“The Commonwealth has brought a diverse group of sovereign nations to one equal platform. That is its strength. Our countries have vastly different demographics, different levels of economic development and a wonderful spread of cultures and religions. Similarly, we share common global challenges and also have those that are unique to our nations”, said President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
He made these observations in an interview with the latest issue of UK magazine First, which is dedicated to CHOGM 2013.
The Commonwealth approach involves respecting each country’s sovereignty while promoting dialogue and engagement, he further said.
Following is the full text of the interview by President Mahinda Rajapaksa:
Why does the Commonwealth matter?
The Commonwealth has brought a diverse group of sovereign nations to one equal platform. That is its strength. Our countries have vastly different demographics, different levels of economic development and a wonderful spread of cultures and religions. Similarly, we share common global challenges and also have those that are unique to our nations. The Commonwealth approach involves respecting each country’s sovereignty while promoting dialogue and engagement.
Another important aspect about the Commonwealth is that it enables all countries – big or small, poor or rich – to have an equal voice. For example, with the majority of countries in the organization being small states, the Commonwealth places special emphasis on this group of nations, acknowledging that those are the countries often at the forefront in facing global challenges. This seeks to give them an equal voice in determining international policies.
These are among the aspects that I think makes the Commonwealth both a relevant and valuable part of the international community today.
How important is CHOGM 2013 for Sri Lanka?
CHOGM is a great opportunity for Sri Lanka and we are extremely honored to be hosting it this year. This will be a great occasion for our country to showcase the progress it has made in four short years since ending a brutal terrorist war. As you are well aware, even though the war has ended here, there are still many LTTE sympathizers who are carrying out a massive campaign to spread misinformation about Sri Lanka. With the Commonwealth heads-of-state and governments, other participants and the media coming to Sri Lanka, they can see for themselves the real situation in our country – how people are living in harmony, the economic progress we’re making, and what approaches we’re taking to address the post-war challenges.
What do you hope to achieve from CHOGM 2013, both as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, and President of the host nation?
For Sri Lanka, this will be a wonderful opportunity to enhance our bilateral relations with all Commonwealth countries. There are many ways that we can improve our economic and trade opportunities with other nations, both within the Commonwealth and outside. Serving as Chair-in- Office will also boost the Sri Lankan image globally, showing our capability to take leadership in international fora, with emphasis on issues of current importance to the world.
With regard to the Commonwealth as a whole, there are many issues we could focus on in the next two years. Among the more urgent ones is the impact of climate change on many Commonwealth nations. The threats posed by the unpredictable global economy are another challenge. The Commonwealth is made up of countries with very different levels of economic development an varied economic challenges. I feel we can help one another by learning from each other’s experience.
I would also like to promote greater people-to-people interaction among Commonwealth members. Leaders can always sit and make decisions about global issues, but the impact of those decisions is really felt by the people, who will determine their outcome. The way that people of different countries interact with each other has a great impact on the bilateral and multilateral relationships between nations.
How would you summarize Sri Lanka’s social and economic progress since the end of the conflict with the LTTE in 2009
All Sri Lankans suffered immensely for three long decades because of the terrorism that gripped our country. If you want to understand the depth of suffering we underwent, you really need to talk to the people from all parts of Sri Lanka. They will tell you. I don’t think anyone was untouched by the war. Thankfully, now there is peace.
Because of the war, it was difficult for governments to focus on the various other needs in the country. After ending the war, we focused on rapid infrastructure development because the most immediate need of the people was access to the basic facilities. Particularly in the war-affected regions, the LTTE denied people their right to access the most basic needs such as schools, hospitals and roads.
Our other main priority is to make sure a conflict of this nature will never again happen in Sri Lanka. The LTTE was very successful in creating divisions between the various communities in Sri Lanka. Now, it’s time to focus on reconciliation and make sure all our communities live together in peace as Sri Lankans.
There are still some unanswered questions about atrocities towards the end of the conflict in 2009. How can you reassure the international community that this is being properly addressed?
This is something that we can’t understand. Why is the focus only on the end of the conflict? Why are nearly thirty years of brutal LTTE terrorism wholly ignored? We should look at the whole picture. However, whenever there has been evidence, action has been taken against those accused of such acts. One example is the murder of five students in Trincomalee. Those who are accused are now before the courts.
The LLRC report and its implementation are proof that post-war issues are being addressed. It was a thirty year war. Terrorism was defeated only four years ago. Since then, we have achieved a lot. You cannot expect to heal all wounds overnight.
There have been recent reports of ethnic and inter-religious tensions in Sri Lanka. What is the government strategy for national cohesion?
In this country, different communities and religions have existed in harmony for centuries. If you just look at Colombo, you find Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Christian churches and Muslim mosques close to each other and people freely observing their faith. Those incidents reported as cases of religious tension are the result of common criminal acts. The government treats all communities and religions equally. If there are extreme elements, they are sternly dealt with.
How inclusive is the politics in Sri Lanka?
That question can be easily answered if you take a look at how diverse my Cabinet is. I have members from various political parties, different political philosophies and different ethnicities and religions. While respecting the differences among us, we have succeeded in working together to find solutions to the country’s problems.
How would you define Sri Lanka’s economic strategy?
Growth with equity is our economic strategy. Sri Lanka believes in a market economy while ensuring social justice. The country is open for foreign investment and business but on conditions favorable to the country.
On diplomatic relations; your recent visits include China and Africa –are these your diplomatic priorities?
Sri Lanka continues to maintain a non-aligned foreign policy. China has been a long-time friend of Sri Lanka. In fact, some of the main CHOGM conference venues have either been gifts from China or built with assistance from China. But we have other close allies in East Asia such as Japan and South Korea, too. Our relations with Africa needed improvement, which is why we focused on building better relations with African countries in recent years. Many countries have helped Sri Lanka for many years, and we value all those relations.
How important are sports and culture in defining the essence of Sri Lanka?
Of course sports and culture are major components of Sri Lanka’s identity. Almost all sports are played in this country. We have once won the Cricket World Cup and produced some of the world’s best cricketers. We are fast progressing in rugby too.
Needless to say, Sri Lanka has a very rich culture. Regardless of one’s ethnicity or religion, all Sri Lankans tend to be extremely proud of their cultural heritage. I think that’s what makes us strong as a nation.
What is your future vision and aspiration for Sri Lanka and its people?
My vision is a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka. I want Sri Lanka to remain a peaceful country where all its people live together in harmony, and I want all Sri Lankans to have the opportunity to achieve prosperity.