It is a pleasure for me to join you here today, to speak on ‘Politics and Development in Sri Lanka’, soon after the official visit just last month to Singapore, by Prime Minister Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe.
As I stand here before you, I am reminded of the famous words of Singapore’s first Prime Minister and much admired leader the world over, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew,
In the case of Sri Lanka, I am sure you all know very well, our history, and where we stood as a country at the time of Independence in February 1948, in comparison to most other countries that gained Independence in that era.
Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was placed in a unique position among the countries in the developing world at the time. 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, what followed is something that the world knows only too well. Our nation faltered. We made mistakes which saw our country plunge into torment and conflict for well over three decades.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoires,
“it is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.”
Then came the 19th of May 2009 which saw the end of violence unleashed by terrorism in my country. Sri Lanka was once again free of bombs and gun-fire. By the time the conflict ended, it had taken a toll on everyone in the country. No one was left unscathed. It was not only the conflict in the North and East that the people had endured since Independence. There was the tsunami of December 2004 and two youth insurrections in the South of the country in the 1970s and in the 80s and 90s which left families and individuals scarred emotionally, and their lives sadly altered permanently.
When the violence ceased on the 19th of May 2009, therefore, it was our fervent hope that Sri Lanka could at last resume her long suspended dream for a better, peaceful, united future. However, that was not to be. We failed to seize the opportunity to achieve meaningful reconciliation and consolidate peace.
The past 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, for long years, 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 in 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. 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% of registered voters from all parts of the country exercised their franchise on the 8th of January, silently, peacefully and decisively, resulting in a swift transfer of power the very next day. The people in the North of the country who previously boycotted Presidential elections, came out in large numbers to participate in this election. They did so, even as a few urged them not to vote. By this act, they indicated their commitment to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. They staked their claim in choosing the President of the country; a united country, with one President.
It could therefore be said that this is the first time in our country’s history that we have a truly Sri Lankan leader, who has been elected through the votes of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of race, religion and language. A President who stands for a united New Sri Lanka in which ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is respected, celebrated and valued; a leader who would fulfil the aspirations of the people for strong and independent democratic institutions, freedom of expression, rule of law, good governance and the promotion and protection of human rights.
From the very first day since assuming office, President Sirisena’s Government, with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, has been pursuing an agenda of reform which I am sure you must be familiar with.
Several important steps were taken immediately to,
-ensure freedom of expression and media freedom;
-uphold the rule of law;
-strengthen institutions through legislation – the most important being the 19th amendment to the Constitution which curtailed some of the powers of the Executive Presidency;
-initiate good governance practices;
-strengthen civilian administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces including replacement of the military Governors in these provinces with senior ex-civil servants; and
-review High-Security Zones and release land to their original owners;
The Right to Information was recognized as a fundamental right through the 19th amendment to the Constitution. The importance of civil society in the process of governance, nation-building and peace-building was recognized through several steps including Sri Lanka’s decision just last month in Mexico, to join the Open Government Partnership, becoming the first country in South Asia to do so.
We have also initiated dialogues with diaspora groups and individuals with a view to working with them and obtaining their ideas, views, and assistance for the reconciliation process that is currently underway in the country including projects that directly relate to the welfare of the people.
On the international stage, Sri Lanka is once again working closely with the United Nations Organisation and its systems and procedures. We liaise closely with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his office and we remain open to working with the OHCHR to obtain technical assistance to address several important issues including justice and accountability related issues.
I am sure that all of you are aware of Sri Lanka’s decision to co-sponsor the Resolution titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ in the UN Human Rights Council which was adopted on the 1st of October. This decision, without a doubt, would have taken many in the international community by surprise. However, it was a carefully considered decision manifesting the Government’s open, sincere and proactive approach to dealing with Human Rights issues. It was also an affirmation of the Government’s commitment to guarantee to Sri Lanka’s citizens, its resolve to work towards achieving the norms of a functional democracy, where the universal values of equality, justice and freedom are upheld, by fostering reconciliation between communities and securing a political settlement that would ensure that the country does not plunge into conflict ever again.
