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NEW ERA: Taking a cue from the 1Malaysia experience, Colombo is seeking to heal rifts after 30 years of civil war, writes K. Godage
THREE years after the end of a brutal 30-year separatist war, the country is emerging to make the fruits of peace a reality to all its citizens in its 1 Sri Lanka project.
That a new era has dawned is evident to everyone living or visiting the country, life has indeed picked up, particularly in the north and east where the people suffered the trauma of the war more than elsewhere in the country. Schools are being rebuilt, as are hospitals, roads and places of worship. Almost 90 per cent of those displaced have been resettled with the building of over a thousand homes.
A major de-mining programme is also almost over.
The administration is being conducted by Tamil public officers and, above all, the police service almost entirely consists of Tamil officers. The trauma of a 30-year war cannot be erased or overcome overnight but the government is making an honest effort as the leaders of the country have accepted that they should reach out to the Tamil people, as they are also our people.
Only language divides the two principal communities who have much in common. This, in a sense, is the tragedy of the situation. The government seeks to take a page out of Malaysia's book and establish 1 Sri Lanka.
With the end of the war we have today an unprecedented opportunity to shift to a higher trajectory of growth and development. In the 1950s, Lanka or Ceylon, as we were then known, enjoyed better economic and social development than South Korea, Singapore or even Malaysia. We have today fallen way behind these countries.
In the first decade after independence we had an agricultural economy dominated by tea, rubber and coconut but we did not take the opportunity to diversify and restructure the economy.
Well meaning socialists sought to achieve social justice not by increasing the size of the national economic cake but by slicing the existing cake and distributing it, and by their nationalisation of foreign-owned undertakings and politically-motivated land reform. In the process they pauperised the country and in the 1970s we had only a 2.3 per cent rate of growth.
In 1978, we opened up the economy, dumped socialism and embarked on a new era but most unfortunately the separatist war put an end to economic development and progress. Today, with the end of the war the economic geography is extremely favourable to enable us to transform the country.
Today, a new era has dawned and today, we have the glorious opportunity of plugging into two of the largest emerging economies in the world. India, with which the people of Sri Lanka have a "blood relationship" and China, which has stood by us through our worst period in modern times. We have a free trade agreement with India and are negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with that country.
India has today over a billion people and a 400 to 500 million middle-class of whom 250 million live in the four southern states where the average growth has been over 8 per cent and industry is booming. With the advantage of distance, there is no doubt that we can plug into that supply chain and this opens new opportunities for foreign investors.
The relationship with China is also extremely close and it is our intention to plug in to their fast-growing supply chains. In time to come Sri Lanka will be a bridge for India-China economic relations.
Japan is also a country that has not forgotten the role we played at the San Francisco Peace Conference at the end of World War 2. Unfortunately our internal war made Japanese investors look elsewhere in Asia and we lost out then.
But today, our old friends are back with us. Yes, we do have powerful friends who are ready to help and help themselves too because of our strategic location in the Indian Ocean, which some Western countries have taken for granted.
Seasoned political analysts are anticipating a major change in South Asia. Sri Lanka sees this as a golden opportunity to plug into India, China and Asean, for cross-border intrafirm trade is the order of the day in the international trading system.
This also includes sourcing services across borders. Sri Lanka is also exploring the possibility of entreport trade in the near future.
Our relations with Malaysia are especially valued, for they stretch back a thousand years and more. Sri Lanka is today particularly interested in promoting investment in infrastructure development, tourism and information communication technology from Malaysia, which is currently the biggest investor in Sri Lanka.
The writer is the Sri Lankan high commissioner to Malaysia