable aspect of social life.
Each of the nations in South Asia, including Sri Lanka, continues to grapple with issues of nation building in the post-independent modern era while adjusting to the rapidly evolving modern technological advancements, globalisation, and dealing with challenges posed by climate change, migration, urbanisation, terrorism and violent extremism, and taking steps to achieve equitable and sustainable development, and economic growth.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My country, Sri Lanka, has an ancient history steeped in myth and legend, influenced by beliefs and folklore, which is no different to this region. We also have a recorded history dating back over two thousand years. Vast ruins of ancient kingdoms, temples, irrigation tanks and engineering feats are still visible today, indicating that Sri Lanka was the seat of one of the small but important historical civilisations of Asia at the time.
The geographic location of Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean, midway between East and West, and just 48 km away from India, made Sri Lanka a significant part of the maritime history of the pre-colonial and ancient world; providing ports for the exchange of goods between East and West; and a contact point between two great regions.
At the time of Independence in 1948, after 150 years of British rule, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was placed in a unique position among the countries in the developing world. We started practicing universal adult franchise as early as 1931. We were considered a model Commonwealth country, carefully prepared for Independence, with a relatively good standard of education, two universities of high quality, a civil service largely consisting of trained locals, and with experience in representative government.
The different communities in the country showed promise of being able to live and work towards common national goals in peace, harmony and unity. They had worked together to gain independence from the British despite the fact that they followed different faiths, spokes different languages and followed different customs.
However, our nation faltered. Successive leaders of our peoples, since Independence, made mistakes which saw our country plunge into torment and conflict for well over three decades.
Our country experienced the trauma of two youth insurrections in the South (in 1971 and in the late 1980s to early 90s); a separatist movement which manifested in terrorism in the North and the East of the country for over two decades; and death and devastation caused by the December 2004 tsunami.
After all this, when our country saw the end of violence unleashed by terrorism on the 19th of May 2009, everyone belonging to every community heaved a sigh of relief.
It was our fervent hope that Sri Lanka could at last resume her long suspended dream for a better, peaceful, united future. The future that a newspaper in London had predicted for us at the time of Independence way back in 1948 – that Sri Lanka, in time to come, would no doubt become the ‘Switzerland of the East’. However, this was not to be. We failed to seize the opportunity to achieve meaningful reconciliation and consolidate peace.
The 6 years or so since May 2009 saw Sri Lanka take an unfortunate journey on an autocratic path. Civil liberties were curtailed, independence of institutions including the judiciary was compromised, democracy was weakened, the rule of law was undermined, and good governance practices and human rights were violated with impunity.
We failed to address the causes of conflict in a manner that would guarantee durable peace, meaningful reconciliation and non-recurrence. Divisions in society were becoming deeper along religious and ethnic lines, freedom of speech and expression were curtailed, and fear and intimidation pervaded society.
Our nation which had been a prominent and respected member of the international community since Independence, including in the United Nations, abandoned her natural foreign policy of engagement, and chose instead, to follow a policy of antagonising traditional friends and partners, and isolated itself from the world community.
It was against this backdrop of a sense of total despair, that several parties in Opposition, which I like to call the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ joined forces. We came together to field a common opposition candidate, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, at the Presidential election in January 2015, in response to the call by a large section of people in Sri Lanka who were yearning for change.
Despite an election campaign which was deeply flawed and one-sided, the rainbow coalition of the opposition scored a decisive victory on the 8th of January, on a platform promising far reaching democratic and constitutional reforms. The people of Sri Lanka reasserted their commitment to democracy by dislodging an emerging dictatorship through non-violence.
Not stopping at that, the people voted once again at the Parliamentary Election in August last year to uphold the same values and norms. Most importantly, for the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, with the support of the people we have formed a National Unity Government, bringing together the two main rival political parties in the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by President Maithripala Sirisena, and the United National Party led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This unprecedented move has heralded a new culture of consensual politics, providing the much needed political and policy stability in our country to undertake far reaching reform and important decisions in the long-term interest of our nation. Addressing the inaugural session of Parliament on 1 September last year, following the Parliamentary Election in August, the President explained that the formation of a National Unity Government is essential to obtain the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to face the important challenges before our nation, which include reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Today therefore, for the first time since Independence, the myopia that plagued our nation has been set aside. The temptation of political parties to follow a path of confrontation in order to achieve short-term political gains over the long-term interests of the people is now over, and we have in our Leader of Opposition, Hon. R. Sampanthan, a wise, committed and respected politician with the resolve to work together to ensure that we do not let our country lose yet another opportunity.
