In his last Independence Day address on February 4, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with a thumping re-election victory under his belt, signaled that Sri Lanka would mend fences with many countries of the world with which relations had been far from cordial, especially during the closing stages of the war. ``The state of war is now over. We are entering into an era of co-existence after finishing the period of some controversy. I would like to say we are now entering the golden era of international relations,’’ he said. But this was not to be in the short term with some sharp exchanges, that did not serve the best interests of either Sri Lanka or those countries or multilateral agencies with which we bandied words, being heard thereafter. But the picture today seems to have dramatically improved with good news from Brussels last week that there are still prospects of rescuing the GSP + trade concession which is particularly important to our garments industry as well as for ceramics and some other products. The deal in its entirety, due to run till October, has been valued at USD 350 million by the industry for the national economy though Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal mentioned a lower figure in euros.
In December last year, even before the president’s Independence Day remarks, there were some hopeful words spoken at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee with its Chairman, Senator John. F. Kerry, and Senator Richard. G. Lugar, a ranking member, strongly urging that the US should better understand what is important to the Sri Lanka Government and people ``and retool its strategy accordingly.’’ They made the point that while the U.S. shares with the Indians and Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, ``the U.S. government has invested relatively little in the economy or security sector in Sri Lanka.’’ The focus had more been on IDPs and the civil society and the result of that Sri Lanka had grown politically and economically isolated from the West.
Colombo was wise in sending a delegation of senior officials including Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, Foreign Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe, Attorney General Mohan Pieris and Justice Secretary Suhada Gamlath to Brussels a few days ago to initiate a dialogue with the EU and what emerged from those meetings was not the abrasive rhetoric we have been accustomed to hearing in recent months but cordial and reasoned language holding out hope that the problem can be sorted out before the October deadline when the GSP+ privilege ends unless previously sorted out. Both sides, after all, stand to gain from a conciliatory approach. Garments are the biggest foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka and a large workforce of mostly women is dependent on that industry for their livelihood. While Sri Lanka must not be bullied into doing everything some countries, including those influenced by Diaspora votes, would want it to, a give and take approach would be mutually beneficial. There is no gainsaying that our human rights record need improving in many areas and this has been acknowledged by Colombo. Forward movement on this score will be welcomed not only internationally but domestically.
It also needs saying that Sri Lanka made garments have won their spurs in markets abroad not just by having preferential access to trading blocs like the EU but also because of factors including quality, pricing, meeting delivery schedules and not least, consumer preference especially for niche products like lingerie that have made their mark in many markets. Working conditions in many factories as well as ecological considerations have also been among the pluses. There is two way traffic in many of these matters and just as much as we benefit from preferential access to lucrative markets, pleasing consumers in their countries is important to governments in markets where Sri Lanka manufactured products are highly regarded.
It is not only the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that has recently softened its stance on Sri Lanka and signaled that a ``retooling’’ of the US approach to this country is required. We have also had similar good news from the International Crisis Group, headed by Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, with Lord Christopher Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, former European Commissioner for External Relations and Chancellor of Oxford University and Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who was US Ambassador to the UN and other important countries (Russia, India, Israel etc.) as co-chairs, who have been speaking out to the Tamil diaspora whose leaders, they have said, ``are doing exactly what the LTTE did.’’ They have strongly urged that rather than remaining wedded to the LTTE’s failed separatist agenda, diaspora efforts should focus instead on ``more realistic forms of political accommodation for Tamils on the island.’’
It is well known that the Tamil diaspora, hundreds of thousands of whom fled the fighting in this country, mainly to Western Europe and North America, have been able to rebuild their lives and achieve commendable prosperity by intrinsic ability and hard work that Tamils pride themselves in. Undoubtedly many suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of goons and thugs who crawled out of the woodwork like termites to loot and burn when the opportunity presented itself particularly in July 1983. Such wounds take long to heal and when the LTTE launched its war on the Sri Lankan State, it was able to readily find funders among the diaspora both from among those who gave willingly to a separatist cause they believed in and others from whom money was extorted. The brutal war that dragged on for nearly three decades is now over and many in the diaspora would find, like others living abroad have already done, that Sri Lanka can be a good investment destination for their savings. Sentimental reasons, no doubt, would favour projects in the north and east which is all to the good. As ICG has said, it is fruitless for the diaspora to continue to pursue the LTTE’s agenda though without its guns.
Who can fault the assessment that ``these activities are out of step with the wishes and needs of the Tamils in Sri Lanka?’’