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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2736

Two former British High Commissioners head Sri Lanka Society

Neville de Silva, Diplomatic Editor Asian Tribune

London July 6 (Asiantribune.com): While Sri Lanka is under pressure internationally for human rights violations, Friends of Sri Lanka, an association of Britons and Sri Lankans in the UK, elected two former British envoys to Colombo to head the organization at a meeting held on Wednesday.

Former British High Commission to Colombo John Fields was re-elected as chairman and David Tatham, also a former high commissioner, as vice chairman at a meeting attended by about 80 members.

Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to London Kshenuka Senewiratne who spoke reminded the meeting that Sri Lanka is not the only country in the world faced with the scourge of terrorism.

She said this was amply demonstrated in the UK a few days ago when terrorist struck again.

The Sri Lankan High Commissioner point out that terrorism is "a universal malady" and that it needs "international cooperation" to cure the world of it.

She said:

Your association is unique because it brings together our British friends with links to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK. Many of you have made a significant contribution towards strengthening the ties between Sri Lanka and the UK and remain our permanent friends. Occasions such as this must surely take you down memory lane to reminisce the years spent in Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known to some of you. I believe it is my duty today to update you on the current situation in Sri Lanka. Very often unfortunately the media leaves out the many positive aspects about our country and focuses solely on the negatives or at times even seeks to give a negative spin to an otherwise healthy story. I wish to put in perspective therefore; some of what I believe goes unreported.

Ladies and Gentlemen - when I addressed you last year, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in its first year in office. Today, two years down the road, I am pleased to inform you that our country has entered a period of rapid economic growth under President Rajapaksa’s leadership. Last year our economy grew by 6.3% in GDP terms and growth this year is projected to exceed 7.6%. Last year Sri Lanka’s exports increased by 8.4% to US $6.8 billion and trade into Sri Lanka from the UK and other EU countries has continued to rise, largely as a consequence of the EU GSP+ scheme which enables Sri Lanka to export over 7200 products into the EU duty free. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) last year amounted to US $680 million and is expected to increase significantly this year. UK investment in Sri Lanka amounts to US $530 million as at last year. Only a few months ago Marks & Spencer opened its Asian procurement hub centre in Colombo and has established its first eco factory, which will give way to their next in the UK. Norwich Union continues to outsource their accounting & legal services to Sri Lanka, whilst other companies are expressing similar interest.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP has increased to US $1400 the highest in the South Asian region. As a result of this Sri Lanka is now categorized by the UN as a middle income country. It is significant to note that therefore we no longer qualify for foreign bilateral aid from most donor countries including the UK, except for a few technical assistance programmes.

I am also pleased to inform you that our tourism industry continues to demonstrate its resilience notwithstanding the challenges posed by terrorism and the consequent temporary set backs. As at present arrivals from the UK have declined by 12%. Our airport has now resumed operations on a 24 hour basis following a temporary closure for night flights. Only last week at the World Travel Awards, travel professionals and agencies around the world voted for Sri Lanka as the leading destination in Asia for 2007. I am told that with the England cricket tour in autumn this year there have already been over 4,000 bookings by British cricket fans. Those of you who plan to join the Barmy Army might wish to hurry!

It would also interest many of you who visit Sri Lanka frequently to learn that Colombo’s skyline is soon to be altered. Currently under construction are the Ceylinco Celestial towers, a 39 storey building that will house the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the 60 storey NEB business tower in Battaramulla. Another facet of our rapidly developing economy, is the Colombo port which continues to sustain its double digit growth in transhipment volumes. This year for the first time a private company, Colombo Dockyard Limited built its first container cargo vessel for a foreign client, thus making Sri Lanka a shipbuilder in the region with overseas clientele.

Ladies and Gentlemen - My outline of our recent economic achievements amply demonstrates the economy’s resilience in spite of nearly three decades of conflict in the northern & eastern provinces and the continuing suicide attacks carried out by the LTTE on military and civilian targets throughout the country.

However indeed Sri Lanka is not alone in the world facing the threat of terrorism, as has been demonstrated yet again here with the developments during the last few days. It is now a universal malady requiring international cooperation.

Ladies and Gentlemen - As you are aware, last weekend, the security threat level in the UK was raised to critical following failed terrorist bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his interview on Sunday with the BBC stated and I wish to quote “we are dealing with a long term threat from terrorism – we have to fight it in a number of different ways, militarily, by security, by police, by intelligence and we’ve also got to fight it as a battle of hearts and minds. We’ve got to separate the moderates from a few extremists who wish to practice violence” unquote. I feel ladies and gentlemen that your Prime Minister has taken an extremely realistic view of how one should deal with the scourge of terrorism, and it clearly corroborates with the view held by the Government of President Rajapaksa.