Fortunately, today, with the demise of the LTTE, no one in our country believes that violence is a solution to our problems. The desire for peace, the desire to ensure non-recurrence is clear. The people of our country, in every walk of life, the rich and the poor, those living in the North, South, East, West and Centre, desperately want peace to last. They have all suffered too much bloodshed and unimaginable agony.
The National Unity Government therefore, is focused on fostering a national consensus around the “never again” principle which everyone in our country relates to.
We have set our nation on a historic journey. Our vision, very briefly, is to build a Sri Lanka that,
-safeguards, promotes and protects the rights and dignity of all, and equality of all;
-respects and celebrates the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious nature of our society;
-empowers our youth and our women;
-upholds the rule of law; respects democracy and fundamental freedoms including the freedom of the media;
-preserves our environment while taking steps to ensure integrated and sustainable development;
-gives priority to securing the best education possible for our children and youth, including the skills they require to meet the demands of the global value chain; and securing the best health facilities possible;
-focuses on infrastructure development, and equitable economic growth required for the prosperity of all our people;
-enhances and encourages understanding and preservation of culture, respect for each other’s traditions and beliefs, and is always conscious of the need to be a responsible and respected member of the international community;
-gives priority always to the needs of the people of our country and what is in their best interest;
-is reconciled, democratic, and prosperous, with a united and entrepreneurial people, at peace with themselves, and at peace with the world; and
-works in engagement and in cooperation with the international community and international organisations to address issues of concern, not only for Sri Lanka, but for the region and the global community as a whole.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
During the first 100 Days in Office itself, we took a series of important steps to consolidate democracy and democratic institutions, despite not having a confirmed majority in Parliament. These included the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution through which the two-term limit of the Presidency was re-introduced; the Constitutional Council was appointed; Independent Commissions were restored; Right to Information was recognised as a fundamental right; and the Promotion of National Reconciliation and Integration were recognised as duties of the President.
Our focus is to pursue an agenda based on three main areas: strengthening democracy; fostering reconciliation; and pursuing equitable economic development for all our people.
While consolidating the democratic gains achieved within the first 100 days in Office, we have managed to take action on all fronts thereafter, strengthening good governance and the rule of law; promoting and protecting human rights; fostering reconciliation; and achieving economic development; while engaging and working closely with the international community in a constructive manner that benefits the people of our country.
-The enactment of the Right to Information Act in June this year, was yet another step in strengthening our democracy;
-As I said before, from May 2009, post-conflict reconciliation eluded us as a result of short-sighted policies and the triumphalist approach that was adopted immediately following the end of conflict. The National Unity Government has approached reconciliation as a matter of urgent priority. A series of symbolic and tangible steps have been taken towards healing the wounds of conflict and addressing the grievances of our people. We have put in place the structures required to coordinate the setting up of key mechanisms required for this purpose. First among them is an Office on Missing Persons. The legislation for the establishment of this Office was passed in Parliament just last month. This Office which has a humanitarian mandate, will have as its main objective, ascertaining the fate of the missing, irrespective of when and where they went missing and in what location, and seek to provide answers to their family members and loved ones.
-A Task Force consisting entirely of civil society representatives has been appointed to seek the views of the public that will inform the designing of the truth-seeking, justice, accountability and reparations mechanisms that we propose to establish.
-The Government is also working towards the adoption of a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. This Constitution, while entrenching the democratic gains we have achieved during the last year, will also be a celebration of Sri Lanka’s diversity as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country that will guarantee equal rights, justice and dignity for all, and address some of the issues that have plagued us since Independence and has stood in the way of our unity as a nation. The Public Representations Committee tasked with seeking the views of the public for the new Constitution has just completed its work, and their Report has been handed over to the Government. The sub-committees tasked with submitting proposals on fundamental rights, judiciary, law and order, centre-periphery relations and public finance are to hand over their reports to the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly chaired by the Prime Minister, shortly.
In the last one-and-a-half years, we have completely changed the way we engage with human rights mechanisms. Our objective is to uphold, promote and protect the individual rights of all. As you are all aware, the Government co-sponsored the Resolution titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ at the UN Human Rights Council in September last year, out of our own firm conviction that Sri Lanka must come to terms with the past in order to forge ahead and secure the future that the people of our country truly deserve. We have since extended a standing invitation to the UN Special Procedures Mandate Holders. We received the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances last November; the High Commissioner for Human Rights in February; the Special Rapporteurs on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and Torture in April-May this year; we will be receiving the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Minorities in October; and we have just seen the conclusion of a very successful visit by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon.
