|Monday, 26 July 2004|
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Putting the State on a new footing
Better late than never. While it goes without saying that the ground-breaking public apology by President Kumaratunga, on behalf of the Lankan State, the Government and the citizens of this country, to the victims of the July 1983 ethnic riots, should have come very much earlier by the government which presided over the riots that fateful year, there is no doubt that the President's gesture of reconciliation and brotherhood would bring some honour to Sri Lanka. As it is, the apology has won wide acclaim by all right-thinking persons and groups.
We in the Daily News have been commenting on the significance of this gesture of peace on the President's part in this editorial comment over the past couple of days, but do not consider it superfluous to dwell on this theme once again, following the President's public apology on Friday. As we said in this column on Saturday, the apology would help greatly in remoulding the political culture of this country. "I am sorry," are indeed magical words, but how often does one hear them in the political thrusts and parries of this country which lays claim to a long tradition of refinement? Seldom or never is the answer. Puffed up egos and vainglorious rantings by stiff upperlipped VIPs is, usually, the order of the day. Or they would bay for blood and revenge when there is absolutely no need for it.
President Kumaratunga has blazed a new trail in this dehumanising political culture. "I would like to assign myself the necessary task on behalf of the State of Sri Lanka, the Government and on behalf of all of us: all the citizens of Sri Lanka to extend that apology. It is late but I think it is still not too late," the President told the country on Friday, thereby, opening a new chapter of reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.
On Saturday in this editorial comment we made the following spirit-stirring comment: "The way up is the way down". That is, if we want to infuse the values of love, caring and equality, in our personal, familial and social relations, one would need to be humble and caring. This will ensure societal uplift and cultural advancement on an unprecedented scale.
Through her epochal apology for the inhumanity of July 1983, President Kumaratunga has paved the way for a culture of this enlightened kind. May it be continuously nurtured in this country, is our earnest prayer.
It is also significant that the President has apologised on behalf of the State and Government. In the past, these entities were not considered neutral in the conflicts among the communities. Very often they were seen as being prejudicial towards the majority community. The President's apology puts the record straight on the ideal orientation of the Lankan State. The Lankan State would strive to be a great equaliser among the communities.
A barrier-free SAARC
No union of countries can be successful without enhanced people-to-people contact. They must feel an affinity to the region and to fellow residents of neighbouring countries. They deserve special treatment within the region, which adds to the feeling of togetherness.
This is most evident in the European Union, with its open borders. Every EU country is bound to recognise and treat all EU citizens alike. It begins the moment they enter another EU nation - a separate counter at every airport is dedicated to EU nationals. The result is that EU travellers instantly feel at home.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is slowly but surely taking steps in this direction, with Sri Lanka taking the lead. Coinciding with the commencement of the SAARC Council of Ministers' Meeting in Islamabad on July 19, a SAARC Nationals Counter has been opened at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo. This counter will be a boon for travellers from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives. As the Government contends, the opening of the counter also reflects Sri Lanka's commitment to promoting people to people contact among SAARC countries, as well as encouraging business links and tourism with other SAARC countries. Now SAARC residents will not have to wait in the ordinary queues and their entry formalities will be expedited. Above all, they will feel special.
This is a logical extension of the decision taken earlier by Sri Lanka to ease visa formalities for SAARC citizens. This has benefitted Sri Lanka as the number of tourists from SAARC countries has increased phenomenally.
Other SAARC countries must now reciprocate Sri Lanka's gesture by easing travel restrictions for Sri Lankans and by opening special SAARC counters at entry points. The freedom to travel within the region sans strict formalities will be an impetus for SAARC citizens to explore their neighbouring countries.
SAARC Governments must encourage the expansion of air and sea links among their countries. Private sector transport providers too should be invited to participate actively in this exercise. In this context, regulators must speedily give the green light to no-frills budget airlines wishing to start services in the region. The proposed Indo-Lanka bridge could link six of the seven countries by road and the proposed ferry link between India and Sri Lanka would be a cheaper alternative to air travel.
These steps, which may seem minor in isolation, could one day lead to a fully-integrated union of countries with open borders and even a common currency.
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