Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Budgetary Challenges for 2018

Posted by harimpeiris on November 24, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 23rd Nov 2017)

 

“Good economics is good politics” goes the old adage and Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, relatively new to his crucial portfolio of public finance has presented his maiden budget, styled a blue green budget, which in characteristic Mangala style, is optimistic, forward looking and environmentally friendly, highlighting the opportunities and the promise available to an economy emerging from nearly three decades of civil conflict.  The budget debate as it proceeds through Parliament, reflects the many economic challenges ahead for the Finance Minister and economic Yahapalanaya.

That the National Unity Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe inherited an economy, which had been badly mismanaged together with significant corruption in the preceding term, is widely accepted not just in the commercial world, both local and international, but also among the general public. However, the public expectations from the Yahapalanaya Administration has been quite high, as the Rajapaksa’s and corruption were largely blamed for Sri Lanka’s economic malaise. The end of the Rajapaksa’s in 2015 raised public expectations, that a “good governance dividend” would be forthcoming. It is this good governance dividend which now, the leaders of Yahapalanaya have called upon Mangala Samaraweera to deliver. Mangala is no stranger to state sector reform. It is worth remembering that it was Mangala twenty years ago, who as the then Minister of Telecommunications and Media, who implemented the entire telecom sector liberalization, ending the state sector monopoly and privatizing Sri Lanka Telecom, resulting in Sri Lanka today having South Asia’s most advanced telecoms infrastructure and its highest mobile and internet penetration rates.

The Standard and Poor’s rating outlook upgrade

 

A few days ago, the international credit rating agency, Standard and Poor’s revised upwards, Sri Lanka’s credit rating outlook from negative to stable. In practical terms, this should make Sri Lanka’s access to the international capital markets to refinance its maturing dollar loans easier and somewhat less costly. On a more policy recognition level, the outlook upgrade recognizes what the rating agency calls the “improving reform momentum” including the passage of the new Inland Revenue Act, the proposed Liability Management Act and the recent independence of the Central Bank.

The political challenges of reform

 

However Standard and Poor’s also states that “we continue to observe significant challenges to the policy making environment”. Economically the Rajapakse post war policy of foreign, largely Chinese, commercial borrowings spent on projects of dubious utility value, such as a little used port, airport and a loss-making budget airline together with the world’s most expensive highways was no longer fiscally possible. Besides the astrological predictions, the other more rationale political reason for Mahinda Rajapakse calling the presidential elections two years before his term was over, might well have been the advice of his economic guru’s that the borrow and spend good times, just could not be sustained. The Yahapalanaya Administration though is faced with dealing with both the decades of economic reform stagnation, as the civil war sapped our national energy and more importantly the mismanagement of the immediate post war era. This mismanagement ballooned the national, especially foreign debt, while making precious little contribution to sustainable economic growth. The challenges of a low productive agricultural sector, an education system which produces graduates for non-existent white-collar jobs, inflexibility in the labor market through archaic regulations, are all long overdue for reform. The immediate challenges of stagnant or declining expatriate worker remittances, undiversified exports and especially significantly below peer group average foreign direct investment and tourist arrivals, all remain to be addressed.

The Poverty Legacy of the War in the North and East

 

The Blue-Green Yahapalanaya budget 2018, though addresses and deals with one of the key effects of the decades long civil war in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The recent survey by the Census and Statistic Department denotes that average median household incomes are considerably less in the North and East than they are in the rest of the country. The destruction of community infrastructure has resulted in serious livelihood and income generation challenges especially in the rural parts of the North and East. Amid the rural poverty, the food security, health and overall vulnerability of certain social sub groups, such as women headed households and children in low income families is acute.

The budget also allocates funds for the implementation of the much delayed fifty thousand houses program in the North and East. This time directly under the President in his capacity as Minister of Reconciliation. It is somewhat regretted that this flagship project, much awaited and anticipated in the North and East was delayed due to the controversy over the proposal to build the houses in steel rather than the common and culturally acceptable brick and mortar constructions.

