Development and Peacemaking: Challenges in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

New York
September 20, 2006

Address to Asia Society

Madam Chair,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here at the Asia Society. Several of my predecessors have visited you. Your institution is a unique one. It is located in this great trans-Atlantic city – an icon of globalisation, a city that has for centuries attracted millions of people, billions of capital and trillions of ideas. In this setting of history and modernity, the Asia Society provides a home to a perspective the modern world cannot do without - the Asian perspective. I am therefore happy that my visit to the United Nations provided me an opportunity to make a modest contribution to your dialogue process. I am thankful to you Madam Chair for your kind invitation and congratulate you on your leadership.

Development and peace making are indeed formidable challenges by themselves. Development in the context of globalization and peace making in a world of eroding sovereignty pose even greater challenges. There are other factors further complicating this equation. Democratically elected governments are often obliged to deal with unelected and illegally armed non-state groups to discuss governance issues within and among sovereign states. These tasks assume an even more complex character when an elected government has to engage in these activities whilst respecting democratic freedoms, the rule of law, international and national human rights norms and accountability to the electorate.

The task we face in Sri Lanka is a synthesis of all these inter-locking challenges. They need to be addressed and resolved in a manner that is transparent both nationally and internationally. We must also do this whilst safeguarding the nation’s security on the one hand and the cherished freedoms of men and women of my country on the other.

I will try to share with you some facts first, and some thoughts thereafter, relevant to what we have done and what we need to do, in respect of the twin challenges of development and peace making within a democratic framework.

As regards the challenge of development, I would not go into the very tempting debate about whether peace is a pre-requisite for development or whether development facilitates peace. Like in the proverbial debate about the chicken and egg, it is not important as to what should come first. I firmly believe that peace and development have an organic link and that they mutually support each other. People, irrespective of their cast, creed or religion, must have participatory access to development. They must enjoy the fruits of development as peace dividend. My objective of accelerating development work, especially at the grass roots levels in all areas – Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim – is based on this firm policy of pursuing a vigorous development strategy and an aggressive peace policy.

At the Presidential Election held in November 2005, I used the opportunity granted to me to show the people of Sri Lanka my vision on how to achieve development and peace. My offer was the “Mahinda Chinthana” – the manifesto laying out my vision and plans to usher in a new era of rapid economic growth and honourable peace. The manifesto was a product of a long process of articulating carefully thought-out ideas. It was developed through consultations among all stakeholders of our economy. In the preamble of the manifesto I humbly proclaimed to the people of Sri Lanka that ‘This earth and its vegetation is yours. But they should be protected not only for your benefit but also for the benefit of future generations. A ruler is only a temporary trustee and not an owner of your children's heritage. ’

I received an overwhelming mandate from the people of Sri Lanka to bring this vision to reality. I am using this opportunity to create a caring society by promoting local values and social protection for all: women, children, elderly, differently-abled people and vulnerable groups. This would be done whilst respecting human rights and observing good governance. A community based integrated rural development initiative to empower the poor was adopted. It is expected to empower communities, to identify their needs and respond to such needs appropriately. To promote devolved decision making, an efficient delivery mechanism is being formulated at district and divisional levels. Priority is attached to developing national infrastructure. It covers such vital areas as electricity, highways, irrigation, water supply, ports and airports, transport, townships and investment zones. This would promote nationwide economic development and create new opportunities for investment and employment generation. We will promote an economic and social partnership between the private and public sectors. It would operate within a market friendly, export oriented and competitive economic policy framework.

As I speak in New York City which is home to the United Nations I must also re-affirm my government’s economic policy consistency with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations. We have done well in progressing towards achieving the MDGs especially in the areas of primary school enrolment, gender equality and reducing infant and maternal mortality. I do not want to bore you with statistics but I do want to emphasise the point that Sri Lanka has shown its resilience in socio-economic development despite a conflict situation created by terrorist violence.

