Your Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Madam Shiranthi Rajapaksa, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I thank you, Excellency, for the kind sentiments that you just expressed about me, and about the Maldives.
Before proceeding any further, I wish to thank you, and your government and the friendly people of Sri Lanka, for the very warm welcome and generous hospitality that you have extended to my wife and I and the members of my delegation since our arrival in Sri Lanka.
As always, visiting your beautiful country and experiencing the warm hospitality of the Sri Lankan people is a great pleasure for all of us.
It is an added pleasure for us that we are visiting Sri Lanka only a week after the celebration of your 60th anniversary of Independence. On this auspicious occasion, I wish to convey to you, Excellency, and to your government and friendly people, the sincere greetings and good wishes of my government and people.
May I also thank you, and the Government and friendly people of Sri Lanka, for presenting me with the prestigious ‘Sri Lanka Mithira Vibusana’ Award earlier this evening.
This is my eighth visit to Sri Lanka in an official capacity, and each one of my previous visits, including the countless private visits and stopovers, have made this country a ‘home away from home’ for me.
As you know, my first visit to Sri Lanka, known then as Ceylon, dates back to my childhood years. I also had the good fortune of serving as the Deputy Ambassador of the Maldives in Sri Lanka, many years ago. I have, therefore, been in a position to witness first hand the tremendous strides of development that the country has achieved over the years.
I believe that the blueprint for Sri Lanka’s progress for the years ahead has all the necessary ingredients for success, and it is a fact that the architect of this blueprint is none other than you, Mr. President.
Exactly one year ago to the week, my wife and I had the pleasure of hosting you and Madam Rajapaksa in the Maldives. Your memorable State visit had served as a catalyst to propel bilateral relations between our two countries to new heights. The fruitful discussions that we had held then had indeed culminated in strengthened cooperation in a number of key areas of mutual interest.
Undoubtedly, our bilateral relations have greatly advanced in recent years. I wish to thank you, Excellency, for the personal interest and commitment that you have shown to furthering ties with us.
I am confident that Maldives-Sri Lanka ties will indeed continue to flourish. The bilateral agreements between the two countries on important issues such as air services, communications, cultural and educational cooperation, trade and economic matters, science and technology, tourism and shipping have formed the bedrock of our ties for many years.
The two agreements that we entered into earlier today, on visa facilitation and exchange and transfer of prisoners, will undoubtedly bring us even closer together.
I note with great satisfaction that the second meeting of our Joint Commission on Fisheries was held last year, on the back of your State visit to the Maldives. Similarly, the Joint Task Force on Tourism has also begun its meetings.
I am confident that cooperation in these two sectors of mutual importance will be heightened in the time ahead.
Continued high-level exchanges are of the utmost importance in sustaining strong relations, and I note that four members of your cabinet visited the Maldives over the past year alone, and held fruitful discussions with their Maldivian counterparts.
Similarly, four of my Ministers too visited Sri Lanka during the same period.
The fact that Sri Lanka had offered to host this year’s SAARC Summit clearly shows your strong commitment to the SAARC ideals and the high priority that you attach to advancing regional cooperation.
As you know, the Maldives was originally scheduled to host the SAARC Summit this year, but important domestic activities and engagements this year, including the presidential election, meant that we chose to offer the opportunity to host this year’s Fifteenth SAARC Summit to Sri Lanka. It is indeed a great pleasure for us that Sri Lanka will be hosting the SAARC Summit during the auspicious year of the country’s 60th anniversary of Independence.
I had the great pleasure of visiting Sri Lanka to represent the Maldives at the Sixth and Tenth SAARC Summits held here, in 1991 and 1998, respectively. I am confident that the coming Summit too will be a memorable one in which we will together find ways to take regional cooperation to new heights.
Relations between the Maldives and Sri Lanka have been founded over the years on mutual understanding and respect, and shared values on important regional and international issues. We are both members of a number of important international organizations, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Non-aligned Movement, the G-77 and, of course, SAARC.
One of the most important areas of mutual focus on the international stage in recent years has been the global drive against terrorism. As you know, we share a common position on the global drive against terrorism. The Maldives firmly supports your initiative, at the most recent SAARC Summit in New Delhi last year, in calling for stronger regional cooperation and collaboration in the fight against terrorism.
Last week, I attended the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2008, which was organized by The Energy and Resources Institute of India. I urged the delegates to alert policymakers in their respective countries to contribute to the global push for a post-Kyoto climate change agreement.
In fact, for over twenty years, I have been campaigning on the global stage to urge the international community to take immediate action to address climate change. As you know, the Maldives is among the most environmentally vulnerable countries in the world. In particular, the warming planet and rising seas pose serious dangers to my people.
For many years, the Maldives and Sri Lanka have worked in partnership at the global arena on issues related to the environment, and I note with great pleasure the rising awareness on environmental issues in Sri Lanka. Your government deserves much praise for this. I also commend the many initiatives that you have introduced in recent years to preserve and protect the wide variety of beautiful natural ecosystems in Sri Lanka.
For many years, Sri Lanka has continued to play an integral role in our human resource development. This aspect of our cooperation strengthened tremendously in recent years.
The Central Library of the Maldives College of Higher Education, which was opened last year under the generous assistance of the Sri Lankan Government, will remain as a lasting reminder of our friendship.
Thousands of Maldivians had received their secondary and tertiary education in Sri Lankan institutions. Since 2001 alone, over 600 Maldivians have attained their education and training in Sri Lanka, in areas such as aviation and aeronautical engineering, defence, education and health.
The annual scholarships for prospective Maldivian students, that Your Excellency had offered during your State visit last year, is a vivid example of the high priority that your government attaches to enhancing ties in this key area. I am confident that the first batch will begin their studies in Sri Lankan institutions very soon.
I also note the invaluable contribution of the hundreds of Sri Lankan teachers educating our younger generations in schools across the country. They also serve to bring our two countries closer together.
In addition, over 8,500 Sri Lankans are currently gainfully employed in the Maldives in a number of sectors, including tourism, construction, business and community work. The strong people-to-people contact has formed the foundation of our relations for many decades.
Similarly, hundreds of Maldivians are residing in Sri Lanka or visiting the country frequently, not only for educational purposes but also for medical and business needs.
Sri Lankan investments in the Maldives can be found in a number of important economic areas, including tourism, accountancy, financial consultancy and cargo handling and shipping.
Some of the most reputed Sri Lankan companies and Sri Lankan agencies of international companies are successfully doing business in the Maldives.
Similarly, some of our top entrepreneurs have major investments in Sri Lanka, in a number of areas.
In conclusion, I wish to quote Your Excellency’s vision for Sri Lanka. Your vision, as stated in your official website, is to "change Sri Lanka to be a modern State whilst fostering the national heritage and culture with peaceful co-existence among the communities of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others, instilling economic growth and prosperity; and maintaining friendly relationship with all nations".
I believe you have already set the groundwork in a very short time on making this vision a reality.
I wish you and Madam Rajapaksa good health and wellbeing, and continued prosperity and progress for the friendly people of Sri Lanka. May the close ties of friendship and cooperation between the Maldives and Sri Lanka grow from strength to strength in the years to come!