Sri Lanka’s experience and its lessons for the world

(Address delivered at the china Institute of international Studies, Beijing, on 12th August 2010 by Professor G. L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs (Prof. Peiris was elected a Distinguished Fellow of The Institute.)

by Prof. G.L. Peiris
Minister of External Affairs

(August 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) First of all, let me express my warm appreciation of the honour that you have bestowed on me, by inviting me to come here, to the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing and to share some thoughts with you on a subject which is of importance, not only to Sri Lanka, but to many countries, which have had to deal with the problem of terrorism in recent years.

Sri Lanka, at the time we received Independence from the British in 1948, was regarded as a model for economic development in the whole Commonwealth. We were so described as by no less a figure than Li Kwan Yu, the architect of modern Singapore, in his famous autobiography "The Singapore Story : From Third World to First". In that book he says that in the early years, in his public speeches, he used to ask the question, why cannot Singapore develop like Ceylon, as the country was then called?

In the late 40s and the early 50s Ceylon had the highest per capita income in South Asia. We were ahead of Malaya, ahead of Thailand, ahead of Korea and we were just a few dollars behind Japan.

What held us back thereafter was one problem, and that was the problem of terrorism. As a Minister who has been involved in Government since 1994 - that is a long time; 16 years - I am personally aware that, whatever we tried to do during that period, however hard we tried, however pragmatic our policies were, there was a point beyond which we could not succeed, with regard to investment, with regard to trade or tourism because of the violence in the country.

The difference now is that this constraint has been consigned to the past, our country has been able to eradicate terrorism. It might seem to you, and indeed it is, a singular achievement. It is, therefore, worth pausing to reflect for a moment on how this became possible, because the gloomy prophesy that we heard all too often from the international community, was that it was simply not possible to prevail against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the field of battle.

We were told, no doubt with good intentions, by countries which had a whole reservoir of military expertise, that terrorism could not be defeated militarily. The experience of Sri Lanka demonstrates the contrary, so the question is, how was it possible for a small country with very limited resources, with a small army, navy and air force to succeed, where other larger countries with far more substantial resources at their command, failed? What is the explanation of this remarkable phenomenon?

I think there are certain lessons of universal validity which can be learnt from the contemporary Sri Lankan experience. One of the most important lessons is that, if you are to succeed in an endeavour of this kind, the effort has to be made by the country itself. There is no way that you can call in the armies of another country. However well meaning and well disposed that other country may be, it simply does not work on the ground because, directly you have the armies of another country fighting with a terrorist group within your own shores, what inevitably happens is that the population of your country tends to rally round, in support of the terrorist group against a foreign army that is seen as an invading force. Consequently, the first lesson is that, it is your own military that has to be entrusted with the responsibly of overcoming terrorism, of course with assistance from your friends. But it is the army of your own country that has to be in the driving seat.

I think that is the first lesson to be learnt from the Sri Lankan experience; also, I think the explanation of what occurred in Sri Lanka is multi-faceted. There is no single cause that you can attribute to what was accomplished in Sri Lanka. There were many components, many factors which contributed to this overall result. One was, determined and resolute political leadership. Of course you need competence, determination in the armed forces. We have that, and we are justly proud of it. But Sri Lanka had that previously as well. How did it make a difference this time? We always had very competent, very dedicated Generals, but how is it that Generals had failed in the past, on this particular occasion, we were rewarded with success. A substantial part of the answer consists of dynamic political leadership. We had an inspiring political leader in President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was able to unite the whole country and galvanize the nation into firm action against this ruthless terrorist group.

It would also be a mistake to underestimate the role of foreign policy. However competent our army, navy and air force had been and however substantial the resources which the government placed at the disposal of the armed forces to purchase the equipment that is necessary to win the war, nevertheless, we would not have achieved our objective, had we not been able to handle our foreign relations with skill and dexterity. That is exactly what the Government of Sri Lanka was able to do.

For example, at the height of the war, a Parliamentary election was taking place in India. There are 41 members of the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, who are elected from Tamil Nadu. Consequently, Tamil Nadu has very considerable influence with the Government at the Centre, in New Delhi. Therefore, at the height of hostilities, the Government of India did have a problem. They must be seen to be adopting very firm action in support of Tamil Nadu. So if the war in Sri Lanka were to proceed unabated, then there would be a sense of disillusionment in Tamil Nadu which would be reflected in the results at the Parliamentary election. Indeed, at that time, the Government of India sent a high-powered delegation to Sri Lanka to have discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and to bring pressure to bear upon him to stop the war, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to handle that situation.