Back in Sri Lanka, on one hand the military has been compelled to contain the threat posed by terrorism and safeguard our sovereignty. On the other hand the President convened the All Party Conference just a month after his election to seek a political solution to the grievances of all communities. 13 political parties are part of this process including the political parties representing the Tamil and Muslim communities. The LTTE has also been invited to participate in this conference though it is yet to respond. Our government’s strategy is similar to that outlined by Prime Minister Brown in dealing with the threat of terrorism, and is a realistic approach based on our past experiences of the LTTE’s intransigence and the pursuance of a consensus based solution. LTTE propagandists have tried to erroneously portray the Govt as seeking a military solution. However President Rajapaksa has repeatedly emphasised even in august international fora with the last being at the ILO conference in Geneva in mid June, that there can never be a military solution. He outlined that there needs to be a political solution to address the grievances of all communities but emphasised that this does not mean that we should allow terrorists to take the upper hand and manipulate ceasefires and peace talks to re-arm, re-group and launch fresh offensives.

Ladies and Gentlemen - successive governments have proposed several models of devolution of power as a means to addressing the grievances in particular of the Tamil and Muslim communities living in the north & east of our country. Many of these proposals offered extensive devolution of power as part of the political solution but they encountered two key obstacles namely, the absence of a consensus among the political parties in the south to implement the envisaged solution and the LTTE’s unwillingness to enter into serious political negotiations. The All Party Conference established by President Rajapaksa has as its principle aim the building of a consensus among the political parties in the south. This underscores the government’s serious commitment to a political solution to end the conflict. Unfortunately we have been unable in the past to forge this kind of consensus based approach in the manner that you have been able to deal with the Northern Ireland question. In addition the Royal Norwegian Government continues to play a facilitatory role by maintaining a close dialogue with both the government and the LTTE. Last year following discussions between President Rajapaksa and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at Chequers, Mr Paul Murphy has also been assisting us with his expertise on the Northern Irish issue.

Ladies and Gentlemen: in spite of the government’s sincere efforts outlined to you, the LTTE has continued its violence unabated. It entered into a ceasefire agreement in 2002 and ended up violating it over 3847 times according to the Scandinavian peace monitors, thus relegating the CFA to a mere piece of paper. You will recall that it was during the ceasefire the LTTE assassinated our Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, exploded bombs in civilian buses and trains and attempted to assassinate the Commander of the Army in addition to the myriad of other dastardly acts including the killings of Tamils who ventured to dissent. The LTTE held two rounds of talks with the government of President Rajapaksa in Geneva last year, where on both occasions they refused to discuss a political solution and instead sought military and strategic advantageous concessions from the government such as the opening of the Muhumalai entry point along the A9 highway and the re-settlement of civilians in high security zones. While the Sri Lanka government made some concession with regard to the A9 issue and also outlined its difficulties on the re-settlement in the high security zones, the LTTE has continued its intransigence.

Ladies and Gentlemen - what we have in Sri Lanka is a situation not exactly comparable with the IRA in Northern Ireland in the years gone by. The LTTE is entirely a militarilistic oriented group without a realistic political goal. Their claim to a separate state as you all know is not feasible given the stated position of our government, that of India and the rest of the international community. In fact generally even the Tamil community in Sri Lanka with moderate ideals does not wish to have a separate state nor accept the LTTE as their sole representative. The LTTE raises funds through commercial activities varying from money laundering to credit card fraud, arms smuggling, drugs, human and narcotics trafficking and to extortion from the diaspora, mostly in the UK and the rest of Europe. In this year’s publication of ‘Military Balance 2007’ the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London refers to “emerging evidence of commercial links between the LTTE and the al-Qaeda”. Sri Lanka is therefore facing the challenge of having to deal with a ruthless terrorist organization which mastered the art of suicide bombing long before the al-Qaeda and even had those from the medical profession involved in its activities similar to what is coming to light now following the Glasgow operation. In this context it may be recalled that a doctor from Edmonton attached to the NHS is facing prosecution in the US after an offer of one million dollars to a State Department official to have the LTTE removed from the proscribed list of the US. As we all know an organization is proscribed due to proven criminal activity. The recent arrests of key LTTE activists in the UK is significant and if similar action is taken by other countries it will greatly help bring peace sooner than later to Sri Lanka as the stymieing of funds will cut the flow of weapons to the LTTE’s military effort. Undoubtedly such action would have been taken due to proven criminal activity and we need international cooperation to fight the challenge of terrorism, in this manner.

