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PF-IISS dialogue: Colombage stresses importance of foreign policy of neutrality

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Foreign Secretary Admiral (retd) Dr. Jayanath Colombage said that Sri Lanka followed what he called a foreign policy of neutrality whilst remaining non-aligned amidst strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, regardless of the global crisis caused by the raging the Covid-19 pandemic.

FS Colombage said so during a virtual dialogue arranged by the Pathfinder Foundation (PF) and the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on the current status of Sri Lanka-United Kingdom relations.

The following is the text of a statement issued by PF: “The dialogue broadly looked at three focused areas. Session 1 on Maritime Security Cooperation was Chaired by Dr. Rahul Roy Choudhury with Nick Childs and Rohan Gunaratna presenting on behalf of the UK and Sri Lanka respectively. Session 2 on China-Sri Lanka Economic Cooperation included H.M.G.S. Palihakkara as the Chair and Ganeshan Wignaraja and Sir Hugo Swire as the speakers. Kshenuka Seneviratne Chaired Session 3 on The Way Ahead for UK – SL relations, whilst the speakers were Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Stephen Evans. The Keynote Session was chaired by Desmond Bowen, Associate Fellow, IISS and former Director General of International Policy at the Ministry of Defence in the UK. The Keynote remarks were made by Admiral (retd.) Prof. Jayanath Colombage, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary. 

“At the start of his keynote address, the Foreign Secretary said that his views were his personal, highlighted his close relations with the British High Commission in Colombo and that the two countries were engaged in close bilateral relations on many spheres. He observed that the economic relations between the two countries were of paramount importance to Sri Lanka at a time when the present pandemic had an adverse impact on the island’s economy.

“Leading on to the post Brexit phase, the Foreign Secretary mentioned that Sri Lanka was looking forward to enhancing its trade with the UK as one of its large export markets. In addition, tourism from the UK repesented a large segment, which brought in much needed foreign exchange, which has come to a standstill due to the adverse pandemic situation. However, he was positive of the success of the country’s inoculation programme against Covid-19, which he believed would result in a more conducive environment for trade and tourism. 

“With regard to the importance of a strategic dialogue, the Foreign Secretary highlighted the ongoing strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, which despite Covid constraints, continued unabated.  Speaking of the ongoing global power struggle, he said Sri Lanka’s response was to follow a foreign policy of neutrality whilst remaining non-aligned.

“He finally spoke on the human rights issue, where the UK had played a key role heading the Contact Group on Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council. He stressed that it was time; the UK recognized the steady, tangible progress being made by Sri Lanka in this respect. As a founding member of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka considered the UK to be an important partner and requested the UK to lend its support to Sri Lanka.

“Adopting a similar position in his concluding remarks, the State Minister for Regional Cooperation Tharaka Balasuriya observed that perception matters in geopolitics, where ill-informed narratives take precedence and it was important to change such perceptions. Focusing on relations between the two countries, he stressed that economic cooperation was most important, whilst there were certain existentialist issues, such as climate change that need addressing.

“He also spoke of the contentious issue of human rights, stressing that Sri Lanka always strived for good governance, not just due to the pressure of the international community but as it was a priority in any civilized society. With regard to economic cooperation, the Minister pointed out another false narrative that Sri Lanka favoured China. He clarified that most of the Chinese companies being state owned, tend to be more competitive, when compared to others. Post-Covid cooperation, the Minster stated, had tremendous potential in areas such as ICT and the health sectors, highlighting that the Government of Sri Lanka has been in touch with its British counterparts in this regard. He also mentioned that a Preferential Trade Agreement will be beneficial to both countries.

“Finally, the Minister observed that both the UK and Sri Lanka should reciprocate each other’s support in order to gain the most from the long-standing relationship and respect different values of sovereign states. The UK has been a great friend to Sri Lanka, which, over the years, has considered the former as an example for democracy and best practices. Thus, having a strategic partnership in the future will be beneficial to both SL and the UK, he concluded.

“Taking into consideration historical relations and the lead role played by the UK with regard to the recent resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka, the two institutions thought that it would be a good idea to have an interaction covering all aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries, so that the two sides will have a better appreciation and understanding of each other’s priorities and concerns.

Approximately 20 participants each from Sri Lanka and the UK, including representatives of the House of Lords, House of Commons, members of Parliament, government officials, experts, academics, senior media personnell, etc., participated in the virtual dialogue.  Among the parliamentarians from Sri Lanka, in addition to the Minister of State for Regional Cooperation Tharaka Balasuriya; MP Eran Wickramaratne and former minister Faiszer Musthapha attended the dialogue, while the participants of the UK comprised of Lord Birt, Crossbench Peer; Lord Sheikh, Lord Marland and Mark Logan MP, Vice Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka.”



