Sri Lanka will pursue an “omnidirectional foreign policy” that serves its own interests, not those of either of its huge neighbors, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told The Nikkei Asian Review on his recent visit to Japan.
Six months have passed since Maithripala Sirisena won a dramatic presidential election against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose authoritarian bent, nepotism and personalization of power contributed to his loss. Whereas the previous government’s foreign policy hewed toward China, Sirisena is regarded as pro-India. Sri Lanka’s relations with both powers present just one challenge for Sirisena’s government.
Soon after the election, the new government ordered a review of plans for Colombo Port City, a Chinese-built offshore development in the commercial capital. A high-ranking Sri Lankan official has told the Chinese side that the $1.4 billion project will be restarted immediately, according to recent media reports.
“As far as I know, the project is under review,” but not because it is a Chinese investment, Samaraweera told NAR. The new government decided to review all investments dogged by allegations of corruption or procedural improprieties, the foreign minister said.
The Sri Lankan economy boomed under Rajapaksa, who held office for nine years. The country saw a number of Chinese-funded construction projects of questionable financial sense, including a cricket stadium bearing his name. Rajapaksa’s government “obviously did not assess the needs” of the country when handing out these contracts, Samaraweera said.
But Sri Lanka has always had a “close relationship” with China throughout history, he said, expressing a desire to maintain an “excellent relationship.”
Sri Lanka will join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the foreign minister said he believes will complement the Asian Development Bank.
Although relations with India will be of paramount importance to Sri Lanka’s future, the government is “not pro-India but pro-Sri Lanka,” Samaraweera stressed.
Foreign policy is not a “zero-sum game” for the government, he added. “We don’t want to confine ourselves to one power bloc,” He pointed out.
Sirisena intends to dissolve the parliament and call a general election by September. The government has proposed a constitutional amendment that would, among other changes, curtail the power of the presidency. The majority faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Rajapaksa’s base, has called for postponing the poll, but Samaraweera said the process has already begun. “We believe the parliament will be dissolved” within the next few weeks, he added.
The post-election government will be “unique” in that the country’s two principal parties, the SLFP and the United National Party, have “agreed to work together as a government of national unity,” the foreign minister said.
Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-plus civil war ended in 2009 with the victory of government forces over the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. One of the Sirisena government’s greatest challenges is healing the wounds of that conflict — a process that includes rebuilding ravaged areas in the north and east, where many Tamils live, and devolving power to local authorities.
“Without reconciliation and national unity, durable peace and economic prosperity can never be achieved,” Samaraweera argued, noting some of the progress made so far.
Military governors in northern and eastern provinces have been replaced by civilian governors, and about 1,000 acres (4.04 sq. km) of land taken by the military “has returned to the people,” he said.
The new parliament and new government “will be able to work out a durable political solution which will address the grievances of the different communities of Sri Lanka and work out the new contours of a nation united in its diversity,” Samaraweera said.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has accused both sides in the conflict of war crimes and human rights abuses. Sirisena has promised to investigate these charges and prosecute any perpetrators.
Sri Lanka will establish a mechanism for handling this problem with international technical assistance, but it will be “a unique Sri Lankan mechanism,” the foreign minister said, stressing that his country will lead the effort.