There were other occasions in the past, for example during the time of President J.R. Jayewardene, when the army of Sri Lanka was poised for victory, but the war was aborted, it was brought to a standstill because of the intervention of India. India intervened, and said the war must stop, otherwise India would consider intervening directly. On this occasion, President Rajapaksa was able to avert that outcome. He was able to prevent that from happening by resorting to skilful diplomacy. He engaged in discussions with the Government of India led by Dr. Manmohan Singh and he explained why it was not possible to stop the war and that it was wrong morally for India to exert such pressure, and President Rajapaksa was able to arrive at a practical understanding with the Government of India which was fair to both sides. That is, President Rajapaksa gave the promise that he would refrain from using heavy weaponry, there was a no fire zone that was created in the final stages of the war for the sake of protecting civilian lives, arrangements of this kind were made to the satisfaction of the Indian Government to ensure that they did not exert pressure to bring the war to a total standstill or halt. The conduct of foreign relations, then, became a very important factor in the ultimate result that was achieved.

It is also a fact, Mr. Chairman, that in any war you don’t win all battles, you win some, you lose others. In that situation, it is only natural that over time - and this was a war which spanned the better part of two decades - there would be ups and downs in popular sentiments. President Rajapaksa was able to handle public opinion in such a way as to prevent despair and despondency. People did not lose heart. He was able to manage public opinion within the country, just as he was able to manage the conduct of foreign policy with finesse.

We are now in a position to exploit to the full the natural advantages of the Island which are many, in terms of its geographical location just off the Southern tip of India on the major sea lanes of the world, we have a very fertile soil. Most of all, we have a uniquely high calibre of human resources. No other South Asian country can claim 96% literacy among its population. So we have all these advantages, but as I said, for this long period, we were not able to use those advantages to propel the economy of the country forward because of the problem of terrorism. Now the situation is different.

I had a long and fruitful, a very friendly meeting with the Foreign Minister of China. He agreed with me that today we are at the crossroads. Today Sri Lanka is in a position to make use of the circumstances that have now arisen, to achieve accelerated economic and social development. That is the challenge, and world history indicates that the challenges of peace are sometimes no less daunting than the challenges of war. Today the need of the hour is to utilize the full potential of the country which has been released after two decades of sustained military conflict.

Those of you who are familiar with Sri Lanka - and Mr. Chairman said he had been to our country in 2005 and 2007 – are aware that there was anxiety in the hearts and minds of the people at that time. They were very worried, wondering when would the next bomb go off. If I might mention something on a personal note, I was myself very seriously injured in a bomb blast, in December 1999. That was the final election rally of the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. A bomb exploded and I still carry shrapnel in my lung, now that was by no means an unusual experience at that time. Many people in public life in Sri Lanka did suffer very grave injuries, and some lost their lives, as a result of the violence that was perpetrated in our country. In fact, at that time typically, if a family had to travel using public transport, it would be very unusual for husband and wife to travel together by bus or by train. The mother would go by bus and the father would go by train because they wanted to make certain that, if one of them was killed, at least there would be one parent living to look after the child.I say this to indicate to you what the mindset of the public was at that time. When the husband went to work in the morning or the child went to school, there was no assurance that they would come home unharmed or indeed alive, in the evening. There was so much uncertainty.

But if you go to Colombo right now, as your Excellency, Madam Yang Xuping, Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka would no doubt testify, the situation is very different. When you look at people’s faces, they are smiling, they are happy and there is no tension within them. They are living their lives with a sense of purpose and satisfaction without stress. That is where we are now, and how do you make maximum use of such a situation?

President Rajapaksa has repeatedly emphasized in his public speeches that this is not an occasion for exultation or for rejoicing. Rather, it is a time for renewed commitment to economic development. President Rajapaksa considers it crucial to determine his priorities. There is so much to be done. Where do you begin, and what are the other things that you need to address as you go along? The answers are very clear. In the minds of the Government of Sri Lanka, the first priority relates to the humanitarian concerns revolving round the large numbers of people who have been displaced from their homes as a result of this sustained conflict. We began with the number, as Your Excellency would be aware, of 297,000, almost 300,000 and now it is down to 34,000. There are very few situations anywhere in the world, where within a short period of one year, so much has been accomplished with regard to the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons.

