Address by Hon. Rohitha Bogollagama, MP Minister of Foreign Affairs at the National Press Club in Canberra today (14-Oct-.2008).
In addressing the topic, ‘Post Conflict Development in Sri Lanka,’ it is pertinent to begin by drawing to your attention to challenges Sri Lanka face. The principal challenges that we face in Sri Lanka today are twofold – combating terrorism on the one hand and maintaining the momentum of continued economic growth in a fiercely competitive market environment, on the other. I am happy to say that our government has acquitted itself commendably on both these fronts giving us the impetus to address issues related to post conflict development.
The Sri Lankan economy has shown remarkable resilience to post a healthy 6.8% increase in the GDP last year. This is the third consecutive year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration that the economy has registered a consistent GDP growth rate in excess of 6%.
The prevailing high fuel prices have pushed up the cost of living sharply. The government does its best to cushion the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the people from the adverse consequences of rising prices, by providing them free rations of essential food and kerosene oil. Such direct relief and other social welfare measures by the government have contributed to the number of people living below the poverty line of US$ 1 per day falling to an all time low of 5.6% in 2007.
The robust economic growth in recent years has enabled Sri Lanka to graduate into the ranks of the lower middle income country bracket, recording a per capita income of US$ 1,617, last year and being ranked 99 out of 177 countries in the UN Human Development Index (HDI), the highest in South Asia. Our average life expectancy is 74 years, which would be the envy of even countries in the developed world.
Decades of strong public investment in education and health have helped Sri Lanka in great measure to reduce poverty and achieve economic development, since achieving independence in 1948. Sri Lanka has shown considerable success in accomplishing the Millennium Development Goals. While much more needs to be done, the progress Sri Lanka is making is noteworthy, especially at a time when the entire country is challenged by the brutal terrorism perpetrated by the LTTE.
Now, I turn to the other major challenge that Sri Lanka faces - eliminating the scourge of terrorism from our land. In this endeavour, the government is very much on top of the situation.
The Government was compelled to respond to sustained LTTE attacks militarily in August 2006, purely as a humanitarian operation, especially when the LTTE blocked the Mavilaru sluice gates supplying water to 30,000 acres of paddy lands on which over 50,000 people in the Eastern Province were dependent for their cultivation. The Government could not abdicate its responsibility towards the people by allowing the LTTE to use water as a weapon of war, and took decisive action to wrest control of the water supply. Thereafter, the Government continued its military operations to free the people of the entirety of the Eastern Province from LTTE domination. This campaign was conducted systematically and meticulously, in order to avoid causing civilian casualties and the entire province was brought under government control by August last year.
Sadly, just days ago, the LTTE carried out a suicide bomb attack in Anuradhapura, which claimed the lives of Major General Janaka Perera, former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Australia, his wife Vajira Perera, Dr. Raja Johnpulle, a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Soviet Union, and his wife Dr. Jenny Johnpulle, as well as several others.
This latest attack makes it crystal clear that the LTTE is firmly and irreversibly entrenched in the path of violence and terrorism. However, the LTTE faces imminent and certain defeat at the hands of our valiant security forces.
The termination of the ceasefire agreement (CFA) in January of this year has not in anyway hampered the process of moving towards a negotiated political settlement. In fact, it has given the Government broader space to pursue this goal through an inclusive process which includes all minority groups of Sri Lanka which had hitherto been sidelined due to the CFA, an agreement between the government and only the LTTE. The Sri Lanka Government, while dealing militarily to eliminate the scourge of terrorism from our land, will spare no effort in our bid to arrive at a practical and sustainable political settlement.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has often reiterated that there are no military solutions to political problems. The Government strongly believes that any sustainable solution lies in finding political solutions to political problems.
In April 2006, President Rajapaksa constituted an All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) comprising members nominated by political parties in the Parliament, to formulate a set of proposals to bring about a durable political settlement to the ongoing conflict, acceptable to all communities in the country. The government demonstrated its bona fides in its commitment to the peace process by accepting the interim proposals unveiled by the APRC in January of this year, which inter alia entailed the immediate implementation of the provisions of 13th Amendment to the Constitution, granting devolution to Provincial Councils in respect of legislative, executive and administrative powers.
