By Mangala Samaraweera –
Hon. Fumio Kishida, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan,
Mr. Yasushi Akashi, General Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to join you here at this High-Level Seminar on Peacebuilding, National Reconciliation and Democratisation in Asia, to share with you, details of Sri Lanka’s experience and our journey towards achieving lasting peace, reconciliation, prosperity and dignity for all our people.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the 6th of September 1951, the leader of the delegation of Sri Lanka, to the Conference for the Conclusion and Signature of the Treaty of Peace with Japan held in San Francisco, Mr. JR Jayewardene, spoke of the Message of humanism of the Buddha, through which, not only our two nations, but many nations in Asia, were bound together for hundreds of years, with a common culture and heritage. He quoted the words of the Buddha that ‘hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love alone’, and appealed for reason in the treatment of Japan.
Extending the hand of friendship, Mr. JR Jayewardene, who went on to become President of Sri Lanka in later years, hoped that the people of Japan would march together with the rest of the world’s nations, to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity. Today, Japan is a great and powerful nation at peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Japan has been a true friend to Sri Lanka for long years. The Governments and people of Japan have stood by us and helped us through some of our most difficult times. On this visit, my first as Minister of Foreign Affairs of President Maithripala Sirisena’s Government, I seek to renew those bonds of friendship between our two countries and reaffirm our solidarity with the people of this great nation.
As some of you, including Mr. Akashi, who know Sri Lanka well, are aware, at the time of gaining Independence in 1948, ours was a nation that was placed in a unique position among the countries in the developing world.
We started practising universal adult franchise as early as 1931. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was considered a model Commonwealth country, carefully prepared for Independence in 1948. At the time of Independence on the 4th of February 1948, we had a relatively good standard of education, 2 universities of high quality, a civil service largely consisting of trained locals and had experience in representative government.
The different communities showed promise of being able to live and work towards common national goals in peace, harmony and unity. They had worked together to gain Independence, despite the fact that they followed different faiths, spoke different languages and followed different customs.
However, the years that followed saw our nation falter. We made mistakes which saw our country, known to many as paradise, plunge into torment and conflict for over three decades.
Although the 19th of May 2009 saw the end of violence unleashed by terrorism in my country and Sri Lanka was once again free of bombs and gun-fire, we failed to seize the opportunity it offered, to achieve meaningful reconciliation and consolidate peace.
The past 6 years or so since May 2009 saw Sri Lanka take an unfortunate journey on an autocratic path. Civil liberties were curtailed, independence of institutions including the judiciary was compromised, democracy was weakened, the rule of law was undermined, and good governance practices and human rights were violated with impunity.
We failed to address the causes of conflict in a manner that would guarantee durable peace, meaningful reconciliation and non-recurrence. Divisions in society were becoming deeper along religious and ethnic lines, freedom of speech and expression were curtailed, and fear and intimidation pervaded society.
Our nation which had been a prominent and respected member of the international community since Independence, including in the United Nations, for long years, abandoned her natural foreign policy of engagement, and chose instead, to follow a policy of antagonising traditional friends and partners, and isolated itself from the world community.
It was in this backdrop of a sense of total despair, that several parties in Opposition, which I like to call the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ joined forces. We came together to field a common opposition candidate, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, at the Presidential election in January 2015, in response to the call by a large section of people in Sri Lanka who were yearning for change.
Despite an election campaign which was deeply flawed and one-sided, the rainbow coalition of the opposition scored a decisive victory on the 8th of January, on a platform promising far reaching democratic and constitutional reforms.
The people of Sri Lanka reasserted their commitment to democracy by dislodging an emerging dictatorship through non-violence. Instead of the stones, pellets and bullets of the Arab Spring, Sri Lanka’s ‘Rainbow Revolution’ succeeded through the power of the ballot.
Over 81% of registered voters from all parts of the country exercised their franchise on the 8th of January, silently, peacefully and decisively, resulting in a swift transfer of power the very next day. The people in the North of the country who previously boycotted Presidential elections, came out in large numbers to participate in this election.
They did so, even as a few urged them not to vote. By this act, they indicated their commitment to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. They staked their claim in choosing the President of the country; a united country, with one President.
It could therefore be said that this is the first time in our country’s history that we have a truly Sri Lankan leader, who has been elected through the votes of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of race, religion and language.
All communities united in electing President Maithripala Sirisena who promised them a united New Sri Lanka in which ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is respected, celebrated and valued. They chose a leader who would fulfil their aspirations of strong and independent democratic institutions, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance and the promotion and protection of human rights.
From the very first day since assuming office, President Sirisena’s Government with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, has been pursuing an agenda of reform which I am sure you must be familiar with.
Several important steps have been taken during the past 5 months, to ensure freedom of expression; media freedom; uphold the rule of law; strengthen institutions through legislation – the most important being the 19th amendment to the Constitution which curtailed some of the powers of the Executive Presidency; initiate good governance practices; strengthen civilian administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces including replacement of the military Governors in these provinces with senior ex-civil servants; reviewing High-Security Zones and releasing land to their original owners; recognizing the Right to Information as a fundamental right; and strengthening civil society and welcoming their active participation in various fields ranging from livelihood development to input for formulating legislation.
We have also initiated dialogues with diaspora groups and individuals with a view to working with them and obtaining their ideas, views, and assistance for the reconciliation process that is currently underway in the country including projects that directly relate to the welfare of the people.
