The Sunday Leader

We Need Strong Economic Relationships – Dr. Harsha De Silva

Newly appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Harsha De Silva expressed to The Sunday Leader the strong commitment of the new government of Sri Lanka to its non-aligned policy promoting ‘friendship towards all and enmity towards none’. He stressed on the need to establishing strong economic diplomacy with both the West and the East targeting to attract investments and to expand trade and tourism.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

By Waruni Karunarathne

Q: Soon after the general election, President Maithripala Sirisena said that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will be non-aligned and pro-Asian. Do you expect to make any changes to the existing foreign policies?

A: The basic problem is that we have so far not put enough thought and focus on economic diplomacy. We have bobbed down in various other avenues but we have not focused on the most important issue in going forward. Now that the war is over, we have peace and we are sorting out the Geneva matters and what is now required is strong economic relationships with both the West and the East. So that we can attract investment, expand trade opportunities and tourism etc. That is our focus. Economic diplomacy will be the key word. Minster Mangala Samaraweera has already proven to have done an excellent job during the last several months to turn the view of some of the big global players towards us. I will have a long discussion with him to determine the way forward from here. The next step is to have a greater focus on the economic angle as far as the foreign policy is concerned.


Q: After the swearing in of the deputy ministers, President Sirisena said recently that we will not let the West influence our country and bow down to foreign powers. Where does the government stand with regard to our foreign policies with the West?

A: Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on the concept of friendship towards all and enmity towards none – which is what we have been practicing since the time of independent Sri Lanka. We have been part of the non-aligned group ever since. But in the last ten years or so, we shifted away from our friendship with other countries and kind of isolated ourselves in the global family. We have to now strengthen ties with the countries who have been friends with us for last so many years. There are some repairs that need to be done. Minister Samaraweera has done an excellent job so far. I am only going to be complementing what he has already started. The President has also said that we need to now focus on economy, tourism and trade but not aid and on investments but not on handouts.  We have a very important role to play in next couple of years. While domestically we implement the plans that we have already made, we will look at the economy in a global scale.


Q: During the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lanka’s foreign policies were seen more favourable towards China but during the interim regime, it was seen drifting away from China and becoming more favourable towards the West. Do you think there is a truth in that?

A: Well, we have not drifted away from anybody. We are just going back to our principles – friendship for all and enmity towards none. That is what Sri Lanka’s foreign policy always has been. But what happened during Rajapaksa regime was that he started accusing certain people and created unnecessary issues. Going back to S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, even he said that we need friendship with all the countries – that has been our trade mark.

We are not drifting away from one to the other. We are just repairing the friendship we had with countries for a long period of time. In fact, the relationship with China starting from the rice pact was initiated by the UNP but not by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party predecessors. We are very strong allies with China. That does not mean that we need to call the West constrictors. That is not what we will do. We will cultivate friendships – so that we can attract investments and make trade deals with them etc. I wouldn’t call it drifting from one to the other. This is about going back to our fundamental principles of friendship towards all and enmity towards none.

Q: Sri Lanka is now expecting the US to pass a resolution supporting the government of Sri Lanka for a domestic investigation. Have you already put things in place to start a domestic mechanism?

A: It is too early for me to comment on that. I just assumed duties. I will have to look into the matters and comment thereafter.


Q: The UNP and the SLFP earlier had concerns over the delayed swearing in of new ministers. Would you be able to ensure that such matters have now been sorted out to ensure the smooth functioning of the new parliament?

A: Yes. That is what President also assured recently. He said not to try toppling this government for the next five years. The national government is set up for the next two years. At the end of these two years, we will see what the next steps are, whether to extend this or not – and whether to shuffle the existing ministers. There are many options but the parliament will not be dissolved for the next five years.


Q: The UNP formed the political front called the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) to contest the general election. At that point, the party was talking about registering the new political front as a recognized political party in the country. Has there been any move towards that?

A: I think the party leadership is working on that. I would not be able to comment on that as I am not aware as to what steps have been taken.


Q: Women’s groups have been requesting the support of the political parties to increase the nomination given to women up to 30% to contest at elections – especially in view of the forthcoming local government elections. What is the stance of the UNP on that matter?

A: I think we need to bring in gender balance not only in the local government politics but across all spheres – in politics and outside politics. One has to change one’s attitude first about as to how the gender representation should be balanced. I think it is a process. ‘Equity’, ‘fairness’, ‘democracy’, those words are not mere rhetoric but those should be practiced wherever it is required. I think we all understand the need to increase women’s representation in local governments, in provincial councils, in parliament and even in public and private sectors – in order to ensure gender balance in every sphere.

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