In the former Yugoslavia, the process in a sense is still going on. In Sri Lanka within one year, we have made very substantial progress in getting to grips with this problem. Of course, other Governments have helped. Your own government, the Government of China, has helped us with demining. You have sent us pre-fabricated housing. All that has been done by the Government of China.

This is one part of it – resettlement, but the Government of Sri Lanka is firmly convinced that this is not a matter of mere physical relocation.

It is our responsibility to ensure that these people are relocated in an environment that is pervaded by economic satisfaction. In other words, people who are relocated must have access to sufficient incomes, so that they can live their lives with dignity and self respect, without being a burden on society and without being angry, bitter, indignant individuals. This means that you have to revive the economy of those parts of the country which have been ravaged by a ferocious conflict. What does that mean? It means that you have to open factories and commercial establishments which would create employment opportunities. Therefore, the Government of Sri Lanka had to work in partnership with the private sector, and some of our leading companies have established branches, factories there, so that thousands of people – some of them, women who have become bread winners in their families, widows of the people killed in the war - have found employment in these factories, and they are now able to resume their lives with a reasonable measure of contentment and welbeing. This is the economic side.

The third prong of our strategy is the political element, you have the humanitarian element and economic element, and no less important than either of these is the political part of the process. This is a lesson that applies equally to many other situations of this kind, that the terrorist groups kill more minority leaders than leaders of the majority community. In Sri Lanka, they annihilated an appreciable segment of the legitimate democratic leadership of the Tamil community.

When I went to the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship to read for my Doctorate, a very close friend of mine, who became a renowned intellectual, particularly in the USA, went off to Harvard University on a Fulbright scholarship to continue his postgraduate studies in Law. He was brutally killed by the LTTE, when he was a member of Parliament and contributing very imaginatively and productively to the peace process. This leaves the Government with a very fundamental problem, because there is a lacuna which has been created by the physical elimination of the elected Tamil leadership.

The problem is, as you address substantive issues connected with the devolution of power or power sharing, whom do you engage with? Who are the legitimate interlocators on the other side, especially at the grassroots level?

President Rajapaksa does not believe for a one moment that a military victory, by itself, will provide us with a durable and lasting solution. I would say a military victory is a necessary condition, but Mr. Chairman, it is by no means a sufficient condition. There must be other requirements to be satisfied. In other words, a military solution has to be supplemented by political initiatives. That means that you must put in place arrangements for redistribution of power, empowerment of minority communities, all of which would require vigorous consultation with minority groups. You have to talk to them. It cannot be a top down solution. You cannot decide unilaterally and impose that decision on all communities in the country. It must emanate spontaneously from all the groups that inhabit the Island. How can you do this adequately, if a substantial part of the leadership of the minority community has been physically wiped out? This is a problem that has to be addressed at the threshold, before you start a substantive process.

This means we have to hold elections. We have now done that. That was not possible all these years, because of the violence that was generated by the terrorist groups. We have now been able to hold elections, starting with the grassroots institutions, the local government authorities. We started in the Eastern Province, and it is a matter for deep satisfaction to the Government of Sri Lanka that a guerrilla, somebody who had taken up arms and been part of the LTTE fighting machine, was elected by the free votes of the Tamil people, and today holds the position of Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. He has made this transformation with the full support of the people he represents. That itself was by no means a trivial achievement, to be able to hold elections in an environment that is not pervaded by duress or intimidation. In other words, we held free and fair elections which have enabled the Tamil community to elect representatives of their choice, to negotiate with the government in power. They can tell the government in power, these are the arrangements that we would like you to put in place in order to bring about a viable solution. These are the different elements of the equation, and what we have done is a combination of all that.

There is another matter which I discussed in some detail with the Foreign Minister of China, and I was very encouraged to note that he was fully in sympathy with the view that I expressed, which was basically this. When you deal with situations of this kind, it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel, other cultures, other countries have had to deal with similar problems. By all means, we should look at successful experiences elsewhere. However, it is not possible mechanically to transplant into your own environment solutions which had worked well elsewhere, because no two situations are identical. You have to adapt successful solutions elsewhere, to suit the combination of circumstances in your own country. There is no size that fits everybody. There is no universal prescription for problems of this kind. We have to recognize that there are many paths, not just one path, to the summit of a mountain. A particular solution that is suitable for your own country, is determined by many factors such as one’s own history and culture, the social and economic institutions in one’s own country, the cultural mindset of people, their practices, customs, beliefs and value systems. The nuances of the local situation are of critical importance in determining the nature of the solution that is suited for one’s own country.

