Presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats

At the Meeting of the Alliance of Democrats in Rome to discuss Security, Development, Democracy – 1st October  2010

I must thank the Alliance of Democrats for this invitation, which not only permits revisiting Rome, one of life’s  great experiences, but also focuses attention on factors particularly pertinent to Sri Lanka. Indeed in making a connection between Economic Development and Democracy, I should also draw attention to the third factor this meeting is about, namely Security.

Sri Lanka has just emerged from a harrowing conflict against one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. Sadly, though democratic friends in Asia such as India and Malaysia supported us wholeheartedly in this struggle, this was not the case with some Western democracies – Italy, I should note, being generally an honourable exception. This had to do with democracy again, in its more populist form, given the lobbying power of terrorists. Thankfully, with the conclusion of the British General Election, we hope that such depressing deficiencies in democratic systems are now behind us.

The fears we had with regard to our security, and the disparities in economic development this led to, are now thankfully definitely behind us. I must admit that, initially, successive Sri Lankan governments were responsible for failing to ensure equitable economic development throughout the country. This contributed to resentments that burst out in terrorism movements, in the South of the country as well as in the North. But, whereas disparities based purely on geography, something you are familiar with in Italy too, can be solved relatively easily – or rather should be, since this is an area in which we have much to learn from each other – resentments are less easy to assuage when racial differences are added to geographical ones.

So in Sri Lanka we had resentments that multiplied, and when we reached accommodation with all but one of the terrorist groups that had emerged, that one, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, declared that they were the only representatives of the Tamils. Murdering other Tamil leaders, aided and abetted by political parties in Sri Lanka that tried to use them, converting sympathetic politicians in the West to their cause, the Tigers for twenty years and more prevented settlement, and indeed prevented corrective measures with regard to the deprivation of the Tamil people.

We did however finally overcome the Tigers, through military operations that should be studied by any Western nation wondering why their own wars against terror are failing, and why they have not won the support of the people whose willing or unwilling covert support contributes to the survival of terrorist forces. That however is another question. What concerns me here is the way in which fast forwarding development has contributed to the understanding finally amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka, as well as amongst idealistic but balanced supporters of Tamils abroad, that the present government is committed to a pluralistic democracy.

With regard to infrastructure, the results of concerted effort, begun in the part-Tamil Eastern Province even while the war in the North continued, are palpable, and have contributed already to developing local markets for produce that earlier could not command good prices. We have hopes now of excellent harvests in the North in the coming season, with more attention to value adding processes that will help with integration.

Much though remains to be done. Economic development and integration must go together with educational improvements that will enable people from previously neglected areas to participate fully in planning and plan implementation in their home areas. We must also facilitate direct linkages with the world, for which the privileging of English and IT last year, with special emphasis on the main Tamil city, was a healthy precursor.

We also need to strengthen democracy, in a way that makes clear to people all over the country that their voices will be heard. For the first time ever in Sri Lanka we have now an elected Head of Government from outside the charmed Western Province. Disparate development in Sri Lanka thus far has meant that, though we have now reached middle income status – a tremendous achievement, given that we did so despite the economic constraints of war – much of that income is concentrated in the Western Province.  Now however we have a government committed, for emotional as well as political and moral reasons, to spreading the benefits of economic development more widely.

But to ensure greater participation in decision making, government has plans to introduce a Second Chamber, with greater weight to the Provinces, to encourage more active high level contribution to parliamentary debate and decision making. We also plan to revise the electoral system to ensure greater responsibility to smaller constituencies, so that discrete geographical areas will have their own more accountable representatives.

Such measures will we trust limit the resentments that burst out in flames on three separate occasions in Sri Lanka, when youngsters felt democracy had failed them. In ensuring, more successfully than any other democracy in the world, that dissent should not feel violence is a successful resource, we must equally effectively ensure that youngsters feel empowered through democracy. Empowerment means possession of material resources as well as political ones, the competence to make use of the latter, with understanding of how to promote the former equitably and effectively.

In concluding, let me hope that the Alliance will meet next in Asia, so that we can continue with this dialogue in a setting that will promote greater understanding of the challenges we all face. The Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats would be happy to host such a meeting, which will also I hope allow us to express in practical terms our appreciation of your gracious hospitality over the years.

Thank you.