Address by the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Tyronne Fernando at the Asia Society, New York, June 2002
Terrorism has been with us for a long time. We came into power about six months ago - a new Government, on a mandate sought to end this war by peaceful means, by peaceful negotiations. So when you talk of "Sri Lanka's War on Terrorism", we are warring terrorism - in other words, we are trying to end terrorism by a different method than what perhaps the United States is committed to. But the end objective is the same.
Six months ago it seemed an intractable problem. For twenty years, this conflict had gone on - costing 70,000 lives; contributing to a situation that saw minus economic growth last year; de-stabilizing the entire social fabric in the North as well as the South. About a year ago we were languishing in the Opposition, having lost the Presidential Election as well as the General Election. But I think the very events of September 11th, as well as the attack on our Airport and the Airbase in July, all precipitated to the crisis that brought about another General Election in December, which, as I told you, we fought on the basis of a mandate for peaceful negotiations to end all this.
It was not a very happy election. The entire State machinery was used to paint us as traitors - people who had secret deals with the separatists and so on. Nevertheless, the masses turned out and voted us into power. Since that, they have endorsed our path with a very overwhelming majority at the Local Government Elections twice over. The votes received by the anti-peace party, that is the JVP, who are against any Norwegian initiative or any peaceful settlement to this - their votes have been halved. So, there is overwhelming popular demand, popular support, for this peace process on all sides.
When I took all the Ambassadors to Jaffna - our Ambassador Mr. Mahendran was also there with me - it was a very moving experience. It was like old feuding families reuniting. People welcomed us very warmly, they spoke to all the Ambassadors; we stopped at junctions and talked to them; they were all very relieved that all this was over, that their battered buildings would soon be reconstructed, and above all, that they could live in harmony with everybody else in Sri Lanka - as one country. This is the important thing. People in the South too have realized that the War on Terrorism, if you mean a military war on terrorism, led us nowhere. People who have been advocating this war never fought in the war.
Their children were being educated abroad; other people's children were dying. So, people had come to a very war weary situation, where they were looking for a new method, not the traditional method of killing, which the previous Government had undertaken. In fact when the LTTE extended a ceasefire about a year ago to the earlier Government, they did not respond; and unfortunately, started a military offensive, which cost the country dearly, in lives and money and ended up nowhere. The Norwegian Government incidentally had been brought into this process, as a facilitator, by the previous Government - but they were not used. The new Sri Lanka Government of the UNF had entered into an open-ended ceasefire with the LTTE since February 2002, with the help of the Norwegian Government and supported by many foreign governments, chiefly the United States.
We are now poised to take the next step of engaging in direct talks with the LTTE, to chart a course of bringing this conflict to an end. Since the guns are silent, we can hear each other talk. So please wish us well in this talking. A lot of people are cynical. I've been meeting all types of people these last three-four days, media people, they always look at the bad side. But let us appreciate that people who have been fighting a war in the jungles have come out of the jungles, they have faced the world media, they are ready to talk. Somebody asked me, have they said they are giving up Eelam? I said that is ridiculous.
Can you expect these people to come out of the jungle and immediately say we are giving up this, we are laying down arms? So long as Prime Minister Thatcher insisted that the IRA should lay down arms before talking, nothing ever happened. But Blair came along and said let's start talking. Now the arms are being de-commissioned. So, friends, I think you have to be very realistic in this business. Our Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been building this process brick-by-brick, without any hurrying, not rushing into anything, not imposing unnecessary conditions.
He is ready to, as you say, lift the ban. He consulted the President, who is from a different party, as you know, and they have both agreed, we will certainly lift the ban, the moment the LTTE say that they are ready to talk. We are not saying that they have to give up Eelam, we are not saying - lay down your arms, we are not even waiting for the talks to begin. We are saying, just say you are coming, and that will be enough of a gesture for us to lift the ban. I think that's not unreasonable. The LTTE has been saying, "lift the ban before the talks". Indeed that is what will happen. The moment they say, we are coming to talks, you lift it - so the ban will be lifted before the talks.
International pressure must be brought on them. Let us not miss this chance. Don't let this opportunity go by. Remember we are also under pressure. Those elements like the JVP, parts of the PA - are already saying "you are wasting your time with these people, they are not responding."
