Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s Address at the Inaugural Session of the International Conference on Sri Lanka organized by the Observer Research Foundation
10 May 2010, New Delhi
Ambassdor Rasgotra, High Commissioner of Sri Lanka Prasad Kariyawasan, Distinguished Sri Lankan and Indian participants, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is indeed a great pleasure to be in your midst this evening. When Ambassador Rasgotra asked me to inaugurate this International Conference on Sri Lanka, I had no hesitation in accepting his invitation since, after having had the good fortune to be posted twice to Sri Lanka – the second time as High Commissioner, Sri Lanka has always been very special to me and indeed to my whole family. In fact, my recent visit to Sri Lanka in February this year brought back wonderful memories.
2. At the outset, allow me to thank the Observer Research Foundation for taking this important initiative. I know that ORF and, in particular Sathiya Moorthy, have spent considerable efforts to conceptualise a Conference of this nature. I am happy to see that ORF has brought together a galaxy of experts and intellectuals both from Sri Lanka and India to deliberate on issues of direct relevance to both countries. I extend a special welcome to those who have traveled from distant places to be here for the event.
3. This International Conference could not have come at a more opportune time in Sri Lankan history and in India-Sri Lanka relations. A new dawn broke over Sri Lanka last year. There is now promise of a new era of peace and stability over the island. There is optimism in the air – optimism that the time has come to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation. There is expectation that the recent elections will sow the seeds for genuine reconciliation between the various communities. At the same time, there is also apprehension that things may not quite work out the way it should and yet another opportunity may slip away. But, one thing is evident – there is now a historic opportunity to shape the destiny of Sri Lanka and its people.
4. With the rooting out of terrorism and secessionism from the island, with the successful conclusion of the recent elections, with the participation of all communities in the democratic process and with the realization that negotiated settlement is the only path to durable peace and genuine political settlement, I am confident that the people of Sri Lanka will finally have their tryst with destiny.
5. But then, there is still some way to go. The end of the military conflict presented Sri Lanka with many challenges, and we should not underestimate any of them – the most immediate among which was the plight of the Internally Displaced Persons, especially the Tamils. They had come out after decades of conflict in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka – scarred by their experience and seared by the violence in their daily lives. It was a major exercise for the Sri Lankan Government to make sure that the IDPs finally returned to their places of residence in an atmosphere of safety and security. While a majority of them have done so, several still remain in camps yearning for the day when they would return to their homes and resume their normal life and livelihood.
6. The focus has also shifted from the immediate to the medium-term, including the restoration of the livelihood of the people and the reconstruction of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. There can be no greater cause for despondency than a lack of roof over one’s head, an infrastructure ravaged by terrorism, a non-existent cultural and social life and the fear of an uncertain future.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
7. India’s assistance to Sri Lanka, especially Northern Sri Lanka, at this critical juncture has been substantial and focussed. Prime Minister has announced an assistance of Rs. 500 crores for the rehabilitation and resettlement in the north. We have, in addition, extended US$ 416 million as Lines of Credit for railway infrastructure and other railway projects in Northern Sri Lanka. Another US$ 382 million is in the pipeline. Our initial focus was, understandably, on humanitarian assistance and included supply of more than 2.5 lakh family packs, medicines, a field hospital which treated more than 50,000 patients, an artificial limb fitment camp popularly called the Jaipur Foot etc. However, to speed up resettlement, we provided seven demining teams to clear mines from areas of habitation, supplied substantial shelter material, cement bags and agriculture packs. The visit to Sri Lanka of a group of Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu last October only served to reinforce the strong commitment of India at the political level to assist Sri Lanka in its road to normalcy.
8. We are aware that Sri Lanka is moving into the broader rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. Agriculture in the North will be revived. India is committed to send the much needed seeds for the next sowing season. Critical civil infrastructure in Sri Lanka, including railways and Kankesanthurai Port, will be reconstructed with our assistance. India will assist in rebuilding houses, constructing the Cultural Centre in Jaffna, setting up five Vocational Training Centres in North, East and Central Sri Lanka and rehabilitating schools, educational institutions and hospitals and restoring the Duriappa Stadium.
