Japan’s friendship with Sri Lanka will be stronger than it ever was in the past 60 years, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa returns from his four day official visit to Japan. This visit, the second to Japan in his tenure as President, marked the completion last year of 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two counties.
Six decades during which the bonds of friendship have grown stronger, irrespective of the governments that have been in office in both countries. What President Rajapaksa took with him to Japan, apart from the two baby elephants gifted of the Thama Zoo in the Tokyo Metropolitan Region, by itself a jumbo symbol of friendship, was underscoring of the spirit of friendship and understanding that has grown between the two countries and its peoples.
It is a friendship not shaken by the many twists of the “international community” in its relations with Sri Lanka. It is a shared feeling of respect for the independence and sovereignty of each nation and the recognition of the hardships that have been faced, shared and overcome by both nations and peoples through a long period of mutual friendship.
President Rajapaksa comes back with notches of success on his belt, with the recognition by Japan of the rapid pace of progress in Sri Lanka after the defeat of terrorism, an eye-opener to the Western critics of Sri Lanka’s post-conflict record that their allegations against this country are not accepted worldwide, especially in all countries that value democracy, including a close ally of the US.
There is also the assurance of continued aid to Sri Lanka under the agreements signed between the two countries, and clear indications that Japanese business is interested in the new investment opportunities available in Sri Lanka today. The highest recognition of the friendship between Japan and Sri Lanka was the audience President Rajapaksa had with Japan’s Emperor Akihito, last Thursday. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko received the President and First Lady Shiranthi Wickremasinghe Rajapaksa at the Imperial Palace, where they were guests of honour at lunch.
The Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe had bilateral meetings with the Sri Lankan President later, when several agreements on assistance to Sri Lanka were signed.
While this visit of the President to Japan has brought new bonds of friendship, strengthening what was already a very good relationship, Japan’s respect for Sri Lanka and appreciation of the nation’s generosity goes beyond the 60 years of diplomatic relations that began in 1952.
In this, one must reach back to the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 that finally ended World War 2, and the remarkable stand that this country, then Ceylon, took in refusing reparations from Japan for the damages caused during the war. The hero of the event was J. R. Jayewardene, the Minister of Finance in the first government after independence. The announcement he made was truly memorable. This is how the records describe Ceylon’s magnanimity at the time.
“A major player in providing support for a post-war free Japan was the delegation from Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). While many were reluctant to allow a free Japan capable of aggressive action and insisted that the terms of surrender should be rigidly enforced in an attempt to break the spirit of the Japanese nation, the Ceylonese Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene spoke in defence for a free Japan and informed the conference of Ceylon's refusal to accept the payment of reparations that would harm Japan's economy.
His reason was: "We in Ceylon were fortunate that we were not invaded, but the damage caused by air raids, by the stationing of enormous armies under the South-East Asia Command, and by the slaughter-tapping of one of our main commodities, rubber, when we were the only producer of natural rubber for the Allies, entitles us to ask that the damage so caused should be repaired.
We do not intend to do so, for we believe in the words of the Great Teacher - the Buddha - whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that 'hatred ceases not by hatred but by love'." He ended the same speech by saying "This treaty is as magnanimous as it is just to a defeated foe.
We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that with the closing of this chapter in the history of man, the last page of which we write today, and with the beginning of the new one, the first page of which we dictate tomorrow, her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity" (Wikipedia).
Reports at the time said that Jayewardene's speech was received with resounding applause. The New York Times stated "The voice of free Asia eloquent, melancholy and strong with the tilt of an Oxford accent dominated the Conference. The ablest Asian spokesman at the Conference was Ceylon's Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene".
Japan has never forgotten that gesture of magnanimity by a nation that had just emerged into freedom. It was taught to the children of Japan in schools long after the war, and with the establishing of diplomatic relations between the two countries just one year later, this spirit of mutual friendship continued to grow.
There were many common features that bound the two nations, the most important of which remains the common heritage of Buddhism. President Mahinda Rajapaksa referred to this very special religious and cultural link between the two countries, and at the Sri Lankan Cultural Festival that took place during this visit, reminded that Japan has done much to assist Sri Lanka to protect its sites of cultural importance, and made special reference to the Japanese funded Museum at Sigiriya.
