Sri Lanka was on a strong wicket at the UN - Lalith Weeratunga
This was the President’s most successful UN visit:
UNGA offered a multitude of opportunities :
No development without peace and no peace without
Top US business leaders attend meeting hosted by SL
Thirty-four tour operators here as result:
Meetings with important EU representatives:
Fruitful interaction with UN Secretary General :
Invitation from Wall Street Journal, another
The Opposition had a gala time, coming out with numerous allegations
and claims regarding President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York to
attend the United Nations’ 65th General Assembly. Among them, the main
allegation was about a ‘gigantic’ entourage consisting of 130 members.
Their reports also alleged that the Lankan Mission spent lavishly to
reserve four storeys of a super-luxury hotel - the Waldorf Astoria-for
Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga told the Sunday Observer
that these allegations are largely based on fiction and may have been
brought up to personally attack and tarnish the image of the president.
He said the numbers involving the delegation were outrageously
exaggerated as much as the expenditure for the UN visit.
“I have accompanied the President on every single UN visit he had
made since 2006. This was the most fruitful visit during his entire
tenure as Head of State. I can say this with much authority,” Weeratunga
Excerpts of the interview:
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first trip to the UN was in September
2006. It was like being in the dock. He was trying to defend the country
against an ocean of allegations. The LTTE propaganda was so intense that
Sri Lanka was seen as a barbaric nation, the Sinhalese were seen as a
barbaric ethnic community which ‘decimated’ the Tamils, if I may use
that word. But that was not the real picture.
In 2006 we were at Mavilaru, at the beginning of the humanitarian
operation. At the UN, the President had to grapple with the situation
and convince the world Community that Sri Lanka was not a barbaric
nation and that we were not killing Tamils, that the effort was to free
the Tamil people from the clutches of LTTE terrorism. That was probably
the first occasion a Sri Lankan president was able to expose the real
face of the LTTE.
It was a single-handed onslaught on the LTTE’s shrewd propaganda war.
Their network was formidable. It had reached Presidents, Prime
Ministers, world bodies and regional bodies like the European Union (EU).
We simply could not match their well-oiled propaganda machine. Their
propaganda mill was run with millions of dollars.
As a State actor, our media campaign had to abide by international
rules and norms; transparency, good governance, accountability and
whatnot. On top of all that, the West never looked at us
sympathetically. We never got a fair hearing.
Then there were some NGOs and individuals who lived on the war, who
thrived on situations like ours. They never wanted the country to
achieve peace. This is not fiction, but a known fact.
In fact, some INGOs are now very worried that Sri Lankas model will
be emulated by other countries burdened with terrorism. They wished the
situation would ‘simmer’ and take root. When there is terrorism in the
land, there are all sorts of beneficiaries; arms dealers, corrupt
humanitarian bodies and other groups who gain by it. It was a huge feat
for the Government - liquefying their propaganda war.
The UN tour last week, the first visit by Sri Lanka’s Head of State
after the end of the brutal war with the LTTE, became a landmark visit
because this was the first occasion when the President went before the
world body to narrate Sri Lanka’s success story: To say that this is
what we had done, to clear misconceptions whipped up by LTTE remnants.
Our aim was to ensure zero casualties. That was a miracle. Sri Lanka was
on a strong wicket at the UN and the President stood there with pride.
There was speculation that the UN was going to investigate war crimes
and take the Rajapaksas before a war crimes tribunal. Such a move would
have affected the whole country and not just the Rajapaksas. The
President was ready to face any eventuality and go before whatever
tribunal to redeem the country of any evil.
His speech at the UNGA was prepared after a painstaking process. It
was not just written, it was developed after an in-depth review of
contemporary issues and our own concerns. There were inputs from various
sources, but the main thrust of the speech was made by the President
himself. He said, “This is the line that I want to emphasise”.
He wanted to say “let us forget the past and concentrate on our
Even his speech at the Millennium Development Goals Summit, where he
quoted from the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (Buddha’s last sermon), was very
forceful and carried much impact. He said “If there is any kingdom in
which women and children are treated well and being looked after and
protected, that is a righteous society”.
Sri Lanka has a very positive attitude towards women and children. In
fact, we produced the world’s first woman prime minister. The US is yet
to produce its first woman president.