This is not to say that things are easy. Peace processes, friends, are like climbing not one mountain but a mountain range. No sooner you get to the top of one, you see an even more formidable one staring at you. When you get on to the top of that, there would be another. We have experienced this over a short period of six months but we refuse to be detracted by that. We are inspired by many historical examples, most recently that of the Philippines. I went to the Philippines and studied that peace process. President Ramos persisted for 20 years till the Mindanao Guerrillas decided enough is enough, let us build this whole thing within the framework of one country. There were many, many, setbacks, but he never gave up. We are inspired by Abraham Lincoln, in the United States, who ended the Civil War there, laying the groundwork for the reconstruction period that followed. He said, may I quote from his second inaugural address on the 4th of March 1865:
"With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive onto finish the work we are in, to bind up the Nation's wounds."
Another example of Nelson Mandela - a truly great man of our times. I think he is a remarkable man. I have had the opportunity or the experience of, while at University at Oxford, to take part in the anti-apartheid struggle.
When he was arrested, we surrounded the South African Embassy in London, and had to face the baton charges of the white Police.
The international community could help in ensuring that the LTTE are persuaded to remain within this process, as I mentioned earlier. The US Government and the British Government and many other governments have been steadfast in their support. Remember that the LTTE have many of their sources of money, financing, in these countries, so they have some leverage. The British Government has said, even if the Sri Lankan Government lifts the ban, we are not lifting it, until they go much further and renounce violence. The Tamil expatriate community can do a lot in ensuring that there is a lasting peace. We see an encouraging trend in that the ceasefire has resulted in a large number of Tamil expatriates visiting Sri Lanka for the first time. We hope that they will remain engaged with the peace process.
A large number of Tamil expatriates send E-mails to me. I have a special E-mail address for that. A number of them have said that for the first time we have attended Independence Day celebrations at the Sri Lankan Embassies. In the event that peace is restored, let us say, when peace is restored, the prospects that can be envisioned for a United Sri Lanka remain immense.
There is a lot of reconstruction to do, we need foreign investment, aid, tourism. It would seem pertinent to quote from a comment made by the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka recently, Ashley Wills, that once peace is established, the country will become South Asia's 'Singapore'. You will be interested to know that in the 50's we were ahead of Singapore. Those days the Singaporeans used to say we want to be another Ceylon. That's what it used to be. Now today, Sri Lankans are saying, we want to be another 'Singapore'. We were not only ahead of Singapore, we were ahead of South Korea.
May I wind up by saying that the whole world, the world's international community, has a stake in supporting and encouraging countries like Sri Lanka, which have been model democracies; developing countries which have fostered democracy, free enterprise systems, cultural values - we have a very, very, long history of 2,500 years, the old kings practised democracy at the time that many of the Western European countries were uncivilized. So let us have the opportunity to bring back peace to our country, and together with the other countries of South Asia and Asia, restore the cultural values which are fast dying in this world in a mad rush to consumerism.
Q: You talked about democracy. Do you think democracy could be established in the North and East as long as Prabhakaran is there?
Hon. Minister: Well, I am not a soothsayer, but all I can say is "let us do our best in that regard. There is no question about it, whatever administration is ultimately set up in the North and East, must have the support of those people, so that ultimately Prabhakaran and others will have to face elections; and my reckoning is that he can easily win an election. In fact, I must tell you the example of the Phillippines. Noori Misouri was a terrorist leader. When elections where held, President Ramos went and canvassed for him, campaigned for him, and he won. So there is no reason why it can't happen in the North and East.
Q: You spoke about the fund raising that is taking place in other countries. Right now you are here in the United States - are there talks going on to further tighten the funds that are coming from these countries?
Hon. Minister: Well, there are no talks. It is up to this Government. They have, as you know, imposed a ban under which certain things flow, like this money collecting. So it is up to them - and our lifting the ban - I want to make this very clear - that hopefully within the next one month the ban will be lifted in Sri Lanka once these dates are fixed. This does not mean that the US and Britain and all these other countries are going to lift their ban.
Already, Mr Blair, Prime Minister, whom I met two weeks ago in London, has made it very clear that the LTTE has to go much further as far as they are concerned, before their ban is lifted.
Moderator: But I guess the question was also about the funding ........ Hon. Minister: Yes, I know, I am talking of that - the funding matters will have to be taken care of by those Governments which have banned the LTTE. There is nothing that 'we' and 'they' are talking about.