In terms of reconciliation, while the Government works through the constitutional framework for political reform, it is also important to recognize and address the effects of the war, especially on the most vulnerable sectors of the population. It is expected that the fifty thousand houses program if targeted correctly will make a significant contribution in that regard.

It is interesting to note that the Government enjoys a two third (2/3) majority in Parliament for its annual signature finance bill and that both the first and second readings of the budget has passed with greater than one hundred and fifty (150) votes, being a two third majority in the House. A Government which commands that much support in the legislature should not waste this majority on business as usual, but move towards effecting the economic, democratic and reconciliation reforms which Sri Lanka, so badly requires.

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The SLFP contribution to devolution and constitutional reform

Posted by harimpeiris on November 13, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 11th November 2017)

 

The recently concluded three-day debate by the Constitutional Assembly on the Interim Report of its Steering Committee was an excellent exercise in seeking to move forward the State reform process in Sri Lanka. The debate demonstrated that there was a degree of common ground and areas of sufficient consensuses not only between the two major parties in government, the UNP and the SLFP but even with wide sections of the opposition. Old hackneyed terms such as why we need reform or there is no need for devolution etc. was largely absent from the mainstream discourse. With the Parliament focusing its attention on the national budget to be concluded with the December parliamentary recess and January being dedicated to the scheduled local government elections, further progress on the constitutional reform will be after the dust settles from the local government elections. The outcome of the elections, while very local in focus and scope will nonetheless impact the politics of the reform process.

Within this context, it is worthwhile for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which finds itself both heading the government through the presidency but having a divided parliamentary group in both government and opposition to reflect upon its rich tradition of contributions and commitment to state reform including devolution of power.

SWRD Bandaranaike’s advocacy of Federalism

 

It was SWRD Bandaranaike, the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who even before the formation of the party, at the time when he was articulating his political vision for the then Ceylon, who advocated the concept of a Federal State. The arguments made at that time by Mr. Bandaranaike was that federalism would be the best method to enable us to reflect the diversity of our society.  He articulated these views on federalism in six letters which he wrote in 1926 to “The Ceylon Morning Leader”. Accordingly, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam pact was a reflection of his own belief that devolution of power was an appropriate, suitable and desirable state structure for Sri Lanka. In more recent times, his daughter and subsequent SLFP leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was to bring the SLFP back to power after a long spell in opposition with a clear political pledge to bring about devolution of power and other constitutional reforms.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK)’s proposed new constitution

 

This return of the SLFP to power in 1994, under the leadership of CBK was with a clear commitment to constitutional reform and devolution of power. The SLFP proposals of 1994, popularly referred to as a “package”, resulted, after a nationwide dialogue and consultative process, in the proposed new constitution of August 2000. As the SLFP led People’s Alliance Government of 2000 had only a single seat majority in the house, it was a miracle that the proposed constitution of 2000 came as close as it did to securing the required two thirds in parliament, falling only about eight votes short according to the then chief government whips office.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s commitment through the All-Party Representatives Committee (APRC)

 

The Mahinda Chinthanaya “Love Dinnana Maga” or the Mahinda Chinthanaya – Path to Success, the election manifesto of President Mahinda Rajapakse from which he sought re-election in January 2015, has a clear commitment to constitutional reform including the devolution of power. In its section two (2) titled, A Wide Political Reform – A New Political Culture, President Rajapaksa’s manifesto of 2015, states as follows.

“We have been battered for 36 years by the 1978 Constitution which was thrust upon our people and country, without an appropriate debate or discussion. We must also collectively acknowledge that our Constitution is now further distorted due to the various amendments over the years, some of which are not consistent with others. Therefore, instead of amending the Constitution further with piece-meal changes, I will take action to formulate a new Constitution that reflects the peoples’ ideas, aspirations and wishes, within a period of one year.”

It further goes on to state “The entire Parliament will be formed as a Constitutional Council consisting of peoples’ representatives belonging to all political parties, which will identify the peoples’ expectations and aspirations in order to formulate a new Constitution.”

