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Sri Lanka looking to re-engage after years of tense ties

By Kristen Shane      

'Things dramatically improved' after new Sri Lankan government started, says envoy.

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Asked where he sees Sri Lanka-Canada ties going, the South Asian country’s new high commissioner, Ahmed A. Jawad, jabs his finger to the sky.

“It could go only one way: up,” says the diplomat, seated in an armchair surrounded by art and books at his Range Road home on Nov. 12.

Indeed, Mr. Jawad, who arrived in Canada on Aug. 16, describes ties between the two Commonwealth countries as having hit a “rather rough patch” between 2009 and early 2015.

At the time, Sri Lanka was emerging from a decades-long civil war that divided the island nation’s minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese populations. The man whom many Sinhalese people credit with winning the conflict against the separatist Tamil movement, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was accused of doing so at the expense of human rights. While supporters say he had to take firm action against a terror group, critics say he turned a blind eye to the shelling of civilians in the final days of the war in 2009 and failed in the years after to promote reconciliation with Tamils, who make up about 15 per cent of the population.

After a decade in power, he was defeated in presidential elections in January by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena.

Under Mr. Rajapaksa and then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, relations took a nosedive. Mr. Harper cited human rights concerns in refusing to attend a Commonwealth summit in 2013 hosted by the tear-drop-shaped country off the southern coast of India. Then-foreign minister John Baird last year described a “growing authoritarian trend in the government in Colombo” and his parliamentary secretary pointed to what he said were arbitrary detentions and reprisals against activists.

Some in the Sinhalese community in Canada grumbled that Canadian politicians were pandering to the vote-rich Toronto-area ridings where many Tamil diaspora members live.

After the last high commissioner finished her posting in spring 2014, Canada did not respond to a Sri Lankan nominee of a political appointee to replace her, said Mr. Jawad. The high commission stayed without a high commissioner for a year and a half.

“Things dramatically improved when the new government came to office in 2015 in January,” said Mr. Jawad. “I was given a very quick agrément to be received here as Sri Lanka’s high commissioner.”

The country’s new president has been criticized for not moving fast enough on promised reforms, but Mr. Jawad argued the government has done a lot. Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution on itself at the United Nations Human Rights Council recognizing the need for truth, justice and reparations after the war. It’s pledged to set up a court to examine alleged war crimes that took place in the conflict's final days. It also recently shrunk a list of foreign-based groups and individuals it considered terrorists, which had included some with ties to Canada. The previous Sri Lankan government said it wanted to prevent Tamil rebels from regrouping through foreign funding. Critics said the terrorist designation was slapped on some people who weren’t criminals but only advocating for Tamil rights. The Canadian government said the designation had no legal effect in Canada.

Mr. Jawad indicated he hopes to engage the whole Sri Lankan-Canadian diaspora community in their homeland’s healing, and to re-engage with the Canadian government. A couple months into his mandate, he’d visited Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans in Montreal and Calgary, he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met President Sirisena on the sidelines of a Commonwealth meeting in Malta last month, and according to a Sri Lankan government news portal, Mr. Trudeau said the delisting of some diaspora groups from the terrorist list was a good sign the Sri Lankan government “wants to build a new era based on friendship and goodwill.”

Mr. Trudeau's office said he "welcomed President Sirisena's important recent steps towards improving human rights, devolution, accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

Mr. Jawad would like to see a boost to exports, Canadian investment and the number of Canadian tourists visiting Sri Lanka, known for its tea and beaches.

Of time and timepieces

Diplomatic ties between the two countries extend to the 1950s. Mr. Jawad recalls waving a Canadian flag with hundreds of other schoolboys when Mr. Trudeau’s father, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, visited Colombo in 1971.

“At that time, I didn’t have any inkling I’d be here…that I would be soon working with his son, who I think was not born then."

Mr. Jawad grew up reading letters about diplomatic life in Pakistan from his grand-uncle, a political appointee serving as Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Pakistan from 1967 to 1970.

“The letters he wrote to me really fired up my imagination,” he says.

Now, after nearly 30 years as a diplomat, he’s been ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Norway and was posted to cities including Stockholm, Beijing and Paris, where he learned some French he’s brushing up on through conversations with his French-speaking driver.

He’s brought to Canada his wife Farzana, and sons Raqib, 17, and Aziz, 15, who are attending Lisgar Collegiate Institute.

While his family has moved a lot over the years, they bring along meaningful items that help them feel at home. This includes some of the about 18 clocks Mr. Jawad says he’s collected over the years, starting with a gift of a wall clock from his father, bought in 1948.

He hopes to add to the collection during his Canadian posting.

“Every time the chime rings, it gives you a certain [indefinable] pleasure.”

He also enjoys reading and jogging.



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