In health care related areas, the physicians per 10,000 people have increased to 5 by 2005 from 1 in 1990. The infant mortality rate has declined significantly to 12 per 1,000 live births from 26 in 1990. In Sri Lanka, about 96 per cent of births are attended to by a skilled health worker. Access to improved water resources increased in 2005 to over 78 per cent of population from 68 in 1990. Life expectancy at birth has also increased in 2005 to 74 years from 71 years in 1990.

Sri Lanka has maintained a remarkably high literacy rate for a developing country. The literacy rate stands at 90 per cent. Educational opportunities, especially tertiary and professional education, vocational training and Information Technology (IT) related education have expanded in recent years. The number of universities has increased to 15, with the opening of two new universities in remote areas. A scheme to take IT education to remote areas (Nana Sala) and to provide high quality IT education to underprivileged areas has been introduced recently. Over 50,000 students enrol annually in various vocational training courses facilitated by government vocational training institutions.

Steps have been taken to reduce regional disparity. Investment in regions has been encouraged through fiscal incentives and through the upgrading of rural infrastructure. Establishment of 300 industries outside the Western Province and two programmes to improve rural infrastructure were initiated by the Government to promote regionally balanced development. These are the rural road development project, (Maga Naguma) and village development project (Gama Naguma).

The economy of Sri Lanka is now growing at a healthy rate. We grew by 6 per cent in 2005 followed by 8.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2006. The economy is poised to grow over 7 per cent in 2006.

The prospects for further growth are reflected by the business confidence demonstrated by the stock market performance. Stock market activities surged during the first seven months of the year with the growing economic activities and increase in profits of corporate sector.

Now I come back to what I would call the defining challenge we face today, that is peace making. I would like to be very frank with you in sharing my thoughts on this complex but critically important subject. As you know in Sri Lanka successive governments have tried to make peace by negotiating with this heavily armed group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For a variety of reasons none of these efforts have succeeded. On each occasion the LTTE has withdrawn from the negotiating table citing one reason or the other. I must say here that all elected governments have recognized that the genuine grievances of minorities in different regions of Sri Lanka should be addressed and resolved through devolution of power. It is also agreed that this should be done based on our firm commitment to democracy, human rights, rule of law and a multi party political system. We must also safeguard the territorial integrity and unity of the Sri Lankan nation.

When I was elected President last November, I gave a firm undertaking of my Government’s unwavering commitment to a political solution. I also affirmed that we will continue talking to the LTTE with a view to achieving those peace making objectives. I stand by these commitments. This I did despite the fact that we did not agree that the LTTE solely represents Tamil people or their methods of terror for achieving political ends would be acceptable. Despite a variety of reservations expressed by many concerning the form and content of the CFA, I reaffirmed that we will continue to abide by the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002. We also re-committed ourselves to implement the Ceasefire Agreement as agreed at the Geneva I Talks. Disregarding all this, the LTTE has continued a consistent pattern of gross cease fire violations directed at civilians and the security forces. What is more, it has remained unwilling to rejoin negotiations under Norwegian facilitation from which it unilaterally withdrew long before I was elected President. The LTTE’s continued violence and terror attacks have had their own consequences internationally as well as within Sri Lanka. Many countries especially Canada and the members of the European Union have decided to list the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. The EU Parliament has called for clear and specific actions against LTTE operatives. The US Government has commenced apprehending LTTE arms merchants. Within Sri Lanka, an increasing number of Tamil people are migrating to the Western Province.

There is now over 54% of Tamil people living outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. They live and invest happily in the Western Province. Some quarters try to project the theory that international action against LTTE terrorism and not the LTTE’s unwillingness, has kept the LTTE away from the negotiating table.

I want to address this frontally. International bans were brought about by the LTTE by their own actions of terrorism. Only the LTTE can un-ban themselves by good behaviour, democratic transformation and good-faith negotiations. No one else can do it for them.