That this publicly stated commitment on which Mahinda Rajapakse secured his unsuccessful support base of forty-seven (47.5%) of the electorate was not a flash in the pan, because President Rajapakse had been making such policy statements before. In his keynote policy speech on 11th July 2006 as President, to the inaugural session of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) convened and established by him with the objective of seeking a consensus on reforms to the Sri Lankan State, he stated as follows.

“Our objective must be to develop a just settlement within an undivided Sri Lanka”. He further states “We must explore past attempts from the Bandaranike-Chelvanayakam Pact onwards. We must draw appropriate lessons from the experience of other countries”.

With the stated commitment of President Rajapakse at the 2015 presidential election, that it becomes clear that both candidates at the presidential election in 2015, Mahinda Rajapakse and Maithripala Sirisena, committed themselves and their political program and objectives to constitutional reform.

Accordingly, over ninety seven percent (97%) of the people who voted for these two candidates have given an overwhelming mandate for constitutional reform. Accordingly, the process of constitutional reform through the Constitutional Assembly, is a process which has a popular mandate. The actual reforms themselves or what would be the exact output of this process is left to the apex legislature of our country to devise through a process of dialogue and discourse, including civil society consultation.

As the country moves forward on the constitutional reform process, especially leaders and members of the SLFP should reflect on Sri Lanka’s lost opportunities of the past and not let the country lose out yet again on the window of opportunity presented by the unity government and the consensus around constitutional reforms, to enact the state reforms which Sri Lanka so badly needs.

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CBK makes a comeback to active politics from Attanagalla

Posted by harimpeiris on October 24, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 18th October)

 

An election which the opposition has been clamoring for, the local government elections are finally expected to be conducted on or around the 20thof January 2018. Preceding those elections, was what some sections of the media described as a purge of SLFP dissidents from the all-important post of organizer of an electorate. JO stalwarts Kumara Welgama and Mahindananda Aluthgamage being among others sacked from their positions by President Maithripala Sirisena as SLFP Party Leader. Consequently, President Sirisena appointed a range of new SLFP electoral organizers, mostly fresh younger politicians from the provincial level. What was clear though, through the sackings was that the attempted rapprochement between the two factions of the SLFP, those within the government and those with the Opposition, was now effectively over and the battle lines for the local elections have been drawn. We are headed for an essentially a three-way contest, between the two partners in government, the UNP and the SLFP and the new SLPP the most likely political vehicle of the Joint Opposition and its smaller allies.

 

Most interestingly though was the reinduction of retired President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as SLFP organizer for the Attanagalla electorate, a Bandaranaike stronghold which the family has nursed for generations and which has stood with the SLFP during good times and bad, including the nadir of the 1977 defeat. The appointment as electoral organizer, signals a return from retirement back to electoral politics for the matriarch of the SLFP. The Gampaha District, Sri Lanka’s second most populous district, is an electorally pivotal district on which a national election can turn. With her profile and stature, President Kumaratunga is now effectively the SLFP District Leader for Gampaha.

 

CBK’s return to electoral politics did not occur in a vacuum and is largely the logical conclusion of her active architecture of the rainbow coalition which ousted the former Rajapakse Administration in 2015, a feat thought near impossible then, both due to President Rajapaksa’s popularity and more importantly due to the fractious nature of the political opposition around 2013 and 2014. But President Kumaratunga sensed the winds of change, did the impossible and formed the grand national “rainbow” coalition of the NDF and of course the rest is our nation’s recent history.

 

The political story of the SLFP post the elections of 2015 is that it did not fully fall in behind President Sirisena, with a section of the Party remaining in the opposition and fashioning themselves as the Joint Opposition, while a section of the Party joined the National Unity Government or the grand national coalition of the two major parties. Joining the intra party fight at an early stage though initially in only a semi-executive manner was President Kumaratunga who made no secret of her desire to keep the Rajapaksa’s from ever making a political comeback to the national leadership. President Kumaratunga is also actively committed to the National Unity Government, believing that a measure of consensus between the two major parties is required to give effect to the next generation of state reforms, economic, political and social, required to solidify our transition to a post conflict, upper middle-income country, with social cohesion and justice.

