Recent developments in Sri Lanka
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is an honour to be invited to the Community of Democracies, since my distinguished predecessor Lakshman Kadirgamar addressed the Inaugural Ministerial Conference of the Community in Warsaw in June 2000.
As you all know, democracy in its modern form began to take root in my country over a century ago when the basic forms of participatory democracy were introduced by the colonial government at the time. These systems evolved until, in 1931, Universal Adult Franchise was introduced in Sri Lanka, long before many other countries in the world. In 1948, with Sri Lanka becoming Independent, our Parliament was established.
We have a multi-party system, and despite some draw backs and setbacks over the years, one could state with confidence that democracy is very firmly and deeply rooted in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka clearly falls into the category of countries which believes that democracy, however flawed, is absolutely essential. There is no substitute for it. Democracy is in the lifeblood of our people. The voting habit is so deeply ingrained that I cannot possibly imagine a situation where any attempt to take it away from the people would be tolerated. This was evident even in the historic January 2015 Presidential Election when, in the face of imminent defeat, last minute efforts were made by the former regime to subvert the democratic process, such attempts were clearly resisted by the Army, the Police and the Attorney-General.
We have not seen any serious attempts at overthrowing our democracy in our 68 years of independence, except an attempt in 1962 which was aborted in a few hours. The quality of our democracy, over time, has ebbed and flowed, but Sri Lanka’s voter turnout at every election has been one of the highest in the world. The people of Sri Lanka are proud of their active and practising democracy, and if I may so, our democracy is also one that is firmly rooted and one that has also been tested.
Why do I say this? For long years, Sri Lanka was unfortunately, a democracy under siege, with a terrorist group demanding a separate state through violence. They recruited children as combatants, assassinated democratic political leaders, and disallowed any semblance of democratic practice in the areas that they held under their command. Years of terrorism took a severe toll on our democratic institutions. We were even compelled to bring in legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act that has no place in a democracy. Freedom of expression and freedom of movement were severely curtailed. Human rights suffered as well. And while elections were still being held despite terrorism, candidates could not campaign freely, and most fell victim to violence.
Yet, when terrorism ended and people in the areas held under their sway were once again free to exercise their vote at elections, they started turning out in large numbers to exercise their franchise, indicating that they clearly chose democracy over any other form of governance.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I explained, Sri Lanka faced terrorism for almost 30 years and despite successive governments trying their best, often with international support, to reach a negotiated settlement, this could not be achieved.
Ultimately, when the conflict ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE, and everyone hoped that our democracy would be strengthened, and an era of reconciliation and healing would commence, the administration of the day decided otherwise.
Emboldened by the victory over the LTTE, the administration of the day launched a triumphalist campaign aimed at holding on to power. A constitutional amendment was effected, lifting term limits for the executive presidency. Checks and balances in terms of appointments to key Commissions were eliminated. Freedom of expression was curtailed, news websites were blocked, journalists were threatened, the judiciary was tampered with, freedom of movement was restricted, democratic norms in the administration of security forces was overlooked, human rights were curtailed, communities were being polarised through manipulation, impunity reigned, and the public service and democratic institutions were deliberately weakened. In fact, bringing back memories of the Enabling Act passed in the Reichstag in 1933, the action by the Government of the day, unleashed through a two-thirds majority secured in Parliament through coercion, blackmail and intimidation, was the most serious threat to our democracy since the demise of the LTTE in 2009.
However, our democracy could not be that easily beaten down. The best example, I would say, of the resilience and strength of Sri Lanka’s democracy was the Presidential election that took place in Sri Lanka on the 8th of January 2015. Taking many Sri Lanka watchers around the world by surprise, Asia’s oldest democracy reasserted its commitment to democracy by dislodging an emerging elected dictatorship by non-violence. Instead of the stones, pellets and bullets that some have used around the world to reassert democracy, the weapon of choice of the people of Sri Lanka was their ever-cherished ballot which they deployed with finesse, through peaceful means, to change an administration which was perceived as undefeatable.
Over 80% of registered voters exercised their franchise on 8th January, silently, peacefully and decisively, resulting in a swift transfer of power the very next day. They chose good governance, the rule of law, strong democratic institutions, reconciliation, human rights, and the creation of a new political culture devoid of divisive politics and the preservation of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of Sri Lankan society.
