The first-ever Sri Lankan ambassador to Turkey, Bharathi Davina Wijeratne, has stated that her country's experience has shown that it is extremely difficult to deal with terrorists, who take up arms against people and governments. She stressed that the only way to deal with the terrorists is to use a language they understand.
“While Sri Lankan leaders were trying to bring the terrorist organization to the negotiating table, they [terrorists] used this period as an opportunity to get ready to commit their violence,” said Wijeratne.
After a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Also known as the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization formerly based in northern Sri Lanka, they waged a violent campaign to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil people. This campaign evolved into the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ran from 1983 until the Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009. This civil war, which caused significant hardships for the population, environment and economy of the country, resulted in the death of approximately 80,000-100,000 people.
In an interview with Today's Zaman Wijeratne stated that every problem has a solution, adding that her country's leaders tried to solve the terrorism problem through discussion, which never worked. “Sri Lankans suffered a lot. They only realized what freedom was after 30 years. Sri Lankans faced human bombs, suicide bombs and so on. The terrorist organization in Sri Lanka was the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world,” said the newly appointed ambassador.
According to Wijeratne, the Tamil Tigers had no concrete reason to launch a struggle against the Sri Lankan state. “Tamils could live in any part of the country freely. There was no reason for this terrorist group to start this struggle. Tamils and Sinhalese lived for many years peacefully. But when a few people get the idea to separate, they have no limits for their idea,” said Wijeratne.
When asked how Sri Lanka managed to deal with the external support the terrorist organization received, the ambassador replied that the main problem was the expansion of the terrorists' organization all over the world. “Our operation was a worldwide operation. The Tamil Tigers had links in almost every country -- for instance, the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland, Norway, France and Germany. As everyone knows, every terrorist group has links with others, and therefore, they were well equipped,” said Wijeratne, adding that the Tamil Tigers were the only terrorist organization in the world to assassinate two world leaders, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 -- at a time when India was embroiled, through the Indian Peace Keeping Force, in the Sri Lankan Civil War -- by a suicide bombing. The Tamil Tigers were accused of being responsible for the assassination.
The tactics employed by the Tamil Tigers resulted in their being branded a terrorist organization in 32 countries, including the United States, India, Australia, Canada and the member states of the European Union.
Difference between Tamil Tigers and moderate Tamil leaders
Touching upon the stances of the Tamil population during the civil war, Wijeratne underlined that it was necessary to distinguish the difference between Tamils and the terrorists. “Terrorists came out with the pretext that they were fighting for the rights of the Tamils. But when you go into details, you see that they have killed almost all the moderate Tamil leaders and the Tamil political officials, who advocated a democratic process rather than using arms,” said Wijeratne. She noted that the terrorists not only killed Sinhalese but anyone who was against their violence.
The Sinhalese constitute the largest ethnic group in the country, with 74 percent of the total population of more than 20 million, while Tamils constitute 18 percent of the population.
According to the official from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Ankara, there were two types of Tamils, one of which was Tamils of Indian origin who were brought to the country as indentured laborers by British colonists to work on estate plantations, and the other being Tamils of Sri Lankan origin.
The Sri Lankan ambassador also underlined that Turkey had to learn from the Sri Lankan experience in eliminating terrorists. When asked what methods were used in eliminating terrorists, Wijeratne replied that there was great pressure worldwide, especially from Europe, the US and the UK.
“First of all, the leaders of all the political parties in Sri Lanka tried their best to bring the terrorists to the negotiating table, but it didn't work. After negotiation efforts failed, leaders held talks and decided on the military campaign. It was a homegrown solution and we also got international support for this,” said Wijeratne.
“Some countries have accused Sri Lanka of committing war crimes. Where were these countries when bombs were exploding? Where were they when innocent people were massacred? It is really upsetting,” said the ambassador.
Wijeratne said that Sri Lanka was criticized unfairly in the accusations. “Sri Lanka's army was similar to the army Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [the founder of the Republic of Turkey] established in Turkey. In Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, I saw the pictures of the Turkish soldiers offering water to their enemies during the war. Our soldiers were doing the same thing three years ago. The Sri Lankan government operated a humanitarian campaign while combating terrorism,” said Wijeratne.
Turkey's support in combating terrorism strengthens ties
“As everyone knows, Sri Lanka has gone through a very dark period. Turkey was the country that took sides with Sri Lanka during its fight against terrorism for almost 30 years,” said Wijeratne, noting that Turkey supported Sri Lanka in the United Nations Security Council in 2010, when the terrorism issue was on the agenda.
Turkey's support for Sri Lanka, a country struggling with terrorism, at a meeting of the United Nations in New York played an important role in the strengthening of relations between the two countries.
