By Gotabaya Rajapaksa –
It gives me great pleasure to deliver the keynote address this morning, at the 3rd Annual Defence Seminar organised by the Sri Lanka Army. I am aware that distinguished delegates and guests from 29 countries are participating in this event, alongside a large number of attendees from Sri Lanka. On behalf of the Government, I take this opportunity to welcome our foreign guests to Sri Lanka and to wish all the participants an educative and productive time at this important event. I also extend my congratulations to the Commander and the Officers of the Sri Lanka Army who have organised this event with great professionalism and skill.
This year’s Defence Seminar is the third successive one organised by the Sri Lanka Army since the series began in 2011. The first Seminar centred on the lessons learnt by the Sri Lankan defence establishment in defeating the ruthless and formidable terrorist organisation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. During that Seminar, senior members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces shared their experiences on the strategies and tactics used to defeat terrorism, and discussed their broader applicability and relevance to other nations. In 2012, the second Seminar focused on the post-war efforts to create lasting peace and stability in Sri Lanka after the war. It examined the steps taken towards Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Reconciliation in the conflict affected parts of the country, as well as the overall development of the country at large and its prospects for the future.
The theme selected for this year’s Defence Seminar is “Post Conflict Sri Lanka-Challenges and Regional Stability”. This is a particularly appropriate theme in the present context. Sri Lanka has had considerable problems in the last three decades. In 1983, the country suffered from riots that raged for 5 days without effective state intervention. During the 1986 to 1989 period, people were frequently abducted, tortured and killed as the country veered towards barbarism and anarchy with the second JVP insurrection. And for nearly thirty years until the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka suffered through the brutal terrorism of the LTTE, whose countless targeted killings, indiscriminate bombings and armed attacks killed numerous innocent civilians and led to a paralysis of day to day life.
After its liberation from terrorism through the Humanitarian Operation, and with democracy being restored to every part of the island, Sri Lanka is now one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the entire world. However, there are still a number of challenges that the country faces. These challenges, together with issues that affect regional stability, are critical considerations at this juncture because of the impact they will have on the country’s future. How Sri Lanka faces its internal as well as external challenges over the next few years will influence or even determine its destiny for much longer to come.
Before discussing these challenges and regional issues, however, it is important to take proper note of where we currently stand. Soon after the war, there were a number of pressing concerns that had to be dealt with urgently. These immediate post-war challenges included: *
- Accommodating and ensuring the welfare of nearly 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons
- Undertaking demining and the reconstruction of infrastructure
- and facilities Resettling the IDPs
- Rehabilitating nearly 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres and
- Reintegrating them to society.
I am pleased to note that as of today, each and every one of these challenges has been successfully dealt with.
Demining of nearly 5,000 square kilometres of land and reconstruction of vital infrastructure and housing facilities were urgent tasks that the Government had to undertake to facilitate the speedy resettlement of the IDPs. As these tasks were being completed, the IDPs were resettled in their places of origin. Resettlement commenced in October 2009, less than five months after the end of the war. By August 2012, just three years and three months after war, all of the IDPs in the welfare camps, as well as a considerable number of persons who had been displaced from the North in earlier times due to LTTE activities, had returned to their homes. This is a remarkable achievement by any standard. In addition to resettlement, great effort has been taken to ensure that these people are able to resume normal lives. Livelihood assistance programmes have been launched, and material assistance has been provided through the donation of fishing gear, utilities for farming and provision of livestock and seeds for agriculture.
A survey undertaken by UNHCR Sri Lanka between November 2012 and March 2013 has demonstrated the overall success of the resettlement programme. Assessing the current situation of resettled persons against the global standard of the Inter Agency Standing Committee Framework for Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons, the survey found that considerable progress had been achieved under each of the eight themes of the Framework. Access to personal and other documentation without discrimination, Family reunification, and Access to effective remedies and justice had been achieved. Considerable progress had been made in areas including Safety and security, Access to livelihoods, and Participation in public affairs. Interestingly, nearly 90% of respondents had a high level of confidence in local civilian law enforcement, and only 29% had negative views on the presence of the military in their areas.