As I said earlier, the firm resolve of the public servants – the Commissioner of Elections, the thousands of election workers, and even the army and the police who performed an exemplary task by rallying around to uphold this victory - proved their commitment to democracy.
This journey did not stop on the 8th of January. They voted a second time at the Parliamentary Election on 17th August in support of change.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Recent progressive developments in Sri Lanka since the Presidential Election on 8th January and the Parliamentary Election on 17th August are too numerous for me to list out in a brief statement of this nature. Therefore, I am going to distribute a paper containing a list of some of the key achievements and proceed to describe a few important steps taken by the Government.
In April 2015, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, restoring the independence of commissions responsible for the judiciary, police, public service and human rights.
Presidential term-limits were reintroduced and the duration of a single term of the Presidency was reduced from 6 to 5 years.
Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committees were established.
Following the Parliamentary Election of 17 August, traditional rivals in Sri Lankan politics, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came together to form a Government of National Unity for the first time since Independence. This heralded a new culture of consensual politics that is necessary to create political and policy stability. One has to only look at Sri Lanka’s modern history with its countless missed opportunities to realise that what held us back and plunged us into cycles of conflict, was the nature of adversarial politics that was followed in the past. Whenever one side tried to find a solution, the other side posed obstacles.
Today, under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, this myopia that plagued our nation since independence 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. We also have in our Leader of Opposition, the 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.
Making use of this historic opportunity, the Government is taking steps towards achieving the twin objectives of ‘reconciliation and development’. We realise well that it is not possible to achieve one without the other.
On 1 October 2015, we co-sponsored, with other members of the UN Human Rights Council, the Resolution titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ as a manifestation of our firm commitment to uphold the human rights of our people, and take measures for truth-seeking, justice, and reparations aimed at ensuring non-recurrence. The design of mechanisms that we have undertaken to create for these processes will be informed by public consultations.
One of our key priorities while pursuing our development and reconciliation objectives is the adoption of a new Constitution based on the fundamentals of democracy, human rights and equal dignity for all citizens by virtue of their citizenship. Public consultations for the drafting of the new Constitution are currently under way.
We are also in the process of repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and introducing new counter-terrorism legislation that is in line with contemporary international best practices.
As you all know, the Government, under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s leadership, since January 2015, has been working closely with the international community, resurrecting strained relations with the United Nations and our traditional partners, because it is our firm belief that in this journey that we have undertaken, Sri Lanka requires the support and assistance of all her friends in the international community. This is in keeping with Sri Lanka’s traditional, age-old persona, which for centuries has been an inclusive society that reached out to the world, guided by her geographic location at the centre of the Indian Ocean between East and West, and welcomed ideas from the outside world that enriched our society.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Community of Democracies must find ways and means of standing together to assist each other in times of peril, especially when faced by terrorism which threatens the fundamentals on which democracy is based.
Moreover, when countries like mine stand up to uphold democracy and pursue reconciliation and development despite sustained efforts by terrorists, extremists and potential despots to destroy democracy, the democracies of the world must come to their assistance through every means possible – including sharing experiences, increasing trade and investment, assistance for capacity building and institution building.
A viable democracy is where citizen feel content and satisfied. Creating and maintaining a viable democracy is not easy. I believe this to be true for the developed as well as the developing countries, although the nature of the challenges that each of us face may be different.
Flaws in our systems and weaknesses can lead to disillusion with politics among people. This is natural. But maintaining the sustained interest of the public is important for a democracy to thrive as the people are an integral part of a democracy. Without fundamental human rights, strong institutions, right education, economic development, ensuring constant safeguards against corruption and robust checks and balances, democracy will always be in peril. And we must help each other in our mutual effort to safeguard and strengthen our respective democracies.
In countries like mine, for all good intentions and political will to succeed, and for democracy to be strengthened, all stakeholders must feel that their development is being cared for and their lives 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 a higher prices and access to markets; for the students more schools, technical colleges and universities with better-trained teachers and lecturers; 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, investment 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 the greater and faster the likelihood and durability of peace. In a nutshell, the people’s purses must feel the benefits of reconciliation, peace and ethnic harmony. And they must feel them fast.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With the steps that the Government of Sri Lanka is taking towards democractization, respect for human rights, reconciliation and development, we wish to make Sri Lanka a post-conflict democratic success story, and we look forward to your support in this endeavour.
I thank you once again for this opportunity and look forward to continue to stay engaged with the ‘Community of Democracies’ in future.