Many seem to have forgotten the fact that despite continued LTTE terrorism, the Sri Lanka government has not decided to re-impose the ban on the LTTE because the LTTE demands that the ban on its terrorist activities should be lifted as a pre-condition for talks. The Government of Sri Lanka has gone to the extent of doing even that although in many parts of the world governments often do not even consider talking to terrorist groups before they lay down arms let alone lifting bans on them. Secondly, the banning of the LTTE by foreign governments is a direct function of LTTE’s terrorist behaviour. It has nothing to do with the LTTE’s status as a party to peace talks. Only the LTTE by its own actions of good behaviour can seek to lift the bans imposed by other governments and no one else can do it for the LTTE. Thirdly, despite the continued LTTE terrorist actions and unacceptable practices such as recruiting children for combat during intermittent negotiations, the Government has continued to provide many facilities including safe passage, security and humanitarian and medical assistance to many members of the organisation in order to build confidence and goodwill. The Government is also fully aware that the LTTE appropriates a generous share of billions of rupees worth of capital and consumer goods supplied to the North and East for its people.

Our task is two fold: Firstly, the people of Sri Lanka and the international community must make clear the imperative of democratic transformation of the LTTE. They cannot continue terrorism and intolerance while demanding acceptance and sovereign attributes. Secondly, at the same time the people of Sri Lanka and the international community must work together in supporting my government’s effort to provide a political solution acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka. I am confident of an outcome that will command a democratic consensus in our country.

I have laid the foundation for meeting these twin challenges. I have shown to the LTTE that military adventurism has no place in our peace making effort. Our strategy of deterrent action was to show the LTTE that military approaches will not bring them political gains. The only objective that we had in mind during recent military activity was calibrated defensive action in response to very serious ceasefire violations by the LTTE. This was the case at Marvillaru, Muttur, Sampur or at Nagoorkovil. The government remains committed to upholding the ceasefire. We will continue the efforts of the Norwegian facilitators and other friendly countries to make progress with the peace process.

Secondly, on a parallel track, my government will continue with its multi-party and multi ethnic efforts at developing a framework for a constitutional reform process incorporating a political solution. This is a complex agenda. I must also say that it is a doable agenda. I have been mandated at the last Presidential election to undertake this difficult but indispensable exercise. I will not compromise the core values of democracy, pluralism and human rights. I have been a human rights campaigner right from the beginning of my political career. I cannot compromise on those fundamentals. No peace making effort has any value if it has to sacrifice basic human freedoms. I will also not compromise national integrity and the security of our citizens. I am however ready to make the necessary political compromises to achieve consensus if the LTTE leadership can show tangible evidence that they too are willing to practice the art of compromise and take the political process forward. I have already stated that the government will seriously consider a comprehensive and verifiable cessation of all hostilities especially the terrorist attacks and the breaches of the positions established by the 2002 cease fire.

I would sum up the challenges I face in making peace in Sri Lanka as a task above all, of getting rid of mindsets. There are various different mindsets militating against the peace making efforts in my country;

- There are those people who think that peace making in Sri Lanka can be reduced to a deal between the Government and the LTTE at a cost yet undefined to many ideals that we have cherished for a long time. Sustainable peace has to be much more inclusive and deliverable.

- There are those who think that we must first agree on a solution in the form of constitutional reforms that should carry a label whether unitary, federal or other. There are those people who have the luxury of debating a label before manufacturing the product. I do not have that luxury. Once we have the product we will label it.

- There are those who want to profit from conflict, arms merchants, lobby groups, influence peddlers both nationally and internationally. We are working with friendly countries to successfully overcome these.

- We also have the problem of dealing with those who believe that we must have peace at any cost. To me, nothing is worth at any cost, especially if the cost is something that we uphold dearly such as individual freedoms, human rights, democracy, franchise of the people, sovereignty and the like.

- I also have to deal with people who believe that since the LTTE is a party to a Ceasefire Agreement and intermittent Talks with the Government, one is obliged to turn a completely blind eye to their illegal activities, human rights violations, terrorist attacks and their incessant assault on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka nation.