Last Tuesday, Sri Lanka's newly appointed ambassador to Turkey presented her letter of credence to Turkish President Abdullah Gül. “When I presented my credentials to His Excellency Abdullah Gül, he made a statement saying terrorism was a crime against humanity. Gül said that Turkey will stand against terrorism using every platform,” said Wijeratne, who had been Turkey's honorary consul general in Sri Lanka for a period of 12 years.
Sri Lanka has co-sponsored draft resolutions put forth by Turkey concerning combating terrorism in various international organizations -- first and foremost the UN -- and Sri Lanka has been supporting Turkey actively in these platforms.
Touching upon the bilateral relations between Turkey and Sri Lanka, the ambassador stated that political relations between the two countries were strengthened after the visit of the Sri Lankan president to Turkey.
The visit by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008 contributed to the bilateral political relations. It was the first presidential visit from Sri Lanka to Turkey.
Sri Lanka has established a diplomatic mission in Ankara after 105 years of diplomatic relations with Turkey. When asked for the reason for this delay, Wijeratne replied that the Turkish Embassy in New Delhi, which was opened in the Indian capital in 1948, was responsible for relations between Turkey and four countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. “Why Turkey didn't open an embassy in Sri Lanka is a question mark. I was Turkey's honorary consul general in Sri Lanka for a period of 12 years. I know very well that Turkish foreign ministers and Turkish leaders, during these years, were very happy with the performance of our consulate general,” said Wijeratne.
The ambassador also said that for eight years Sri Lanka has been requesting that Turkey open an embassy in Colombo, a city adjacent to the capital of Sri Lanka and the site of foreign embassies. “It was six years ago that the decision of sending me as the first ambassador to Turkey was taken by our president. With my arrival, Sri Lanka hopes Turkey will open an embassy in Colombo,” said Wijeratne.
“I love Turkey, its people, its leaders and especially the founder of the country. Turkey is my second home,” said the newly appointed ambassador, adding that Turkey has always been a friendly country to Sri Lanka.
New ambassador's first priority was trade
When asked what her priorities would be as Sri Lanka's first ambassador to Turkey, Wijeratne replied that her first priority would be to strengthen the ties in trade, noting the trade volume between the two countries was very low. “Currently, there is a joint economic commission between Sri Lanka and Turkey. The Turkish president has emphasized that he would appreciate a meeting of this commission. So, my first priority will be to focus on this commission,” said Wijeratne, adding that Sri Lanka needs Turkey's support to overcome economic problems.
She added that the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) had an office in Colombo and was very active there. Wijeratne also made an appeal to Turkish businesspeople, stating that Sri Lanka is an important country for Turkish investors to look to for business.
Wijeratne said that there are also the potential tourism ties from Sri Lankan visitors to Turkey, adding that tourism is another sector where both countries can coordinate.
When asked whether she would focus on direct flights between the countries, Wijeratne replied that Sri Lanka and Turkey had signed an agreement in 2008 during the visit of the Sri Lankan president to Turkey. “This is an area that I am going to discuss with Turkish Airlines. Sri Lanka Airlines and Turkish Airlines are hoping to have direct flights,” said Wijeratne.
“Sri Lanka is looking forward to strengthening its relations with Turkey. Not only Sri Lanka but the whole world knows that Turkey is going to be one of the most powerful countries in the future,” said Wijeratne, adding that she saw lots of economic potential in Turkey.
Wijeratne recalled the deepening of ties between Turkey and Sri Lanka, which she said were bolstered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit in 2005, which was Turkey's first visit to Sri Lanka at the prime ministerial level.
Erdoğan's visit in 2005, in the midst of his tour to the countries -- including Sri Lanka -- affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, was an important step forward.
The Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) constructed a “Turkish Village” in Midigama following the tsunami, which affected two-thirds of the Sri Lankan coastline.
“The construction in Midigama was the biggest tsunami gift we got internationally. Turkey built 460 houses in Midigama with a shopping complex, consisting of 24 shops, a library, a medical center, a school and a Buddhist temple. The value of this project was 900 million rupees in Sri Lankan currency,” said Wijeratne, noting that the opening ceremony was conducted by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç.
“History repeats itself. During the Silk Road period, Turkish merchant vessels used to come to the south coast of Sri Lanka, to Midigama. After so many years, Turkey has again come to Midigama. I thank the Turkish Red Crescent and Turkey for their efforts,” said Wijeratne.
Speaking about a Turkish school in Colombo named Learnium, Wijeratne said the Turkish school serves as a bridge between Turkey and Sri Lanka. She added that the school had approximately 270 students.
Lastly, the ambassador said that there would be more high-level visits taking place in forthcoming years between Sri Lanka and Turkey.