In keeping with the Government’s approach of working closely with the international community, we have forged stronger relations with the United Nations and its agencies to obtain financial and technical assistance including through the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund for formulating resettlement plans, meet the immediate requirements of those being resettled, training and capacity building, and reconciliation projects. Overall, we pursue a policy of engagement, dialogue and cooperation with all countries and international organizations, and will remain open to the ideas of others, their views and opinions while sharing our own experiences and views pertaining to matters that concern not only Sri Lanka, but the global community at large.
The election manifesto of President Sirisena’s rainbow coalition included a 100 Day Work Programme which committed to undertake wide-ranging reforms including deliberation on changes to the electoral system. There was also a pledge to hold early Parliamentary elections.
In keeping with that pledge, Parliamentary Elections were held on the 17th of August at which the people of Sri Lanka once again conveyed a very clear message for change. They voted for the rule of law, they voted against impunity, and in support of reconciliation and rebuilding the nation for everyone. They were clearly against the politics of ethnic and religious division and extremism.
The victory of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) at the Parliamentary Election enabled President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a National Unity Government. Traditional rivals in Sri Lankan politics – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) thus came together, heralding a new culture of consensual politics in the country and creating much needed political and policy stability.
An important feature in the August 17th election was the return of centrists to power in the legislature and the resounding defeat of extremists on both sides of the divide. As a result, the moderates in Parliament have once again secured power which augers well for progressive reform.
Inaugurating the 8th Parliament on the 1st of September, President Sirisena drew from the example of South Africa where the main political parties came together at a historic moment in that country. He affirmed that similarly, in the post-conflict context in Sri Lanka, 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.
So for the first time in our country’s history, under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, one of the main ills that plagued us since independence has been set aside – that is 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 and the nation.
The two main parties and some of the smaller parties have stepped away from the adversarial arena of politics. Instead of pure short-term political interests of winning power, holding on to power and retaining power, the political parties have finally decided that they need to reflect in their work, the long-term interests of the people.
Foremost among these is to ensure that our nation would never again be plunged back into the nature of violence and conflict which engulfed us since Independence. And to commit to work at all times with the realization that all communities in our country, although they follow different faiths, speak different languages and follow different customs, share a common geographic space – one nation that we must all live in; and within that space, strive to work in unison for the common purpose of developing our nation which will ensure long-term prosperity for all.
Despite all the violence of the last several decades, there is a large reservoir of goodwill in my country, among the people of all communities. They are, after all, guided by the four major religions of the world which pursue peace, compassion and brotherhood – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
There is realization that politicians and leaders of communities on all sides have made mistakes in the past; that the reservoir of goodwill among communities and among people on all sides was diverted by politicians and leaders in the past, for temporary gain, which led to devastating consequences for all.
This realization is the grounds on which we now gradually build the pillars of a new nation which guarantees the protection of the rights of all, enables the creation of an inclusive society and affirms non-recurrence.
Among the steps envisaged is a new Constitution which will include a Bill of Rights that takes into account not only civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights as well. A Constitution that addresses the needs of all citizens and communities; one which would allow greater participation for the public in decision making processes relating to matters in their respective areas. This would enable more accountable and more responsible government in the country. Such a Constitution, with electoral reform and restoration of stronger Parliamentary government would be essential to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace with justice and rule of law. There is full realization that in order not to slip back into unfortunate conflicts such as the insurrections in the South and the problems in the North which ultimately led to terrorism, it is important that all citizens must feel that they have equal opportunities and have the ability to contribute to nation building. All citizens, irrespective of ethnicity and language must feel that they are equal partners, sharing equal rights.
In order to do this as a nation, we must rise above our fears. We must change mindsets that have got used to thinking of who did what to whom at what time. We have to rise above hatred and feelings of vengeance.
I believe strongly that our nation, Ladies and Gentlemen, has the strength to turn inward to reflect. It is true that forgetting is difficult and most often, not possible. Human memory, no matter however much one yearns, does not let go. Yet, human beings possess the capacity to rise above mistakes, rise above fears, and rise above anger and vengeance and act with compassion, humanism and wisdom. These are the qualities required to commit to work together to build a common future of peace and prosperity, where the rights of all are protected and upheld, where good governance and rule of law reigns, and all citizens will have a sense of ownership in assuring the progress and prosperity of our nation for the benefit of generations to come. And I believe that our nation, torn asunder and tormented by conflict for over 30 years, is now ready for this.
