Sri Lanka after the Presidential Election:
Address by Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Foreign Affairs
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
February 11th 2015
Ambassador Bill Burns,
Mr. Fredrick Grare,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am profoundly grateful and touched by the warm welcome and generous introduction accorded me this evening. It is such a pleasure for me to be back once again in this beautiful and important city as Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister after nearly 8 years on the Opposition benches in Parliament.
Before I start speaking on ‘Sri Lanka after the Presidential Election’, let me congratulate you Ambassador Burns on your appointment as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace soon after you relinquished a very distinguished career at the forefront of United States diplomacy. I wish you many successful years of service providing leadership to this oldest international affairs think-tank in the United States. It is indeed an honour for me to have your gracious presence here today.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The story that I have to tell you today is a happy one. A story that shows, that although Sri Lanka and this great country are situated far away from each other, and our nations are unequal in size, there is much that binds the people of our two nations. Their commitment to democracy, freedom, liberty, good governance and the rule of law and their dedication to uphold, protect and preserve the pluralistic nature of society. These are the values which the people of Sri Lanka chose to reaffirm at the Presidential election held just over 33 days ago when they used the power of the ballot to elect Mr. Maithripala Sirisena as their President.
Despite an election campaign which was greatly 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 reforms. Asia’s oldest democracy reasserted its belief in and commitment to democracy by dislodging an emerging dictatorship in typical South Asian style – laid back and non-violent. Instead of the stones, pellets and bullets of the Arab Spring, Sri Lanka’s ‘Rainbow Revolution’ succeeded through the power of the ballot.
Over 81.52% of registered voters exercised their franchise on 8th January, silently, peacefully and decisively resulting in a swift transfer of power the very next day. The firm resolve of the Army Commander, Inspector General of Police, and the Attorney General must also be commended in the face of moves to declare a state of emergency and disrupt the counting in the early hours of 9th January.
The people of Sri Lanka, through this singular act, conveyed several powerful messages:
-reaffirming their faith in the best traditions of democracy, they showed how formidable a power elections can prove to be;
-they also indicated to the world their vision for their country by choosing to vote for a leader who promised them good governance, the rule of law, strong democratic institutions, reconciliation, sustainable economic development, peace, and most importantly, the creation of a new political culture devoid of divisive politics and the preservation of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nature of society;
-they also sought through this election to set standards for their leaders to abide by. Calling for an end to impunity and corruption, people demanded that their elected leaders and public officials are made accountable for their actions and inactions.
Of course, to most who did not expect this change from Sri Lanka, and those who were sceptical about Sri Lanka’s long cherished democratic culture, the election results on 9th January came as a shock or what one would call a jaw dropping moment.
The whole world broke out in applause for Sri Lanka during the wee hours of the morning of the 9th of January. After a long time, Sri Lanka is once again the centre of the world’s attention for the right reasons. Although this change brings with it great responsibility that the new Government must live up to, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government are deeply conscious of this fact.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is a unique moment in our country’s history and its Parliament. Why do I say this? It is not because of the large voter turnout. It is not even because all communities played an equally important role in electing this leader or the peaceful transition of power that took place. I say this because it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the people gave their mandate to President Sirisena to create a new political culture. As a result, we today have a very special Parliament.
For the first time in our nation’s history, the two main political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have reached consensus to move forward in unison for a common cause – that is to work towards achieving important national objectives in keeping with the aspirations of the people of our nation.
Following the election, President Sirisena was appointed as Chairperson of the party that was earlier headed by the former President, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Although this phenomenon may have seemed strange to observers of Sri Lankan affairs, this act made it possible for the President and the Government to secure the support of the Sri Lanka Freedom party which has a majority in Parliament. Working together with so many different partners is a new experience for us which requires the Government to chart its path carefully and mindfully, through consensus building. It is nevertheless, a necessary path to tread to implement the important 100 Day Work Programme or Reform Agenda of the Government which has been endorsed by the people, enact key legislation required for this purpose and take important steps required to heal the wounds of our nation.
The support that the Government receives from the Leader of Opposition as well as parties that have not joined the Government such as the Tamil National Alliance and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are vital for the success of the Government’s reform agenda and valued by the Government.
Based on this collective approach to governance, Ladies and Gentlemen, for the first time in our nation’s history, the Government succeeded, at its 67th Independence Day Celebrations on 4th of February to officially recognise past tragedies and the need for healing and unity. Addressing the nation on this solemn occasion which the leader of the Tamil National Alliance attended for the first time in 50 years, President Sirisena spoke of the need for meditative reflection on past errors while desisting from heaping blame on each other. He made a commitment to work towards reconciliation and unite the minds of the people of all ethnic and religious communities.