Moderator : You are not asking these Governments to actually shut the sources of funding ........
Hon. Minister: Well, we had already asked them, before to proscribe them and get on with it. But right now our emphasis is on talking peace with them - with the LTTE. Q: Is the attitude from the Indian Government and the South Indian States positive towards the peace process that is being put into place by the Sri Lanka Government? Hon. Minister: Before we embarked on the peace process, Prime Minister and I went to India and we had extensive discussions with the Prime Minister of India, the Foreign Minister, and even Sonia Gandhi, whose husband, after all was a victim of assassination, and they all gave us the "green light" to go ahead. We have kept them informed. In fact, the Prime Minister has just returned to Sri Lanka from India, having briefed them, because he promised to come back there before the talks begin.
So he has just done that. I don't see any problem from that end. In fact, it is in India's interest that there is a solution to this problem - that peace in their Southern flank and an end to any sort of separatist activity - because please remember that India itself could face a danger of separatist activity ..... in fact it already is in various parts.
Q: Since the Memorandum of Understanding has been signed, there have been numerous reports coming out from the Associated Press, Amnesty International, and other sources, that the LTTE is continuing, apart from fund raising activities, recruiting young children in the border villages and collecting of arms. One can question the validity of these reports, but what are the mechanisms the Government has set up to see if these things are actually going on, and how will these be handled once you actually go into peace talks?
Hon. Minister: I dare say that some of it is going on. But as I said, we refuse to be distracted. There is a Norwegian Monitoring Commission that is monitoring the ceasefire. In fact, a ship laden with arms was intercepted by our Navy and taken away. The Navy, we have reserved to ourselves, the right to patrol the waters, intercept arms coming in. So as I said, maybe these things are happening, but we won't let the extreme elements in the LTTE or even to call the shots.
The LTTE itself I am sure, is divided a little on this, when this sort of things goes on. You have the peace people and you have the people who say well, this is useless, we must keep on getting ready for the next round of war and all that. You see what is happening in Palestine and Israel is the shots are being called by the Hamas and the extremists. The moment they - a suicide bomber strikes Israel, Sharon goes back to zero.
He doesn't stick to the peace track. So we are determined that this whole peace track will not be manipulated and the agenda seized by extremists. We will keep on of the peace track as President Ramos did, as Abraham Lincoln did, as Mandela did. When a Communist leader Chris Harney was killed in South Africa, the whole thing may have just evaporated into dust, but Mandela, I think got permission and went on television and appealed for calm and saw it through.
Q: What is very, very, interesting to me is the clarity of vision that your Government has, and which is, that you are going to solve this peacefully, you are not going to let the past come in the way of actually impeding the process of the future. So as you look to the future, ideally, do you feel that in the mid-term to near-term, would you have to create some very special arrangements in order for it to work long-term when you get to much more unified, multi-racial, multi-cultural, ideal society that you envision clearly. So do you see some bumps on the road which you may have to take special account of, note of, and therefore develop some systems for it?
Hon. Minister: No question about it. There will be plenty of bumps. But I think that the most important thing is that we start the talking. I think we should clear all obstacles to get them down to start talking, and as you know, when you start talking, many of these things fall into place.
Q: I have read recently in the Sri Lankan media that the Government has been successful in encouraging people to come from India on tourism, business travel and so forth, to do conferences, and..... I was wondering whether you could speak a little about foreign travel from Europe and different parts of the world, if you're making any headway in that direction and encouraging people to come back again.
Hon. Minister: Yes, indeed, we are making headway. Many of the Governments are easing their travel advisories. The Canadian Deputy Foreign Minister was there and we briefed him and he has gone back and eased the travel advisory. I was in Germany about two weeks ago and they have eased that; Japan has.
So these people are coming back. But, there is another problem now. That is the India-Pakistan situation. Those dark clouds, we hope, are moving away. I think people will be a little reluctant to come to that part of the world with the horror of a nuclear war. Incidentally, three days ago or four days go, in Washington, I saw a very good film, I would commend to you "The Sum of All Fears" about the horrible reality of a nuclear war between, United States and Russia.
How easily it can be started and how easily the leaders can lose control, and how easily they can be misled by bad advice. I think our leaders in India and Pakistan would well see that film. I told President Bush recently, to see that, he is going to see it; and when I go to Russia, maybe if I meet President Putin, I will tell him also.