'Sri Lanka overcame insurmountable obstacles'
As Sri Lanka strives to become the Wonder of Asia, those in the
corporate world have a special responsibility to help the nation achieve
its economic potential. While the Government will do its best to
maintain a conducive environment for development, it is the private
sector that must take the bold steps needed for strong economic growth.
De-mining being carried out
Sri Lanka is presently enjoying its fifth year of peace, security and
stability. It is of the utmost importance to make maximum use of the
many opportunities that the current environment provides. Sri Lanka is a
far different country today from what it was not so long ago.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected to office in 2005,
Sri Lanka had suffered from the terrorism of the LTTE for close to three
decades. Almost all the territory north of Vavuniya was controlled by
the LTTE, and two-thirds of the East was under its dominance. People
from all ethnicities, religions and walks of life throughout Sri Lanka
underwent untold suffering. Many leading politicians, officials and
other public figures were ruthlessly assassinated. Economic targets were
frequently attacked. Even key places of worship were not free from LTTE
Those in villages near LTTE dominated territory were always under
threat of brutal attacks. Civilians in the rest of the country also
lived in constant fear. Vehicle bombs, claymore mine attacks and suicide
bombings claimed the lives of thousands, injured tens of thousands and
deeply affected hundreds of thousands more.
Changing this situation by eradicating terror and fear from Sri Lanka
was the first priority of the President when he was elected in 2005.
Very few initially believed that terrorism could be defeated. Over
the years, a lot of negativity had built up in Sri Lanka about this
issue. All previous Presidents and prior governments representing
different political parties had tried to end the terrorist conflict
during their time in office. They tried military campaigns, peace talks,
and even foreign intervention, but failed to achieve lasting peace
despite each attempt. But the President's confidence and his
determination to bring peace and stability to Sri Lanka were
unchangeable. Despite the sheer immensity of the challenges ahead,
whether on the battlefield, within the domestic environment or in the
international arena, he achieved this objective within the first three
and a half years of his time in office. The defeat of the LTTE and the
dawn of peace in May 2009 marked a watershed in this nation's history.
But even as the country looked towards building on its new found peace
and recapturing the opportunities it had lost over the past thirty
years, a new set of challenges faced Sri Lanka. Demining and resettling
those displaced by the LTTE during the last stages of the conflict,
rehabilitating the LTTE cadres who had surrendered or been captured, and
rebuilding areas that had stagnated under LTTE dominance were the most
immediate of these.
Repealing restrictions on land and sea, disarming armed groups,
reviving democratic processes and reestablishing elections in the North
and East, and restoring normalcy in the country at large were also
Furthermore, steps had to be taken to ensure national reconciliation
and create a platform conducive for rapid economic growth. Over the last
five years, each of these post conflict challenges has been overcome
Development of former LTTE controlled areas was a major focus of the
Government in the first two years after the dawn of peace. Because of
LTTE action and long neglect everything in these areas was in urgent
need of repair and improvement.
These requirements were solved through expedited reconstruction
program undertaken by Government agencies together with the military.
Great improvements were made to infrastructure such as roads and
railways, utilities such as electricity transmission, water supply and
sanitation, and services such as healthcare, education, public transport
and solid waste management. Modernity finally returned to those areas
that had been stagnant for so long.
With the exception of a few high level cadres who were identified for
prosecution through the legal system, nearly 12,000 former LTTE cadres
who had surrendered to the Armed Forces and nearly 5,000 LTTE cadres who
were in Government detention and custody were rehabilitated, released
and reintegrated to society within a short span of time. Interestingly,
scientific studies carried out by two professors from the University of
Maryland College Park in the USA have shown that the rehabilitation
process has been exceptionally successful. They report that the vast
majority of reintegrated rehabilitees no longer support even the concept
of devolution, much less separatism.
