The Report Company: What have been some of your driving ambitions, and can you give us an overview of your career path?

G.L. Peiris: I was in academic life for 26 years and spent a great deal of time in the University of Oxford as a scholar. I came into full time politics in 1994 and since then I have held office in successive administrations with a wide range of responsibilities and subjects across the spectrum. I covered an extensive period during which there were different approaches adopted by successive governments to deal with the problem of terrorism.

We are now at a critical juncture in the contemporary history of the country with the violence behind us. After almost a quarter of a century we are now able to capitalise on our inherent strengths and that is why the future appears to us to hold so much promise,

TRC: What does it mean to you as a Sri Lankan to be a member of the government at such a crucial time in the history of the country?

GLP: It’s an unprecedented opportunity to gather all the people of the country around the government in the spirit of inclusivity irrespective of caste, creed, religion and cultural background and inculcate in the country as a whole a sense of urgency and resolve to make certain that this opportunity does not slip through our fingers. Securing for all the communities in the country a prosperous future is the principal aim of the government and it is a very refreshing experience to be a member of a government which has such an opportunity available to it at this time.

TRC: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you are facing with how the world perceives Sri Lanka, particularly from an investment and trade point of view?

GLP: The principal challenge is to work on a whole ocean of prejudice which threatens to overwhelm us. There’s a need for objectivity in assessing current developments in relation to Sri Lanka, for example the tremendous progress which has been achieved with regard to the internally displaced people of whom there were almost 300,000 when the war ended in May 2009. That problem has been almost entirely resolved.

The process of relocation has not been merely a physical process, but it has been accompanied by vigorous economic initiatives which have enabled the people who are resettled to start a new life with a high degree of economic contentment and satisfaction.

The ex-combatants are all back in the democratic mainstream and that is something we are deeply satisfied about.

Another factor is the revival of the electoral process in the north and east, which had remained dormant for a number of years. Local government elections have already been held in the east and the north. Provincial council elections have been held in the east and will shortly be held in the north. This is all about enfranchising the Tamil people by providing them with the space to elect their representatives without duress.

One of the worst things the LTTE did was to annihilate the legitimate Tamil leadership. Any Tamil leader who dared to disagree with the point of view articulated by the LTTE was physically eliminated.

While it is true that there is a segment of the diaspora that is unwilling to accept the irreversibility of the military defeat of the LTTE and hopes to revive the military movement, there are other sections of the diaspora that are willing to invest in the northern part of the country in order to make life easier for their people.

Another challenge is to persuade the western world against pre-judgement. The LLRC is investigating the causes of the conflict and making recommendations to ensure the pain and the anguish that our people felt is consigned to history, so it is much to be regretted that there are some countries which denounced the report even before it was published.

However, we are pleased with the considerable progress that this country has been able to make within the remarkably brief period that has elapsed since the termination of hostilities only 2.5 years ago.

TRC: What is your assessment of the progress that has been made so far?

GLP: These things are relative. Whether the progress that has been made within this period is adequate or not depends on a variety of factors.

These are historic problems which have accumulated over a long period, so to set timeframes and to adopt prescriptive or judgemental postures is very difficult because the nuances of the considerations relating to time, place and context are overriding.

There is no one size that fits everybody and one of the problems is that some western countries are determined to tell us what to do. One has to take into account the cultural traditions of this country, the structure of our society and the nature of the aspirations of our people. If they propose solutions that are not responsive to those characteristics then the remedies that are proposed will not be sustainable.

TRC: What would you say are the core strategies you have been implementing in order to change international perceptions?

GLP: Our core strategy is the LLRC report, and the recommendations contained within it will be at the disposal of the international community and they can evaluate for themselves the effectiveness of the strategies which the government proposes to put in place to deal with the multi-faceted challenges.

TRC: What steps has the government taken so far in the humanitarian considerations?