A field mission conducted between May and June this year by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, observed that while there were still areas for improvement, the transformation of the region in such a short matter of time was praiseworthy. The report of the field mission noted “remarkable improvement in infrastructure development in many sectors including transportation, communication, roads, railways and health facilities”. It was also observed that there was no visible presence of armed military personnel in uniforms, and that the work of the military is primarily to address the “immediate and development needs of the population” including projects for “building houses, shelter, water, sanitation; scholarships for school going children and schools focused vocational training;” and organising tours for people in the North to visit the rest of Sri Lanka. These efforts are aimed at helping the civilians return to normal life in a peaceful nation.
In addition to the displaced civilians, the vast majority of the LTTE cadres who surrendered to the military during the Humanitarian Operation have also been returned to their homes after an extensive Rehabilitation programme carried out by the Government. The overall success of the rehabilitation programme can be gauged by studies undertaken by independent foreign researchers, including Dr. Kruglanski and Dr. Gelfland of the University of Maryland, College Park, who showed that even hard-core LTTE cadres have undergone a significant reduction in their support for violence as a result of the programme.
With the swift addressing of these immediate post-war requirements, the Government turned its attention to the restoration of normalcy. One of the first objectives in this regard was the restoration of the civil administration in the North and East. During the previous decades, while the LTTE was in control of these areas, the Government administrative machinery remained in existence but had not been able to function independently. After the war ended, the military had to undertake some of the duties of the civil administration until sufficient capacity could be built up within the system for it to function effectively without external support. As this required capacity was gradually being built up, the tasks undertaken by the military were handed over to civilian counterparts, and the involvement of the military in these administrative matters was stopped.
The post-war period saw significant shifts overall in the modus operandi of the Armed Forces, since there was no longer a requirement for offensive operations. The focus was more on functioning in a passive role that would ensure long term stability. Intelligence units were strengthened and expanded, and more use was made of the engineering battalions for reconstruction and national development purposes. At the same time, the military had to develop new policies and procedures for their functions relating to internal security. In the immediate post-conflict period, the military had to assume an expanded role in the maintenance of law and order for some time. However, the full responsibility for the maintenance of law and order has now been handed over to the Police and the military has been released from these duties.
The disengagement of the military from administrative and law & order functions has only been one of the steps towards normalisation that has been effected by the Government in the post-conflict period. Several other steps were taken shortly after the war ended to ensure that the people in the formerly war affected areas could return to life under normal conditions as soon as possible.
The various armed groups that had been operating in opposition to the LTTE and in support of the Government in the North and East needed to be disarmed. The Government accomplished this challenging task within a remarkably quick period soon after the war. The members of these former armed groups were encouraged to work towards the betterment of the people through democratic means. Many of these individuals are now playing an active role in politics at various levels.
Civilian properties that had been used for other purposes for many years during the war needed to be returned to their rightful owners. Some of these properties had to be occupied by the military whereas others had been forcibly taken over and used by the LTTE during the war. Action has been taken to trace the rightful owners of these properties, and most have already been returned to them.
Restrictions that had to be in place during the war for security purposes had to be removed. These included restrictions on movement on land due to the maintenance of high security zones; limitations on fishing including restrictions on outboard motors and the times and locations in which fishing could take place; as well as restrictions in the trade of certain items that could be used for offensive purposes. All of these restrictions were removed in stages after the end of the war. The Palaly cantonment is now the only area on ground in which some security restrictions remain; but even within the cantonment, civilians have free access to the airport and the Kankasanthurai harbour.
The presence of military camps and troops in the North had to be reduced. This was done gradually after the end of the war. The number of camps as well as troops in this region has been reduced dramatically. Although the military remains in this region for strategic security reasons, it mostly engages in development work to win the hearts and minds of the people. The full responsibility for law and order has been handed over to the Police with the establishment of more and more police stations in the North and East and the recruitment of more Tamil speaking Police personnel to serve in these areas.
