Sri Lanka today is a country that is enjoying the benefits of peace. For three decades, the people of this country suffered immensely as a result of terrorist activities. The LTTE’s defeat in May 2009 has set the stage for a national revival that should enable Sri Lanka to become one of the leading countries in Asia. Professionals have a critical role to play in this national endeavour.
At the same time, it is extremely important that as professionals, all of you are aware of the challenges facing this nation.
Although we are enjoying the benefits of peace at the moment, we must take care not to be complacent. Sri Lanka still has enemies, and they still work towards bringing disharmony and conflict to this nation. They pose a challenge that we must all work together to overcome. Being informed and aware of the exact situation is the first step towards confronting it.
Despite the defeat of the LTTE’s military organisation in Sri Lanka two and a half years ago, the rump of its international establishment is still active in various parts of the world. There are ex-LTTE cadre, pro-LTTE activists and LTTE sympathisers operating in various guises in various countries.
Some of them claim to be working within the democratic framework. Others claim to be rights activists. Some are militant in their outlook. Whatever appearance they adopt, their intention is to roll back the hard-won peace and drive Sri Lanka once again into conflict.
To understand why these groups are such a threat, we need to understand the electoral politics of Western nations. The stances governments adopt are a consequence of their internal politics.
There is a large Tamil population in several countries, especially Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and many parts of Europe. Even though the number of radicalised elements within that population is quite small, they are politically very active and have a very focused agenda.
There have been a number of local politicians, State officials and even parliamentarians in foreign nations appointed due to the voting power of such minority groups. As a result, the issues these activists project tend to become political issues that are taken seriously.
That is why the various allegations levelled against Sri Lanka are pursued with such persistence, despite clear evidence of their absurdity.
The sympathy afforded to the extremists due to political pressures is only one dimension of the problem. It should be understood that the global network of the LTTE had a lot of funds at its disposal. It is still influential with powerful elements within foreign nations. In particular, certain supposedly reputable media outfits have become nothing less than propagandists for the LTTE cause. The portrayal of active LTTE cadre as neutral observers of the Humanitarian Operation, which both Channel 4 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have been guilty of, is a clear sign of this bias.
In addition to the media, certain Human Rights organisations also seem to have been co-opted by radical elements. These groups not only lobby foreign governments, they also try to influence multilateral organisations.
These activities fuelled by the rump of the LTTE are a serious problem to Sri Lanka. They may create an enabling environment for future terrorist activities. We must be vigilant against these problems and work to maintain the peace that has been won after so much sacrifice and hardship.
As professionals, you must be aware of the geopolitical situation in this part of the world. The region between the Horn of Africa and the Pacific is becoming increasingly important in the spheres of global economics, politics and military activities.
Sri Lanka is situated in a unique geographical position within this important region. That has focused the attention of many global powers on this nation. They are all keen to have a Sri Lanka that is favourable to them. That is another reason why our internal affairs are being increasingly discussed in the global context, and another reason for the pressures faced by the Government.
One common misconception about Sri Lanka’s foreign relations is the influence that China is supposed to have on this country. It needs to be understood that China is becoming one of the most active and influential countries in the global context because of its vast economic strength.
It has economic ties with a large number of countries all over the world. Sri Lanka is one of them. China is active here in commercial and economic development activities. That is the nature of its influence and it is important not to misunderstand this.
Achieving economic development is one of the key ambitions of the Government of Sri Lanka. This country must utilise the opportunity afforded by peace to achieve both development and national reconciliation. That is the best way to ensure that the benefits of peace flow to all Sri Lankans. It is also the best possible answer to those who criticise us, and the best defence against those who seek to create new problems in our society
Since the end of the Humanitarian Operation, the Government has done a great deal of work towards achieving these objectives. Particular attention was paid to the North, where there were several issues that needed to be addressed urgently.
The most pressing issue was resettling the 294,000 displaced people who had served as the LTTE’s human shield. The areas they were displaced from had been mined heavily by the LTTE. Demining these areas quickly was vital, and I am happy to say it was carried out at an unprecedented pace. The Sri Lanka Army did the bulk of the work while Non Governmental Organisations and foreign agencies provided a lot of assistance.