Considerable attention has also been given to the livelihood
development of the resettled and reintegrated persons, through provision
of financial and other assistance for farmers, fishermen and
entrepreneurs. Those seeking employment in various industries or in
government service were also assisted to find jobs. Many young people,
including a large number of rehabilitees, have joined the Civil Defence
Force and the military. Restoring normalcy in the North and East
required several other steps as well.
The armed groups that had been operating in opposition to the LTTE
during the conflict were quickly disarmed and encouraged to engage in
other activities for the betterment of the people, including social and
political work. Restrictions that used to be in place on movement,
transport of goods, and fishing were systematically repealed.
High security zones as well as security barricades and checkpoints
were dismantled. Lands that had used by the military and those forcibly
taken over and used by the LTTE over the last twenty to thirty years
were handed back to their rightful owners. Many new police stations were
established and large numbers of Tamil speaking policemen were
recruited, trained and appointed to work in them. The Armed Forces were
completely withdrawn from law and order duties.
Most importantly, the democratic process was fully revived and
elections were held at every level in the North and East shortly after
the end of the war. Because of the President's insistence on restoring
the democratic rights of the people in former LTTE controlled areas as
fast as possible, elections were held in the North and East soon after
By 2013, the people in former LTTE controlled areas had been able to
vote in a Presidential Election, a General Election, a Provincial
Council election and in Local Government Elections. The fact that these
elections were free and fair, and that political plurality and freedom
of representation exists in the North and East is clear in the success
that opposition parties such as the TNA have had in these elections.
As a result of all these efforts, citizens in former LTTE held areas
became able to experience a quality of life similar to that enjoyed in
the rest of the country not long after the end of the conflict. They
have the empowerment, the resources and the opportunities they need to
build better futures for themselves and their loved ones. This has set
the stage for national reconciliation, unity, and lasting peace within a
united and unitary Sri Lanka.
The remaining challenge for the Government in the post conflict
period was to further strengthen the platform it had created for rapid
economic development. The centerpiece of the Government's development
strategy, identified by the President as a main focal point for his
second term in office, is transforming Sri Lanka into a dynamic global
hub. This strategy makes full use of the country's position at the
centre of the Indian Ocean, its educated and skilled workforce, and its
hard won peace and stability. It envisions Sri Lanka becoming a Naval,
Aviation, Commercial, Energy and Knowledge Hub.
Investments were made in key infrastructure such as roads, railways,
ports and airports; in electricity generation & transmission; in water
supply, drainage & sewerage; and in city and town development. Much has
also been done to improve other enablers of rapid development, including
secondary, tertiary and vocational education, as well as facilities
available for research and development. Low interest rates have been
maintained to spur domestic investment, while inflation has been
One of the most visible efforts of the Government in creating an
environment supportive of growth has been the work done to improve the
quality of life in urban areas throughout Sri Lanka.
The creation of a people friendly living environment in the country
at large will help Sri Lanka attract and retain the highly skilled
professionals and knowledge workers required by a middle income economy.
These individuals expect a social and physical environment that is of
a high standard. Such an environment is also extremely important from
the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment, and for the
further development of local industries and businesses. That is why much
of the work undertaken by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development
in recent years has been focused on uplifting the quality of Sri Lanka's
metropolitan areas. The objective has been to create a clean and green
environment for people to live in and enjoy.
In Colombo, a lot of work has been done to address the many issues
that the city faced due to its organic growth over the last few decades.
The issue of frequent flooding is being addressed through the Metro
Colombo Urban Development Project. The Beire Lake, the canal system and
micro drainage channels throughout the city have been greatly improved.
Water retention reservoirs have been created in Sri Jayawardenepura,
Rampalawatte and Palawatte to collect and gradually discharge stormwater.
The Weras Ganga project is being implemented to address flooding issues
in the southern part of the greater Colombo area.
Capacity building of the key agencies responsible for flood control
activities has also been undertaken.
The large number of families who used to live in unsafe and
unhygienic slums and shanties have been given the opportunity to enjoy a
much higher quality of life through the creation of medium to high rise
housing complexes throughout the city.
