Sri Lanka future hub of Indian Ocean rim?
Below is an interview with Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleke published in the French Diplomatic Review – La Lettre Diplomatique (The Diplomatic Letter)
Two years after the end of a three decades conflict, the lifting of the emergency rule in late August 2011 confirmed the beginning of a new era for Sri Lanka. With the recent discovery of gas fields off its coast, its future looks bright. H.E. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to France, tells us about the opportunities of this renewal for the country’s development and the assets of its strategic positioning at the heart of the Indian Ocean rim.
The Diplomatic Letter: Mister Ambassador, on 26 August 2011 the Sri Lankan government announced it was lifting the state of emergency, nearly three decades after the start of the conflict with the LTTE Tamil separatists. Could you talk to us about the new era of development and stability dawning for your country?
H.E. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka: First of all, thank you very much for this opportunity. Despite the fact we’ve always had democratically elected governments, my generation grew up under the state of emergency. In fact, it was adopted before the beginning of the secessionist war. It lasted 1,000 days under the liberal center-right government in 1965-1970, when there were many militant strikes and student unrest. Then, in response to the youth armed uprising in 1971, the center-left administration of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike declared a very long emergency that lasted almost six years.
T.D.L.: After his reelection on 26 January 2010, President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed a “Reconciliation and Lessons Learnt Commission.” What do you hope to see come out of the commission’s work? How do you respond to the criticism, emanating mainly from the United States and the European Union, over human rights violations during the military operations against the LTTE?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: The Reconciliation and Lessons Learnt Commission’s Report has been released in mid-November. I must say that it has held open and public hearings everywhere in the country, including in the former war zones. Of course, it is not possible to listen to everybody who wants to address the Commission, but even war widows of Tiger fighters have testified. Some of these testimonies were quite critical of the armed forces. All of this process has been transparent and reported in the newspapers.
About the criticism, allow me to underscore in the first place that there has been no criticism issued by the United Nations, neither by the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, or the UN Human Rights Council, to which I was Sri Lanka ‘s Ambassador at the time of the war.
In fact, this very critical report was issued by an advisory panel composed of three experts nominated by the UN Secretary General. It was mandated to advise on norms and standards of accountability in relation to the last stages of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. Instead of limiting itself to what it was appointed to do, this panel came up with a very large report, which is what I called a virtual investigation without ever visiting Sri Lanka. Therefore, we do not consider it a UN report. Our relationship with the UN remains very good. Besides, we have issued an exhaustive contrary report and made a documentary on this criticism.
T.D.L.: Could you share your thoughts with our readers on the Tamil demand for greater autonomy?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: The LTTE’s armed struggle was waged under the slogan of «an independent Tamil state». It was a secessionist project. But not all the Tamil opinion was or is secessionist. I would agree with you that the majority of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and overseas seeks a greater degree of autonomy.
In principle, the Sri Lankan State has no problem with that. No Sri Lankan government has said that we shall not discuss degrees of autonomy, or has even prohibited discussion of federalism. But of course public opinion in Sri Lanka, as in France or in the United Kingdom, is not for federalism. The majority according to public opinion polls does want greater autonomy for the provinces within a strong central State. This appears to be also a particular aspect of Sri Lanka’s political culture. Thus, what we can discuss is if there are feasible solutions and a certain degree of power devolution or power sharing.
The 13th amendment to the Constitution could not really be activated because of the presence of the Tigers in those areas and because of the opposition to political autonomy. I was myself the Minister of Planning and Youth of the Provincial Council of the Northeast in 1998. I can testify that it could not function because the Tigers were fighting against the Provincial Council.
Today, two years after the war, the discussion is about the reactivation of this Council. But from the perspective of the majority of the country’s population, there are some questions marks concerning the degree of moderation of the leading parliamentary party of the Tamil of the North, The Tamil National Allies (TNA). It has not yet stated that it accepts this 13th amendment to the Constitution as even the baseline of discussion. Furthermore, it has not yet criticized the LTTE’s actions.