 

Within the SLFP, the return of CBK to a post of electoral organizer, and especially in the key Gampaha District, puts her on SLFP party parity status with Mahinda Rajapakse, as a formidable political player and former president with a mass public following with an electoral appeal to the base of the SLFP party faithful. It significantly strengthens President Sirisena’s hand, with President Kumaratunga aligning her support in line with President Sirisena’s.

The return to active politics from retirement, is a not unusual political phenomenon globally, while how it plays out in Sri Lanka and the SLFP will remain to be seen. The most well-known international example is that of President Daniel Ortega, head of the Sandinista political movement in Nicaragua, who governed Nicaragua for eleven years from 1979 to 1990 and then made a comeback after seventeen long years, being re-elected President in 2007 and governs to date.

 

The Rajapakse led Joint Opposition however also did not let the grass grow under their feet during these past two and a half years and have formed the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Pakshaya (SLPP), under Basil Rajapakse which is likely to be the political vehicle of choice for the Joint Opposition (JO), for the local government elections. This sets up an interesting three-way contest, between the UNP, the SLFP and the JO (SLPP), the first time in nearly three decades when one of the two major parties faced an election seriously divided, the prior occasion being when late Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali broke away from President Premadasa and the UNP to form the DUNF (Rajaaliya). In the ensuing election the DUNF came a respectable third place, but the weakening of the UNP through the schism witnessed the return to power of the SLFP in 1994 under the then young and newly returned from self-imposed exile, daughter of the SLFP founders, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

 

The January 2018 local government elections will also end up being a three-way political context and it remains to be seen what the outcome would be. The practice of coalition or alliance partners contesting elections separately and then forming post-election alliances is not unusual not just globally but even in Sri Lanka, where essentially the August 2015 General Elections was contested while the SLFP was in coalition with the UNP in the post presidential election national unity government.

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with a quote from a senior Indian journalist and political analyst who once told me, some years ago, “it would be a serious political analytical error to ever count out and disregard, the Gandhi’s of India, the Bhutto’s of Pakistan and the Bandaranaike’s of Sri Lanka”. With general elections due in Pakistan in 2018, with local elections due in Sri Lanka early next year and Indian elections due in 2019, time will tell to what extent the old adage still holds true.

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Making the case for constitutional reform

Posted by harimpeiris on September 21, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 21st September 2017)

 

Even as this article is being penned, the interim report of the Executive Committee of the Constitutional Council is scheduled for the 21st of September 2017, about one and a half years, since Parliament turned itself into a Constitutional Council in January 2016. This crucial process of nation building through state reform, is typically generating more political heat than shedding light on facts or creating a process of informed public discourse.

 

Comparative international experience, history and political science would teach us that any nation building exercise, of societies transitioning from civil war to post war or internal conflict to post conflict, does require reforms that roll back the restrictions on civil liberties necessitated by the war effort, rehabilitation and reconstruction which deals with the effects of the conflict and political reforms aimed at dealing with the root causes of the conflict. Sri Lanka is no exception to the rule.

 

The Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe elected in 2015, claim a mandate for three sets of reforms, or the pillars of their policy framework, democratic reforms, such as through the 19th amendment and the RTI Act, economic reforms through various policy instruments and reconciliation reforms. Regarding constitutional reforms, the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration sought to reform or replace the executive presidency, electoral voting system and devolution of power.

 

There does seem to exist a degree of consensus among the major parties regarding electoral reform, reforms which would see us moving to a more mixed or hybrid system of direct and proportional representation elections. The smaller parties have concerns regarding their representation, especially parties which gets seats through the PR system though not winning a constituency. Ultimately their interest would also need to be accommodated and technical formulas are not impossible to come by.