Another step in the normalisation process following the war was dealing with those who had been detained for involvement in LTTE activities. Most of the detainees were released into rehabilitation. A very few numbers of hard-core cadres who had been involved in LTTE activities at a higher level remained in detention centres for prosecution. A comprehensive database of all those in detention was created and access to this database was enabled through police stations. Lawyers and family members of the detainees were provided access to the detention centres, as were officials of agencies and relevant organisations such as the ICRC and the Human Rights Commission.
Very significant in the normalisation process for the entire country was the repealing of the Emergency Regulations that had been in place in Sri Lanka for many decades. These regulations gave wide-reaching powers to law enforcement authorities, and were necessary during the war for the upholding of security in the country at large. However, in August 2011, after two peaceful years had passed since the end of the war without any terrorism related incidents, the Government repealed these regulations.
Alongside the return to normalcy, steps had to be taken by the Government to address the various allegations that were being made by various parties during and after the war about what took place in its last stages. The primary allegation concerned the number of civilian casualties that were supposed to have taken place during this period. Various people started making various claims about the number of casualties, which ranged from 7,000 to more than 40,000 people killed. Hardly any of these estimates referred to any sources, and most completely ignored independent and credible sources that reported figures very much to the contrary. The Government was therefore very keen on addressing this issue in a rigorous and transparent manner.
In 2011, the Department of Census and Statistics carried out an “Enumeration of Vital Events” for the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. The Enumeration was conducted between June and August 2011, with field data being collected in July. The enumerators were Government servants from the Northern Province, all 2,500 of whom were Tamil and Muslim officials. Apart from the gathering of usual census data, the enumerators paid attention to the vital events that had taken place in the North from 2005 to 2009, with a particular emphasis on the deaths that took place in the last stages of the war. The Enumeration Report shows that according of the reporting of the next of kin, 7,896 deaths occurred due to unnatural causes from January to May 2009. This number includes:
- LTTE cadres killed in action;
- Civilians killed by the LTTE whilst trying to escape into Government controlled areas;
- Civilians who were detained and killed by the LTTE for other reasons;
- Civilians forcefully used for combat and related activities by the LTTE;
- Civilians who died as a result of crossfire;
- Civilians who had been reported as dead but who may have escaped or illegally migrated overseas;
- Deaths reported but not during the Humanitarian Operation for the purpose of claiming compensation; and
- False reporting.
It is also worth bearing in mind that at the start of the Humanitarian Operation, the LTTE had approximately 30,000 cadres. By its conclusion, nearly 12,000 had surrendered to the Armed Forces. LTTE transmissions intercepted, LTTE documents recovered, LTTE graveyards discovered, and LTTE publications and posters indicate a large number of cadres were killed in action during the early stages of the Humanitarian Operation. It is also possible that many bodies were unrecovered during this period. However, the most intense battles were fought after Puthukudiyirippu. During this period, it was impossible for the LTTE to recover the bodies of its cadres or give any indication of its casualty figures. It is also worth nothing that unlike a conventional military, the LTTE was a terrorist group that did not have a proper procedure of recruiting and maintaining its cadres. Most of the time its cadres used aliases instead of proper names. Some of them did not fight in uniform. As a result, it is difficult to establish with certainty the number of cadres killed. In this context, it is also worth bearing in mind that the military lost nearly 6,000 of its personnel in combat during the Humanitarian Operation. Close to 20,000 more were injured. This gives an indication of the intensity of the battles that took place during this period.
In addition to the deaths that were said to have occurred, the Enumeration of Vital Events shows that 2,635 persons were reported as untraceable. These numbers were reported because the parents and next of kin of the missing persons were not able to recover their bodies or obtain information about their whereabouts. Further investigations have already been carried out with regard to 2,360 of these cases. These investigations have established beyond doubt that 1,625 were instances of forced recruitment by the LTTE. It is also a fact that an unknown number of persons left Sri Lanka through illegal means during the last stages of the war, and are presently resident in other countries. However these countries have not yet divulged their details to the Government. There are only 26 instances of people who are reported by the next of kin as having surrendered to Security Forces and subsequently disappeared.
