German Ambassador Jorn Rohde, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about the current status of the political situation in Sri Lanka, bilateral relations and the way forward. Excerpts:
- There is the pending task of constitutional reforms
- Germany supports Sri Lanka for economic modernization, democratic reforms and reconciliation
- It seems the Government itself is also doing the work of the opposition
- When united we win, if divided we fall
How do you see the current status of German- Sri Lanka relations?
We marked the 65th year of our relationship. Our relationship has been excellent most of the time. There were some irritants under the previous regime with German political foundations having to leave the country.
From a trade perspective, things look very good at the moment, with a bilateral trade volume of US $ 1.5 billion last year. Four years ago, it was only half of that amount. We also see a growth in tourism.
This year, we are expecting 150,000 German tourists in Sri Lanka. On March 27, Germany opened a professional trade office. This will further boost trade between the two countries. We just had a German delegation on the topic of wind energy in Sri Lanka. At the moment, a Sri Lankan delegation is in Germany. At the end of the year, the Asia –Pacific Trade Conference will take place for which all German companies in the region will come together. We also look forward to a Sri Lankan trade delegation led by the Minister.
Germany supports Sri Lanka in its quest for economic modernization, democratic reforms and reconciliation.
Sri Lanka has the vision to become a hub in South Asia. I think the regaining of GSP Plus creates fertile ground and is a good starting point for further expansion.
We support Sri Lanka’s path of economic modernization. I welcome the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore. Sri Lanka is on a path to further open up its economy.
Singapore is extremely successful because it has opened up its economy in the last 50 years. It has a very efficient legal environment and an excellent infrastructure. If Sri Lanka continues in its path toward economic modernization, that can be achieved here as well, but, you have to do the reforms.
Germany is one among the countries that welcomed the change of Government in 2015. How do you look at it in retrospect?
We support Sri Lanka’s policy of reconciliation and democratic reforms. It is not my task as a foreign envoy to comment on specific points. Like Germany, Sri Lanka has an established democracy. In any democracy, the Government has to govern.
The Opposition has to oppose. When I read your paper sometimes, it seems that the Government itself is also doing the work of the Opposition. Generally speaking, it is not a recipe for success if you are not united as ‘the United will win, the Divided will fall’, as the saying goes. The German Government and the EU continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to implement the agenda it was voted for in 2015. It means reconciliation and democratic reforms.
Democracy also needs credibility. You have laws. The laws are there to be enforced. It is as simple as that. Those involved in past and present corruption and criminal activities should be brought to book. Misdeeds need to be punished. It is important that the legal system provides timely justice. In this regard, those behind the recent communal unrest in Kandy should be brought to book.
How do you look at the progress made by the Government during the past three years in the implementation of this agenda in terms of reconciliation?
We see progress. You have democratic reforms. You have the Right to Information Act and the Office of Missing Persons. The enforced disappearances bill was introduced. The Reparations Bill is being prepared.
Those are all steps in a positive direction. The general democratic climate has improved a lot. But, there are still things to be done. There is the pending task of a constitutional reform. That seems to have stalled a bit. The minorities who voted for the Government expected some sort of devolution. Looking at the results of the last Local Government Elections, there surely is a disappointment because of the lack of action in this regard by the Government.
For example, When Sri Lanka and Germany deal with each other, interests of both sides should be taken into account. Then, it is a win-win situation. Otherwise, you create antagonism.
German political organizations played a role in activities related to power devolution in the past. They were sent out by the former Government. What is their role now?
German political foundations had been in the country for decades. But some unfortunate things happened under the previous regime. They are back now.
If they are asked, they continue to support and give advice. Germany is not the only country. There are a lot of countries that help civil society organizations and the Government in sharing best practices for democratic reforms.
I am not here to propose the German example. Every country has to find its own path. My advice for the Government is to implement the agenda on which it was elected. We are ready to support. We do support that process through various means i.e. through our development cooperation with GIZ. Also, a Sri Lankan Parliamentary delegation went to Germany in 2017 to study our Parliamentary systems both at state and Federal levels. These are all examples to show how it can be done. How you will finally do it is entirely Sri Lanka’s choice.
