New Leaders Forum

Looking Forward in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya talks to The Diplomat about his country’s future.

Over the next few months, The Diplomat is running a series of interviews with Washington DC-based ambassadors on defense, diplomacy, and trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In the third in the series, conducted by Washington correspondent Eddie Walsh, Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka discusses his country’s re-emergence as a regional actor following more than two decades of civil war.

How has the current government advanced the national security interests of Sri Lankans since it assumed power?

In 2005, when President Rajapaksa came into power, the first thing that he wanted to do was to take care of national security. We had been losing a lot of people, including a president, a foreign minister, a presidential candidate, a prime minister of a neighboring country, and innocent civilians by suicide bombers, bus bombs, etc.

We thought the best thing to do to solve national security was to have discussions with the people who were making national security a problem. But that didn’t work. We studied what they were doing for the sake of the peace accord. The peace accord was signed and there were a lot of positive things happening at that time. But what the terrorist group was doing was buying time to re-group, re-arm, and re-train to attack.

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We realized that after making so many mistakes for so many years that we needed to organize our security forces very well. We then decided to take military action against the terrorist group (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). It was very successful in the eastern province. In a couple of months, we managed to take the civilians away from this terrorist group and develop this province.

The terrorists then decided to move to the northern province. They took civilians with them as a human shield. That was the difficulty that we had, so the military operation was converted into a humanitarian operation. Our main task was then to rescue these civilians. Finally, after 18 months, we managed to rescue over 300,000 civilians, corner the terrorists, and get rid of them. There also were nearly 12,000 terrorists who surrendered to the army. We have now rehabilitated and reintegrated most of them into society.

Afterwards, the main task became to clear the 1.5 million mines left behind. With the help of the international community, including the United States, Japan, and India, we removed many of them. We estimate 60 percent have been cleared and we are progressing well.

One of the things that isn’t well understood is what the national security objectives of Sri Lanka are post-civil war. Could you elaborate on what your country’s national security objectives are now that the military conflict has ended?

Our main task is to make sure that this terrorist organization won’t come back again. Soon after defeating the terrorist group, our number one goal was to remove the landmines and resettle the people. The next issue was to rehabilitate and release the combatants to society, which has been done.

Now, we have to develop the area, which was neglected and destroyed by the terrorists for the last 26 years, and achieve reconciliation. We believe the first step toward reconciliation is to give the people a house, a livelihood, a school, and a hospital. It’s to give them infrastructure and economic development, which is happening right now.

Simultaneously, the challenge is to get the northern and eastern provinces involved in the political process. Very soon after the conflict ended, the government made sure to have the presidential election and general election in the whole country. Recently, we even had the local elections throughout the entire country.

We are one of the oldest democracies in Asia. We never had a military government. We therefore are very concerned about having elections. The LTTE would kill people coming to elections, including Tamils. For the first time, civilians are free to elect their own people to the parliament without any influence.

How does Sri Lanka’s pursuit of its core national security issues impact your relations with other countries?

Our priority is the security and welfare of the people of Sri Lanka. As with any country in the world, we are concerned about our own security. We want to work with any country in this world for international security. We are non-aligned and a small country. We believe that we don’t have a single enemy because we can’t afford to have any enemies as a tiny island. We will continue with our non-aligned policy of having no enemies.

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But we are strategically located in the center of the Indian Ocean. We know about the importance of maritime security and work closely with the U.S. Pacific Command. Although we have eliminated terrorism and have strong border protection, 75 percent of the terrorist groups currently operate from outside of Sri Lanka.

In addition to internal security, we therefore discuss transnational threats, including maritime security and terrorist fundraising and propaganda. We work very closely with authorities in other countries on these issues. This can be helpful not only to Sri Lanka, but to the whole world.

There are pro-LTTE diaspora living in the United States who are still active but under different names. We are concerned about this and sharing information with authorities here on it.

Is it fair to say that Sri Lanka sees an opportunity to play a leadership role in the international community on maritime security and counter-terrorism?

Yes. The Galle Dialogue is an exchange we are hosting in Colombo next week to discuss maritime security. This dialogue will have many countries in the region, including the United States. The Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are very important for international security. We are taking a leading role there.

We also are willing to share our experiences in fighting terrorism. For example, the suicide jacket was a LTTE idea. It was the world’s first. They also designed the suicide Sea Tigers boat, which the Navy couldn’t see coming because it was right on the water line. The LTTE even had two Cessna planes, which weren’t seen by radar. We can share our experience of how we fought against this ruthless organization. This is very valuable for the international community. Just recently, the U.S. Navy and Sri Lanka have been sharing information and conducting training on the suicide boats because of what happened to the USS Cole.