 

The devolution of power is a political debate which has been ongoing in post-independence Sri Lanka, with the famous Bandaranayke – Chelvanayagam Pact and the Dudley – Chelvanayagam Pact some of the earlier expressions of that dialogue and resultant leadership consensus. In more recent times, the political reform debate and proposed new constitution of August 2000 of the then President Kumaratunga’s SLFP led Peoples Alliance Administration or the more recent proposals and recommendations under President Rajapakse of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which proposed a slew of far reaching state reform have in reality brought about a degree of common ground on less centralized and more power sharing political structures.  The political contention that the LTTE fought for devolution of power and hence power sharing is granting the LTTE agenda through constitutional reforms, is quite a stretch of the facts, since the LTTE actually opposed provincial councils, devolution with power sharing and instead fought for a separate state and absolute unchecked power. Further devolution could rather strengthen the state, by making a diverse society more cohesive through reducing if not eliminating the alienation from the Sri Lankan state of ethnic minorities, resolving what LTTE suicide bomb victim late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam so aptly termed, “the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”.

 

However, it is with regard to the executive presidency, where the recent political discourse has ignored the ground realities and Sri Lanka’s near four-decade long experience with the office of the executive president. Firstly, Sri Lanka will always have a President, since we are no longer a monarchy, the issue is whether the president will have near unchecked powers, as before the 19th amendment, have more limited executive powers through further reforms or be a nominal or ceremonial head of state, with executive power vesting collectively in the Cabinet of Ministers, as was Sri Lanka’s experience prior to 1978.

 

Now the promoters of the executive presidency argue two points, the first that an executive president requiring to be elected by the whole country as a single electorate, cannot ignore a single voter segment including the ethnic and religious minority communities, predominantly present in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. This argument has some merit but is not entirely correct. Prior to the presidential election on January 2015, it was twenty years previously, way back in 1994 that the North and East voted for the winner of the presidential election. Even the 1999 re-election of President Kumaratunga was achieved with a split minority vote, with the majority of the North and Eastern vote going to the unsuccessful challenger. There are other political institutions which can better accommodate minorities and unrepresented groups, the most obvious being a second chamber or conversely a small numerical increase in the nominated members for the lower house, which also solves the problems of electoral reform for the smaller parties.

 

The weakest argument put forward by proponents of a strong executive presidency is that such a strong centralizing power and authority, helps to keep a nation together, implicitly arguing that it promotes social cohesion. However, Sri Lanka’s history of the past two decades proves just the reverse. That strong centralized power often leads to excess and a lack of restraint in the exercise of such power, leading to what Lord Acton famously stated as “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. It is a truism that power without accountability and checks and balances breeds resentment and rebellion. Sri Lanka’s experience with armed challenges to the Sri Lankan state from both the JVP and the LTTE was also caused or at the very least went together with a reduction in democratic space through the centralized power and the consequent reduction of checks and balances brought about by the 1972 and the 1978 Republican constitutions. It is increased democracy and power sharing which promotes social cohesiveness and thereby strengthens national unity and national security and not merely the cohesive power of absolute authority.

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Why “Eliya” and Gota are wrong about post war reforms

Posted by harimpeiris on September 13, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of 13th September 2017)

The new kid on the block of the Rajapaksa return project is the supremely ill named “Eliya” meaning “light” organisation headed by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, whose stated intent is to oppose the proposed post war reforms of the Unity Government. At its recent launch with all the usual suspects of the Joint Opposition and their sundry cheer leaders in attendance, the arguments put forward were essentially the same old tired and hackneyed, fear mongering and paranoia which had been conclusively rejected by the people at two elections in January and August 2015. Essentially there is no new argument, no new shrill screams of paranoia which were not made in 2015, that are being made now.

After all, then candidate Sirisena was called a foreign agent, an NGO puppet, a Diaspora lackey and every other conceivable insult that self-induced paranoia could produce, but prevailed at the polls, despite actually spending a lot less, facing totally adverse state media coverage and arguably being the less flamboyant of the two candidates.

