Czech Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kohout, who arrives in Colombo on Wednesday with a large delegation, has commended Sri Lanka for the progress it has made with rebuilding its infrastructure and economy that were ravaged by a three-decade-long war that ended in May 2009.
In an exclusive interview to The Island on the eve of his arrival in Colombo, he said: "It has been only four and a half years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, and it is amazing to observe how fast Sri Lanka has progressed with the reconstruction process and revival of economy."
"Czech companies are keen to participate in the process of rebuilding Sri Lanka," Kohout declared.
The Island: You are visiting Sri Lanka with a large delegation at a crucial time when Sri Lanka needs all the help it can get to rebuild its war-ravaged economy. What can you do to help Sri Lanka?
Answer: It has been only four and a half years since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka and it is amazing to observe how fast Sri Lanka has progressed with the reconstruction process and revival of economy. Czech companies are keen to participate in the process of rebuilding Sri Lanka. Drawing on their expertise, they have already indicated several projects in infrastructure, energy, environmental projects, waste management, air pollution monitoring, water management and treatment, as well as other services. The Czech government has funded several NGOs including People in Need, Adra and Charitas that carried out a number of developmental projects in the North Province after the war.
Czech companies will also participate in the Commonwealth Business Forum in Colombo later this month.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic continuously extends its development assistance to Sri Lanka and would like to continue to do so. In the last few years, many small development projects have been implemented in the area of water treatment, air quality monitoring or vocational training. This year again, we are open to calls for proposals from local organizations in Sri Lanka. We will request the Government of Sri Lanka to help us identify the most suitable areas for our projects. Last but not least, Sri Lanka is among 15 countries whose students can apply for Czech Republic scholarship in the academic year 2014/2015.
The Island: What are the three top objectives you propose to achieve during the visit?
A: First of all, we would like to establish a regular political dialogue with Sri Lanka on the highest level, which I consider to be vital for enhancing our cooperation in a number of fields. I hope my visit to your country will help bring to fruition some of the business projects that are already in the pipeline, namely, in the energy sector and the construction of a Czech brewery in Sri Lanka. Also, I would like to discuss with the Sri Lankan government in which other sectors Czech companies can get involved.
Last but not least, in the area of cultural exchange Czech citizens, and children in particular, appreciated the Sri Lanka government´s gift of two elephants in autumn 2012 for the Prague Zoo. The elephants´ arrival attracted a great deal of attention among the Czech public. This helped promote Sri Lanka in our country very well. The Czech Republic would like the Sri Lankan government to consider providing us with two more elephants, thereby enabling us to establish a breeding centre of Sri Lankan elephants in Europe.
The Island: The bilateral trade is barely $58 million—-much below the potential. How do you propose to expand the volume of trade to say $100 million/$200 million in the coming years?
A: The good news is that over the last ten years our bilateral trade has been steadily rising. In fact, since 2002 it has increased nine-fold. Still, we can do much more to expand our trade relationship. Currently we are trading mostly in rubber and textiles. However, Czechs are able to offer cooperation in many other areas. There is a vast potential for investment in infrastructure, energy, water and environment protection, food processing, , recreation and hospitality as well as higher education.
For instance, Czech construction companies are currently bidding for projects to build steel bridges, hotels and hospitals etc.
Sri Lanka has also become an important destination for Czech tourists who have literally fallen in love with Sri Lanka’s amazing natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. Last year 6,000 Czech tourists visited Sri Lanka, with this number growing every year. Tourism, and especially the eco-tourism, offers a great potential for investment, too.
The Island: Czech companies have a special interest in facilitating their investment/business in Sri Lanka, which is developing fast after ending the war in 2009. There is vast potential for investment in Sri Lanka for the Czech Republic in several areas. Your delegation includes 20 Corporate Representatives. What kind of investment and business deals are likely to be signed during your visit?
A: Some of the Czech companies in our delegation are already discussing various projects with Sri Lankan ministries.
Energy sector is one of the areas where we see a potential for our future cooperation. The Czech Petroleum Group consortium, currently comprising 17 Czech companies, is highly interested in assisting Sri Lanka in modernization of Sapusganda refinery. The Czech Republic´s know-how and extensive experience in the petrochemical industry represents our country as the most reliable partner for Sri Lanka in this strategic field.
Furthermore, the Czech companies would like to participate in the modernization of the hydroelectric power station in Iginiyagala as well as provide services in the aviation industry.
Moreover, we have the Czech Minister of Culture and prominent representatives of our film industry in our delegation. We hope to establish closer contacts between Czech and Sri Lankan filmmakers.
The Island: The Czech-Sri Lanka Business Forum will hold a meeting during your visit. What is its agenda? What agreements and MoUs are likely to be signed?
A: The Business Forum is an important platform to exchange information about the current state of our economies and conditions for export and investment. We would like our prospective Sri Lankan partners to be able to learn more about strong fields of our economy (such as infrastructure, civil aviation, biotechnology etc.) and vice versa.
During the Business Forum, the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka and the Czech Chamber of Commerce will sign an Agreement on Cooperation between the two chambers, which will enable exchange of information and organization of trade and market research missions, exhibitions etc.
The Island: When are you planning to open your Embassy in Sri Lanka?
A: After the Czech Republic closed its Embassy in Sri Lanka in 1993, we had a Honorary Consul in Colombo in 1997–2011. Nowadays, the Czech Republic would like to re-open the Embassy in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, implementation of the decision was delayed due to financial constraints. Until then, our Foreign Ministry cooperates with other EU member states representing the Czech Republic in Sri Lanka to help us issue the Schengen visa for tourists and businessmen wishing to visit the Czech Republic. We are aware that enhancing our relations goes hand in hand with putting in place an effective visa regime to ease travel between the Czech Republic and Sri Lanka. Therefore, I have personally prioritized Sri Lanka to be among the top destinations where the Czech Republic will open its Embassy in the very near future.