The Government’s ‘Declaration of Peace’ at the official Independence Day Ceremony included:
-paying respects to all the citizens of Sri Lanka, of all ethnicities and religions who lost their lives due to the tragic conflict that afflicted the country for over three decades and to all the victims of violence since Independence, and
-a commitment to ensure that never again will the country be allowed to be traumatised by the shedding of blood of her citizens.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Government made up of a collection of political parties that I like to call the ‘rainbow coalition’ and the parties that support the Government including the Tamil National Alliance recognise fully the importance of this moment. We are conscious that this opportunity must not be squandered and must instead be fully seized for the sake of the present and future generations of our country and to reach our nation’s fullest potential. Therefore, the Government, since its very first day in office, commenced work on implementing the 100 Day Programme on which it campaigned and was elected to office.
-The most important issue for the Sri Lankan polity, and the longest pending, is reconciliation. While meaningful reconciliation would take time, as it involves a process of healing, it is nevertheless an essential factor for the country’s progress. Recognising this, the Government, within days of assuming office, appointed two very senior former civil servants as Governors in the former conflict affected Provinces of the North and the East with a view to initiating measures to strengthen civilian administration. These posts were previously held by military personnel.
Along with this step commenced a series of additional measures to address the particular requirements and grievances of the people in these areas including seeking tangible solutions to the complicated issue of land ownership.
-The Government has already commenced discussions on introducing a policy of progressively reducing High Security Zones in the Northern Province and releasing land to the public.
-Steps are being taken to remove any remaining restrictions on visiting places of worship in the Northern Province and reconstructing all damaged places of religious worship.
-Restrictions placed on persons visiting the North were lifted with immediate effect.
-Involvement of the military in civilian activities has ceased.
-Resettlement related issues of the internally displaced are being addressed in consultation with the relevant entities. All Sri Lankan refugees living overseas have been invited to return on a voluntary basis. The Government has already begun exploring possibilities of extending assistance to such returnees.
-Carrying out its pledge to ensure media freedom, all restrictions on media personnel including the practice of referring visas for clearance to the Ministry of Defence were immediately discontinued.
-All foreign media personnel who wish to visit Sri Lanka are now welcome to do so and travel to and report from any part of the country, freely, without fear of intimidation.
-All news websites that were blocked were unblocked within a matter of days.
-An open invitation was extended to all media personnel living in exile to return to the country.
-Demonstrating its commitment to engage actively with civil society and the human rights community including human rights activists, the NGO Secretariat was shifted away from the purview of the Ministry of Defence and placed under the Ministry of Policy planning and Economic Affairs. Together with the Deputy Minister under whose purview this Secretariat now rests, I hope to engage with these groups on a regular basis to the extent possible and also have the relevant NGOs involved in the reconciliation process.
-The Department of Immigration and Emigration which was also under the purview of the Ministry of Defence was shifted out and placed under the Ministry of Public Order.
-Independence has been restored to Government institutions. Ministers are once again given their due place in policy making while public officials are respected and the environment required for them to carry out their rightful functions has been restored.
-Work is already underway to repeal the controversial 18th amendment to the Constitution which removed independent appointments to Commissions and lifted term limits of the Executive President. The Government will re-introduce provisions of the 17th amendment which will cause the establishment of the Constitutional Council that will provide for the establishment of independent Judicial Service, National Police, Public Service, Elections, Bribery and Corruption, and National Human Rights Commissions.
-Necessary amendments to the Constitution to cause the transfer of executive powers exercised by the President to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers and to Parliament are in the process of being drafted. The current President who, upon taking oaths affirmed to the nation that he will not contest another Presidential election has suggested that not only must the powers of the Executive Presidency be curtailed but the term limit too must be reduced.
Having discontinued the practice of drawing undue importance to the post of President, he has shunned the use of terms such as ‘His Excellency’ to refer to him. Consistently emphasising the merits of abandoning ostentation, President Sirisena, instead, ensures that all of us adopt a pragmatic approach to governance, focusing all our energy on building a compassionate and moral society where the rule of law and good governance practices are upheld and attention is paid to serving the public.
-Delivering on the assurance that the passage of the Assistance and Protection to Victims and Witnesses Bill will be expedited, action is to be taken on this matter in Parliament this month.
-Introduction of an ethical Code of Conduct for all representatives of the people, the enactment of the Right to Information Act, and the National Audit Act are also currently being worked on for implementation within 100 days.