Ladies and Gentlemen: At the same time the government has been faced with allegations of human rights violations some of which have emanated from LTTE propagandists who have as their motive the tarnishing of the country’s image abroad. However the government is fully committed to investigate the allegations. The President has voluntarily established a special Presidential Commission of Inquiry into serious violations of human rights and the work of this commission is being observed closely by an International independent Group of Eminent Persons which includes the UK’s nominee Prof Sir Nigel Rodley. A Presidential Commission is probing allegations of disappearances and abductions. It may interest you to learn from their initial report that whilst 1713 cases of persons who had disappeared were reported to the commission, 1002 of the alleged persons who had disappeared have in fact been later discovered. They had been reported missing only because their next of kin had lost contact with them due to displacement following military operations particularly in the eastern province. Furthermore some 132 persons who had disappeared had been reported to the police as having been abducted.

Obviously interested elements have manipulated this information to cast aspersions on the government. The government has now set up a centre to gather information from the public about allegations of abductions in Colombo. It is noteworthy that the committee managing this centre includes representatives from the opposition parties. Also a special unit headed by a Senior Superintendent of Police to investigate incidents of kidnapping, abductions and illegal extortion has been established. Recently a former air Force officer, serving airman and 4 policemen have been arrested in connection with abduction and extortion incidents.

Ladies and Gentlemen: In conclusion I would like to refer briefly to the military operations carried out by the government security forces in the eastern province. It may be recalled that the LTTE in violation of the ceasefire agreement of 2002 encroached into areas around the Trincomalee harbour posing a grave threat to the major naval base in that area and the harbour. Subsequently they encroached into the Mawil Aru area of the east and shut down the sluice gates of the dam depriving nearly 15,000 families living in the area of their water supply. The security forces were therefore compelled to launch military offensives to regain control of the Mawil Aru area to safeguard the civilians as well as to secure the areas around the harbour. As a consequence of this operation the LTTE has now been now almost completely cleared out of the eastern province and confined to the two districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. The civilians who were displaced as a consequence of these military operations are now in the process of being re-settled. Re-settlement in Vakarai and certain parts of Batticaloa have been completed. The government’s re-settlement programme for IDPs has been commended by the UNHCR and the UNDP. The UN agencies are closely involved with other international NGOs and government agencies in this re-settlement programme. Unrestricted access for diplomats and registered NGOs to the eastern province has been permitted. In the meantime the government has ensured the adequate supply of food and other essential items to civilians in the east as well as the Jaffna peninsula. Currently 8 ships ply regularly from Colombo to Jaffna carrying essential food supplies. As a consequence of this the prices of food have drastically reduced in the northern and eastern provinces. I must of course draw your attention to the fact that the government continues to supply food, medical supplies and all other essential items also to the two districts under LTTE control, thereby discharging of its responsibilities towards the innocent civilians holed up in these areas.

Ladies and Gentlemen: the recent adjournment debate on Sri Lanka in the House of Commons highlighted the fact that whilst the three major political parties in the UK agree on the maintenance of the proscription on the LTTE and the need for stringent action against the LTTE’s fundraising activities, that there are nevertheless some rumblings from the back benches who misguidedly continue to espouse the views of the LTTE mistakenly assuming that this Group represents the views of the Tamil community. An All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils which announced its existence at the debate also seems to be oriented towards the cause of the LTTE, is seeking to gain recognition and in doing so has resulted in creating division among the Sri Lankan Tamil community. These developments remind us of how the LTTE is constantly seeking through its front organisations to gain recognition in many instances hijacking the grievances of the Tamil community for the purpose of furthering its terrorist objectives.

This High Commission has been making every effort to bring the Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK together. This year I am proposing to organise a cultural festival at the end of the year, which will reflect the talent of the entire Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK. We have organised many other activities including the celebration of our major religious festivals all aimed at bringing the Sri Lankan community together irrespective of their ethnic or religious denomination. I firmly believe that the Friends of Sri Lanka Association can and will support these initiatives of the High Commission. I hope to see the involvement of your Association in the forthcoming cultural event in December.

I have tried to capture very briefly some of the major developments in our country. The government continues to work relentlessly for the day when the LTTE too will renounce violence and return to the negotiating table. I am sure as friends of Sri Lanka this is your wish too. It is my firm belief that terrorism whatever its form should not be condoned with as there is always the democratic process through which grievances can be redressed.

Ladies and Gentlemen - my best wishes to your incoming committee and for every success in the year ahead. I invite you all to a reception at the conclusion of this meeting.

- Asian Tribune -

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