Interview: Maithripala Sirisena

In what ways is Sri Lanka leveraging its geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean to help stimulate domestic economic growth?

MAITHRIPALA SIRISENA: Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location has brought us many benefits over the centuries. Our country’s long tradition as a dual economy with thriving trade and agriculture has a lot to do with the trade-enabling location of the country. Colombo is a gateway to India, and our close proximity to the world’s busiest sea route provides the potential to become an Indian Ocean hub. Sri Lanka wants its growth to be balanced, inclusive and green. Our economic and trade policy focuses on inclusive and equitable growth. We also place equal importance on the environment. Our country already enjoys the best living standards in South Asia, and we have an educated, skilled population. Sri Lanka is also blessed with excellent beaches and mountainous greenery. These are the reasons why Sri Lanka is a destination of choice for many foreign investors. On the economic front, we have a policy of strategically entering into free trade agreements (FTAs) to enhance our geostrategic advantage. We have signed trade agreements with India, Pakistan and Singapore, and plan to sign an FTA with China. Once these FTAs are in operation, our industries will have access to markets that host half of the world’s population. Our country’s infrastructure has also seen significant improvements. Besides the Colombo Financial Centre, which is being built on reclaimed land, the country’s road network, transportation, and urban and regional centres have been improving considerably. Much development work is done through the Ministry of Megapolis, which is influenced by rising urbanisation, emerging technologies and environmental concerns.

How has your “middle path” foreign policy guided interactions with the international community?

SIRISENA: When you try to win the hearts and minds of anyone, whether domestically or internationally, there are two options. The first is to tell them what they want to hear, which can be deceitful and manipulative. This is how most win elections and gain favour in the short term with the international community. However, while leaders can do this domestically, and make up for the deceit six years later, there are no similar solutions on the international stage. Deceiving our allies and taking them for granted will have consequences.

We brought to the world stage the same honesty, transparency and good faith with which we approached the country in January 2015. Just as we listened to our own people, we listened to the heads of states and diplomats representing our traditional allies and international agencies. We engaged them candidly, rather than bombastically villainising them and sowing division. Wherever their views and agendas aligned with Sri Lanka’s national interests, we worked with them, and where such alignment was lacking, we were candid and ensured we treated all of our international partners with equal respect and dignity.

Speaking for myself, whenever I meet a head of state or a leader of an international organisation, even though our discussions may only be 30 minutes long, I place emphasis on understanding them and building a personal connection. For example, Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka on the third day of my presidency, and I benefitted immensely from a thoughtful exchange of ideas. Whether I am sitting down one-to-one with the Supreme Leader of Iran, or together with the six heads of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation states, I deliberately focus on building a personal bond.

Whenever I meet state leaders at international conferences and events such as those hosted by the Commonwealth and the UN, I have found that this style of engagement leads to mutual trust and understanding. Forming and improving such relationships is an art and requires an inherent quality and talent as well as strong principles. Whether it is China’s President Xi Jinping, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in or leaders of North American nations, I have prioritised fostering positive relationships with them.

It is the same with leaders of organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Korea International Cooperation Agency. At every level of diplomacy, not just between heads of state, Sri Lanka has adopted this approach, which has been central to our rise in stature on the world stage.

To what extent can policies that support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) help to address regional economic disparities?

SIRISENA: Local industries and SMEs are the most important driver of our economy. This sector provides employment to most of our workforce. My government created a platform for democracy, and this new environment is safe and attractive to local as well as foreign investors. We have paid special attention to the development of SMEs throughout the country. The government’s commitment to develop the sector is evident in the measures we have taken to provide incentives and encourage local industries, from creating special industrial zones, to providing attractive tax benefits, concessionary loans, training, and research and development support. The benefits are starting to appear.

The idea was to fight the country’s relatively high regional disparities through investing in SMEs, as they are known to bring more benefits directly to their host communities. To support this drive, the government strengthened its regional SME support centres and launched an incentives programme.

The results are encouraging. Today, many young entrepreneurs start SMEs, and the overall performance of regional SMEs has improved. This means more jobs and wider benefits to the market. I am very happy to see the progress in the North and East provinces – areas that have long been traumatised by a protracted armed conflict are now catching up.

What tangible benefits have come from the National Reconciliation Policy, and how are you ensuring effective implementation?

SIRISENA: Peace and reconciliation means ensuring that Sri Lanka will never again be torn apart by a civil war, and that all people and communities share the happiness of living a dignified life. Achieving true reconciliation is more than distributing material benefits and handouts. Three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka have shattered harmony and trust between ethnic communities. The role of government in a pluralistic society is to bring everyone together, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, and not to prey upon divisions for political gain. Peace and reconciliation is more than urban and infrastructure development. It is of paramount importance to address social and human dimensions and residual insecurities. To rebuild trust among the communities, we have appointed several bodies, formed a new ministry, launched multiple rehabilitation programmes and have invested more funding to develop the areas that were affected by the war, with both local and foreign funds. Building trust is the main focus, so that all can live in an environment devoid of fear, distrust and disharmony. We are expanding the education system to include national languages and are providing training to officials to ensure the National Language Policy is upheld and respected. It is essential to use our free education system to strengthen reconciliation and good governance, which are paramount for the betterment and future of the country. Freedom, independence of the judiciary, democracy and building trust between ethnicities must be sustained. To achieve these aims, the government has completed many initiatives in the past three to four years and will continue to implement new programmes in the future. This country’s destiny is one of unity, reconciliation and good governance.