Sri Lanka is committed to the ‘non-aligned neutral Foreign Policy Friends with All’ under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and it is the driving principle in Sri Lanka’s relations with all states, said Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena during an interview with the Sunday Observer.
Referring to Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the sea lanes, the Minister said Sri Lanka maintains strong bilateral relations with all, including China, US and India marked by high level visits this year. He said that Sri Lanka received support from India in dealing with the debt crisis, concessions and grants from the European countries and support and markets from the US as Sri Lanka with the world faces an economic slowdown resulting from Covid-19.
The Foreign Minister also said the new emphasis on exports and investments through the Department of Commerce under the Foreign Ministry would provide new vigour in connecting Sri Lankan entrepreneurs and production units to international markets.
Minister Gunawardena is the Parliament’s Leader of the House and the leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: As per President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,’ what are the immediate and long-term goals of the Foreign Ministry with regard to bilateral and multilateral relations?
A. Sri Lanka has adopted under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the ‘Non Aligned Neutral Foreign Policy Friends with All’, which is the committed policy that we are following.
President Rajapaksa received an overwhelming mandate after years of the government trend before 2015 under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, of unprecedented economic growth and social and political stability in our country. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, therefore, has to rebuild an economy that had retarded under the last regime, to bring back confidence, political and economic stability to the country, which contributes to the confidence and stability to the international community too.
The mandate he received and the program he pledged to implement received an overwhelming two-thirds majority at the Parliamentary Election bringing a stable Parliament and government that can give confidence to investment and trading as well as our bilateral and multilateral relations.
This is amid a larger challenge that Sri Lanka faces with the world – Covid- 19 which it has been able to manage well during the past few months. The programs that are being implemented include political and economic programs for stability, confidence and growth, especially for the revival of agriculture and plantation sectors, self-sufficiency in food production that will provide benefits to the rural population and farmers and contribute to save expenditure on food imports draining valuable foreign exchange and provide opportunities to revive the economy by value addition, new technology and IT to bring back the necessary progress in today’s world.
Q: What is Sri Lanka’s approach to defend itself over human rights allegations and alleged reconciliation setbacks at the UN?
A. Sri Lanka is the first country that defeated terrorism and separatism under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. This contributed to preventing divisions in the country for which Sri Lanka received the fullest backing from many countries.
The LTTE was proscribed and continues to be proscribed in many countries. After 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, the UN declared that terrorism should be defeated and Sri Lanka was the first to successfully defeat terrorism, returning democracy to the North by holding Presidential Elections when it was politically most unfavourable to the government, but respecting the democratic participation of the people of the North.
We embarked on an unprecedented success story of protecting the lives of all those who crossed- about 300,000 people seeking safety from the LTTE, protecting their lives and getting everyone back after demining was completed in villages of those areas. Of course, human rights groups and other civil society organisations (some very openly) supportive of the LTTE raised the question of violation of human rights.
The government elected in 2015, joined hands with the anti-Sri Lanka stance and co-sponsored a resolution against our own country – a very unprecedented move a country follows; and a country-specific resolution which is not the norm of the Human Rights Commission.
The previous government violated the Constitution without a mandate to engage in such a co-sponsorship against one’s own country, one’s own Constitution, without questioning the basis and false numbers presented.
President Rajapaksa and the new government with a clear mandate to protect the sovereignty, independence, integrity and the unitary state of Sri Lanka and to present the truth before the Human Rights Commission, took a decision and I, as Foreign Minister, announced the withdrawal of the co-sponsorship based on facts of wrong numbers that had been submitted after Sri Lanka had two Commissions of Inquiry.
Lord Naseby of the British House of Lords openly challenged the figures after going through confidential papers of the British Intelligence which was available in Britain. But we stand committed to uphold the democratic process, rights and for the implementation of the sustainable development goals of the UN and continue to work with UN agencies on this basis. We are being criticised by a few because they sometimes are misguided or have not double checked the truth of the matter.
