US President Barack Obama had plans to visit Sri Lanka last May, but was unable to do so due to the Vesak Celebrations in the country, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said.
“I must reveal something which many people don’t know so far. Last May (2016), even President Obama was ready to come to Sri Lanka which would have been the first ever official visit by an American President. But unfortunately, the dates suggested happened to be Vesak Day (Buddha Purnima day, when Sri Lanka observes grand celebrations for a week) and Vesak week. Such an important visit could not take place during that week, so we missed that amazing opportunity,” he said during an interview with The Hindu.
Full transcript of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s interview to The Hindu
You were in New Delhi recently for the high-level talks on fisheries. The Sri Lankan side has termed the outcome positive and successful. Has India agreed to ban bottom trawling?
The discussion we had in New Delhi last weekend with the Minister of External Affairs [in India] and senior officials was indeed a great success and it demonstrated the political will on both sides of the Palk Strait, to find a solution to this issue, which has been dragging on for far too long at the expense of the poor fishermen, again on both sides of the Palk Strait, who have been suffering because of it [the practice].
Within that context, it was a very important first step that we were able to take. I am quite confident that India too realises the dangers of bottom-trawling, but of course, it has to be resolved in a manner where the fishermen on both sides feel they have won the day. So we have to finally work out a win-win situation and that is why Joint Working Group on fisheries was agreed upon. It will meet here [in Colombo], on the 2nd of January, and would be chaired by the Minister of Fisheries of Sri Lanka as well as the Minister of Agriculture of India. And after that, it will be continued under the chairmanship of the two secretaries. I am sure that we should be able to come to a suitable agreement in the shortest possible time.
As per the commitment you gave the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, you are working on a four-pillar [truth, reconciliation, accountability and non-recurrence] approach to address the legacy of the war. The Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) has been set up, and efforts are on to set up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and so on. But there is considerable fear and concern in regard to the draft of the new counter-terrorism law. Is the older security apparatus – said to have been in place during the previous regime – yet to be dismantled?
Well, to be frank with you, the ghosts of yesteryears are still very much amongst us. But still the commitment of the government to repeal the earlier Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and introduce a new Prevention of Terrorism Act in keeping with international best practice is as strong as ever.
That’s why the President and the Prime Minister appointed this committee, which also had members that I had appointed from the Foreign Ministry. The committee finally came up with the draft to be referred to the oversight committee. We, here at the Foreign Ministry, also had referred our observations and footnotes to the committee and I am sure that in the final count we should be able to come up with something in keeping with current international trends in fighting international terrorism.
When you say referred your observations and footnotes, do you mean you questioned some of the recommendations? Did you have reservations?
Yes, more than reservations, we have recommended that some of the recommendations of the draft are not in line with international best practices and therefore, should be reconsidered.
You said that the ghosts of the previous regime are lingering…
I should perhaps try to rephrase that. Rather than the ghosts, it would be more appropriate to say the mindset of the older regime, so to speak, is still there — among certain officials and others. So it’s our duty as a government with a clear mandate for change to ensure that the vision of the government is implemented.
On the former security apparatus — the Terrorism Investigation Division, the ongoing arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act — do you think there will be a shift in that?
When you have a government, a very authoritarian government, in office for as long as 10 years, it’s not easy to change the mindset created by that era. Just because the governments change, the officials and bureaucracy don’t. It’s not possible to change them all overnight. It’s a gradual process. But that process is taking place.
This is in regard to the U.S. elections. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has opted for a trade liberalisation platform to improve the economy but President-elect Trump has laid out a protectionist policy for international trade. After your government came to power [in January 2015] U.S.-Lanka ties were visibly reversed—you have very strong relations now. So how will the U.S. election outcome impact this, particularly trade relations?
To begin with, I must say that Sri Lanka has had very good, cordial relations with the U.S. ever since we got Independence in 1948. Of course, there was, as you know, a period of what I call self-imposed isolation by the Rajapaksa administration, not only from the U.S. but with many other countries who were very close to us earlier. We again opened up to the world after January 15, 2015, and I must say that within the last 20 months, Sri Lanka and the U.S. have been able to take their relationship to new levels of excellence.
In fact, within this period itself, we had the Secretary of State John Kerry coming to Sri Lanka — the first to do so in nearly 40 odd years. We had Samantha Power, the UN Permanent Representative, who is a very, very strong friend of Sri Lanka in the international forum, we have had Nisha Biswal, Tom Malinowski and other senior officials of the State Department who have been in and out many times.
Now I suppose it doesn’t matter, I must reveal something which many people don’t know so far. Last May , even President Obama was ready to come to Sri Lanka which would have been the first ever official visit by an American President. But unfortunately, the dates suggested happened to be Vesak Day [Buddha Purnima day, when Sri Lanka observes grand celebrations for a week] and Vesak week. Such an important visit could not take place during that week, so we missed that amazing opportunity.
But I must say that President Obama did develop a very close relationship with President Sirisena to the extent where President Obama would come up to President Sirisena to say hello at whichever international forum they used to meet. So this shows how far American relations have improved during the recent times.
I hope and I am sure we can build this relationship even further under the Trump administration as well. There are certain concerns about some of the policies which candidate Trump expounded during the campaign but we, here in Sri Lanka, also are very tuned to the fact that what you say at election time is not always what you do when you are elected, because the American system, I am sure, will steer the new administration along the same path as far as international relations are concerned.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, according to media reports, has defended comments by its ambassador to Sri Lanka on your Finance Minister’s criticism of high interest rates charged on Chinese loans. How do you read that?
I don’t want to read anything into that because China is also a very good friend of ours and a neighbour with whom we have had connections for centuries.Today, China isan importantpartner in Sri Lanka’seconomic development, and the Chinese ambassador is also a good friend of mine. When I recently met him my advice to him was [that] if there are any issues regarding any statements our political leaders may be making, it’s best that those issues are sorted out through the Foreign Ministry channels rather than trying to sort it out through the media, because it’s always in the interest of the media to show conflicts and differences even where there aren’t any conflicts or differences.
With regard to a recent report — on the bond scam at the country’s Central Bank and the Joint Opposition’s demand that PM Wickremesinghe take responsibility and resign— you think the report has questioned the credibility of the UNP in the unity government?
No, not at all. I would say the COPE report and the scandal, within inverted commas so to speak, have demonstrated the transparency of our government and the UNP. In fact, many people who criticise the government now have forgotten that they have the chance to do so simply because the UNP, and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself was the one who suggested, even before we came into government, that the COPE (the Committee on Public Expenses) should be chaired by a member of the Opposition.
Because during the period of President Rajapaksa, the COPE was chaired by members of the government, and ministers of the government who would try to hide all the mistakes, from the very inception itself.
Whereas, it’s only because of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government that the JVP chairperson was able to show some of the discrepancies of the deal. And now the government has decided to make sure that it is investigated into and I can assure you that action will be taken against anyone who may have broken the law. In this government, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe insists all the time that we cannot continue the culture of impunity, which brought the downfall of the Rajapaksa administration. No one is above the law. No one, is above the law in our government. And justice will be done. But it must be done through the due process. Just because desperate members of the Joint Opposition make all kinds of fantastic allegations, you can’t just take a person or arrest a person. Let the Attorney General study the subject and advise the government on what action to be taken.