On the international stage, Sri Lanka is once again working closely with the United Nations Organisation and its systems and procedures. We liaise closely with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his office and we remain open to working with the OHCHR to obtain technical assistance to address several important issues including justice and accountability related issues. We have started working with the United Nations and its agencies to obtain financial and technical assistance for formulating resettlement plans, meeting the immediate requirements of those being resettled, training and capacity building. Overall, we pursue a policy of engagement, dialogue and cooperation with all countries and international organisations and will remain open to the ideas of others, their views and opinions and sharing our own experiences and views pertaining to matters that concern not only Sri Lanka but the global community at large.
The election manifesto of President Sirisena’s rainbow coalition included a 100 Day Work Programme which committed to undertake wide-ranging reform including deliberation on changes to the electoral system. There was also a pledge to hold early Parliamentary elections. As you are aware, the 100 days have now passed. Most reforms that were promised have been implemented.
For the first time in our country’s history, under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, one of the main ills that plagued us since independence has been set aside – that is the temptation of political parties to follow a path of confrontation in order to achieve short-term political gains over the long-term interests of the people and the nation.
In January, the two main parties pledged to work together to ensure the formation of national policies and the passage of important legislation. Despite some stresses and strains, as this is a new practice for all concerned, it has been agreed that even after General Elections, the same practice would continue.
As you may be aware, the current Parliament is one that was elected 5 years ago in 2010. Therefore, for the successful implementation of reform, it would be necessary to hold early General Elections and have a new Parliament which would comprise of Members who are attuned to the ideas and vision of President Maithripala Sirisena and reflective of current requirements of the public – that is, the creation of a new, united Sri Lanka that celebrates and draws strength from its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual character; a nation that is reconciled and at peace with herself and with the world, upholding the dignity and human rights of all her citizens, the rule of law, and good governance; and enabling investor-friendly and sound economic policies required for stability and equitable growth that is essential for the development and prosperity of the nation.
It is hoped therefore, that General Elections could be held soon to pursue the vision of President Sirisena that is essential to carry out the twin objectives outlined by the President, that is, “reconciliation and development” which is essential for the nation’s long-term stability, development and prosperity.
We are extremely grateful to the international community including Japan who have recognized and welcomed the changes taking place in my country and have offered us their help. We in Sri Lanka have a lot to be grateful for, to successive Japanese governments, and the people of Japan, for their friendship and generosity, and for standing by us always, and for helping us both bilaterally and in multilateral fora.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Having summarized briefly the nature of the winds of change that are sweeping across Sri Lanka and the reform agenda that is underway, I wish to share my thoughts about the realization of the vision for our nation’s future.
Under the guidance of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe the two main political parties in Sri Lanka, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well as some of the other smaller parties have, for the first time in our nation’s history, decided to step away from the adversarial arena of politics. Instead of pure short-term political interests of winning power, holding on to power and retaining power, the political parties have finally decided that they need to reflect in their work, the long-term interests of the people.
Foremost among these is to ensure that our nation would never again be plunged back into the nature of violence and conflict which engulfed us since Independence. And to commit to work at all times with the realization that all communities in our country, although they follow different faiths, speak different languages and follow different customs, share a common geographic space – one nation that we must all live in; and within that space, strive to work in unison for the common purpose of developing our nation which will ensure long-term prosperity for all.
Despite all the violence of the last several decades, there is a large reservoir of goodwill in my country, among the people of all communities. They are, after all, guided by the four major religions of the world which pursue peace, compassion and brotherhood – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
There is realization that politicians and leaders of communities on all sides have made mistakes in the past; that the reservoir of goodwill among communities and among people on all sides was diverted by politicians and leaders in the past, for temporary gain, which led to devastating consequences for all.
This realization is the grounds on which we now gradually build the pillars of a new nation which guarantees the protection of the rights of all, enables the creation of an inclusive society and affirms non-recurrence.
Among the steps envisaged is a new Constitution which will include a Bill of Rights that takes into account not only civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights as well. A Constitution that addresses the needs of all citizens and communities; one which would allow greater participation for the public in decision making processes relating to matters in their respective areas. This would enable more accountable and more responsible government in the country. Such a Constitution, with electoral reform and restoration of stronger Parliamentary government would be essential to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace with justice and rule of law. There is full realization that in order not to slip back into unfortunate conflicts such as the insurrections in the South and the problems in the North which ultimately led to terrorism, it is important that all citizens must feel that they have equal opportunities and have the ability to contribute to nation building. All citizens, irrespective of ethnicity and language must feel that they are equal partners, sharing equal rights.
In order to do this as a nation, we must rise above our fears. We must change mindsets that have got used to thinking of who did what to whom at what time. We have to rise above hatred and feelings of vengeance.
Our nation, Ladies and Gentlemen, has the strength to do this. Just as we appealed to the world for compassion in the treatment of Japan sixty-four years ago, on the 6th of September 1951, the time has now come for Sri Lanka to turn inward to her own people with that same message. Forgetting is not possible. Human memory, no matter however much one yearns, does not let go. Yet, human beings possess the capacity to rise above mistakes, rise above fears, and rise above anger and vengeance and act with compassion, humanism and wisdom. These are the qualities required to commit to work together to build a common future of peace and prosperity, where the rights of all are protected and upheld, where good governance and rule of law reigns, and all citizens will have a sense of ownership in assuring the progress and prosperity of our nation for the benefit of generations to come.
In this journey, we require the help of our friends and well-wishers overseas. While acknowledging and thanking the government and people of Japan for their constant support and generosity for long years, we look forward to strengthening the partnership between our two nations further, and we hope that Japan will walk with us closely in this challenging yet rewarding journey of nation building that we have undertaken, to make Sri Lanka the paradise that it so deserves to be.
*Address by Mangala Samaraweera, MP., Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka – High-Level Seminar on Peacebuilding, National Reconciliation and Democratisation in Asia -Tokyo, Japan, 20 June 2015