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Inter-provincial travel ban to be lifted on Oct. 31

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Flagrant violations largely ignored during restrictions

ECONOMYNEXT – The ongoing inter-provincial travel ban will be lifted on October 31, the national COVID-19 prevention task force said, despite social media accounts – and sometimes pictures – of people openly flouting the ban.

The restriction was imposed in conjunction with an island-wide lockdown, officially known as a quarantine curfew, that the government declared on August 20 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Despite the lockdown being relaxed on October 01 as cases began to drop, the inter-province travel restriction has remained, at least on paper.

Critics, however, claim that people have been traveling – some even going on trips – around the country blatantly ignoring the ban, despite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordering the authorities to strictly enforce it from October 21.

“After a discussion among the task force on Friday (23), with the permission of the president, it was decided to lift the travel ban from 4am October 31,” Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva told reporters on Friday.

Silva, who heads the national COVID-19 task force, said all public transportation services will also restart on October 25 and will operate according to health guidelines.

Health officials have joined the chorus of voices lamenting the apparent lax nature of the inter-provincial travel ban. The public does not seem to follow health guidelines increasing the risk of another wave of the epidemic, they have said.

“The behaviour of the public is not satisfactory,” Health Promotion Bureau Director Dr Ranjith Batuwanthudawa told the privately owned Derana network in an interview.

“The public did not follow the guidelines in the first long weekend after restrictions were relaxed. It can again increase the number of patients to a level the health sector cannot cope with,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Gen Silva said the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will be administered as a booster dose for frontline workers in the health, military, police and tourism sectors starting November 01.

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North, East see highest attendance of students, teachers: Dinesh

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ECONOMYNEXT – Northern and Eastern provinces saw the highest attendance of students, teachers, and principals when schools were reopened for the first time in six months, Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told parliament on Friday (22).

Classes from grades 1 to 5 recommenced at 5,059 schools with fewer than 200 students on Thursday (21) amid an ongoing strike by teachers’ trade unions which is set to finally end next Monday (25).

Minister Gunawardena said the government was able to open around 98 percent of the targeted schools.

“Sixteen percent of students attended schools across the country, while 26 percent of teachers who signed their attendance,” Minister Gunawardena told parliament.

Principals showed up to work at 69 percent of schools with fewer than 200 students, in the island’s north, while 52 percent of teachers and 21 percent of students were present on Thursday, he said.

In the Eastern province, 67 percent of principals, 45 percent of teachers, and 39 percent of students went back to school on Thursday, he added.

In contrast, schools in the Southern and Western provinces saw lower levels of attendance from principals, teachers, and students, the minister said.

“We believe everyone will support the reopening of schools without any party or colour difference,” Minister Gunawardena said.

Trade unions are not fully onboard the government’s proposed solution to their long-standing grievance of salary anomalies.

The three-month-long strike, one of the longest trade union campaigns in Sri Lanka’s history, has deprived students of their only mode of distance learning in pandemic times: online education.

It is still uncertain if all principals will report to duty on Monday as some principals’ trade unions have said some of their demands including car permits and a mobile phone allowance have not been addressed yet.

School teachers and principals in Sri Lanka were on strike for the 99th day running on October 15 when they said they would start work from October 25.

The government proposed to increase their salaries in a four-year strategy, but upon the rejection of that proposal, the government later proposed to give the increments in two installments. The unions rejected this, too, and continued the strike, demanding that their salaries be increased in one go.

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Foreign Minister to launch Lanka-UK chamber of commerce in London

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by Sujeeva Nivunhella
reporting from London

Foreign Minister Prof G. L. Peiris is scheduled to be in London this week starting from tomorrow (25) for a series of events including the launching the Sri Lanka-UK Chamber of Commerce, diplomatic sources said

During his stay in London from Monday to Thursday (28), Prof Peiris is to meet his UK counterpart Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and Minister for Women and Equalities, Elizabeth Truss and Members of the Houses of Parliament and Lord Naseby.

Sources said that it would be Prof Peiris’ first visit to London after assuming the duties as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The launch of the Sri Lanka – United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to be presided over by HSBC bank. Lord Davies of Abersoch, the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Sri Lanka and a host of invitees including the representatives of the London Stock Exchange and De La Rue. The new Chamber is to be registered with both British Chamber of Commerce and the UK Companies House.

Prof Peiris is expected to complete his London visit on Thursday (28) and then to proceed to Glasgow to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which is scheduled to begin next Sunday (31).

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