In a completely independent effort to track the missing persons in the North, UNICEF, together with the Probation and Child Care Commissioner of the Northern Province and the Government Agent of Vavuniya, launched a family reunification project soon after the war. A total of 2,564 tracing applications were received by July 2011. 1,888 of these applications were about missing adults, and 676 about missing children. 64% of the parents of missing children reported that they had been recruited by the LTTE. This study independently confirms our findings.
At the same time, it is very important to keep in mind that a military confronting a non-state actor using asymmetric warfare strategies has an incredibly difficult task to perform. A terrorist organisation has no compunctions about safeguarding civilian lives. In fact, the LTTE relentlessly put civilians in harm’s way by using them as a human shield and to increase international attention to the war. This was primarily in the hope of attracting external intervention that would subvert the on-going Humanitarian Operation. The ground realities that the Sri Lankan military faced in this context are widely ignored. The LTTE deliberately and repeatedly launched artillery and mortar attacks on the military from No Fire Zones. It also encamped and fought from civilian areas and installations including hospitals. These are complexities that those who make allegations against the Sri Lankan military are sometimes unaware of.
Given the Government’s clear commitment to address all issues relating to accountability, a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was instituted in May 2010 to examine all matters connected with the war. This Commission obtained submissions from people all over the country during an 18-month period, after which it published a comprehensive report. The Commission concluded that there was no deliberate targeting of civilians on the part of the Sri Lankan military, although it found that the LTTE was responsible for numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The Commission also outlined a number of constructive recommendations that the Government is committed to implementing through a comprehensive and time-bound National Action Plan. It is hoped that the process of national reconciliation will be assisted by the implementation of these recommendations.
It must be noted that a lot has been said, particularly internationally, on the subject of reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, much of what is said has been negative, and lacks a holistic perspective grounded in the realities of post-war Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is a process. Like all processes it takes time to accomplish. Demanding overnight results is counterproductive.
For a very long period of time, most of the people in the North and parts of the East of Sri Lanka lived under the total control of the LTTE. There were no democratic freedoms in the areas under LTTE dominance. There was no space for dissent. The LTTE did not allow any alternate viewpoints. All opposition voices were swiftly and ruthlessly silenced. The people in those areas were brainwashed with LTTE propaganda. An entire generation grew up without any experience of normal life. They were separated and isolated from the rest of the country; they were taught to hate and fear the Sri Lankan state. Some took up arms against the state willingly. Despite the success of the Welfare camps, despite the speed of resettlement, and despite the far-reaching nature of the rehabilitation and reintegration programme, it is not easy to ensure speedy reconciliation in this context.
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that much remains to be done by all parties, including the Government, to ensure that national reconciliation is achieved. It is of the utmost importance that all Sri Lankans move into the future together as one nation, without unnecessary fragmentation into groups based on ethnicity, religion, caste or place of origin. The most essential task of the Government in this regard is to ensure that all Sri Lankans have the same opportunities and unobstructed access to state services, and that they are empowered to seek better futures for themselves in a peaceful, stable and rapidly developing democracy.
In this regard, one of the most crucial steps towards the restoration of normalcy in the North and East was the revival of the democratic process through the restoration of elections and the return of political plurality. Under the direction of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Provincial Council elections were held in the Eastern Province even before the Humanitarian Operation had ended. Local Authority elections were held for the Jaffna Municipal Council and Vavuniya Urban Council as early as August 2009. The Presidential Election and General Election were both held throughout the country in 2010. Local authority elections held island-wide in 2011 saw free and fair elections throughout the North and East for the first time in decades. In the areas formerly dominated by the LTTE, people exercised their franchise without fear for the first time in a generation.