I want to raise a specific point here. It’s very hard even for governments to be able to buy weapons. It’s a huge process, but this organization had weapons equal to the Sri Lankan army. They raised money illegally, bought weapons illegally, and transported them out of other countries illegally, brought them through international waters illegally, and smuggled them into Sri Lanka illegally. Although Sri Lanka is now protected, it must still be happening with other terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Hamas, abroad. Terrorists are terrorists and they have these methods to be able to go under different names and do these illegal things. So we have to work with the international community to share information for the sake of international security.

The possibility of developing a formal regional security architecture is a major topic in Northeast Asia. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a security architecture currently in place in South Asia, nor is there widespread discussion on the possibility of promoting one. As a middle power in the region, does there need to be a reform of the security architecture in South Asia and does it need to be more multilateral? What can you uniquely contribute to a formal regional security architecture if it was developed?

I think so. We should get together and have a broad understanding about security in South Asia. We are very open and want to work with anybody. But sometimes, big countries don’t think in the same manner. We are a 100 percent honest and transparent when it comes to security and we need to share and work together for security in the region.

Although we are a small country, we can contribute a lot. People need to work with us very closely to take our experiences, particularly with terrorism. There should be more dialogue with our security forces and more exchanges and training with our army, air force, and navy. But, if people say this is a country which has human rights concerns and we don’t want to have dealings with them, then a lot of people are going to lose.

There’s a concern that as China and India rise, that there could be increased conflict in Asia as they compete for power and influence with entrenched powers, such as the United States. What is your perception of this narrative and how does it affect your ability to remain non-aligned?

It’s an ideal situation for Sri Lanka that China and India are growing. We have an excellent relationship with both India and China. As a small country, this is an advantage. We are already getting the fruits out of being their neighbor. Because we haven’t signed agreements, we aren’t concerned. For example, the Sri Lankan port built by the Chinese is owned by Sri Lanka and there are no contracts given to China. Non-aligned is a good word for us.

Is potential regional conflict between China and India (or the United States) your biggest traditional security concern?

I can’t comment on hypothetical questions. What you say is only a perception. I can say that Sri Lanka enjoys the most cordial relations with India, China and the United States. The golden thread that runs through our foreign policy is being non-aligned and friends with all. There may be areas of disagreement, but there is none that can’t be resolved by dialogue. Diplomacy isn’t a zero sum game of cultivating one or one set of friends at the expense of another.

From Sri Lanka’s perspective, what are the most serious global security threats to international peace and stability (ex. WMD proliferation, cyber security, etc.)?

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I feel the number one threat is cyber security. Cyber security is an area where we are having a continuing dialogue with other countries, including the United States. Second is front organizations that operate under cover to support terrorism. It’s also important to reflect on food security and energy security.

Having been the victim of the Indian Ocean tsunami and a major stakeholder in regional counter-piracy, Sri Lankan national security must prioritize non-traditional security issues. Can you elaborate on which NTS issues are the most serious for Sri Lanka’s national security? Do you think there’s an opportunity for more regional cooperation on these issues, or is the interest in multilateral cooperation on NTS issues starting to wane in South Asia?


We have always been conscious of non-traditional security issues. That’s why we recently set up a Coast Guard and strengthened our Navy. We co-operate with our immediate neighbor India on this issue. In the coming weeks, we’ll have the Galle Dialogue for a second year in succession. That will address maritime security issues. Helping to counter piracy will be one of our main contributions to addressing non-traditional security issues. It would also help more concretely in countering the ill-effects of the drugs and narcotics trade.

Sri Lanka sits at the intersection of West Asia and Southeast Asia, and obviously that has strategic implications. As you look ahead, is there a willingness to play an increased strategic role outside of South Asia, particularly in West and Southeast Asia?

We’ve always been seen as a South Asian country. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to look beyond the region. We trade with all countries around the world. We already have an FTA with India and Pakistan and we are looking to going beyond those. Our focus, though, is on trade and economic development.

What is Sri Lanka’s perception of Japan’s role in Asia, including the possibility that it may re-emerge as a military power?

We consider Japan as a very good and true friend. Statements given by the current and previous Japanese leadership show that they always believe that Sri Lanka’s problems should be supported from the outside, but that Sri Lanka needs its own homegrown solutions for its own challenges. They think whatever support they can give they should, but that they shouldn’t interfere. I think that’s Japan’s policy in many countries. We welcome this policy of non-alignment in foreign affairs.