How do you see Sri Lanka’s political environment for German investors?
We see the potential of the country, otherwise, we would not have opened a trade office here.
However, it is still not the great leap forward. You know Sri Lanka’s standing in all these ratings- the ease of doing business, corruption index. There is room for improvement. If these parameters improve, investment will flow on a much bigger scale. The current Government is working on it. Large import duties also prevent Foreign Direct Investment. Look at Singapore! They are a success because of an open economy and they encourage a competitive environment.
Sri Lanka has drawn the attention of the countries such as India, Japan, China and the United States because of its strategic location. How does Germany view it?
Last year the Prime Minister gave a speech proposing a code of conduct for the Indian Ocean region. That is to make it a zone of peace and to ensure freedom of navigation. Germany fully supports a rule-based world order.
We support Sri Lanka’s efforts in that respect. Last year, the German Foreign Office conducted an ambassadors’ conference in Colombo on the topic ‘Indian Ocean’. On these issues, our thinking is fully in line.
Do you see the Indian Ocean as not peaceful enough at the moment?
There is the danger that the situation could deteriorate to one like you have in the South China Sea. The Sri Lankan Government sees that potential danger. They want to act preventively and ensure together with all littoral states that the Indian Ocean region remains conflict free within a rules-based environment.
Today, almost all the developing and developed countries turn to China for investment in infrastructure development. Such development needs of these cannot be addressed by the western powers. How do you see it?
As for China’s One Belt One Road initiative, we generally support the initiative to upgrade infrastructure that contributes to sustainable growth in the region.
It is very important that all partners’ interests need to be respected. For that to happen you need transparent rules and open tender procedures. The international banks such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank should be included. If these standards are not met, you will have a situation like the one Sri Lanka was in under the previous regime.
You will have white elephant projects like Mattala Airport, from where the last commercial airline recently left the airport. That is a huge burden to the State coffers. It prevents the Government from investing money in new projects because it has to pay back loans. It is just that unnecessary projects should not be funded by international agencies. The World Bank is not a Western institution. So is ADB. Today, Japan and the European Development Bank are financing a lot of development projects in Sri Lanka. They would not finance projects that are not viable.
How do you look at the Hambantota Port project?
I am not an expert. The only thing I would say is that there were huge loan obligations. I think the Government was faced with a difficult choice. Faced with an enormous debt burden through loan repayments the Government in this case through a debt-equity swap- turned the loan into investment.
As I said, you can avoid these mistakes if you scrutinize large infrastructure projects for their economic, social, environmental and fiscal sustainability. In short, you have to meet standards. Otherwise, there is a danger of vanity projects being implemented. These projects then generally cost the taxpayer dearly.
How do you look to future political relations between Sri Lanka and Germany?
Our relations are excellent at the moment. We support Sri Lanka’s reform process. We have a lot of similar outlooks on international issues. We are urging the Government to continue with the reform process and implement its agenda. Trade will continue to grow dynamically if reforms are carried out in Sri Lanka. We are grateful to Sri Lanka for supporting Germany to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
The United States has different worldviews under the Trump administration. How do you see the dynamics of the Western world in that context?
Let me quote from a speech the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas gave last week in Berlin:
‘Our answer to America First can only be Europe United’. The EU is trying to be a voice of sustainability. Politics is the art of compromise.” For example, When Sri Lanka and Germany deal with each other, interests of both sides should be taken into account. Then, it is a win-win situation. Otherwise, you create antagonism.
How do you push for common goals in the West when the US is not supportive enough?
We are and remain strong allies bound by common democratic values. There currently are a few irritants. If there are - as we in the EU see it- unlawful custom duties imposed by one side, there is a measured reaction announced by the EU. There is also an answer from Canada, Mexico and others. Germany and the EU continue to push and uphold an open and multilateral trade system.