Sri Lanka - challenges and opportunities
Public lecture delivered by External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L.
Peiris, at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington
Robert Hathaway: I have the good fortune of running the Asia
programme at the Wilson Centre. Since I see a number of unfamiliar
faces, I hope you would permit me to tell you a bit about the Wilson
Centre. We are an independent non-partisan institute for advanced
research. We were created by an Act of Congress in 1968 as the nation's
official memorial to Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President. Some of you
might know that President Wilson had a distinguished career as a scholar
and an academic prior to entering the political arena. I think this
pretty much describes our mission. We seek to serve as a bridge between
the world of the scholar and the world of the policy maker to
commemorate both the scholarly depth and public policy concerns of
President Wilson. I think when you hear me introduce our speaker today,
you will appreciate how he really well exemplifies both of these worlds,
that of the scholar and of the policy maker.
Three years ago this week saw the conclusion of one of the world's
bloodiest and longest running civil wars. Many of us wondered if we
would ever see a Sri Lanka at peace, and virtually the entire world
celebrated the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Unfortunately, Sri Lankans
have discovered that history did not stop in 2009, but that the world
remains full of challenges. We are pleased to have with us Sri Lanka's
Minister of External Affairs G.L Peiris. Mr. Minister, like Woodrow
Wilson, has successfully combined the careers of scholar and statesman.
His distinctions as a scholar are as impressive as his achievements in
the political arena.
Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris
He is a Rhodes Scholar. He has earned not one but two PhDs. Twenty
five years he taught law at the University of Colombo, eventually
serving as the Dean of the Faculty of Law and then University Vice
Chancellor. His list of publications would be sufficient to win ten or
twelve normal professorships, a huge list. And then like Woodrow Wilson,
Dr. Peiris abandoned the academic life to take up politics. Since
entering the political world in 1994, he has been the Minister or the
Deputy Minister in succession of ministries, culminating in his
appointment two years ago as the Minister of External Affairs. Mr.
Minister we are delighted to welcome you to the centre. We are pleased
that you have chosen the Wilson Centre as the site for your principal
public address during your visit to Washington this week. I am
absolutely convinced that if President Wilson saw your CV he would
recognise a kindred spirit, and now I invite you to take the podium.
Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris:
I am very happy to be here this afternoon to share a few thoughts
with you on what Mr. Hathaway described as challenges that we are
confronting at the present moment. As he said, until three years ago,
until 2009, the principal challenge that we had to deal with was the
reign of terror unleashed on us by an organisation that was described by
the FBI as the most ruthless terrorist organisation on this planet.
Contrary to the expectations of the world, the President and the
government of Sri Lanka succeeded in eradicating terrorism from our
country. The first priority was the resettlement about 300,000 persons
displaced by the conflict; and the challenge was aggravated by the fact
that we did not want them resettled as embittered, disillusioned,
disgruntled human beings, but rather as people who would look to the
future with confidence in themselves and the country to which they feel
proud to belong. So that is with regard to the internally displaced
people. That was a humanitarian consideration which is obviously
entitled to priority from any perspective whatever.
Then, there were the ex-combatants. For the most part, these were
young people, misguided, and persuaded to take up arms against the state
and to espouse a way of life which is characterised by violence. There
were approximately 11, 600 such people who surrendered to the state at
the conclusion of hostilities three years ago. Among them were 595 child
soldiers. We started with the child soldiers and today I'm able to tell
you that 90 percent of ex-combatants have been reintegrated into society
after the benefit of exposure to vocational training programmes that
equipped them adequately to earn their living, to go back to their
villages and to their families, to start a new life, confident that they
would be able to live with dignity in Sri Lankan society.
One of the other challenges related to the question of demining. This
was a very difficult task and still not complete in that part of the
country where the LTTE, the terrorist movement, took its final stand.
But 94 percent of the work connected with demining has been now
completed with very substantial assistance that we received from several
foreign governments including your own.
The other task that we had to accomplish was this - economic
development. We believe in reconciliation, but economic development is a
crucial component of a viable and realistic process of reconciliation.
Whatever else you may attempt to do, it is exceedingly unlikely that you
would succeed in your objective unless people have access to incomes and
livelihoods. Consequently, it is a deliberate decision on the part of
the government of Sri Lanka that we have to focus very sharply on the
economic development of the Northern region which has been particularly
devastated by the atrocities perpetrated by the Liberation Tigers of
Now you would no doubt be interested to hear that the economy of the
Northern Province is growing today at the rate of 22 percent when the
figure for the rest of the island is at the threshold of about 8.3
percent . This is not fortuitous and coincidental; this is the result of
sustained and very substantial investment by the government of Sri Lanka
in infrastructure development in that part of the country. Highways,
railroad systems, irrigation projects, power and energy sector and a
huge thrust in the sectors of health and education, all of this has
brought about an economic revival of major proportions in the Northern
part of the island. This means there has been a resuscitation of
fisheries which is today one of the major means of livelihood of the
people of North. This is one of the activities which were, regrettably,
not just interfered with, but totally discontinued in consequence of the
operations of the Sea Tigers in the Northern waters of the island.
The Jaffna peninsula has a climate which is particularly suitable for
the cultivation of exotic fruits and vegetables. Sri Lanka has more
varieties of mangoes than most countries have varieties of fruits. We
have placed a very sharp emphasis on agricultural activities, and on
education which is very important to the people of the North. What
you're seeing is the singular transformation of a society which just
five years ago was gripped by fear. And today, wherever you travel in
Sri Lanka, what you will encounter is a new mood of emancipation and of
confidence in our people and in their future. This is with regard to
economic development which we perceive as an indispensable component of
We do understand, and there is no doubt about this, that here is an
opportunity that has presented itself after a quarter of a century, and
we are quite determined to make the maximum use of this opportunity, not
to let it slip through our fingers. If that is to happen, it is
absolutely essential to have a spirit of inclusivity. All the people of
Sri Lanka together, irrespective of considerations of ethnicity,
cultural background and religion, have to unite in a common endeavour
and a common resolve to use this rare opportunity to move the country
forward rapidly. This is the reason why President Mahinda Rajapaksa
appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It is a local
commission to probe the causes of the conflict and make pragmatic
recommendations relating to measures that are necessary to move the
country forward in the circumstances that have manifested themselves in
the current situation in Sri Lanka.
Just two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan Cabinet set up a strong and
effective mechanism for the implementation of the recommendation of the
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in a structured way: where
do we begin? What are the short term measures that can be implemented?
What are the other things that can be taken up further down the road?
These are the main matters occupying our attention right now.
To be continued