Later this month, despite the doubts and objections of some sections of the country, Provincial Council elections will be held in the North. The first election after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was held in 1987, and it was for the North and Eastern Provinces together. This Council was dissolved not long after, in 1990. After the demerger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 2006, Provincial Council elections were held in the Eastern Province in 2008. This is the first time that a meaningful Provincial Council election is being held in the Northern Province. The fact that the main party in the Government, the SLFP, as well as the main Opposition party the UNP, the Tamil National Alliance, the regional Tamil parties and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are all freely contesting in this election shows that political plurality is firmly established in this region. That this is possible just four years after the dawn of peace is a remarkable achievement.
Now that the war is over and the most significant post-war challenges, including the revival of democracy have been accomplished, it is absolutely essential that Sri Lanka moves swiftly forward. We must evolve from being locked in a post-conflict mentality, and look to the future instead of forever grappling with the issues of the past. We must be willing to move forward as a nation, united by what we have in common instead of being divided by the differences we have between us.
Particularly in this context, it is very important that the main political parties in Sri Lanka stop the politicisation of divisive issues for their petty political gain. People in every part of the nation face numerous issues, which could not be attended to during the last three decades because of terrorism. Furthermore, the recent adverse global economic conditions also have an impact on our economy. These issues cannot be solved overnight, and will require time to set right. Despite these problems, however, it should be appreciated that Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP has more than doubled over the last six years. Unfortunately, some political parties use the existing economic problems to their advantage by portraying them as arising due to ethnic or religious reasons. In reality, these problems are fundamentally economic, and affect Sri Lankans in every part of the country irrespective of their race or religion. They are national issues that need to be faced together as a nation, rather than treated as divisive ethnic or religious issues confined to a region or a section of the community.
If the level of political discourse in Sri Lanka is not raised above these narrow ethno-religious concerns to address the core issues facing all of our people, it will be very difficult for the nation to make progress. In this context, it is particularly important that all of the main political parties work throughout the country to promote the interests of the nation, without focusing on one group or other. It is only when we bring all the ethnicities and cultures of this country together into one Sri Lankan identity that we will truly make progress as a nation.
From the national perspective, one of the biggest challenges we have is economic development. For many years, the war suppressed our economic potential and held back our growth. However, we need to look beyond the war to one of the most fundamental and critical issues that has faced this country since Independence. This is the issue of unequal development, particularly between the cities and the rural areas. Looking back on Sri Lanka’s history, it is entirely possible to interpret the major problems that have arisen here as being fundamentally economic ones. The leftist insurrections of the 1970s and the 1980s were primarily due to the fact that the rural masses in the south of the country felt that their needs were not being adequately addressed by post-Independence governments. Even though the LTTE and the militant parties in the North cast their conflict with the state along purely racial lines, it can be argued that the separatist cause took root in those areas and gained support primarily because of the economic pressures that the people in those areas felt during the same period.
If the problem of rural underdevelopment is not holistically addressed, it is conceivable that similar problems to what we have had in the past will once again arise in this country. That is why one of the foremost thrusts of the present Government has been the development of every part of Sri Lanka. The greatest developmental challenge facing Sri Lanka today is the uplifting of the standard of living in rural areas to a similar standard to what is enjoyed in the cities. The rural masses must not feel marginalised, nor must they feel an economic compulsion to move to the cities. They should be able to attain a high level of education, obtain high quality healthcare, and find meaningful and well paying employment without leaving their places of origin. All Sri Lankans must benefit from the dividends of peace, not just the privileged few who live in the capital or the other urbanised areas.
From a national perspective, it is important to uplift our economy through the promotion of tourism, foreign direct investment, industrial development, value addition in agriculture and the further fostering of the service economy. However, we must also keep to our traditional way of living, we must develop our agriculture and animal husbandry sectors and achieve self-sufficiency in them. We should also adopt new technologies to increase productivity and efficiency. Our per capita GDP should increase significantly over the next several years, in keeping with the country’s natural growth potential. The 5-hub strategy adopted by the Government, which envisions the development of Sri Lanka into a knowledge hub, commercial hub, naval & maritime hub, aviation hub and an energy hub, is at the centrepiece of a policy designed to translate this growth potential into economic development.