I think that we have chosen to guarantee the strength of Sri Lanka’s democracy. Soon after such a long war, elections were held twice in the Northeast. The TNA emerged as a local preeminent party at the parliamentary elections, and then at the municipal elections recently held. But it is also true that its degree of popularity is no way as high as the degree of popularity of the governing party in the rest of the country.
T.D.L.: A large-scale reconstruction plan, with a budget estimated at over USD 2.5 billion, has been launched in conflict zones in northern Sri Lanka. Could you describe some of the main infrastructure projects included in this plan?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: The Sri Lankan government is not waiting for the reconciliation process to be completed before it moves on the issues of reconstruction and rehabilitation of the areas affected by the conflict. Many social scientists think economic prosperity can solve the political problem. This is not true, because there is a problem of identity.
Meanwhile, the economic reconstruction remains a goal in itself, because some regions have lagged behind the rest of the country for so long. The government has concentrated on major infrastructure because it believes that once the electricity is back, and the roads are repaired, then private companies will come back and invest. This is what is being done.
H.E. Dr. D.J.: With the end of the conflict, there has been a massive increase in agriculture production and fishing. These economic sectors have been the most important in the Northeast. The East, for instance, is a particularly fertile region where is rice produced, which is as you know the staple food in the country. It is true that the regeneration of activity in those areas is very helpful to the South, because it allowed rice production to increase and prices to reduce. But a lot must to be done, because there was a lot of destruction. We also need more fishermen and equipment.
Tourism is the third sector with great potential. It is more developed in the East than in the Northern part of the country, with several excellent beaches and
well-known surfing competitions. In Jaffna, tourism has been mostly domestic, bringing prosperity thanks to the large number of retail shops. Now there are opportunities to foster major tourist inflows from overseas. The Army has to keep a heavy presence there. This situation cannot continue for long. The functions that it has to fulfill at the civic and administrative levels will be rolled back gradually as local capacity is developed.
It is true that besides tourism, cricket is also one of the things we are known to do well. More seriously, we have a very large and highly qualified workforce in accountancy and literate in the English language. It attracts a lot of outsourcing activities in Sri Lanka, making obvious the importance of this intangible resource, because quite a lot of what is going on in the IT sector is related to this brain industry.
More than that, Sri Lanka retains the great and irreversible advantage from is its location. We are positioned very strategically, not only in terms of military strategy, but also in economic terms, as a kind of gateway to Far East Asia and now on the doorstep of South Asia.
T.D.L.: Sri Lanka is looking to capitalize on its strategic location at the crossroads of the globe’s most important maritime trading routes, with projects like the new port in Hambantota. Is expanded economic cooperation with China helping advance things in this arena? How do you account for your country’s relatively weak trade with its European and American partners?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: The American strategic scholar Robert D. Kaplan wrote a very thick chapter on Sri Lanka in his recent book, called Monsoon. He says that in this new period of history, the Indian Ocean Rim is going to be the epicenter of the world, positioning Sri Lanka at the center of it. It is maybe too flattering, but I think that our country has a lot of potential and also attracts a lot of attention.
It is true that China has become our major economic support. The biggest Chinese investments concern is actually the southern port that you mention in your question. Nevertheless, it is a matter of record that Sri Lanka offered it first to India, which is not only our neighbor; it is our relative as our President has said. For whatever reason, India was not ready to make that kind of investment. But we have excellent relations with both India and China.
T.D.L.: In light of its participation in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), what approach does Sri Lanka advocate for battling piracy and ensuring maritime security? Could heightened naval cooperation be another way to strengthen Franco-Sri Lankan ties?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: Sri Lanka is very active in its stance. Its contribution to maritime security has been recognized by militaries all over the world. Recently joint exercises were held in Sri Lanka’s harbor bases, together with units from US and Asian countries.
It is the consequence of the real challenge raised by the Sea Tigers. It was probably the best-organized irregular navy that you can call a pirate navy. The Sri Lankan Navy had to develop tactics to obliterate them. To tell you how serious this was, the leader of the “Black Sea Tigers” didn’t hesitate to boast about the superiority of their tactics compared to Al Qaïda’s one, during an interview on a BBC World Today program.