-A National Executive Council inclusive of representatives of parties represented in Parliament has been set up and meets regularly for consultations on the implementation of the 100 Day Programme and issues of national importance. Parties that are not a part of the Government such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are also represented in this National Executive Council.
-On 20th January, the Prime Minister gave an assurance in Parliament that the 13th amendment to the Constitution will be implemented. This will be done while ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State.
-Compliance with applicable legal provisions pertaining to the arrest and detention of persons will be enforced and the possibilities of working with international partners, particularly the ICRC in providing access to detainees and in the establishment of a comprehensive database will be explored.
-A vote on account to provide certain relief measures to the public was presented to Parliament as pledged on 29th January and adopted by a majority of 163 votes on 7th February.
These details that I listed out are just a few of the Government’s achievements and what it intends to do. They are important indicators that the Government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are committed to delivering on their promises to the people.
I am sure you are all eager to find out about issues of accountability in relation to the conflict that plagued Sri Lanka for several decades. What President Sirisena pledged under item 93 of the 100 Day Programme in this respect is to ensure justice with regard to such matters through national independent judicial mechanisms. Although the Government has only just completed 30 days in office, this matter has already received due consideration and has undergone detailed discussion signifying the importance accorded to this issue that is a vital component of the healing process of our nation. As you know, the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation too, in addressing issues of accountability, identified a series of incidents which warrant further investigation and if the material so warrants, the institution of prosecutions.
Accordingly, steps will be taken in the coming weeks to begin the process of setting up necessary mechanisms to investigate into incidents, and where sufficient evidence is available, conduct criminal prosecution in such cases. We will engage with the international community in this process including the United Nations and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Additionally, discussions will commence during the end of this month with officials from South Africa to institute a truth-seeking mechanism suitable for our circumstances, which will function in parallel to the accountability mechanism. Unlike the South African version, it will not be for the purpose of amnesty but to facilitate the healing and reconciliation process of the victims.
The Government will also explore ways and means to harness the potential of the Sri Lankan diaspora to contribute to local reconciliation and development efforts.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is evident from our country’s history dating back to thousands of years that the people of Sri Lanka have always been outward looking, has welcomed the continual absorption of influences from the outside world, and has maintained contact with lands beyond its shores. This is evident in the multi-layered make-up of our population, its manners, its traditions, culture, architecture, food and attire. It is also evident from recorded history that Sri Lanka has held a significant position in the maritime history of the pre-colonial and ancient world and that the Kings of our sea-faring nation had sent emissaries to the courts of their contemporaries including Augustus Caesar’s Rome. Relations between the great Emperor Ashoka of India and his contemporary in Sri Lanka led to the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka which had a civilizational impact on our country. There are many written accounts by foreigners of their visits to Sri Lanka including by a pilot in Alexander’s fleet and Chinese Pilgrim Scholar Fa Hsien.
After gaining Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka carried forth its engagement with the world and took pride in the pursuit of a foreign policy based on “friendship towards all and enmity towards none”. Considering the country’s geographic location mid-way between east and west, its historic role of engagement with the world, and an educated and highly literate population, it was natural for Sri Lanka to pursue this policy.
Sri Lanka takes modest pride in the fact that it was in Colombo, in April 1954 that the Prime Ministers of India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, then Ceylon met and decided to convene the Bandung Conference or the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955. Sri Lanka was also among the first 25 countries that witnessed the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement and was host to the organisation’s Summit in 1976. Having joined the United Nations in 1955, Sri Lanka has contributed consistently to the United Nations system in numerous capacities, taking a lead in norm setting processes including the Law of the Sea Conference, disarmament and human rights and continues to this day to contribute to peacekeeping operations.
It was therefore uncharacteristic for Sri Lanka to have shifted away from this traditional foreign policy for some years in what is best described as an aberration. Sri Lanka now seeks to renew its engagement with the world community. Just before my departure to London on Saturday evening, I signed a letter inviting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Sri Lanka.
I look forward to inviting the Secretary of State when I meet him tomorrow, to visit Sri Lanka as well. I will also invite the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon to visit Sri Lanka when I meet him on Friday. Shooting at the moon, we would also like to see the President of the United States of America visiting Sri Lanka. If it were to happen, it would be the first visit by an American President since Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948.
Having stressed the importance of discontinuing the previous Government’s adversarial policies in international relations throughout his election campaign, President Sirisena did not forget to give due recognition to Sri Lanka’s relations with the world community even in his brief remarks following his oath taking ceremony on the evening of 9th January. In his address to the nation soon thereafter on 11 January and in his remarks on Independence Day on 4th February, the President stressed that it is essential to maintain cordial and fruitful international relations. The aim of the Government, he said is to build the widest friendships internationally that recognises and respects our individuality as a nation. It remains our policy to extend friendship to all nations.
The Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, therefore, pursue a policy of renewed engagement with the international community. We look at the world as an opportunity and not as a threat. We will embrace the world so as to get the best the world can offer for the betterment of the Sri Lankan people. Ours will be a pragmatic foreign policy not based on ideology but on the needs of our people.
In implementing its 100 Day Programme as promised, and efforts to renew its engagement with the world, the Government requires the support, partnership and understanding of the international community. It is our fervent hope in this regard that the United States will be a pivot in our effort to revive Sri Lanka’s relations with the western hemisphere and as expressed by the Assistant Secretary of State during her visit to Sri Lanka recently, that “Sri Lanka can count on the United States to be a partner and a friend in the way forward, whether it is on rebuilding the economy, preventing corruption and advancing good governance, ensuring human rights and democratic participation for all citizens.”
I would like to quote in this context from a recent article written by the moderator of this event Mr. Fredric Grare that was published in the Carnegie portal this month. In this post-election analysis he suggests and I quote:
“To help control corruption and promote reconciliation, it may be time to consider relieving some of the pressures on Sri Lanka applied by the United States and Europe. Gradually unfreezing development aid and giving Sri Lanka enhanced trade benefits under the GSP+ trade agreements if Sri Lanka works toward achieving genuine reconciliation and fighting corruption.”
Mr. Grare, thank you for those words. Our plea today is exactly this. This audience is aware of how, in 1948, America helped restart the European economy with the Marshall Plan, a recovery plan that in time restored Europe’s economic wellbeing. It is our hope that America will partner us through a similar endeavour to help us realise the kind of economic development required to meet the aspirations of our people.
Since time immemorial, Sri Lanka’s natural assets and geographical location in the Indian Ocean made Sri Lanka a transit and destination point for sea-faring nations. Our present-day interactions with the international community, including the United States must factor in Sri Lanka’s location as a hub in the Indian Ocean. In this context, what we wish for is to pursue our relations with the United States to be as comprehensive as possible encompassing a multitude of areas of cooperation. There are several areas of common interest for both countries including the promotion of international peace and security, ensuring maritime security, and combating terrorism and religious extremism. Our two countries are bound by our commitment to pursue and protect democracy and human freedom. Throughout its history, the people of Sri Lanka, just like in the United States, have struggled to retain their sense of independence.
In this context, historically, the governments and people of the United States have always been held in high regard by the people of Sri Lanka. The American people and their governments harboured no colonial designs against the people of Sri Lanka. And they did not stand in the way of our own drive for independence. More recently, they stood by Sri Lanka in its fight against terrorism. While America remains Sri Lanka’s largest customer, we wish to further promote trade and investment both ways to make our economic and trade relationship more comprehensive and balanced, benefiting the people of both countries.
My first official visit to the United States and meeting with Secretary of State Kerry tomorrow will be a first step in our efforts to renew and re-engage with the United States for the mutual benefit of the people of both countries. In fact, I would like to assume that the people of the oldest modern democracy in the world, the United States, and arguably the oldest modern democracy in Asia, Sri Lanka, expect no less.
I would like to leave with you some thoughts on how the world at large including all of you as individuals could help Sri Lanka at this unique moment of its history.
First, I invite all of you to visit us. Join this exciting moment of our history and carry our story out to the world.
Second, help Sri Lanka through increasing trade and investment. Encourage your entrepreneurs to capitalise on the new investment opportunities that have opened up in Sri Lanka. Job creation is key in alleviating the economic situation of the country. Increased trade and investment opportunities are important factors that will assist the reconciliation process and ensure its success that is vital for Sri Lanka’s sustainable growth, peace and development.
Third, I urge the international community including the human rights community to be patient. This is a time of fragile transition. The Government of Sri Lanka is committed to the success of this journey of strengthening democracy, good governance and the rule of law while ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights of all her citizens.
But remember, this is also a sensitive process involving the participation of a multitude of political parties that are essential to ensure the success of this journey. There are still some extremist elements within and outside the country who, for obvious reasons, want this journey derailed. Therefore, I urge you to allow us time and space while supporting us in this journey of national reconciliation and healing, institution building and regaining the true Sri Lankan identity.
Finally, tell our story to those who might be able to derive something meaningful from it; to those who would gain inspiration from it, especially those who may be in what might seem like irreversible states of despair – with either authoritarianism or civil strife, conditions which we believed not so long ago that we would have been destined to have perennially repeated in our country. Tell our story to those who may have lost faith in democracy and the power of the ballot. They must not lose heart.