The establishment of the new Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport are part of a comprehensive infrastructure development drive undertaken by the Government to enhance this economic potential. Although some people criticise the perceived lack of traffic to these locations, it has to be understood that some time will be taken before these facilities start to operate at full capacity. This is only natural, since businesses need time to get accustomed to the availability of this infrastructure, and to change their procedures in order to make full use of these facilities. Given the sheer volume of ships that pass through the sea lines of communication just south of Hambantota, it is only a matter of time before the full strategic value of the Port is realised. I have every confidence that the potential of the Hambantota region as an industrial and transhipment cargo hub will be realised over the next few years.
Another very important infrastructure strategy is to establish highways to connect to distant cities. Much work in this regard has already taken place and much more is in the pipeline. These highways will ensure that the travel time between important cities is kept to a minimum, and that tourism, trade and day-to-day travel will be greatly facilitated. This is vital to spreading economic growth throughout the country at a faster pace. At the same time, the facilities that are provided within our cities need to meet the standards set in most other nations. It is imperative that we prevent the departure of our best and brightest from Sri Lanka to greener pastures abroad. Retaining talented young people within the country, however, requires us to create an environment that will be appealing to them. This is a significant challenge before the nation today, and one that must be met successfully if the country is to grow beyond what it is at present.
In addition to these overarching challenges of achieving national unity and meaningful economic development, there are a number of other challenges that we in Sri Lanka need to be mindful of. These include
- Preventing the re-emergence of terrorism
- Establishing effective methods to project Sri Lanka to the international community
- Suppressing the emergence of other extremist groups
- Preventing further ethnic divisions and communal violence
- Challenges of maritime security and border control
- Curtailing the growth of organised crime, and
- New challenges in safeguarding a just and wholesome democracy.
Although the war ended in 2009, the re-emergence of terrorism is still a threat. One of the main reasons for the LTTE’s success during its heyday was its extensive international network, which had been in operation for many decades. Extremist elements within the expatriate Tamil community support this network, which today comprises such groups as the Tamil Coordinating Committee which is based in Norway and led by Nediyawan, the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam led by Rudrakumaran, and the LTTE Headquarter group which is based in France and headed by Vinayagam. All of these LTTE-linked groups are coordinated by the Global Tamils Forum led by the so-called Father Emmanuel, and have one overarching objective. Their intention is the division of Sri Lanka and the establishment of a separate state for Tamil Eelam. There are several strategies through which they will try to achieve their objective. These include winning of international opinion for the separatist cause, increasing international pressure on Sri Lanka, undermining the Government’s efforts for reconciliation and economic development, and pushing for the resumption of conflict through reorganizing local militant activities in Sri Lanka.
Some of the efforts of these LTTE-linked groups have been successful to a certain extent. Despite Sri Lanka’s many post-war achievements, its internal affairs have featured on the agenda of many prominent international NGOs and even at the UNHRC sessions. The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner is another instance of this attention. This has been accomplished mostly by the actions of the LTTE linked groups, which have many trained LTTE cadres and operatives who are now fully engaged in propaganda activities. It is also important to realise that there are groups even within the democratic mainstream in Sri Lanka that obtain funding from pro-LTTE elements overseas. They more or less openly talk about achieving the very same objectives that the LTTE had. Even though they appear to have a democratic face, their actions and remarks clearly show that the extremist separatist ideology has not yet fully disappeared. Their ultimate objective is achieving the division of Sri Lanka. As a result of their actions and statements, it is possible that radical elements will feel empowered to once again attempt to take up arms against the state in the name of separation.