Q: A high level Chinese delegation recently visited Sri Lanka and we saw a grant of Yuan 600 million to develop several sectors targeting the revival of the economy and balancing bilateral trade providing more opportunities for Sri Lankan trade in China. Now there is an upcoming visit of another high level delegation from the US headed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What are Sri Lanka’s expectations from this?
A. Sri Lanka-China relations are strong and friendly. China has always been helping Sri Lanka in economic development programs. Ever since it established diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka and a few years before that, we found new areas of cooperation and investment. The support China extends is to further our development course and to help address some of the issues that we are facing because of Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 financial and economic crises as also seen around the world.
The Chinese delegation was high powered and their visit and support extended to Sri Lanka will be used positively for Sri Lanka’s national economic development to overcome the present crisis and in the future.
Sri Lanka also received support in dealing with the debt crisis from other countries such as India, concessions and grants from the European countries and support and markets from the US, because the whole world is going through a slowdown due to Covid-19. So our exports and revenue similar to other countries have decreased for which they are seeking support from each other and friendly countries.
Q: What are your views on upcoming high level visits from India?
A. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken virtually with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa about two weeks ago. Today, visits are possible under the health regulations but virtual discussions are being held with Heads of State and relevant ministries in this manner.
Q: How would Sri Lanka negotiate its position with the US, China and India without hindering bilateral relations?
A. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s declared policy of ‘Non-Aligned Neutral Foreign Policy and Friendship with All’ contributes to maintaining healthy relations with our friendly countries, while, of course, protecting the sovereignty, independence and integrity of the country. Let us not forget that Sri Lank is geographically placed in an important location on the great sea lanes across the IndianOcean which has to be properly managed with Sri Lanka’s interests.
Q: How do Sri Lankan Missions ensure the safety of Sri Lankans abroad during the Covid-19 pandemic?
A. We have 56 Foreign Missions and Honorary Consuls General across the world. They, as well as friendly countries, with whom we’ve been actively engaged in dialogues as well as exchange, look after nearly two million Sri Lankan expatriates working in the Gulf, Far East and southern Europe.
Our mutual relationship with those countries in this time of crisis has benefited all, protected lives – and over 30,000 people stranded overseas have been able to return – rearranging visa facilities and providing assistance. We received support from international agencies, especially the World Health Organisation, International Organisation for Migration and institutions in those countries in this process.
The patient support extended by the families of their loved ones abroad. Return of students initially from China was the beginning when President Rajapaksa received support from China.
Bringing all the students back was an important step that began the success story.
Also, from India, we brought back students and pilgrims as well as from Britain and Europe. In the beginning, there were over 20,000 tourists in Sri Lanka when the lock down took place. They were all looked after by Sri Lanka and supported by all those relevant embassies until they returned safely.
Q: What role do Missions have to play in revitalising tourism and promoting Sri Lankan products overseas?
A. Our President’s new program is two-fold – the political front of our Missions abroad now adds a new emphasis on exports and investments, connecting Sri Lankan entrepreneurs and production units supported by the banking sector and export institutions, state as well as chambers. Our Missions are also arranging setting up chambers and working with importers in host countries to open up room in this new attempt which has become fairly successful. Brazil has relaxed rules for Sri Lanka’s cinnamon exports to Brazil.
The apparel industry produces Personal Protective Equipment for exports to EU, UK, US and other countries. Industries are going to new markets. Also, new ventures are being supported by the private sector.
Q: You come from a strong political background. Your family has contributed to the betterment of Sri Lanka commencing from the Independence Movement. Your son is also an MP. As a senior statesman, what do you wish for future Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the young leaders?
A. Sri Lanka, under the leadership of President Rajapaksa is politically stable and a growing economy.
We are committed to protecting the sovereignty, independence, integrity and unitary state of Sri Lanka, bringing in new knowledge and technology to the growing younger generation that looks forward for a new Sri Lanka to which adjustments and accommodations of managing the economy has to concede. Our commitment to Parliamentary and participatory democracy at all levels is an important factor that has brought social change in Sri Lanka’s history and will contribute to create a better future through the young generation.
BY KATHYA DE SILVA SENARATH