How would you assess the current state of Sri Lanka's bilateral ties with Thailand?
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Kingdom of Thailand have historically shared strong traditional and religious links. Theravada Buddhism was introduced to the Kingdom of Thailand from Sri Lanka many centuries ago, and when the foundation of Sri Lanka's Buddhist MahaSangha was threatened during the colonial period, it was from the land of Siam that assistance came to revive the third Noble Gem—the MahaSanga of Sri Lanka. Centuries-long religious and cultural exchanges have enriched both countries and built bridges between the two peoples. This foundation of Buddhism has defined the cultures of both Thailand and Sri Lanka and is rooted in the everyday life of the people of both countries. The establishment of diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Thailand in 1955 was, therefore, the formalizing of a longstanding, mutually beneficial friendship. Today, we celebrate 60 years of relations, both countries are given the opportunity to assess the relationship, seek novel ways of cooperation, and take the different aspects of the relationship to a higher level. In the context of Asia's latent strength emerging in the world economy, it is necessary that Sri Lanka and Thailand seek diversified avenues to work toward the mutual benefit of the countries, their peoples, and the region in order to increase the impact that we can make globally. Sri Lanka values the support extended in international fora by the Thai government during the difficult period in our recent history, and we stand together with Thailand as steadfast friends.
What were the major talking points and achievements from your official visit to Thailand in November and your meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha?
One of the major talking points of the meetings was shared religious ties; one of Sri Lanka's most venerated Sacred Relics of the Gauthama Buddha enshrined in the Mahiyangana Raja MahaViharaya was brought to Thailand on the patronage of the Sri Lankan people to provide an opportunity for the Thai people to pay homage. It was indeed gratifying to learn that more than half a million Thai devotees had paid homage to the relics during their two weeks in Putthamothon. His Excellency, General Prayuth Chan-a-Cha, also expressed his appreciation of the bringing of the Sacred Relics to Thailand, as well as the gifting of the Buddha statue to the Dhammarama temple in Ayutthaya province. Discussions were also conducted on ways to address the significant trade gap between the countries. We have discussed several areas of cooperation to bring this existing status quo to a more mutually beneficial status. The key, as His Excellency the Prime Minister too identified, is that the two countries be partners and not competitors in this path to benefiting our citizens. In the bilateral talks, a wide range of issues of mutual interest covering politics and economy, cultural and religious cooperation, agriculture and fishery industries, tourism, and person-to-person contacts were discussed. The developments stemming from these productive talks will be reflected in the broadened areas of cooperation between the two countries in the coming years. Following my visit, we expect a further increase in bilateral relations in political, economic and trade, cultural, religious, and social spheres in the coming years.
As reported from your meeting with the prime minister, you pledged to boost yearly trade volumes between Sri Lanka and Thailand to $1 billion. Which sectors do you expect to drive this growth?
Thailand and Sri Lanka enjoy healthy trade relations, particularly in the field of gems and jewelry. Thailand is also the third largest export destination for Sri Lanka in the ASEAN region. However, the large trade gap between the two countries in favor of Thailand has to be addressed. Representatives of the two governments have engaged in discussions on areas for further cooperation such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and automobile spare parts, as well as our resolve to work together to lower trade barriers. Sri Lanka and Thailand will also work together on value addition in the supply chain. Both governments are also to work in tandem to facilitate the establishment of joint ventures between the related industries in the two countries. The emphasis on developing the rural economy is shared by both governments, as is the recognition of fisheries as a priority sector. Special focus was also placed on the development of cultural and religious tourism between the two countries. There are many areas in the Sri Lankan export services sector that could be harnessed in this regard such as ICT, banking, and financial services as well as the strong education sector that has developed one of the highest literate populations in the Asian region. Furthermore, there are opportunities for Thai investors in the booming economy of Sri Lanka in both the traditional sectors, which is recording a growth rate of 7% in such traditional areas such as apparel, tea, spices, and rubber, as well as in such non-traditional sectors as minerals, food processing, post-harvest packaging, and renewable energy. With the establishment of the 45 economic zones and 11 industrial and technological zones throughout the country, the investor environment in Sri Lanka has been given a significant boost.
Which economic opportunities has Sri Lanka identified in Southeast Asia following the recent integration of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)?
As the ASEAN region emerges as a unified economic community, Sri Lanka aims to be a constructive partner of it. In bringing about the changes to fulfill the wishes of the citizens of Sri Lanka, my government works closely with many international partners such as regional bodies, governments, and other international organizations. The changes brought about since January have of course raised the profile of Sri Lanka and propelled the country toward a more harmonious and cooperative relationship with the international community. This has been reflected in the collaborative engagements in international fora. The re-establishment of rule of law and good governance to accompany the peace and security that had been won has resulted in an investment friendly environment of more trade in Sri Lanka. The increased FDI and presence of global companies in Sri Lanka have illustrated the recognition of the international private sector of these positive changes. Sri Lanka welcomes collaboration and looks forward to playing to the strengths of our economy. While ASEAN integration will provide a good platform for the member states to improve corporation among them, Sri Lanka sees a unique opportunity in it to develop trade relations with a group of countries that are culturally close to us. While we look forward to a booming renewables sector is Sri Lanka, we will continue to play an increased role as a partner facilitating naval transport between AEC and the rest of the world. AEC will certainly be an important trade partner for Sri Lanka. With the exchange of technical know-how and specialized knowledge from the top industries of ASEAN member countries and envisaged joint ventures in the private sectors, I look forward to a productive and collaborative partnership with the ASEAN Economic Community.