So the navies of the world, including French, have all had warm relations with our Navy and they recognize the value of our capabilities. Recently, the Sri Lanka Navy held its symposium on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of its founding, which was attended by navies from all over the world.
Concerning cooperation with France, I hope it will be intensified in maritime security issues. Sri Lanka is completely open to it and I think it would be mutually valuable.
T.D.L.: The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding in 2010. Could you outline this group’s regional cooperation priorities, on the eve of the summit set for the Maldives in November 2011?
H.E.Dr D.J.: SAARC is an underperforming regional organization, if you consider South Asia’s tremendous potential. For Sri Lanka, priorities of regional integration would economic, but also counter terrorism and people-to-people soft power exchanges. Economic because it makes absolute sense if we take the process already ongoing in the Far East. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a wonderful example, and there are many other organizations.
In South Asia, the process of regional integration has been slow because of the asymmetries between India and its neighbors. This cooperation should be accelerated. There is much that we can learn from European Union, but more especially from ASEAN. However, we have been working on closer cooperation on terrorism and there was an acceleration of SAARC’s legislation on this theme.
One other thing that seems to be moving further is people to people interaction. We can envisage a common civil society space for the region. For instance, a regional university is going to be launched soon in India. For its part, Sri Lanka has been very open to a common space to facilitate exchanges at every level: students, journalists and artists.
SAARC is a common civilizational area. So if we cannot fast track economic integration, maybe we can do it in some other way, to harness the talents in this region. I think the leaders and the elites of SAARC are beginning to realize that if South Asia does not operate as a regional space, each one of us would be looking more to East Asia.
That has begun to happen, also on the part of India, which has a “look East” policy. But I think there is an alternative because of the IT revolution. The growing interactivity among the youth of the region produces a kind of pressure from below in society.
We also have to take into account that there are problems more pressing than before, like climate change or management of natural resources (for instance
water). But I don’t see SAARC backsliding. The only challenge is whether we will catch up with our potential, as in the case of Sri Lanka. Former Pakistani Finance Minister and former Vice-President of the World Bank Javed Burki used to say two important things. First that an economic take-off for each of us in South Asia would occur with regional integration.
Second, to actualize that potential, South Asia has to be ready to leave the past behind.
Our societies and public opinions tend to be dominated by the past. But if we can move to a mentality that is looking to the future, then we will be able to actualize the tremendous potential of South Asia.
T.D.L.: Afghanistan has been a member of SAARC since 2007. Are you concerned about the withdrawal of NATO troops from that country, and its impact on the region? What role could SAARC play in this process?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: About Afghanistan, let me tell you what General Petraeus told me when I met him during the Academic Diplomatic seminar in Singapore. I pointed out that when the United States was planning to withdraw from Vietnam, the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conceptualized and implemented a full architecture of the problem, which included a détente with the Soviet Union and the dramatic opening to China. Though of course this strategy did not fully succeed, it still was a very cerebral and very practical strategy.
Today, to succeed in a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States needs the cooperation of a number of stake holders in this crisis: Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India. Of these stake holders, India is the only one to have a successful partnership with United States. Every one of the other relationships has its ups and downs, and some of them have real problems, such as Iran. Thus, the United States does not have a comparable foreign policy architecture as for Vietnam, in which stakeholders would have an incentive to connect themselves to find a constructive solution and thus facilitate the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the withdrawal itself implies other effects. For the Taliban, it means that they only have to hold on for longer. The withdrawal could be projected as yet another victory for fundamentalist Islamism. This will have a demonstration effect everywhere in the world. But, of course, the United States cannot stay there indefinitely either. So it is really caught in a strategic dilemma.
SAARC will certainly feel the impact of whatever happens in Afghanistan, not only because it is a member, but because there are obvious reasons. It could have a possible blow back on Pakistan and also in Indo-Pakistani relations. At the moment, SAARC has not been engaged by United States as SAARC, in order to discuss this. Perhaps it should engage SAARC, at least in the discussion on the future of Afghanistan.