On 10th March this year, the government held local government elections in the Batticaloa District of the Eastern Province after a lapse of 14 years. The polls were conducted peacefully, with no incidents of violence, and with a high voter turnout of around 60%, in which 8 political parities and 22 independent groups contested. This election was of historic significance, in that it marked the transformation of a breakaway faction of the separatist LTTE organization, TMVP led by “Colonel Karuna” into a recognized political party entering the democratic mainstream.
The public endorsement of the TMVP was further manifested at the ensuing elections two months later to the Eastern Provincial Council. The Provincial Council election, which was successfully concluded with the participation of all major political parties in Sri Lanka, saw 65.78% of voters exercising their franchise despite the fact that Sri Lanka does not have compulsory voting and notwithstanding deliberate acts resorted to by the forces of terror opposed to the democratic process.
The elections in the Eastern Province could be seen as a conspicuous milestone in the Government policy in restoring democratic rights to the people in areas which were dominated and terrorized by the LTTE. Moreover, the successful conduct of elections in the East is a clear reflection of the genuine interest of the Government to create an environment, in which all communities and ethnicities could live in harmony and achieve economic prosperity.
Last week, we witnessed a momentous and landmark event in the history of our Parliament, namely the entry of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, also known as “Karuna” to the supreme national legislature of Sri Lanka. It is truly an epoch making event, which would go down in the annals of our history, signifying the culmination of the metamorphosis of a member of the LTTE, who was previously committed to the dismemberment of the Sri Lankan State, renouncing violence and embracing democracy.
In an environment where terrorism is a worldwide threat, Sri Lanka has adopted a policy of empowering the people, to confront this challenge. Such an approach is vital to sustain a vibrant democracy, especially in the light of the absence of democratic rule for over two decades in the Eastern Province. The need to rid Sri Lanka of terrorism in order to sustain democratic rule must be emphasized. Countering terrorism, as is being done today in the North of Sri Lanka, would pave the way for the empowerment of the people of that region.
Elections by themselves will not solve our problems. There must be adequate resources to make our democratic institutions work. The government has allocated over 20 billion rupees (US$ 200 million) for the rehabilitation of the Eastern Province. Vast efforts are being made to repair the roads, restore educational and medical facilities and re-establish the economy. The international community has begun to contribute substantially to these efforts. Their involvement is further endorsement of our own efforts to eradicate terrorism and give our people a brighter future.
It is worthy of note that the government has thus successfully created a conducive environment for democratic pluralism and facilitated the entry into the political mainstream of groups who hitherto resorted to armed violence in the pursuit of a separate State. This constitutes the first step in the realisation of effective devolution of power based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, as envisaged in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed between the President of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister of India in 1987.
The high percentage of voter turnout in the Eastern Province also demonstrates not only an interest in protecting democratic right, denied for two decades by the forces of terror, but also confidence in the commitment of the government to devolve far-reaching powers to the provinces to address the genuine grievances of the people in these areas.
Since the eviction of the LTTE from the Eastern Province, the Government has embarked on the Nagenahira Navodaya Programme (Reawakening of the East). This programme, implemented with the assistance of the international community, the UN agencies as well as international and local NGOs, has restored civil administration, resettled IDPs, provided immediate infrastructure development, and encouraged private sector participation and promotion of industries in this region. The immediate areas of focus include agriculture and irrigation, roads, power and energy, livelihood support, fisheries and livestock development, education, civil administration, health and sanitation. This program is an integral part of the National Development Plan, including mega infrastructure projects which are aimed mainly at improving the connectivity with other regions. These projects are expected to create new opportunities in the region boosting economic activities, particularly the promotion of private sector investments.
Moreover, restoring livelihoods through new agriculture and irrigation projects aimed at a sustainable social and economic integration of the community in the Eastern Province are a priority. The Reawakening project consists of four components. They are village development and rehabilitation, essential rehabilitation and improvement to select major irrigation schemes, cluster level livelihood support activities and Institutional capacity building and project implementation support. The main objective is to create confidence and self-reliance among those segments to help them build up their lives and usher in social and economic stability.
It is the view of the government that development should be people oriented, as otherwise people would not get real benefits. Thus, development projects have been structured to address the needs of the people. As the Eastern Province is rich in agriculture diversification, steps have been taken to support households undertake livelihoods for enhancing income and reducing vulnerability.
Attention is given to improve the reconstruction of infrastructure facilities as a prelude to the resettlement of people. This programme has been structured with an understanding of the community strength, skills and capacity. It is proposed to give more authority and support to people to develop their own livelihood enhancement programmes along with the most needed infrastructure facilities which have a direct impact on their activities.
Construction of the Oluvil port under the Eastern Reawakening programme has begun. The internationally funded project will have the capability to cater to large ships with in-built tanks exceeding the eight-meter depth level mark. The project is expected to generate a large number of direct and indirect employment opportunities in the area.
Several irrigation projects in the East are also being carried out. Rehabilitation of tanks and anicuts are some of the accelerated projects. These projects are expected to provide irrigation facilities to thousands hectares of fertile lands in several areas serving a large number of families in cultivation.
A new multi-year programme designed to increase social and economic security in Eastern Sri Lanka is to be funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The new program, Connecting Regional Economies (CORE) seeks to address the disparity in economic development between the Eastern and Western Provinces, and to establish conditions whereby sustained economic development can be launched. At the provincial and community levels, the CORE program will focus on improving the supply chain and market linkages between producers, processors, and the end markets in five districts of the Eastern, North-Central and Uva Provinces. To achieve this goal, USAID will promote competitiveness of agriculture-based businesses and improve access to markets. A large component of the program will partner with the private sector to encourage long-term private sector investment. In addition, the program will support a component for livelihood development for vulnerable populations and develop workforce skills amongst youth and other at-risk groups. At the national level, CORE will focus on promoting business-friendly policies that will enable enterprises in the target geographic areas to grow, generate jobs and develop local economies
Several roads and bridges are to be constructed and rehabilitated under the accelerated development plan of the Eastern Reawakening scheme. Accordingly, 4,800 kilometers of road have been earmarked.
Sri Lanka has adopted a zero tolerance policy on the recruitment of children for engagement in armed conflict supported by strong legislative measures. The Government has called on all groups that have used children in armed conflict to cease the practice immediately and to release all minors in their custody. The remarkable transformation of a former child soldier into the Chief Executive of the Eastern Province, Mr. Sivanathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan), no doubt resonates in the minds of many Sri Lankans. We are encouraged that the TMVP facilitated the release in April of 39 children held by the paramilitary group known as the Karuna Faction. These children now have access to rehabilitation, vocational training and reintegration which the Government working in close cooperation with international partners – notably UNICEF – stands ready to provide.
The Government has already initiated several projects for the rehabilitation of all LTTE surrendees, especially child combatants, which includes intensive psychological counseling, literacy and numeracy skills for those who have been deprived of formal education, and vocational training, in order to ensure that they could be re-integrated into civil society, with gainful employment and live as law abiding citizens of the country.
The law and order situation in the East is improving as well. New police stations have been established while existing stations are being strengthened to provide a better service to the community. Two thousand Tamil speaking police officers are being recruited to serve the province, of which 175 Tamil police officers, including 50 women police constables, have already been recruited, trained, and deployed. The civil administration is also being strengthened, with more office buildings and new staff competent in Tamil.
These measures are in line with the recommendations of the APRC, which has called for the full implementation of the provisions of Chapter IV of the Constitution on Language. These include the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers in sufficient numbers to enable Tamil speaking members of the public, not only in the North and the East but in the country as a whole, to transact business in their own language in Police stations. Other steps include recruitment of staff and procurement of equipment to enable the Tamil speaking public to deal with Ministries, Government departments and other public bodies in Tamil as well as the regular holding of mobile clinics where officials who are competent in Tamil, will be able to assist in solving the problems of Tamil speaking people.
Resettlement Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) is going on in a satisfactory manner. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have acknowledged that the voluntary resettlement of IDPs in the East has been undertaken in keeping with international standards. In the Eastern Province, most IDPs have returned to their homes and the remainder will be resettled, after clearing the remaining areas of landmines. The Government, with the assistance of the WFP, provides food rations to the displaced families and returnees. The overall programme has provided a new lease of life for conflict-affected families. It will empower and harmonise civil society with sustainable livelihoods and good governance to improve the quality of life of the community in conflict affected areas.
The Government attaches the highest importance to the humanitarian needs of displaced persons and civilians in the areas affected by the conflict. This is an obligation and responsibility which the Government has assumed since the inception of the conflict. In order to ensure effective adequate and safe delivery of humanitarian supplies, the Government has been working closely with UN agencies, ICRC as well as a number of local and international NGOs. The Government coordinates this effort at several national as well as ground level mechanisms, overseeing the progress of deliveries and distribution of supplies and assessing needs in affected areas on a round the clock basis.
The Government of Sri Lanka is thankful to the international community for having been partners in the process of restoring normalcy in the East. It is hoped that this exercise will serve as a model in post-conflict development to other parts of the world facing similar situations. The Government hopes that the international community will recognize the significance of the change taking place in the East politically, economically and socially and that further assistance will be forthcoming for the completion of this arduous task.
To re-establish a degree of normalcy for the entire population in the East was a central element in the electoral process in May this year. Lessons have been learned, and are still being learned by all parties concerned. However, the guns have been silenced; contact established among long-parted families; goods and services flowing into hitherto restricted areas; schools and religious places regaining normalcy; and people returning to their livelihood.
The livelihood of the population in the North and East depended mainly upon agriculture, livestock and fisheries. Some medium-scale industrial activities were in operation prior to escalation of the conflict. These along with a few large-scale industries like the Cement Factory in Kankesanturai, Paper Factory in Valachenai and a few others, provided unskilled and skilled employment. Efforts are underway to revive these.
The destruction to the economic livelihood in these areas covers a range of issues. Damages to the infrastructure facilities such as roads, irrigation, and water supply reduced production and efficiency. Loss of equipment and direct war damages aggravated the situation. The service delivery to support the micro-economic activities and other production activities were disrupted due to constant displacement of people and institutions and acts of war. This directly affected the small and landless farmers, and small-scale business activities. Other income generation activities had little or no scope due to the constant restriction on movement of people and goods. These restrictions also led to difficulties in transportation and loss of market opportunities.
The Government will assist in ensuring quick and effective implementation of ongoing activities particularly in the area of roads reconstruction, transport facilities, water for irrigation, equipment and plants for the fishing industry, power and communication. For the deprived youth – regardless of gender - opportunities are being created for the pursuit of relevant education.
The Government is pursuing concerted action to empower the people, especially in areas affected by terrorism. In this context, one can refer to the Government’s policy to eliminate terrorism in all its forms, as had been done in the East, with a view to empowering those people from that region, mainly through agricultural pursuits. This would contribute towards greater food production, and thereby, leading to food security.
While the Eastern Province has been successfully cleared of the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Government is also pursuing a similar policy in the Northern Province. The Government’s sincere objective is to enable the people of the North to enjoy the benefits of the democratic process and to ensure that political freedom and the fruits of economic and social development that the people of the Eastern Province are now beginning to benefit from, can be experienced and enjoyed by the people in the North of Sri Lanka as well. And we firmly believe that such reinvigoration of the democratic process in the North and the East can lead towards a lasting political solution to issues of concern to all citizens of Sri Lanka and for securing fundamental rights and preserving and protecting the multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural fabric of the Sri Lankan society.