At his first address to diplomats accredited to Sri Lanka, yesterday, President Maithripala Sirisena gave a clear statement on the changes that are taking place in the country, with emphasis on the move towards restoring the democratic process leading to Good Governance, which was the theme of the Common Opposition’s campaign for the January 8th Presidential Election.
It covered key aspects of both local and foreign policies, with a good understanding of the interest shown by the international community in the developments in Sri Lanka, especially after the defeat of terrorism in May 2009. It also recognized the role of the international community in the future progress of the country, both in national development and being a partner in the advance of the developing nations towards higher growth, with better social and political conditions in the country. This also saw the realization of the importance of democratic governance in the new trends in international affairs, especially in this century of the Rise of Asia, with many indications that this is indeed the Asian Century.
It was far removed from the overplayed claim of Sri Lanka being the “Wonder of Asia” that was the hackneyed slogan of the Rajapaksa regime, with its claims at aiming to be the “Hub of Asia” in the five key sectors of shipping, aviation, power and energy, trade and commerce and knowledge. There was no wondering around to display any claim to such a wonderful state (no pun intended), but an admission of the harsh reality of the need for economic growth, the elimination of poverty, and the genuine role of the international community in helping achieve the goals before Sri Lankan society today.
He began with Sri Lanka’s commitment to a foreign policy in keeping with the principles of Non-alignment, extending friendship to all nations; strengthening friendship and cooperation with international organizations to achieve greater mutual understanding, with the need to obtain the assistance of friendly nations and international organizations to advance the development of the country and its people. This was important in the context of growing concerns that Sri Lanka was in fact moving away from Non-alignment, with our heavy dependence on China for infrastructure development, and the huge financial commitments we already have to China that have increased the burden of national debt.
This reminder of Non-alignment was also important in re-assuring friendship with our immediate neighbour, India; especially with the concerns that have been expressed by New Delhi about our increased attachment to China, in the context of the hardly concealed Chinese moves to include Sri Lanka in the New Silk Route that is being promoted by Beijing. This is also of importance with regard to maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, where India does have a natural and historic interest. The underscoring of friendship with all nations, and the need for assistance from all, for economic development and strengthening of democracy, was also timely and relevant with President Sirisena due to make his first official visit abroad next week, which will be to India.
Taking note of the diplomatic activity that has taken place in the first few weeks of the new administration; he explained that the new policies of the government, and their recognition by the world outside, have already helped improve our relations with the international community. Explaining that these important changes were taking place this year, which coincides with Sri Lanka’s 60th anniversary of membership in the United Nations, President Sirisena explained the intent to play an active role in the UN, its subsidiary multi-lateral institutions, as well as with other regional and sub-regional fora. This was shown by the importance accorded by the government to the promotion and protection of Human Rights, leading to the invitation extended to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Sri Lanka.
He showed that in keeping with the policy of engagement with the Human Rights community, INGOs and NGOs, the government had already moved the NGO Secretariat away from the purview of the Ministry of Defence and brought it under the Prime Minister. Access to the North, across Omanthai, which was closed to foreign and country representatives, without permission of the military authorities, from October 15th 2014, had now been opened. Relaxation of restrictions on travel had also been brought about in Colombo.
In keeping with the necessity to ensure the Freedom of Expression, so vital to the democratic process, the government has invited all exiled media personnel to return home, and all restrictions on foreign media personnel visiting Sri Lanka has been removed, just as the indiscriminate restrictions imposed on websites are also no more. The President told the diplomats that the 100-Day Program of the government also includes the presenting to Parliament of a Right to Information Act as recommended by the LLRC Report, and other means to assure transparency and accountability in public expenditure. He believed these actions would well establish Sri Lanka’s commitment to good governance today.
Commenting on domestic politics, he made in clear that the historic and decisive election victory of January 8, has produced a revolutionary transformation in the political landscape of Sri Lanka. The government is extremely conscious that the trust placed in it by the people was for the creation of a new political culture, focusing on consensus-based politics to achieve common objectives such as strengthening democracy, good governance and the Rule of Law, and reconciliation. To ensure the independence of state institutions, he said the government will take necessary steps to set up independent commissions needed for this purpose.
The deadly 18
It is useful to recall here that the repeal of the 17th Amendment, was part of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, that gave a vast range of powers to the Executive President, including the right to seek election to any number of terms in this office, which was used by President Rajapaksa to seek his third consecutive which led his defeat just over a month ago. The 17th Amendment also provided for the appointment of independent commissions for key areas of governance such as the Public Service, Police, Against Bribery or Corruption, and many other important aspects of democratic transparency and accountability.
There was also reference to the government’s intent to introduce necessary reforms to the electoral system to ensure acceptable and reasonable democratic representation that had been adversely affected due to the prevailing system of proportional representation. He also saw the need for provision to prevent violence during and after elections, and the necessity to build both a political and national mindset that would move away from undemocratic expressions of rivalry, and noted the beginning of this with the considerable reduction of post-election violence after January 8.
On the matter of alleged war crimes and violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by Sri Lankan troops in the final stages of the battle to defeat the LTTE, the President said that if credible and firm evidence emerges from domestic investigations, that some members of the armed forces had been involved in the breach of IHL, the application of the full force of the law against those concerned would take place.
This was far better than the evasive, and often contradictory and unconvincing statements made on this issue by the previous administration, which remains the cause of major foreign policy concerns of the country.
Message of Peace
He added to this with the post-war reality stated in his own address to the nation on the recent Independence Day, stating that: “After the war ended, we failed to bridge the gulf between the people in the North and the South. It is pointless to be accusing individuals for the failures of the past, but what is important is to correct failures and mistakes and move ahead.” He called for help in both time and assistance to achieve the goal of reconciliation in Sri Lanka, noting that the government has appointed a seven member Special Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation.
He looked forward to good cooperation in achieving the goals of democratic strength, good governance, economic growth and the elimination of poverty, with the willingness to absorb new technological tools and utilize modern technology in sectors such as agriculture, education, health, investment promotion and rapid industrialization.
It was an address that opened new avenues in diplomacy with the understanding of the need for the most cordial an friendly relations with all countries, in a world where a globalized economy is getting stronger, and understanding the important changes in regional and international relations taking place around us, with the strongest impact on the path to progress.