T.D.L.: Sri Lanka has been very active on the international diplomatic stage, for instance by becoming a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Would your country like to become a full-fledged member of the SCO?
H.E. Dr. D.J.:Sri Lanka is a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Belgrade in September 2011. The aim of the NAM has been to work towards a more multi-polar world order. Our country continues to work towards
this goal, particularly through organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was not so long ago the Shanghai 5 and we value the BRIC group, which became the BRICS with the inclusion of South Africa.
Now there are so many people interested in participating in the SCO at various levels. India is maybe more engaged, as an observer member. This is a process that Sri Lanka welcomes. I cannot tell you whether we should upgrade our level of participation, but I would say that there is a real convergence in terms of strategic perspectives, as SCO has identified terrorism, extremism and separatism as major threats.
T.D.L.: Your country took over the presidency of the G-15 group from Iran, and will host the developing countries’ next summit in 2012. What do you see as the greatest security stakes at this time, especially with regard to nuclear nonproliferation?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: I was also Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the conference on disarmament. I think that on the issue of nuclear proliferation, there is an asymmetry of perception that has to be bridged. The West is very concerned about the issue of nonproliferation; to the point it wishes this issue is almost a ‘stand alone’ issue.
But for many developing countries, but also midlevel powers, the so-called new pivotal powers, the issue of non proliferation has to be linked with the issue of general nuclear disarmament. And some initiatives have been taken in this direction by President Obama. That means establishing a co-operation between United States and Russia. But perhaps for political reasons, this momentum was now slowed. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a real breakthrough without a new global security architecture which is more balanced. What won’t work, or could have very dangerous consequences, is any kind of unilateral military moves by any power in any region.
T.D.L.: The launch the water plant’s modernization in Kantale in April 2011 shows the potential of cooperation between Sri Lanka and France. Taking into account the recent reactivation of the France-Sri Lanka Business Council, in which other areas the ties between the two countries synergies could be intensify?
H.E. Dr. D.J.: In October 2011, the Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs, Pr G.L. Peiris had a meeting in Paris with his counterpart Mr. Alain Juppé and also others personalities. They have discussed the full spectrum of Sri Lanka’s relations with France.
Yes we value both the France-Sri Lanka Business Council but also its counterpart Sri Lanka-France Business Council, based in Colombo. We hope to intensify our cooperation and our commercial exchanges because the possibilities are quiet attractive. This is true not only in terms of economics but also in terms of culture and intellectual interaction. There is a lot that we can learn from France.
There is a paradox because my generation and the generation of my parents grew with a much greater understanding of France’s intellectual contribution. We were very familiar with Truffaut, Tavernier or French actors like Alain Delon. I grew up at a time Andre Malraux visited Sri Lanka on its way to the East and in a cultural atmosphere when France was very important in every aspect. In my last book, I included a chapter on a debate between two of the greatest French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, despite globalization the youngest generation in Sri Lanka is less aware about French culture. The reason is that the profile of France has now been channeled through the European Union. In the past, there was also a specific commitment of France to countries like Sri Lanka through French teachers in schools and universities. Now it is much less. I want to try to change that.
I want to do everything possible to raise quality of interaction between our two societies not only our two States. Sri Lanka has always been open and I invite my friends here in France to step in.
December 30, 2011
La Lettre Diplomatique was founded in 1988. The review carries interviews of key actors in the world of diplomacy and international relations. Its articles present the insights and prognoses of experts who keep close watch on the fast-changing geopolitical and strategic landscape, and carefully analyze the stakes of globalization. Also featured in the current edition are reports on Russia, Tanzania, El Salvador and Kosovo. The report on Sri Lanka carries an interview of Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka on questions of reconciliation, autonomy, development plan in conflict areas, economic growth and maritime security. Mrs. Nirmala Samaratunga, President of the Sri Lanka-France Business Council and Mr. Hervé Mascarau, Cultural Counsellor of the French Embassy in Sri Lanka, also participated in the report. They respectively introduced the country’s socio-economic realities and prospects and the cultural ties between Sri Lanka and France.