9. But then, as the Conference theme suggests, the vision for a united Sri Lanka at peace with itself goes beyond this. The ultimate vision or goal is naturally a permanent political settlement. As late Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said in September 2004 and I quote “I believe that all our peoples can live together, they did live together. I think they must learn to live together after this trauma is over… That is my belief.” (Unquote). The trauma, which he spoke about, is over. Terrorism has been resolutely met and defeated. The democratic process has been restored, especially in those areas where the LTTE had, over decades, prevented this from happening. Sri Lanka has indeed arrived at the cross-roads where the path to cohesion, unity and coexistence is clear.
10. Let us not for a moment forget that this is a path that the Sri Lankan people themselves have to tread. However well-intentioned the international community may be, these are issues which need to be discussed, negotiated and settled by the various communities which make up the mosaic of Sri Lankan polity. This can only be done in an atmosphere free of coercion and intimidation. The recent elections have proved conclusively that the people of Sri Lanka want peace, want development, want normalcy, want democracy and, above all, want a lasting political settlement. The people have spoken. It is now for the leadership of the various communities to step up to the plate and find an acceptable way forward.
11. Political settlement is not a zero-sum game. It need not and should not come at the cost of another. The 13th Amendment was designed to provide for considerable devolution of powers to the provinces. This Amendment has gained broad acceptance and has become the fulcrum around which the provincial administration revolves. There is, consequently, need to strengthen and empower these provinces further. India’s own experiment with democracy has taught us that effective devolution of powers, equal status before the Constitution, equal access to opportunities and addressing of minority concerns ensure that fissiparous forces are contained and differences addressed in an open and democratic fashion. We welcome as an important first step the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to constitute a commission for reconciliation and to introspect on the conflict and the lessons learnt.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
12. India-Sri Lanka civilisational ties go back centuries. As Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said (Quote) “It is not mere geographical proximity which binds us. Ours is a relationship of heart and mind, finding expression in history and philosophy, literature and art, and in our contemporary concerns and daily lives.” (Unquote). Our relations have reached a considerable degree of maturity and its time to build on our commonalities.
13. The conclusion of hostilities in the North and the successful holding of elections in all parts of Sri Lanka give our countries the best possible platform for taking our bilateral relations to a higher trajectory. At their meeting in the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Thimphu, the leaders of our two countries committed themselves to deepening and broadening our engagement.
14. Closer economic integration and connectivity between our two countries are imperative for our mutual growth and development and will have beneficial spin-offs in the entire region. Trade, connectivity, tourism, services and knowledge industry hold the key to our future cooperation. I don’t see any reason why the success of the Free Trade Agreement cannot be replicated through the CEPA. FTA worked wonders for our bilateral trade, which stood at US$ 3.25 billion before the global economic downturn, and, with the dominant 57% share of the services sector in the Sri Lankan economy, CEPA should work wonders for Sri Lankan economy in trade in services. It’s time Sri Lanka looked at these issues closely, given their inherent strengths and shorn of protectionist voices. India and Sri Lanka are also set to revive some of the links that had been rent asunder in the past. New links are being envisaged including the possibility of power-grid interconnectivity. More than 100 flights a week ply between the two countries. India accounts for the largest number of tourist arrivals into Sri Lanka. Big Sri Lankan corporate names such as Brandix, MAS Holdings, Aitken Spence, Carson Cumberbatch, John Keels etc. show that investing in India is a profitable proposition.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
15. It is with optimism and hope that I view the future of our bilateral relations. I was the High Commissioner when Tsunami struck Sri Lanka in December 2004. I know the spontaneity with which India came forward to offer assistance. It is this same spontaneity which, I assure you, India will always exhibit towards Sri Lanka. The fact that our relations have been nurtured over centuries through spiritual and cultural links has made this possible.
16. Before I conclude, allow me to once again thank ORF and Ambassador Rasgotra for inviting me here and giving me the privilege of sharing some thoughts on Sri Lanka and India-Sri Lanka relations. I look forward to a stimulating discussion tomorrow. I wish this International Conference all success.