Friends in disaster
It was also important that President Rajapaksa arrived in Japan for this visit on the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, when a massive earthquake followed by an equally devastating tsunami caused immense disaster in Japan. The Japanese are still recovering from this tragedy, and the Sri Lankan President referred to the immense perseverance and commitment of the Japanese people to face up to challenges brought about by this disaster, and described how Sri Lanka was impressed by Japan’s use of technology to overcome these challenges and remain an important economic hub in the world.
It was also the opportunity to thank Japan for the ready assistance extended to Sri Lanka after the tsunami of December 2004, and helped rebuild the vast areas of the Sri Lankan coastline that were destroyed by it, and overcome the major crises it caused to the livelihoods of the people here.
Sri Lanka and Japan today stand as two countries that share a spirit of unity and understanding in facing up to such natural challenges, and cooperate in moving ahead despite the serious damage caused to lives and the economy. Another aspect of mutual understanding that emerged very strongly in this visit by President Rajapaksa was Japan’s own assessment of the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka, after the defeat of terrorism in May 2009, and how Sri Lanka has faced up to the challenges of re-settlement, rehabilitation and reconciliation.
What took place in Japan was in sharp contrast to the targeting of Sri Lanka for attack at the UNHRC sessions now on in Geneva, where the US is expected to sponsor a resolution strongly critical of Sri Lanka, which is being backed by the EU, and other countries, who have a clear record of duplicity in dealing with human rights issues and violations of humanitarian law. Japan was certainly not ready to echo the litany of complaints and allegations being made against Sri Lanka in Geneva by these sections of the “international community”, and by others even nearby, who are keen at arm twisting of Sri Lanka to serve internal regional and racist interests, and the wider interests of international power alignments.
Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, a former Prime Minister who now holds the office of Finance Minister, expressed Japan’s position well in telling President Rajapaksa that, "Western nations are underestimating the development in Sri Lanka since the end of the conflict."
He further said "Sri Lanka's security situation is getting better. The economy is on the right track. Investors and tourists are coming to the country".
President Rajapaksa while thanking Japan for its assistance to Sri Lanka's development remarked that leaders and people of the world should visit Sri Lanka to see for themselves the progress the country had achieved in all aspects in recent times.
He was also grateful for the considerable assistance that Japan had given for the development of the North and East of Sri Lanka in the post-conflict period, and the continuing help given for skills training and livelihood support schemes in the former conflict affected areas. It is important to record here what Yasushi Akashi, the senior Japanese diplomat, and a member of the international Co-Chairs during the Ceasefire Agreement in Sri Lanka, told the media this week.
Easily the international diplomat who has visited Sri Lanka the most times (at the last count in was more than 20 plus) even during the ceasefire days when the Co-Chairs held regular meetings, Mr. Akashi had clear differences with the other Co-Chairs on their aspect of human rights in Sri Lanka. He then said that Japan was not ready to go with the human rights stands of other nations, ignoring the objective realities in Sri Lanka.
After his meeting with President Rajapaksa, Ambassador Akashi told the media that “the post-conflict development in Sri Lanka was phenomenal. For a modest sized developing country, Sri Lanka that faced very, very big challenges with the end of the war four years ago, coped with the overwhelming task of feeding a huge number of IDPs, the majority of them housed at Menik Farm in the North. “In my several visits to the North, I saw with my own eyes how the whole country coped with the challenge of housing, feeding and giving all kinds of other care to over 200,000 people, especially women and children.
“I was simply amazed by the ability of the people in the government, starting from the leadership, to mobilize the extra effort in a very effective manner. Of course some international help came through the United Nations, but the bulk of the efforts came from within Sri Lanka itself, by the people themselves.
“I can testify that such efforts were very effective and very rewarding. I think everyone tends to judge a situation from his or her own background. That is why I feel that it is rather unfair for some developed countries, which have much more resources than Sri Lanka, to express impatience with Sri Lanka and its development; but this is not fair and this is not objective.
Certainly, I’m sure that the government and people of Sri Lanka would wish to move much more rapidly, but with Sri Lanka’s limited resources what it has done by itself is amazing. I recommend visits to Sri Lanka by all those who feel that Sri Lanka’s efforts are insufficient. I think if you visit Sri Lanka you will come to know the heroic effort of people to rebuild their own country, to rehabilitate, remove mines and last but not least, to achieve genuine reconciliation among the people.”