If you look at the President’s General Assembly statement, there are
a good number of instances where he emphasised, “let us forget the past
and tread the path towards reconciliation”. He had to cast away the
smoke blanket of misconstructions and convince the world body that the
nation has been put on a development footing and the reconciliation
process has in fact begun. He said, “There would neither be development
without peace nor would there be peace without development.”
Despite the difficult conditions, Sri Lanka’s economy has been
growing. During the last quarter, the country had shown an outstanding
8.5 percent growth. It is paramount to our survival, to bring in top
level investments. With the elimination of terrorism, there is so much
potential in this country. That message had to be delivered. We are
looking at Sri Lanka as a top class tourism destination. The New York
Times featured Sri Lanka as its number one tourism destination out of 30
countries. We must capitalise on these opportunities.
The UN General Assembly, in that context, offered us with a multitude
A world leader must go before the world community and convince them
to take an interest in Sri Lanka. You cannot lure investors by being
here and writing letters.
I have accompanied the President on all his previous visits to the
UN. In my view, the 2010 visit was the most fruitful and forceful. I was
associated with almost all bilateral meetings he had with the world
The President arrived in New York on September 20 and was there for
There were intense behind-the-scenes operations to make his stay
productive. There was a big team behind its success. We had to make the
maximum use of our influence to make important meetings happen. The
backstage team played an important role in making them happen.
A fairly large supporting staff from the External Affairs Ministry as
well as others accompanied the President on his visit to the US, but to
say the entourage consisted of 130 members was outrageous.
Large security contingent
I have to admit that the President’s local security contingent was
fairly large. It consisted of 25 PSD security personnel. The security of
our President is paramount. I don’t think anyone will question that.
They were allowed to carry weapons in the US. This was in addition to
the Secret Service personnel provided by the US Government.
The President was earger to introduce young MPs to the world leaders
and get them (young leaders) accustomed to the happenings at the UN. The
reason for young MPs to accompany the President this year was because
this was the Year of Youth in the UN calendar. There were a number of
activities lined up for young delegates in parallel to the UNGA.
Therefore, it was improper to describe it as a pleasure trip.
A medical response team and a group of media personnel also travelled
with the delegation. They were an important part of the UN contingent.
The Sri Lankan delegation also comprised 15 top business community
leaders, all of whom contributed immensely in the discussions with the
US business and trade community. They were the heads of John Keells,
Brandix, Senok, Carsons Cumberbatch and Laughfs and business magnate
Their presence and interaction helped build confidence among US
investors. Sri Lanka’s ambassador in the US Jaliya Wickremasuriya
organised a luncheon meeting for US business leaders at New York City’s
Helmsley Hotel. Top trade moghuls were among the packed gathering. Sri
Lanka could not attract even five guests to such events before. The
outcome of these meetings will be seen in the near future.
Best destination for investment
External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L.Peiris, delivering the keynote
address at the event, said Sri Lanka boasts an economy with strong
fundamentals - a market poised for continued growth and international
investment. Noting the nation’s promising economic future, Prof. Peiris
said, “Sri Lanka is today, without any exaggeration, one of the world’s
best destinations for investment.... We are on the threshold of an
economic renaissance in Sri Lanka.’’
Executives from the Coca Cola Co., Boeing Co., Google, Hilton Hotels
and Resorts and Starwood Hotels and Resorts were among the 100 business
leaders, analysts and representatives of chambers of commerce and
industry present on the occasion.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. said, “This forum has the potential
to grow into a US-Sri Lanka business council, to bring together
companies and governments. Companies like Pfizer want to invest in
emerging markets such as Sri Lanka.”
President met investors
President Rajapaksa made it a point to walk round the tables and
extend personal invitations to each and every business personality there
to travel to Sri Lanka and explore the vast potential created after the
end of LTTE terror. It was a welcome gesture.
Thirty top level tour operators will be here tomorrow to explore
possibilities of expanding their businesses here. Their interests will
guarantee a continued flow of tourists from the US and Europe. The team
of operators will tour Sri Lanka for five days to study and evaluate the
conditions before starting their promotional work. A major US hotelier
who owns 1,000 hotels worldwide has already shown interest in setting up
business in the island.
Don’t forget the fact that Sri lanka is targeting 2.5 million tourist
arrivals by 2015. This year, we will probably reach one million
arrivals. The highest recorded by Sri Lanka so far is half a million.
Malaysia brings in 20 million tourists a year. We have a long way to go.
The President’s interaction with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-
moon was one of the most fruitful meetings.