Prior to President Barack Obama’s visit to Australia this month, there are reports that there has been an agreement on the upgrading of runway facilities on either Cocos or Christmas Island off Australia’s north-west to serve as a conduit for future U.S. and Australian military operations in the Indian Ocean. Do you welcome increased Western naval and air capabilities in the region?

The Galle Dialogue will discuss these important issues. The main idea is to discuss maritime security in our region. We work closely with the Pacific Command already. If anybody is doing something for the security of the region, we always support it because we know the danger of terrorism.

The recently concluded Commonwealth summit was heralded a success even though it failed to reach agreement on key human rights reforms. This has led others to the question of whether the Commonwealth remains relevant in the 21st century. From the perspective of Sri Lanka, is the Commonwealth still relevant, and what needs to be done to make sure it remains relevant for the next couple of decades?

We believe in the Commonwealth. In 2013, they are going to have the heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka. We also are bidding for the Commonwealth Games with Australia. So, we are working very closely with Commonwealth countries and feel they should be more active.

One of the challenges with economic growth for countries that have gone through periods of extreme social change coupled with high growth rates is that such states can become growth dependent once the population regards sustaining economic growth as central for government legitimacy. Obviously, this is a less serious concern for democracies than authoritarian regimes, but it nevertheless presents challenges. How is Sri Lanka leveraging today’s economic growth to ensure a long-term economic development and prosperity once the growth rates begin to plateau?

The last five years, we have been experiencing high growth. It’s not just post-conflict. Last year, it was 8.2 percent. In the northern province, it was 22 percent. This is growth by agriculture and tourism, which will benefit the people directly.

Before the conflict started, we had fish production of 40 percent in the northern province. It dropped down to 5 percent during the conflict. By going back to the 40 percent, it doesn’t mean that the growth is going to create imbalance – it’s going back to what it was before.

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We need to have huge growth over the next five years, which will bring up the per capita income of the people. The last three years, it has doubled. We are expecting that it should double again in the next four years. So, if you balance out all of these things, we can manage it.

Right now, we feel that we need to take advantage of the growth. For example, tourism increased by 50 percent last year, and it will go up 50 percent this year. The way it’s going, the next four years we’ll have 2.9 million tourists coming into the country, but we have only 15,000 rooms. We need 50,000 rooms to accommodate 2.9 million tourists. So, I’m encouraging hotel chains, like Marriot and Starwood to go to Sri Lanka. When they go there, and the people get jobs, it will balance out the growth.

At some time, it will settle down. But, for now, we need growth. We need to worry about that for the moment.

As Sri Lanka looks to generate higher value-added economic development, which high-tech sectors will the government seek to make strategic investment in over the next ten years?

Science and Technology development is a priority for Sri Lanka, and there are a number of initiatives aimed at developing IT infrastructure and the human resources to support it. Today, Sri Lanka draws nearly $500 million from the IT/business processing outsourcing sector. Sri Lanka is emerging as a global IT- destination of choice. It’s ranked among the top 50 global outsourcing destinations by AT Kearney, and Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is ranked among the top 20 emerging cities by Global Services Magazine. Sri Lanka’s advantage comes from the availability of a highly-skilled labor pool at an affordable price. National level competency development programs focus on building Sri Lanka as a “Center of Excellence” for domains.

Sri Lanka is a country of abundant cultural resources. However, there has been little focus on public diplomacy and cultural exchange at the strategic level. Do you see this changing in the future? If so, where will the government first make such investments abroad?

Cultural exchanges take place periodically at the regional level. You are absolutely right. Sri Lanka has a rich heritage of cultural resources. We have specific arrangements with countries in the South Asian region who are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. We’ll naturally extend this to other countries. There are cultural events from other countries including the United States held in Colombo. We will increasingly focus on public diplomacy and cultural exchanges. It also relates to smart power and soft power.

Sri Lanka remains a major force in international cricket. However, like Fiji in rugby, some experts question whether the Sri Lankan government has properly exploited the team’s brand to generate increased awareness and influence of the country abroad. Do you think this is fair criticism, and what more can be done to invest in the Sri Lankan brand through sports diplomacy?

I don’t think that criticism is fair. We are well known for our cricket. We won the World Cup and our players are recognized the world over. If you look closely, in cricket playing countries our brand name is exploited to the advantage of their own promotions. What better exposure for us than this? We will continue to be focused and serious about investing in cricket and sports diplomacy.