With the twin mandates received in January and in August this year, and the formation of the National Unity Government, we are now well placed to translating the ideas and vision of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, which are in line with the expectations of the people of the country, into reality – that is the creation of a new, united Sri Lanka that celebrates and draws strength from its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual character; a nation that is reconciled and at peace with herself and with the world, upholding the dignity and human rights of all her citizens, the rule of law, and good governance including transparency; and enabling investor-friendly and sound economic policies required for stability and equitable growth that is essential for the development and prosperity of the nation.
The Tamil National Alliance which is now the third largest party in Parliament holds the leadership of the Opposition while the JVP or the People’s Liberation Front holds the Office of Chief Opposition Whip. The main Political Parties in Sri Lanka, therefore, hold Office in either the Government or in Parliament, resulting in our Parliament becoming a national forum.
The priority objective of the Government is of course the achievement of “reconciliation and development” which is essential for the nation’s long-term stability, development and prosperity.
Just last week, on the 5th of November, the Prime Minister outlined the Government’s Economic Policy in Parliament, centered on a knowledge based social market economy built on social justice principles. He explained the steps that will be taken to put in place mechanisms that will seek not only to strengthen the economic sphere but also many other sectors such as social, education and health. Important areas to focus on include generating one million job opportunities; enhancing income levels; development of the rural economies; ensuring land ownership to rural and estate sectors, the middle class and government employees; and creating a wide and strong middle class; as well as ensuring sustainable development.
The Government’s intention is to make Sri Lanka a highly competitive economy on par with Southeast Asia. The newly created Ministry of Development Strategy and International Trade will coordinate investments and economic relations. The barriers to Direct Foreign Investments including bottlenecks and delays to doing business will be removed. There will be reforms in the Financial and Monetary sectors and more stringent control of the Budgets. In order to strengthen social sector programmes especially universal access to education and health, the Government will increase the budgetary allocations to both sectors. And a new set of laws will be put in place to combat corruption and financial crimes.
The first budget of the Government will be presented on the 20th of November and will reflect the third generation economic reforms that the Government intends to initiate, in specific detail.
Since time immemorial, Sri Lanka has been at the heart of Indian Ocean trade especially in the Bay of Bengal. The Government intends to continue in this tradition by entering into an Indo-Lanka Economic and Technology Collaboration Partnership. This will be reinforced by Free Trade Agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the ASEAN nations bordering the Bay of Bengal – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Sri Lanka will also negotiate with the European Union for GSP+ concessions and with China for a Free Trade Agreement.
As we progress on political reform and embark on economic reform, we will be preparing ourselves for an Asia Pacific based on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Addressing the Japanese Diet last month, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe observed that today South Asia has a population of 1.6 million and a GDP of US$ 2.6 trillion. By 2050 the region’s population is projected to increase to about 2 billion, which will make it larger than East Asia. Therefore countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia must work closely and collaborate more. Quoting from the Buddha, the Prime Minister said “a thousand candles can be lit from a single candle and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared”.
We must look to ways of working in close cooperation to achieve the best possible solutions for everyone and create high growth areas, enabling the wider South and Southeast Asian region to fulfil its economic potential and bring higher living standards to its people. Sri Lanka envisages offering many new opportunities to foreign investors and collaborate with developed nations to obtain science and technological expertise, strengthen human security, and counter climate change including adopting mitigation and adaptation strategies.
As Sri Lanka embarks on this important journey we look to Singapore, the one country in the region that is hailed as the modern success story of economic advancement combined with political stability and ethnic harmony. Although Sri Lanka and Singapore are different in many ways from geographic size to complexity of issues and challenges faced, there is much that we can learn from the ‘Singapore Story’. From the management of lean and efficient government to combating corruption; the establishment of credible performance benchmarks in the public sector to strengthening the rule of law on commercial matters; effective investment strategies and tourism promotion; creating an educated and skilled workforce that is merit-based and building strong institutions – there is definitely much to learn.
I end with the words from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that I quoted as I began