As demining progressed, reconstruction of villages and resettlement of displaced people took place. Most of the demining work is now complete and there are less than 3,000 remaining in camps today.
Another critical issue the Government faced involved the 11,000 former LTTE cadre who surrendered or were detained by the military during the course of the Humanitarian Operation.
Among them were 595 child soldiers who were rehabilitated under a program supported by UNICEF and reunited with their families within one year.
The vast majority of the adult cadre also underwent extensive rehabilitation program. Most of them have now been reintegrated with society.
A small number of cadre with known higher-level involvement in LTTE activities have been identified for prosecution. Today, less than 700 ex-LTTE cadre remain in Government custody.
Despite the involvement all the surrenders and detainees had in criminal and terrorist activities in many parts of Sri Lanka, the Government took a bold decision to rehabilitate and reintegrate them to society quickly. This is a commendable decision that speaks volumes for the Government’s commitment to reconciliation.
It should be noted that such generosity has not been shown to captured combatants in most other parts of the world. Neither in Afghanistan nor Iraq nor in any other recent conflict have such combatants been rehabilitated and reintegrated with such speed.
Unfortunately, some sections of the international community tend to ignore this fact, and continue to criticise the Government on such issues.
In addition to demining, resettlement and rehabilitation, the Government has also provided numerous forms of assistance to help citizens in the North return to their normal lives.
Infrastructure development has been expedited. Programs are under way to develop roads, rail, electricity, and irrigation. Support has been given for the restoration of livelihoods. This includes concessionary financing being extended for farming, fishing, and business activities.
Through all these means, the Government is working hard to restore normalcy to those civilians who suffered for so many years because of the LTTE’s dominance in those areas.
One of the most important gains resulting from peace has been the restoration of democratic elections to every part of Sri Lanka. Local authority elections, provincial council elections, a Presidential election and a General election have all been held over the past two years.
In the North, people exercised their franchise without fear for the first time in three decades. That electoral transparency and political plurality have returned to these areas is clear from the results of these elections. This is a significant achievement for a region that was for so long under a virtual dictatorship.
Another key benefit of peace is the ongoing revival of the economy, with increases in foreign and domestic investment, increasing tourist arrivals, and improved agricultural output. Perhaps more than anything else, the palpable sense of peace, freedom and stability that all Sri Lankans enjoy, shows how beneficial the success of the Humanitarian Operation was for the country at large.
Despite all these achievements since the restoration of peace, the LTTE cadre, activists and sympathisers in foreign nations do their best to portray a bleak picture about Sri Lanka today. Unfortunately, their efforts to discredit Sri Lanka’s progress are sometimes helped by individuals and groups within Sri Lanka whose actions are governed by petty politics. Ignoring the greater context, they ignore or criticise the progress being achieved because of their personal or partisan agendas. This is extremely unfortunate.
No matter what disagreements anyone has with the Government’s policies, constructive engagement is what is needed, rather than actions that can have a serious impact on the country.
The true value of democracy is that engagement is always possible. The Government always has to listen to the voice of the people. Unlike in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, in which people took to the streets to change the Government, Sri Lanka is a working democracy.
As with any democracy, if the people wish to change the Government, they can do so without any problem at the polling booth. Of course, there can always be things people disagree with, but such disagreement is healthy and the normal political process will sort things out. Our democracy is robust. Any group or person trying to resort to non-democratic means should be resisted and rejected. We must not let this country be taken back to the state it was in during the past 30 years.
As a nation, Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of suffering. We must all work together to put the past behind us, and work towards a brighter future for this nation and all her people. In this context, I hope that all professionals will contribute to the national cause by putting aside whatever personal or political differences they may have and work together for the future. We must understand that the peace we enjoy is a window of opportunity for all of us to take this country forward. Let us use that opportunity, and create a better future for all Sri Lankans.
(Text of speech delivered by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the induction ceremony of the Organisation of Professional Associations)