While taking every possible countermeasure to prevent the recurrence of terrorism in Sri Lanka, the country also faces the significant challenge of effectively countering the LTTE’s propaganda machine. During the Humanitarian Operation and for a long time afterwards, the true picture about what happened during the war has been obscured by the LTTE’s false propaganda. Unfortunately, it is a fact that low middle-income nations such as Sri Lanka do not have the resources necessary to shape foreign opinion through the media. It is therefore up to the Foreign Service and the Foreign Ministry to communicate the true picture about what took place in Sri Lanka during and after the war to the outside world. This is a serious challenge that must be faced despite significant resource constraints.
Sri Lanka also faces possible threats from other extremist groups, including those involved in previous insurgencies. Some of these groups are trying to reorganise within Sri Lanka and mobilise people to once again take up extreme left wing causes. Even today, it can be seen that there are attempts to radicalise students and even the public and encourage them to take to the streets in various protests on various pretexts.
The indication of increasing communalism amongst ethnic groups is another cause for concern. The increased insularity of ethnic groups was visible during the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka, and it is a matter of some concern that this separation still persists under conditions of peace and stability. The fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity into ethno-religious identification is not only unfortunate in itself, but it can also lead to other problems in the long term. For example, it is clear that there are some in the Tamil community who identify more with the Tamil community of Tamil Nadu than with their fellow Sri Lankans.
Similarly, it has been observed that there are some foreign groups that wish to encourage Sri Lankan Muslims to identify themselves more with the global Muslim community, thereby reducing their integration with the rest of the population. It is a known fact that Muslim Fundamentalism is spreading all over the world and in this region. This is a situation that our Law Enforcement agencies and Security Forces are concerned about, particularly as there have been instances where extremist elements were found in transit in Sri Lanka and were arrested and handed over to appropriate authorities. The possibility that such extremist elements may try to promote Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern.
One of the consequences of the increasing insularity amongst minority ethnic groups is the emergence of hard line groups within the majority community. This in turn causes further tensions amongst other communities, which leads to a vicious cycle of greater fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity. Sri Lanka had enough divisions in the past that ultimately led to conflict; we must learn the lessons from our past and ensure that history is not repeated. This is a critical challenge that faces the entire nation today.
The maintenance of maritime security is another important concern. As an island, Sri Lanka does not have land borders that it needs to protect, but its responsibilities in terms of maritime security are very great. Preventing various transnational crimes including drugs smuggling, arms smuggling and human trafficking is essential to long-term security. At the same time, the protection of our maritime assets within the Exclusive Economic Zone is also very important, as is safeguarding the Sea Lines of Communication that travel close to Sri Lanka against the threat of piracy.
Organised crime in Sri Lanka is another issue that needs to be addressed. As a result of the rise of terrorism and the insurrections Sri Lanka experienced over the last forty years, and the response required from the state, a large quantity of arms and ammunition fell into the hands of criminals. This led to the rise of the underworld, which engages in organised criminal activities including drugs, armed robberies, kidnappings for ransom and financial frauds. There are also groups that engage in seizing land illegally. Although these underworld activities are not very widespread at this point, tackling this situation before it becomes more of a concern is a challenge for the state.
One more challenge on the domestic front that the Government needs to be aware of is the need to safeguard our democracy against attempts to subvert it through various means. With Sri Lanka now enjoying meaningful peace and stability for the first time in decades, the requirements of the people are also beginning to change. Unlike in the past, people all over the world today are connected to one another through modern communications technology. People can see what is going on in other parts of the world instantaneously through the Internet and through global news media. The connectivity of people within the country is also at an unprecedented level through the spread of mobile phones. The speed of information dissemination is instantaneous. In these circumstances, subversive elements with ulterior motives may use these facilities to portray demands by sections of the public to showcase the country in a negative light.
In this context, it is very important that people understand that the freedoms they are guaranteed through democracy should not be allowed to be abused by those with ulterior motives. Rights and freedoms must always be exercised with responsibility; if not, negative consequences could ensue for the country at large. Take for example the right to public assembly. In our democracy, there is ample freedom for people to demonstrate with regard any issue that they feel is important. This is a healthy sign of a vibrant democracy. However, when people go beyond peaceful demonstration and engage in violent protest, incite violence or act in other undemocratic ways, they exploit and abuse democratic freedoms. Certain groups with vested interests exploit legitimate demonstrations to show the country in a bad light-some of them confront the police, cause disturbances and even riots, and create a very negative image about the country internationally.