By introducing the former underserved segments to a much better and
more comfortable way of life, this initiative has provided them the
environment they need to achieve social mobility. At the same time, this
initiative has also freed a lot of prime land in Colombo for commercial
and other development.
Together with the shifting of administrative buildings to Sri
Jayawardenepura, this will assist the growth of Colombo into a
world-class commercial hub.
The city has also been made much more pedestrian friendly through the
creation of high quality pavements alongside the main roads, the
surfaces of which have also been greatly improved. The one way system
has been extended, and studies are being conducted with a view to
further ease traffic congestion in the city.
The introduction of a mass transit system is also likely in the next
few years. Keeping the city environment clean has also received a lot of
attention. The collection of garbage along city streets has been greatly
improved, and a project to solve the garbage issue in the long term will
commence very soon. Under this project, municipal solid waste from the
greater Colombo area will be transported via rail to a large sanitary
landfill in an abandoned quarry, where it will be safely and
scientifically disposed of. A great deal of work has also been done in
the recent past to rejuvenate urban life. Many new public open spaces
for people to exercise, socialise and relax in have been created.
The quality of the waterways has also been improved, enabling more
recreational activities to take place on and around the water bodies.
Walls that had been erected in public places due to security concerns
have been removed, opening up new vistas of greenery and beautiful
architecture for people to see and enjoy. New landmark leisure
destinations such as the Dutch Hospital Precinct,the Colombo Racecourse
and the Arcade Independence Square have been established by renovating
and refurbishing previously neglected historic buildings.
These sites are becoming increasingly popular amongst locals and
tourists alike, and are contributing to the city's new vibrancy.
It should be noted that international investors and the local private
sector alike have seized upon the many opportunities being created
through all of these programmes.
Over the next decade, the quality of Colombo's real estate and its
skyline will transform dramatically as world-class hotels, apartment
complexes, office buildings and entertainment venues are set up here.
These developments and other programs of the Government will help
transform Colombo into the dynamic centrepiece of a country that is fast
achieving its aspiration to be the Wonder of Asia.
Apart from the metro Colombo region, the Government has also focused
on uplifting the standard of other key cities. With the creation of its
world class Harbour and the nearby Mattala International Airport,
Hambantota has enormous potential to exploit its proximity to one of the
busiest Sea Lanes of Communication in the world and become a regional
industrial and logistics hub. Steps have also been taken to improve the
quality of well-established cities such as Kandy and Galle. Smaller
cities such as Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Matara, Nuwara Eliya and
Trincomalee are also being developed rapidly so that the quality of life
of residents and visitors will also be greatly improved. Key cities are
being linked through a highway network that has already drastically cut
short travel times on a few important routes.
All of these initiatives which are rapidly transforming Sri Lanka
were undertaken and are being executed in a remarkably short span of
Each of them was formulated in accordance with the far sighted
strategic vision of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
guided by the Government and its officials, and are being achieved
through the dedication and hard work of numerous state agencies and
While there are admittedly still a few other areas in which
improvements can and will be made, Government is very keen to work with
the private sector and civil society to overcome any remaining
impediments that may exist for the unfettered functioning of our
democracy and for inclusive, sustainable and vibrant economic growth.
One of the natural consequences of increasing per capita income is
that the expectations of people also rise. Reforms and ideals that could
only be dreamt of in years past are now being demanded virtually
instantly by some sections of our society.
While this is perfectly understandable, we should not lose sight of
the journey on which we have come, or of the destination that we have to
What Sri Lanka most requires at this juncture is for all of us to
unite and make the most of our opportunities so that our collective
future will be so much brighter.
Continuity is the key to achieving this. We must not stray from the
vibrant, transformative path we are on.
Instead we must all unite, as Sri Lankans, and continue this journey
without pause so that this nation's aspirations will be achieved.
Text of the Speech delivered at the Business Today Top 25 Companies
Awards Ceremony at the Hilton Hotel in Colombo recently