The building of new bonds of friendship with the International Community, and cooperation with the United Nations and its special agencies are highlights of the policies enunciated by President Maithripala Sirisena that have brought encouraging results in the development of a Foreign Policy, to help develop new understandings on key aspects of social and economic progress in the country.
Foreign observers of the changes taking place in the country since the major electoral change on January 8 this year, have noted this significant shift away from a policy that was insular in nature, and had little to offer the world by way of improved relations with countries with strong commitments to democracy and the humanitarian aspects of governance and social organization.
This was particularly noticed in the observations made during President Sirisena’s recent visit to India, by Indian analysts of foreign policy, vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and the South Asian region, as well as the wider world community. In addition to the clear change of policy towards better and stronger friendship with India, instead of what was confined to verbal declarations of friendship that had little genuine content, they noticed a new openness both in discussion and formulation of wider strategies for cooperation that would be beneficial to both countries, and to Sri Lanka in the wider context.
This new acceptance of the changes in Sri Lankan political thinking, have considerable potential for improved international relations to help in the immediate and long-term needs of social and economic progress in several aspects of development. These include strengthening of the economy, building of the necessary interest for Foreign Direct Investment, and new strategies of development, especially in the rural, agricultural and industrial sectors. This acceptance is seen by the responses that President Sirisena has received from all recent visitors who called on him in the past few weeks, and others who have studied the new political developments in the country.
The US Secretary of State John Kerry when meeting Foreign Minister Samaraweera in Washington said: “This is an exciting moment for all of us here because Sri Lanka on January 8th had an historic election in which there has been really a vote for change, a vote to move Sri Lanka in a new direction, to open up greater accountability and possibility for the preservation of human rights, for democracy, for fighting corruption and putting together a government that will speak for and to the people”.
Message of friendship
This message of friendship and understanding was brought closer home when the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal, who met with President Sirisena expressed the willingness of the US to work with the new government as it pursues a future for Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive and prosperous. She said there clearly is a lot of work to be done, and the US looked forward to partnering with the Sri Lankan people to address the challenges and help Sri Lanka realize its true potential, having witnessed the sense of “excitement and optimism” the Sri Lankan people ushered through the January 8 election.
From a different political position, Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, who met with President Sirisena said he was happy to see an upsurge of Commonwealth values in Sri Lanka, observing the new government has launched an ambitious programme to strengthen democratic practices, and assured the fullest cooperation from the Commonwealth to the new government. He saw in the 100-Day programme of the Government, comprising of many of the Commonwealth’s principles.
He noted President Sirisena’s measures to expel misunderstandings, foster public trust and overcome post-war challenges, and the government’s plans for reconciliation between communities, those who follow different faiths and between different political parties.
From the important economic perspective, there was clear support from the World Bank for the new approach to social and political issues that impacted on the economy. At her meeting with President Sirisena, the World Bank’s Vice President for the South Asia Region, Ms. Annette Dixon, expressed the global lending agency’s readiness to provide financial assistance required by Sri Lanka, commending the new government’s efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and speed up development.
Noting President Sirisena’s assurance that the new government will utilize funds in a more transparent manner with firm steps to prevent malpractices and irregularities the use of such funds earlier, Ms. Dixon said World Bank is committed to provide financial assistance in two key areas; poverty alleviation and accelerating the development in Sri Lanka. She further said the Bank is willing to assist Sri Lanka to control unemployment by implementing projects for skills development among the youths in the country.
Political analysts, both in Sri Lanka and abroad are of the view that the core principles of this new policy of friendship and outreach that has brought this response from abroad come from two key statements by President Sirisena. The first was at the Address to the Nation on the 67th Commemoration of Independence on February 4, and the other was his address to the Diplomatic Community in Sri Lanka, a few days later.
Referring to Foreign Policy in Independence Commemoration Day, he said that “in considering the past, we make a clear commitment towards following a foreign policy of the middle path, in friendship with all nations, and move towards the resolution of our national issues through the strengthening of our international relations, and through the benefits of such friendship that will bring technological progress, to take our Motherland towards greater progress.
“We see the necessity to bring new technology to our new generations, implant the advances of technology in their minds, and join hands with the modern world. It is, therefore, necessary to fully understand the thinking and expectations of the new generations and as a government to take the necessary steps to help them realize these expectations.
“We will clearly carry out our task of moving forward as an awakened nation, by obtaining the cooperation of all through our foreign policy of the middle path, and as a country that acts in keeping with the United Nations Charter, and its conventions.”
President Sirisena had a sharper focus on the new thinking on international relations in his address to the diplomatic community in Colombo, when he said the foreign policy of the present government is to strengthen cooperation with all countries and international organizations that extend support to all communities.
He said the policy of the new government is to work in cooperation with international organizations, soliciting the support of other countries for development work launched in the country, with his government is always ready to extend every possible support to those countries that support Sri Lanka.
He emphasized that the funds for development work in the country will be expended in a transparent manner, and underscored the process to slash unlimited executive powers of the presidency by making the necessary constitutional reforms, emphasizing that work to strengthen parliament is already underway. He admitted certain shortcomings and failures in the current political system of the country, although the democracy has been ensured overall, especially in the recent election.
Addressing Sri Lanka's human rights issues, the President informed the diplomats that the government has planned to move a Bill on the Right to Information (RTI) in its 100 day program, noting that RTI Act is an action to safeguard the basic rights of the people and the democracy of the country, and significantly a measure recommended in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission's report.
President Sirisena added that based on the initiatives of the government to protect human rights, the government has invited the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner to engage in a tour of Sri Lanka, and called on the foreign diplomats to extend their unstinted support to the development work of the country.
These two addresses delivered with no reference to a script, ably demonstrated President Sirisena’s thinking on the important issues of democracy, human rights and the need for genuine peace and reconciliation in the country.
They went beyond the prepared texts that were the feature of key national statements in the recent past on such occasions. They have helped build a new image both of the leadership in Sri Lanka, and importantly the strong commitment of the people to the principles of democracy, from which the country has been clearly veering away, especially in the past decade.
There is clearly a very active debate both in the media and among political and citizen’s organizations about the 100-Day programme, and the admitted delays in implementing some of its proposals. Such a debate is necessary in the democratic process, but it must be a well informed debate.
It seems necessary to underline that what matters most in the 100-Day plan, are the core issues of constitutional change that will have very far reaching consequences that help both widen and strengthen the democratic process. These will give true meaning to the concept of Good Governance, and should not be confused with the sloganeering impact of 100-days in a poll campaign.
The necessity for pressure to ensure the passage of the constitutional changes, and measures such the Right to Information, Independent Commissions of Inquiry and Audit, as well as necessary reform to the electoral process, must be brought much more to the fore of the current debate, to fully realize the expectations of the voters who made such a dramatic and historic change on January 8, 2015.