Another example is media freedom. While there are enough and more legitimate media channels, newspapers, and websites that freely operate in Sri Lanka, there are also some illegal sources that engage in false propaganda to damage the country’s image internationally. This is a very disturbing development that can lead to negative impacts on tourism, foreign investment and trade. It is therefore the responsibility of every citizen, political group and media organisation to exercise their democratic freedoms with responsibility, and not engage in unlawful activity under the guise of exercising their freedoms.
Looking beyond these domestic issues, it is clear that there are significant issues that Sri Lanka faces due to its strategic geographic position within the South Asian region. As a result of this, there is some inter-linking of domestic issues between Sri Lanka and India. For example, India is very sensitive to events in Sri Lanka because of the large Tamil population in its influential southern state of Tamil Nadu. Particularly during elections, Sri Lanka figures large in Indian power politics. In addition, there are certain bilateral issues that occasionally strain the usually sound relationship between the two nations: for example, the increasing incidence of illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. India is without doubt the most important and powerful country in South Asia, but Sri Lanka is a completely independent sovereign nation, which India is very much aware of and supports. It is critical that both countries retain a meaningful and close relationship despite the issues that sometimes arise between them.
Further afield, Sri Lanka’s cordial relationship with China has sometimes become an issue for other countries because of misperceptions about the nature of China’s influence here. It is important to understand that China’s involvement in Sri Lanka is purely diplomatic and economic. China has been one of Sri Lanka’s foremost development partners for many years, and it has contributed richly to many of Sri Lanka’s key economic development projects. However, this involvement has been misinterpreted to mean that China has undue influence here. In fact, this point has been raised even by the visiting Defence officials of certain important nations. For its part, the Sri Lankan Government has been very clear that its relationship with China is not a threat to any other nation.
In addition to these country specific issues, there are regional issues that arise because of the increasing geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka. As a result of the rapid economic and military development of countries like India and China in recent decades, the entire Asian region has become increasingly important in global affairs. There is a possibility that some western powers wish to have a Sri Lankan Government that is closely aligned with their interests. They may seek to influence Sri Lanka’s destiny so that it cannot pursue the independent course it is following at present. In addition, the power politics between key countries in the region, such as India and China, or India and Pakistan, are also important issues for Sri Lanka because of our relationships with these nations.
Sri Lanka’s journey during the four years since the dawn of peace has seen the country transform itself from a nation at war to one of the most peaceful, stable and secure democracies in the world. How well the country navigates its present issues, including national security challenges and broader geo-political issues arising from its geographical position, will determine its destiny.
Most important of all, however, is that we as a people develop our mentality to go beyond that of a developing nation, and to look at the future positively and with confidence. Instead of constantly focusing on issues inherited from the past, it is important that all of us move forward and think more about the future. In whatever the field-whether it is business, finance, education, healthcare, services or agriculture-it is imperative that we start thinking as an advanced nation and get out of the third world mentality. It is only then that we will be able to accelerate our development and move forward together as a nation.
I am very confident that in time we will all be able to achieve this cohesive vision and place Sri Lanka firmly on the path towards lasting peace and prosperity. However, it is up to all Sri Lankans to accept this as a challenge, and move together into this shared future as one Sri Lankan nation.
In concluding, I take this opportunity to wish all the participants at this year’s Defence Seminar an enjoyable and productive couple of days. In particular, I extend my best wishes to the many foreign delegates here today, and hope that you will make the maximum use of your time in Sri Lanka. This is a very beautiful country with a very rich historical and cultural heritage, and I hope that you will be able to visit at least some of the many scenic and significant places here. I wish all of you a good day.
*Full Text of the Speech delivered by Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the ‘Defence Seminar 2013’ on 03rd September 2013 at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo