Accentuate the Positive!

G. L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s minister of external affairs, brought an upbeat message to Berlin. But what of the demons?

14/06/2013 | 08:30 - 10:00 | DGAP | Members only


Category: Sri Lanka

With 30 years of bloody civil war officially over, Sri Lankans are more than ready to eliminate the negative, says G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s minister of external affairs. His speech focused on the nation’s economic resurgence, its desire to open out to the world, and the government’s work to resettle displaced persons and rebuild infrastructure in the shattered north. But, as he himself admits, the “sensitive and delicate” process of Tamil-Sinhalese reconciliation is far from complete.

Dirk Enters

Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs Gamini Lakshman Peiris

Prolonged conflict between the separatist guerrilla Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government engulfed Sri Lanka for over 25 years, ending only in 2009. The conflict cost scores of thousands of lives on all sides: military and civilian; Tamil and Sinhalese. It was especially devastating to the north of the island, where the country’s substantial Tamil minority is based, laying waste to the countryside and destroying its infrastructure. According to a UN estimate, some forty thousand Tamil civilians died in the course of the conflict. As many as seven thousand people perished between February to May 2009 during the military’s final push to crush the rebels. That sustained effort, led by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rjapaska, brought about the guerrillas’ definitive defeat.

Now, with the cataclysms of war behind them, Sri Lankans face the difficult task of reconstruction. In his talk at the DGAP, Minister G. L. Peiris gave a brief overview of the government’s complex set of national policies to resettle, rebuild, and reconcile. Despite the significant challenges ahead, Minister Peiris is optimistic that his country is on course.

Economic Revival

Minister Peiris emphasized that current efforts to revive the national economy, particularly in Tamil areas, have already started to bear fruit after just four years. The north now enjoys a growth rate of 22 percent (compared to 11 percent rate of development in the rest of the country). “Economic development is an essential component of reconciliation,” he said, and signs of “renaissance” are now plentiful in the region: in refurbished fisheries and agricultural areas, along rebuilt roads and rail lines, and in re-opened ports. Banks are finally lending to the region again.

Peiris described a bright future for his country, outlining the island’s promising regional and international prospects. Exports to the West of high-end apparel and other value-added products are thriving, he said. Tourism to the island has doubled since 2009, and the country’s hospitality industry is not only booming at home but also investing in cooperative projects with India and its neighbors in the Indian Ocean. Free trade agreements with India and Pakistan were successfully established (in 2000 and 2005, respectively), and negotiations to establish a similar agreement with China are currently underway.

Peiris asserted that, in addition to investing heavily in rebuilding infrastructure, the government has made much progress addressing humanitarian issues – from resettlement of displaced populations to providing vocational training for young war victims. With this important work now underway, the more sensitive and highly complicated political issues of land ownership and language must now also be addressed.

Part of the hard work ahead, Peiris said, involves carefully examining the controversial 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. This amendment, passed in 1987 with India’s encouragement, called for the devolution of a certain amount of administrative power to the provinces (through provincial councils) and for recognizing Tamil as an official language. While Peiris acknowledged that the 13th amendment was “a landmark piece of legislation,” he underlined that its measures have never been implemented. “Why? Because of a lack of adequate threshold of public support.” Peiris pointed out that with provincial council elections scheduled to take place this fall, it is “only natural” for intensified discussion of the amendment to take place.

The Elephant in the Room

On the morning of Minister Peiris’s speech at the DGAP, the elephant in the room – the subject few were willing to address directly – was the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record, both during the war and after it. The minister’s speech touched on this matter only indirectly when he voiced his disappointment over the vote this March by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. (The vote urged the Sri Lankan government to make a more thorough inquiry into allegations of abuses – recently described by journalist Samanth Subramanian in the New York Times as “growing evidence that government soldiers killed tens of thousands of civilians in their bloody campaign to crush the [Tamil] rebels.”)

Peiris made clear that he considered the council’s vote to be mere grandstanding on the part of the international community. “We oppose country-specific resolutions,” he said. They risk bringing about a “serious erosion of confidence in the functioning of the mechanisms of the UN.”

No Trespassing

However, actions taken by the Sri Lankan government in 2009 as well as allegations of continued human rights abuses continue to cause concern abroad – from Tamil Nadu province in neighboring India all the way to Geneva, Toronto, and Washington. Berlin, too, may have increasing grounds for concern, as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s meeting with Minister Peiris on June 13 made clear. Minister Westerwelle expressed worry about the recent arrest of an employee of the Colombo-based branch of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. According to a foreign ministry press release issued that day, the minister “clearly expressed his expectation that German political foundations should in the future be able to continue their work in Sri Lanka without impediment.” When asked about this during the discussion that followed his speech, Peiris said he could not comment on the specific case, noting simply that the Sri Lankan government is not a party in the litigation, which is between private parties in a court of law. He also admonished: “We value work being done by organizations of this sort,” but it is “very important not to trespass on sensitive domestic politics of the country.”

Gamini Lakshman Peiris, minister of external affairs for the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, gave a keynote address at the invitation of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) on the morning of June 14. The DGAP’s general secretary Paul Freiherr von Maltzahn made welcoming remarks and moderated a short discussion that following the speech.

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