The Secretary General had 20 minute slots for each UN delegate, but
his meeting with President Rajapaksa lasted for about 40 minutes.
At this meeting which was very cordial, the Secretary General said
you are now a South Asian leader. You must look beyond Sri Lanka. He
congratulated the President on his election victories. His words were
“what can’t you do with such political victories.”
He was extremely pleased with the IDP’s situation.
I feel Sri lanka could look forward to a good working relationship
with the UN in future. Ki-moon may send an emissary shortly to discuss
continuing relations with Sri Lanka.
The Secretary General clarified that the panel appointed by him had
no mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly to
investigate. It was there to advise him on a personal capacity.
Therefore, he said, “try and work with them so it will help him to help
The President briefed him on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation
Commission. He said he had appointed eight people of eminence and
stature and anyone can come before this Commission to testify including
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Following Ki-moon’s assurances that the panel had no investigative
mandate, the President said the members could attend the LLRC sessions
and testify before the Commission. He said the Commission will enable
them to have a discussion.
This was in stark contrast to what certain people hoped. They wanted
Sri Lanka to be put on the mat, to be taken before the Security Council
and imposed with embargoes. That was how they planned to defeat the
Government and not by a people’s mandate.
President visits Wall Street Journal
Another highlight of the President’s visit during the UN Assembly was
the invitation he received from the Wall Street Journal. This news paper
is regarded as a strong opinion maker which can make or break
governments. President Rajapaksa was invited by the Editor-in-Chief and
the Editorial Board. The Sri Lankan business leaders also took part in
Relations with the West
Normally, during the UNGA, we do not ask for meetings with the US
President due to his hectic schedule. The Deputy Premier of the UK
attended the sessions. There was no representation from France as well.
The German Chancellor had a banquet to which President Rajapaksa was
There was no particular effort on our part to engage the main players
of the West. But all the meetings that took place on the sidelines of
the UNGA were well-planned and well thought out. We wanted to meet
people whom we rarely meet and hold meetings that would be beneficial to
The meetings with the Thai and Malaysian Premiers were very important
in that sense. Their cooperation will help Sri Lanka to counter the
LTTE’s international operations.
The President had bilateral meetings with the Emir of Qatar,
Presidents of Iran, Hungary and Turkey which currently holds the
rotating Presidency of the Security Council and Prime Ministers of
Jamaica, Thailand, Norway, Malaysia and Portugal.
Portugal, Hungary and Turkey are members of the EU. The Portugal PM
during the bilateral meeting called on the President to treat them as
partners in our foreign policy, implying that they are prepared to speak
on behalf of Sri Lanka. Meetings with these important EU countries who
could better understand our situation were significant because their
assistance will help clear EU’s misgivings on Lanka.
Meeting with Norway
Meeting Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was one of the
important events. Associated with him was Minister Eric Solheim, a one
time peace envoy to Sri Lanka. The President said Norway has to play a
different role now. They were earlier facilitating a so-called peace
process which could have ultimately doled out one third of the country
to the ruthless LTTE.
The President very clearly said that if Norway wanted to be involved
in Sri Lanka, their help will be welcomed for infrastructure development
than in any other area. He said Norway was one of the early development
partners of Sri Lanka before their interest shifted elsewhere under
manipulation. Their first project was started in the mid-1970s from
Hambantota under NORAD.
There were also many hidden dividends which followed the Presidnet’s
UN visit. The announcement of the delayed third tranche of the US $ 2.6
billion IMF loan being released came on the heels of his landmark
There are allegations about reserving the Waldorf Astoria, an
expensive luxury hotel for the UN delegation. The hotel was reserved
after an indepth security assessment and taking into consideration the
travelling and other constraints, by our Permanent Representative to the
UN Dr. Palitha Kohona.
There are hotels in New York, such as the Ritz Carlton and Hilton,
which are much more expensive than this hotel.
During the sessions, the delegates have to walk to the UN
Headquarters. Only the Head of State will be taken in a motorcade. The
President’s motorcade consisted of six cars. This is as per the
recommendation of the organisers.
A bullet-proof car is provided by the US Government for the President
and the Mission will have to hire the other cars. It is outrageous to
say that Sri Lanka’s UN Mission hired 80 cars.
Several cars and a few other vehicles had to be hired to facilitate
the delegates and the media personnel, but there was no need to hire 80
cars. All these reports and allegations have been exaggerated and
inflated to give a different twist.