As I speak to you today, I am happy to tell you that, 24 hours ago, a particular institution that was created by the President of Sri Lanka had its first public meeting. I refer to an institution known as the "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission". Since we are talking of global terrorism and the lessons to be learnt from the Sri Lankan experience, I would emphasize this particular element. At the end of such a long and hard fought conflict, it is inevitable, regrettable though it is, that there would be pain and anguish in the hearts and minds of people.

In the post conflict stage, it is vital to move the country rapidly towards reunification and emphasis on a national identity. If you take South Asia, one of the basic policy dilemmas of South Asia is to answer a fundamental question. How do you reconcile ethnic and cultural pluralism with the concept of mature nationhood? This is a problem that not only Sri Lanka but every nation in South Asia has had to consider in earnest. To put it simply, what are the economic and social structures that you need to create in order to enable people speaking different languages, professing different religions, coming from different cultural backgrounds to feel at home, in one country, without any sense of exclusion? That is very important.

The conflict is over and you try to remove the pain in the hearts and minds of people by setting in motion a healing process, a process of rapprochement. Other countries in similar situations have had to experiment with this. One of the best known experiments is that of South Africa, which established the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" with which the name of Nobel Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is indelibly associated. How do you so arrange matters as to address the root causes of the problem and embark on a sincere and genuine search for pragmatic solutions that would enable you to remove these scars from the hearts and minds of people and to put this painful experience behind them? If you lost your child and your husband, that is an irreparable loss. No sum of money can compensate you, no apology, however sincere can offer you full redress, but how do you create an environment in which it is possible to come to terms with reality, pick up the pieces and get on with life, as well as one could in those very difficult circumstances? That is the Commission that Sri Lanka appointed, the Commission which began its sittings yesterday. Its sittings will not be confined to the capital city of Colombo, but they will be held in parts of the North, in Vavuniya and Killinochchi which were the areas, most seriously affected by the war. This is an initiative that is very much underway in Sri Lanka.

There is another lesson that the international community needs to recognize, and I put this in as compelling a manner as I could. I found the Foreign Minister of China in agreement with what I said on this point. The international community can help, but there should not be judgmental postures. The international community or a section of it is not entitled say, this is the prescription. This is what you must do and we insist you to do this. If you do not do this, we will take away trade concessions from you. We will cut off access for your commodities from the markets of the developed world. Such a policy is, by definition, self-defeating and counterproductive because the brunt of it would be borne not by the government in power but by the most vulnerable sections of the community, the poorest people.

The Government of Sri Lanka firmly believes that there is a significant co-relation between political innovation and economic welbeing. We want to put in place innovative political arrangements. The President of Sri Lanka has already begun negotiations with the leaders of Tamil political parties. He met the leader of Tamil National Alliance on two occasions. We are trying to formulate practical arrangements which will satisfy the minorities. But history demonstrates beyond doubt that , with changes of this kind, you are swimming against the tide, in the sense that people are not accustomed to these changes, and often there is intuitive resistance. They want time to get accustomed to these changes which require a re-orientation of one’s traditional mindset and attitudes. Changes of that kind are very difficult to accomplish in a situation of economic adversity. If people are unhappy, poor and unemployed, then, it is that much more difficult to put in place political innovations of the kind I have described. So there is a link between economic wellbeing and political innovation. That is why the Government of Sri Lanka is putting a sharp focus on the development of infrastructure in all parts of the country.

In my meetings with the Vice Premier of China and the Foreign Minister of China I thanked them very sincerely on behalf of the President of Sri Lanka for everything that the Government of China has done to help us in the development of infrastructure. As I speak you today, within 3 days, water will be let into the port of Hambantota in the Southern part of the country and on the 19th of November, the first ship will call at that Port. It is a matter of great satisfaction both to us and to China, because it is China that made this achievement possible.