GLP: Looking at the economic resuscitation, while the economy of the island as a whole is growing by a little more than 8%, the economy of the Northern Province is growing by over 20%. During the last 6 months about 44,000 loans have been given to people in the Northern Province by the state banking system which has resulted in an uplifting of the economic conditions.

Compared with other situations in other parts of the world where the conditions were more or less comparable, bringing conditions back to anything even remotely approximating normalcy has been done far quicker in this country.

The special representative to the government of Japan has told us that the situation took 12 years to resolve even at a basic level in the Balkans. In Sri Lanka, it was done within 2 years.

There is the feeling within the government that there has been a certain reluctance in acknowledging our achievements and where there has been acknowledgement it has come in a rather grudging manner, and we find that disappointing because Sri Lanka has achieved something that countries with far greater resources have not been able to do. We have accomplished it not solely for our benefit, but for the benefit of the entire region through preventing the collaboration of armed terrorist groups in this region.

TRC: President Rajapaksa has stated his goal of making Sri Lanka a hub for international trade and commerce. What is your personal outlook on this vision and where do you see the role of Sri Lanka in the years to come?

GLP: Our geographical location has stood us in good stead throughout history and is vitally significant in the present. It enabled us to be the first country to conclude a FTA with India in 1998. It came into operation in the year 2000 and has resulted in a 7 fold increase in the volumes of trade between India and Sri Lanka. We concluded a similar agreement with Pakistan in 2005. These agreements have encouraged many companies to come here to invest and to produce goods for export as if there is value addition at a minimum threshold of 30% then the goods that are produced here are entitled duty free access into the entirety of the Indian subcontinent.

Another advantage is the unique quality of our human resources, the unprecedentedly high levels of literacy for this part of the world, and the fact that we were the earliest country in this part of the world to liberalise our economy.

Our legal, financial and administrative systems are congenial to investors from the west who are familiar with the conceptual underpinnings of those systems. From all these points of view the country has enormous promise which could not be fulfilled for one principal reason only and that is the turbulence which we had to contend with for such a long time.

We see a new confidence, a feeling of almost euphoria and a consciousness of emancipation from a terror which engulfed the whole country. The removal of those apprehensions represents a kind of sea-change and we need make the fullest use of it at this point.

TRC: How would you define the basic interests that Sri Lanka aims to preserve in the context of the relationship with the UK? What’s your current assessment of this bilateral relationship and where would you say are the main intersections of interest?

GLP: The UK is probably the country with which Sri Lanka has had the closest cultural, educational and historical ties. There’s hardly anyone you will encounter here who has not had some form of contact with the UK. British companies have been active here for very long periods. Britain made a singular contribution to the development of our roads and railroads and the tea industry, so one would think that Britain would be a very natural ally and partner.

It is therefore very sad that the relationship right now has much room for improvement and this is because it has become one dimensional. There is a very sharp, almost obsessive focus on the human rights issue, and then we have the feeling that much of it is fuelled by considerations of a domestic political nature. The diaspora is very effective not only in terms of money but also their organisational capability, and their voting strength can make a difference in marginal constituencies. For all of these reasons they have a very considerable influence and that is undoubtedly one of the principal factors influencing current attitudes in the UK towards Sri Lanka.

What we would ask for is that Sri Lanka be given the space and the time it needs to come to terms with its problems and to resolve them in a manner that is in keeping with the traditions and the aspirations of its people.

TRC: What message would you like to send to the international community about the opportunities in Sri Lanka?

GLP: We would like to emphasise the opportunities that are here. We don’t have to exaggerate; the unvarnished facts speak for themselves. We would encourage people to come here and to see for them rather than be guided by propaganda emanating from anybody.

There are tremendous opportunities with regard to the development of infrastructure. No government in this country’s history has invested so much in our roads, our energy sector, our irrigation systems, and the schools and hospitals which were devastated by the LTTE during the war. There are abundant opportunities for the corporate sector and we welcome them.