The road to stable democracy has been a winding one for the people of Sri Lanka. Now it looks to Australia, one of its most strategically relevant neighbours, for even stronger ties.
On 8 January 2015, in a historic election, the people of Sri Lanka cast their votes for democracy, reconciliation and development. They chose free and fair elections, good governance and the rule of law over authoritarianism and impunity; they chose stability, reconciliation and peace over the politics of fear and hate. And they eschewed isolationist crony capitalism for openness to the world and a competitive, transparent rules-based economy. Basically, the people of Sri Lanka were weary of politics and governance that just wasn’t cricket. They wanted the new Sri Lanka with an undoctored pitch, an untampered ball and genuine umpires.
The new government was left to clean the Augean stables – a debt-ridden economy, a divided country and gross corruption. While a great more needs to be done, in the last year there is no one who doubts that there has been a sea change in Sri Lanka. In fact, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN said, “I cannot think of a country in the world today where there has been this much change in such a short a period of time”. So, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to begin my talk today by briefing you on Sri Lanka’s progress and plans and then touch on the Sri Lanka–Australia partnership.
As many of you here today know, during the previous authoritarian government, Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy in Asia, stood at the precipice of dictatorship. But we succeeded in pulling back from that chasm at the last minute. In the last year we have reversed Sri Lanka’s trajectory and our democracy is rapidly consolidating. In fact, within months of securing office, the government swiftly passed a constitutional amendment separating powers, strengthening checks and balances and ensuring the integrity of the electoral process. That amendment reduced the powers of the presidency and reinstated term limits, ensured the independence of the judiciary, law enforcement and state officials, and made the Right to Information a fundamental right.
Sri Lanka has made historic strides to entrench our democratic culture, promote accountability and consolidate the deliberative and participatory aspects of democracy. We have restored the freedom of the press, ended censorship and invited exiled journalists to return to Sri Lanka. A Right to Information Act has been tabled in Parliament and we will be voting on it shortly. We just put in place a 25 per cent reservation for women in local government elections. Once these reforms are over Sri Lanka’s democracy will be truly accountable, participatory and inclusive.
But perhaps more than the importance of consolidating Sri Lanka’s democracy, the need of the hour is breaking through the greatest obstacle that has held Sri Lanka back since independence: our failure to accept and celebrate our small island’s tremendous diversity.
What held us back, what plunged us into cycles of conflict, and what prevented the many attempts at saving our nation from such adversity was the failure to manage such justifiable grievances of Sri Lanka’s minorities that led to conflict and violence. Sri Lanka’s post-independence leadership was unable to come to terms with her diversity as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual country. As a result these grievances were transformed into inter-communal resentment, feelings of discrimination, unfair treatment and ultimately political violence.
But for the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, the two main political parties of the country, who have been opposed to each other since independence, have come together to win the peace once and for all. On 5 April, Parliament will meet as a Constitutional Assembly to design Sri Lanka’s Third Republican Constitution which will strengthen democracy, guarantee the rights of individuals and minorities and reflect the needs and aspirations of all our citizens. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s constitution-making history, these deliberations will be enriched by a comprehensive process of national consultations.
Similarly, the Government knows that we need to understand and deal with the past if we are to move forward as a country. Based on the Government’s four-pillared approach of truth, accountability, reparations and non-recurrence, a resolution was moved at the UN Human Rights Council, which we co-sponsored. The design of the mechanisms proposed by the Government and included in the resolution – namely the Missing Persons Office, the TRC, the Accountability Mechanism and the Office of Reparations – will be based on consultations with all stakeholders, particularly the victims. Online consultations have already begun and face-to-face consultations will begin within weeks.
But for Sri Lanka’s democratic and reconciliation journey to succeed, its economy must flourish and its people must prosper. The government is currently putting in place the medium-term elements for unleashing Sri Lanka’s tremendous economic potential.
Sri Lanka enjoys a unique geo-economic position located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, on the main East-West sea route and at the maritime gateway to India and the sub-continent. In a nutshell, we are at the centre of the emerging world. Alongside Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, we are putting in place the necessary conditions to make Sri Lanka a node for access to the emerging world.
Sri Lanka already has free trade agreements with India and Pakistan and negotiations are already underway to deepen these agreements. We have ongoing negotiations with China on signing an FTA. Once these agreements are in place, Sri Lanka will have deep concessionary access to the two largest emerging markets. In addition to securing access to new markets, Sri Lanka is regaining access to old ones. The previous government’s human rights record led to the loss of GSP+ concessions to the EU – we are working very hard to restore them as soon as possible and the EU’s response has been very favourable.
Sri Lanka has long been a paradise for Australian tourists, surfers in particular are no strangers to Hikkaduwa or Arugam Bay. But now Sri Lanka is becoming a paradise for investors – we have taken substantial steps to make the judiciary independent, there is a concerted effort to increase the ease of business, and Sri Lanka’s infrastructure – already the best in the region – is improving fast too. We also enjoy macro-economic stability. Over the last five years average GDP growth exceeded 6 per cent, inflation never exceeded 7.5 per cent and the government is now putting in place a framework with the IMF for fiscal and external sector consolidation that will put the Sri Lankan economy on a firm foundation for growth.
Sri Lankan firms have invested over $200 million in Australia, compared to the $60 million Australian firms have invested in Sri Lanka. With the tremendous opportunities opening up in Sri Lanka and her neighbours, it’s time to reverse that ratio. Sri Lanka’s burgeoning tourism sector, underdeveloped dairy industry and rich but unexploited ocean area also offers excellent value propositions for Australian leisure, dairy, fishing and aquaculture, and offshore sectors.
Sri Lanka and Australia have had close ties for generations. Many Australian brands – including Anchor milk – are household names in Sri Lanka, and Colombo was a key stop on voyages between the UK and Australia. In more recent years Australia has become the home of over 120,000 persons of Sri Lankan origin, with an eclectic mix of Burghers, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. Australia is also a favoured destination for Sri Lankan students: over 5,500 Sri Lankans are studying at Australian universities. Sri Lankan Airlines opened its first office in Australia, here in Melbourne, in 2013 and airlines are exploring the possibility of recommencing the direct flights between our two islands.
In addition to these ties, Sri Lanka and Australia, neighbouring islands in the Indian Ocean, share a deep commitment to democratic values and many common interests. We are committed to combatting violent extremism, a rules-based international order and freedom of navigation. We also have a common interest in addressing issues of climate change and human trafficking.
In an increasingly unstable world, where democracy, multiculturalism and human rights are threatened from all quarters, Sri Lanka, like Australia, has the potential to set such an example and become a pillar of stability in the region.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, at this critical point in Sri Lanka’s transition, when the people of Sri Lanka rejected those who just weren’t playing cricket and are ready to bat again, we look to our partner Australia’s support and the world’s support for the next innings.