We still have a long way to go to achieve reconciliation. As you all know, Ladies and Gentlemen, reconciliation does not happen at once. It requires effort, hard work, commitment, and careful, continuous and concrete action. It is not an end that can be reached where no further work is required; and it is certainly not a box that can be ticked as a task completed and achieved. It is a journey that requires constant striving. A commitment towards which our nation should be bound across generations, and a central tenet of governance. The price to pay, if we falter, is not one that our nation can endure once again after over thirty years of bloodshed that has spared no one.
For some, the pace at which we are making progress appears too slow; and for others, too fast. I would say that while victims and the general public as well as some in the international community may be impatient, after so many years of conflict, we cannot take risks that will make us lose everything that we have gained in the last one-and-a-half years. So we move with caution. Perhaps our approach could be described as what the Romans called festina lente - making haste slowly.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Political will and good intentions will not succeed unless all stakeholders in our country feel that their development needs are being addressed and cared for, and their living conditions are improving. Therefore, winning the peace is just as much about jobs, education, healthcare and infrastructure for all Sri Lankans as it is about political reforms. The peace dividend must be felt in economic terms by all sections of Sri Lankan society; the peace dividend for the unemployed youth must be greater and better job opportunities; for the housewives – better living standards; for the farmers – higher prices and access to markets; for the students – more schools, technical colleges and universities with better-trained teachers and lecturers; and for the elderly – greater access to hospitals and medicine.
The Government of Sri Lanka has no doubt that as the necessary political and economic reforms take place, investments and trade and ultimately jobs, growth and economic development will follow. But as the relationship between peace and development is holistic and dynamic, the faster the peace dividend is felt, the greater and faster the likelihood and durability of peace. In a nutshell, the people’s purses must feel the benefits of greater democracy, reconciliation, and peace. And they must feel them fast.
We are in the process of putting in place the economic plans and policies required to sustain and accelerate Sri Lanka’s 6% plus growth rate; attracting investment, creating a million jobs, developing Sri Lanka as a hub – taking advantage of its geographic location; and expanding market access; and improving living standards through an ambitious economic development drive.
The Government’s economic strategy is based on attracting foreign direct investment, making Sri Lanka’s exports more competitive, promoting tourism, and improving productivity through education and knowledge transfer.
Sri Lanka is at the centre of the rapidly growing Indian Ocean region, astride the main East-West shipping route and next to one of the world’s largest markets, India. We are leveraging this unique geo-economic location to accelerate growth: negotiations are already underway to deepen our existing free trade agreement with India. We plan to do the same with Pakistan with whom we also have a free trade agreement. We also plan to negotiate and conclude a Free Trade Agreement with China. These Agreements – combined with our excellent air and sea connectivity to the sub-continent – will help cement our position as a Gateway to the sub-continent.
We seek to also improve market access abroad. Due to the previous Government’s short-sighted policies, we lost European Union GSP+ concessions. Having filed our application for GSP+ recently, we hope to regain the facility by the end of the year.
A concerted effort is also underway to improve the business climate domestically. Far-reaching governance reforms that are rules based have structurally made investment and business more secure and certain. Sri Lanka is taking measures to increase investor’s ease of doing business and confidence more directly. For example, we are bringing a number of government agencies together to create a one-stop investment and trade-facilitation shop under the Agency for Development. We are reviewing our laws and regulations to create a simple rules-based business environment: including those related to land ownership, as well as tariffs and para-tariffs. We have adopted policies that enable private enterprise to thrive: for example, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest income tax rates in the world – at 15 percent. Together these reforms – alongside our educated workforce and solid infrastructure – are making Sri Lanka the most attractive, secure and competitive investment destination in the region.
We need further and faster support in poverty alleviation, urban development, infrastructure development, education – particularly vocational, technical and English language training – and agricultural productivity improvements.
As we in Sri Lanka strive to create a better tomorrow for all our people, we value the partnerships we build with nations across the world to assist us in our efforts in reconciliation and development; to promote peace, security, and economic and social progress.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are firm in our conviction to succeed in this journey for the sake of all our people, vindicating the faith reposed on us by our friends in the international community, but more than anything else, to do right by the people of our nation and future generations, and secure for them the destiny that we were unable to achieve 68 years ago at Independence.