The voters did not forget and ignore, the gross mismanagement and rampant corruption which were the hallmarks of the Rajapaksa national security state.

Now clearly the JO, the “Eliya” and its fraternal SLPP all hope that come 2020, fear and thinly disguised racism are potent enough that with the passage of time, swing and new younger voters will forget or at least forgive, the world’s most expensive highways, Telecom regulatory funds spend on electioneering, empty ports and unused airports resulting in unsustainable commercial debts, the white van abductions, the killing of editors and journalists, sacking a chief justice and jailing the opposition presidential candidate, who is a war hero, to name a few of the features of Rajapaksa misrule, lest we forget.

However, the arguments made by “Eliya” are weak and require to be countered.

Firstly, the argument is made, that constitutional reforms will negate the war victory and provide through reforms what the LTTE were unable to win on the battlefield. The LTTE were not fighting for reforms. In fact, the LTTE opposed every attempt at reform, including the 13th Amendment to the constitution and the devolution of power to the provincial council.

Constitutional reforms

The LTTE was fighting for a mono ethnic separate state, which was neither democratic nor respected basic human rights. Which is why the LTTE killed Tamil political opponents and conscripted young Tamil children. The proposed constitutional reforms are not going to reduce democracy, human rights or enable the creation of a separate state. On the contrary, it will do the opposite. It will strengthen democracy and human rights, strengthen the social compact between the state and the governed while reducing the alienation of marginalized communities and especially ethnic minorities from the Sri Lankan state.

Secondly, a retired general and published author in attendance at the Eliya launch, according to media reports has stated that because he spent three decades fighting in the North, he rather than the community’s democratically elected leaders knew what the people wanted. One wondered if he fought the Tigers or dialogued with them. We presume the former. His comments move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Sri Lankan Army knew very well the alienation of the Tamil people from the Sri Lanka State.

That is why during the entire duration of the war, Tamil people from the North were not allowed to come out of the Jaffna peninsula and indeed the Vanni, without a special military pass. We never fought the JVP in 1989/90 confining people to their homes, but the only way to contain the war to the North and East and prevent it spreading to the rest of the country was to confine the people of the North and East, to their own areas. The fighting was ended but the causes of the conflict remain to be addressed.

Even a fairly cursory study of either history or political science would teach us, that the best way to have social cohesion and fidelity to a constitutional order is to ensure that there is no systematic alienation of people or groups of people from a State.

In that context, we need reforms of the Sri Lanka state, which ensures that the State accommodates the full diversity of her peoples. Reforms which address, what LTTE suicide bomb victim late MP, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam defined as “the anomaly of having imposed a mono ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity”.

National anthem

No better example of the mono ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State is needed than in the issue of the singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil at the National Day celebrations and indeed the near hysteria of the “Eliya” mentality type persons who predicted dire consequences if it happened. The anthem is sung now in both languages and we are a stronger nation for it.

Reconciliation is a long-term process and progressively pursued by the Unity Government, strengthening social cohesiveness as it progresses, though admittedly slowly.

Finally, the arguments on constitutional reform are mixed up, rather illogically with issues of post war accountability. Illogical because real politic would most likely ensure that political reforms which are the best guarantors of non-recurrence would lessen not increase the pressure on accountability issues. However, the JO and indeed the Rajapaksa clan must remember that it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who in May 2009, in a joint declaration with the then UN Secretary General pledged Sri Lanka to a post war process of accountability, a political solution and rehabilitation.

This position though often reiterated in international fora throughout the shortened Rajapaksa second term from 2010 to 2014, was not implemented in any way and the international community was only progressively requiring Sri Lanka to be true to her own commitments and international obligations. From a foreign policy standpoint, the Rajapaksa clan’s great error was to belittle and ignore their own international undertakings. In hind sight, it was the foreign policy acumen and course correction of the Unity Government which once again normalized Sri Lanka’s relations with the world.

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