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Delhi conference debates Lanka’s priorities
Satarupa Batachchariya, courtesy of the Sunday Times, 16 May 2010
A year has passed since South Asia’s longest civil war ended with the Sri Lankan government armed forces crushing the Tamil Tigers. In its wake, the war’s last leg left about 300,000 people homeless in the island’s north. According to the latest assessment report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 76,568 of the displaced still continue to reside in temporary camps run by the government. While the remaining 214,227 people who had been sent out of camps in the last few months have landed in their places of origin across the northern, eastern and central provinces, majority of them are without livelihood. Approximately 93,329 displaced persons have been residing with families that have hosted them since they moved out of the camps. Two words – rehabilitation, resettlement – have become the most popular words in Sri Lanka’s context, since the end of war.
Issues related to rehabilitation and resettlement comprised a session theme at an international conference on Sri Lanka organized by New Delhi based think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in the Indian capital last week. Sumanasiri Liyanage who teaches political-economy at the University of Peradeniya was among the several academics who attended the seminar, presenting their thoughts on post war subjects. Dr Liyanage says that reasons such as demining and infrastructure development have slowed down the resettlement process. “But these are not the only reasons that have made the process sluggish,” he says.
According to Dr Liyanage, “Over securitization of the State, not allowing international NGOs to work in war affected areas or even restricting the movement of war displaced people are reasons that have affected the pace of resettlement.” In his presentation at the ORF seminar, Dr Liyanage argued that a key aspect of the resettlement process was to tackle the “dependency syndrome” of the displaced people. The overt dependence on the government was seemingly making the displaced people less confident about themselves.
In a separate session on the political process vis-a-vis the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, other speakers at the ORF conference tried to address the larger question of whether the political process could be de linked from the processes of resettling, rehabilitating and integrating community.
While inaugurating the ORF conference on May 10, India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said that a political settlement was not a zero-sum game. “It need not and should not come at the cost of another. The 13th Amendment was designed to provide for considerable devolution of powers to the provinces. This Amendment has gained broad acceptance and has become the fulcrum around which the provincial administration revolves. There is consequently, a need to strengthen and empower these provinces further. India’s own experiment with democracy has taught us that effective devolution of powers, equal status before the Constitution, equal access to opportunities and addressing of minority concerns ensure that fissiparous forces are contained and differences addressed in an open and democratic fashion,” Mrs Rao was quoted as saying in a statement released to the Indian media in Colombo.
Ahilan Kadirgamar an activist with the New York based Sri Lanka Democracy Forum says that Sri Lanka needs further democratization and a political settlement to ensure lasting peace. “While a political solution that truly addresses the grievances and aspirations of the minorities in Sri Lanka would entail substantial devolution of power to the regions and power sharing at the centre, the likely scenario going forward looks to be one of incremental constitutional changes beginning with the implementation of the 13th Amendment,” Dr Kadirgamar says.
When asked whether the Tamil diaspora was engaging positively in Sri Lankan politics, he says, “Dominant sections of the diaspora are not playing a constructive role with respect to concerns of Tamils and other minorities inside Sri Lanka.
A few days ago, Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister G L Peiris had met Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan in Colombo to probably discuss ways in which the government might be able to engage with the mainstream Tamil political party. After the military defeat of the LTTE last year, the TNA no longer holds on to its politics of separatism. But even as the TNA tries to find its ground in the post LTTE era, issues of contention remain. “Everyone knew right from the beginning that the 13th Amendment was a non starter,” says TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran.
The government’s proposal of a second chamber in Parliament would have to be watched for its intent and composition, he adds. During her speech at the ORF seminar last week, Mrs Rao who had served two previous stints in Sri Lanka (also as India’s high commissioner from 2004) had said that there was also an apprehension that things may not quite work out the way it should and yet another opportunity may slip away. “But, one thing is evident – there is now a historic opportunity to shape the destiny of Sri Lanka and its people,” she added. Mrs Rao was here, she should know.