On May 18, The Asia Foundation held a reception at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, hosted by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the U.S., Prasad Kariyawasam, as an opportunity for members of the area’s Sri Lankan diaspora and policy community to learn about the Foundation’s LankaCorps program. Over the past four years, 25 young professionals have served as LankaCorps Fellows, a unique opportunity developed by The Asia Foundation for young people of Sri Lankan heritage to live and work in Sri Lanka and contribute to the dynamic, multi-ethnic nation’s post-war recovery through six-month fellowships. Senior program officer Diana Kelly Alvord spoke to Ambassador Kariyawasam after the event.
Sri Lanka lost significant economic ground and many of its most skilled and educated leaders during the war. It is now on a path to rebuilding and healing social divides – both in-country and among its diaspora. What do you see as the most significant areas of progress since the war ended, and where do you see the biggest challenges ahead?
With the end of the conflict, the then-government of Sri Lanka focused on reconstruction and rehabilitation of the affected provinces of the North and East, including the rehabilitation and the reintegration into society of former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) child soldiers and combatants. A massive infrastructure development drive was launched to rebuild houses, roads, bridges, schools, and medical facilities in these areas, as well as clearing of large tracts of land from landmines to allow the return of IDP’s to their homes.
However, six years after the end of the armed conflict, there remained a sense that Sri Lanka had not succeeded in winning peace and harmony. A new government was elected in January 2015, which adopted the two-pronged policy of reconciliation and development, conscious that one without the other would not lead to genuine reconciliation among the diverse communities that make up Sri Lanka.
The new government committed itself to a holistic and ambitious post-conflict reconciliation approach. This was clearly manifested in September 2015, when Sri Lanka co-sponsored – with the United States and several other countries – a Resolution in the Human Rights Council, for implementing several measures domestically, including to evolve mechanisms for truth-seeking, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence. This is first time that any Sri Lankan government has made such commitments to work with international partners as well, to address human rights and humanitarian issues affecting Sri Lanka.
Since the election of the present government, Sri Lanka has made impressive strides promoting good governance, rule of law, and equality and justice. This fact has been widely acknowledged by the international community. For instance, U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, during her visit to Sri Lanka in November said that she cannot think of any other country where there has been so much positive change in such a short period of time.
One of the major achievements of the government was the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015 which re-invigorated democracy though a re-distribution of executive power, re-introduction of term limits of the presidency and the introduction of independent bodies for appointment and oversight of key institutions including the judiciary, police, public service etc. More recently, in April 2016 the Parliament met for the first time as a Constitutional Assembly, initiating the process of drafting a new Constitution, with a view to consolidating democracy and promoting reconciliation. This monumental transformation in Sri Lanka has in turn paved the way for more strengthened relationships with our friends and partners in the international community, in particular with the United Nations and the United States.
Notwithstanding this progress, sustaining the vigor of the reconciliation process and democratic reforms, among other factors, is centered on economic development, as the general public demands a quick peace dividend. Today, due to past fiscal profligacy, Sri Lanka suffers a debt burden. And a very low tax to GDP ratio compounds matters. While Sri Lanka is a low middle income country, the challenge of incorporating the bottom 40 percent of the population in our push to become a higher middle income country is another onerous task.
Meanwhile, the government envisages a role for the overseas diaspora of all communities towards rebuilding the country, both in supporting the reconciliation process and in contributing to the economic development in all regions.
How do you think these LankaCorps Fellows and the diaspora community at large can contribute to the country’s development and reconciliation?
International support for Sri Lanka’s domestic efforts to promote democracy, reconciliation, and economic development is invaluable. Young professionals of Sri Lankan heritage as well as the wider diaspora can make a substantial contribution to reconciliation and economic development efforts back in Sri Lanka. They have a unique opportunity to use their acquired skills and knowledge to positively influence the work of their brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka.
And they can serve as roving ambassadors for Sri Lanka when they return to the U.S. and other countries of residence. They are in a position to educate their expansive networks about realities in Sri Lanka in an objective manner, not only of its natural beauty, but the achievements in the physical quality of life, and of course the challenges, and as to how communities abroad can assist Sri Lanka to meet such challenges. They are in a unique position to dispel some myths and misrepresentations that are prevalent with regard to Sri Lanka. Moreover, their work in Sri Lanka would provide an opportunity for those establishments with whom they work to learn and understand competencies and work ethics of the communities and institutions they represent. This program is indeed an excellent process of two-way learning and mutual exchange of skills.
Where do you think Sri Lanka’s renewed desire to reconnect with its own diaspora groups abroad comes from?
The long-drawn conflict in Sri Lanka saw the departure of many Sri Lankans in search of greener pastures. We lost many of our skilled and educated people. With the government’s commitment to advancing democracy and promoting reconciliation, exciting new economic opportunities are opening up for international businesses and investors with special incentives for Sri Lankan expatriates. Many in the overseas Sri Lankan diaspora are crucial stakeholders in the reconciliation process. Many in our diaspora are very well educated, diligent, and successful –highly qualified professionals, senior officials, legislators, and managers. And most of them have a strong sense of identity with Sri Lanka. In this context, all diaspora groups have the potential of becoming partners in Sri Lanka’s social and economic development, for the benefit of both their home countries and mother country, Sri Lanka.
Since taking office in January 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena and his administration have focused on getting the country back on a path of good governance and advancing citizens’ rights, including just last week lifting the restrictions on issuing passports to citizens who sought asylum overseas during the war, with the aim of further enabling citizens overseas to visit and return to Sri Lanka. What do you see as some of the biggest changes under new leadership?
The armed conflict and the politics surrounding it polarized the debate on solutions to outstanding political issues in the country. Often, there was little room for input by moderate voices in Sri Lanka and abroad. The path taken by the government to re-invigorate Sri Lanka’s democratic roots and the commitment for promoting reconciliation has empowered moderate voices and their leverage has increased. There is now a very real possibility of generating a national consensus on political solutions to all outstanding issues, such as the nature of the State, devolution of power, and reforms in electoral representation. The challenge for the government and the people of Sri Lanka remains the extreme elements both within and outside Sri Lanka whose interest and objectives are at variance with the general view of Sri Lankans.