Since my election last November, I and my Government have tried to deal with these challenges in a pragmatic and measured manner.

* We have stated very firmly that my Government is convinced that a lasting solution will come through political negotiations and there is no military solution feasible or desirable. In fact you would recall that from 17th November till 25th April, despite a series of escalating attacks by the LTTE, on my orders the security forces did not fire a single bullet even in retaliation. This was the situation up to Geneva I.

* When the LTTE carried out brazen violations of the ceasefire, I had to ask security forces to give a robust military response to such unprovoked violence as the current ceasefire mechanism and the facilitation efforts have failed to deter the LTTE from such continued CFA violations and terror attacks. I wanted to demonstrate to the LTTE that if they engage in military adventurism in violation of the ceasefire, it would entail an unacceptable cost to them.

* When the EU countries listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation which was a direct result of LTTE’s own actions, my Government immediately declared that this should not be encouragement for military activity on the part of anyone either the Government or the LTTE, but rather work on a political process should immediately begin.

* Accordingly in keeping with the mandate I have received at the election, my Government set up an All Party Conference for political discussion and a Multi-ethnic Committee of Experts to do legal and technical work in defining a framework for maximum devolution of power, a policy I declared in my policy statement to the Parliament. Once I have that product from the Experts Committee and it is tested with the political parties of the APC we will then ask the people of Sri Lanka to pronounce on it whether or not the LTTE is ready to negotiate.

* I am deeply committed to redressing the legitimate concerns of the Tamil people as much as I am committed to addressing the concerns of all other communities, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Burgher. They are all my people. As a human rights campaigner I have worked nationally and internationally for human rights of all my people, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. I shall continue to do that. I am not interested in engaging in esoteric debates about federal constitution or unitary constitution. I am interested in a good constitution that will ensure the well being, happiness and contentment of all my people, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher or others.

I have tried to outline the facts of the current situation, challenges as I see them, and what I think an elected Government can reasonably expects to do to overcome them whilst respecting our long traditions of democracy and the rule of law. I hope you have some impressions of the difficulties we face. I also hope you appreciate the determination on the part of my Government to pursue a vigorous political process on the one hand and a decisive policy to ensure the security and well being of all citizens of Sri Lanka, on the other.

I remain ready to engage the LTTE in serious political talks at any level so that they will begin a process of democratic transformation and will become active partners of evolving new constitutional structures for Sri Lanka. I have already initiated the exercise. I will continue to engage the facilities of our friends including the Royal Norwegian government in this task, despite concerns expressed by many in Sri Lanka about Norway’s involvement. I would like to ask the LTTE to join this endeavour rather than engage in military adventurism and terrorist violence and seek to demand sovereign attributes which it can never earn, whilst shunning a pragmatic dialogue process.

The ground reality today is that the majority of the Tamil people, I would say over 50% now, live in the provinces outside the North and East of Sri Lanka. Most of the Muslims and the Sinhalese people who were chased out of Jaffna and other areas in the North and East are waiting to return to their places of residence. Many Tamil people who have come to Colombo and other areas of the Western Province have made major investments and are active partners of a promising economy in our country. The Government continues to fund billions of rupees worth of investment, infrastructure projects in the North and East. The LTTE knows full well that all these economic activities are taking place despite the conflict situation it has created and artificially demarcated areas in the North and the East monopolised by the LTTE’s military machinery.

The LTTE must understand that whilst the Sri Lankan state and the elected Government are making strenuous efforts to transform itself through a democratic constitutional reform process, the LTTE must also demonstrate a visible effort to transform itself from an entity practising terrorism to one practising democracy. Sri Lankan people look forward to the day when this transformation process can become a reality. I for my part would like to reiterate that the LTTE should return to the negotiating table immediately to undertake this task. I would also like to urge the facilitators to assist this task by being a creative change agent.

Merely facilitating the sustenance of the status quo, is simply not adequate.