What we want to do is to make sure that the fruits of economic development are not confined to a small section of the people, that these benefits will be spread all over the country. The Foreign Minister of China told me that the growth rate of the economy of China is approximately 9%. Sri Lanka is also recording an economic growth rate of about 7.1%, as I speak to you today. This is an achievement under difficult conditions which we had to grapple with in the recent past. However, we do not think that there is room for complacency, because we do not want significant disparities between one part of Sri Lanka and another part of Sri Lanka. That is unacceptable. When you talk of economic progress, it must reflect itself in the quality of life of people up and down the country.

Economic development cannot consist of mere statistics or figures, it must means something to people in an everyday sense, it must make their lives richer, better and more meaningful. Otherwise you have the problem of disenchanted youth in particular, youth who may rebel against society. That is why we are particularly appreciative of the contribution the Government of China has made in assisting us with highways. If you ask me, what is the single factor that can bring the fruits of development to the homes of people. I would say roads, highways. That is what would enable the people to enjoy in a practical sense the of fruits of development. China has played a pioneering role in helping to develop our highways, irrigation systems, schools, hospitals. We want to take industry to the villages. When the water level rises, it takes all boats up automatically.

Therefore, if we want incomes to rise, then we have to take industry to the rural hinterland. In order to do that, we have to add substantially to the national grid. The Government of China is assisting appreciably with regard to power facilities. The Government of China is playing a role with regard to that and we have massive infrastructure development all over the country. That is what we regard as one of the essential features of a successful post conflict policy. These are some of the things we are doing.

I will conclude with a few remarks.

We need to look at the situation of our country and decide what is our potential. At the moment Sri Lanka has two twin advantages. One is a durable and lasting peace. The other is an unprecedented degree of political stability, the government in power enjoying almost two thirds support in Parliament. This is reflected in certain concrete manifestations, mainly the unprecedented number of tourists who are visiting our country. This year we expect the largest number of tourists ever on record in Sri Lanka.

Finally, I think the Sri Lankan experience indicates a need to take a critical look at some of the traditional concepts of the current world order. There has been a great deal of discussion in international law about the responsibility of States. What about the responsibility of non-State actors? Today terrorist groups can be much more powerful than governments, because governments are bound by rules and regulatory systems. Terrorists have no rules to comply with at all. Their will is the law. Therefore, I think the international legal system has to focus much more sharply on the imputation of responsibility to non-State actors. How do you hold them responsible for the harm that they inflict on innocent people? You also have to develop remedies in international law, which enable pre-emptive action within the territory of the threatened State before it is too late. You don’t wait till a terrorist group becomes all powerful. The LTTE of Sri Lanka built itself up over a long time, about a quarter of a century. Don’t forget that although they are defeated in the field of battle, they still have immense resources under their control. They have a very sophisticated communications network. They have ships, they have guns, they control media. You don’t have to wait till all this happens before you take action against them. Nations must have the right of self defence within their own territory when there are reasonable grounds for anticipating a threat from a terrorist group.

You do not have to wait until you have proof to offer that the terrorist group has actually inflicted harm. If they are preparing to inflict harm and the evidence is compelling that they are going to reach their target within a short period of time, then international law must concede to the State in question the right of taking suitable precautions within its own territory before it is too late. These are some of the changes that are required in the international world order if we are to deal with terrorism effectively. Of course, no single country however powerful, can combat terrorism. There must be collective agreements, there must be both regional and global strategies to deal with terrorism. Rules with regard to the boarding of vessels, the safeguarding of the high seas, territorial waters, the exclusive economic zones, all these matters require very careful consideration in the light of Sri Lanka’s recent experience.

In conclusion, I would tell you that Sri Lanka is an example of a country whose development has been set back for a quarter of a century by the phenomenon of terrorism. But happily, that has now been consigned to history. We are in a position to forge ahead and the friendship of nations like China mean a great deal to us. Our own President Mahinda Rajapaksa has visited your country no fewer than three times and is planning to come again, in the near future. That is the manifestation of appreciation and gratitude for a friend who has stood by us through thick and thin a friend who has raised her voice, in support of little Sri Lanka in the Councils of the world. Terrorism cannot be combated in isolation, it has to be done in association with other countries. Sri Lanka has been fortunate, in finding friends who have always stood by us and that is why Mr. Chairman it gives me great pleasure, to accept your invitation to come to your institution and address you. I thank you warmly for the opportunity and I wish you well.