Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday addressed the Maldives parliament during his official visit to the country.
Several agreements of cooperation in visa facilitation, water supply, youth development, vocational training, higher education and social empowerment signed on Monday would help “fortify the mutual relationship,” he told the People’s Majlis.
“In addition, parents or guardians of students studying in Sri Lanka will now be able get guardian visas till the student reaches the age of 18 years with no lower age limit,” he said. “As a special arrangement, visas for grandparents of the students will also be facilitated so that they could stay and spend time with their grandchildren in Sri Lanka.
The announcement was greeted with applause from lawmakers. About 13,000 Maldivians are estimated to reside in the neighbouring country, predominantly in the capital Colombo.
The prime minister noted that Maldivians would now be able to undergo organ transplants, including kidney and liver transplants, in all private hospitals in Sri Lanka.
He also pledged assistance to set up a drug rehabilitation centre in Addu City as well as two new schools.
“We also signed an agreement on higher education and vocational training yesterday. When I was the minister of education, I initiated a scheme to permit Sri Lankan teachers to teach in your schools,” he continued.
“Today, as the prime minister, I seek to go further – to bolster your vocational education sector by extending our assistance to train your trainers in numerous occupational skills. We are also looking at offering higher education opportunities in Sri Lanka for Maldivian students.”
Sri Lanka is “considered to be the second home of many Maldivians” and many Sri Lankans reside in the Maldives, he said, noting an increase in the number of Sri Lankan professionals and skilled workers residing in the country.
The close relationship between the Maldives and Sri Lanka dates back many centuries and both peoples “share common attributes of culture, food and linguistics,” he observed, noting the common origin of Dhivehi and Singhalese.
Wickremesinghe praised Speaker Mohamed Nasheed as a “longtime friend of Sri Lanka.” He described the former president and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as “the frontrunners of the democratic movement in the Maldives” and congratulated the pair for “having strengthened people’s powers and rights.”
He also expressed gratitude to Nasheed for visiting Sri Lanka with a large delegation of ruling party lawmakers to show solidarity in the wake of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. “They gave us much needed support at that critical juncture,” he said.
After the speech, Nasheed described Sri Lanka as “the most stable democracy in South Asia” and gifted the prime minister a copy of the Isdhoo Loamaafaanu, a historical text from the 12th century.
The Maldives is the third largest export destination for Sri Lanka among South Asian nations after India and Pakistan. The value of trade stood at US$304.3 million in 2018, up from US$ 271.1 million in 2017.
Wickramasinghe is also chairing the Indian Ocean Conference that began at the Paradise Island Resort later on Tuesday with representatives from 35 countries.
– Parliamentary government –
Most of Wickremesinghe’s address was devoted to explaining legislative measures taken in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis in 2018, during which he had been dismissed as prime minister. The crisis ended after seven weeks of turmoil when the country’s Supreme Court declared the president’s move to dissolve parliament was unconstitutional.
The Sri Lankan president’s powers to appoint ministers from among lawmakers and dissolve parliament have since been restricted through a constitutional amendment, Wickremesinghe noted.
“Today, the major features of the Westminster parliamentary government exist side by side with an executive presidency, which we are committed to abolish due to its profound powers that have often been exploited and abused by its incumbents – with impunity,” he said.
Independent commissions have also been established with members appointed by the country’s constitutional council along with new sectoral oversight committees. The new commissions were set up to address politicisation of the public service, police, judiciary, electoral body and the finance and audit agencies.
But Sri Lanka continues to face “new dangers” posed by hate speech and fake news, he added.
“The social media is like a god of ancient times: both the creator and the destroyer. It has the ability to spread the message of freedom as well as to rouse passions and emotions that lead to its destruction. It is the dilemma of the cyber space and democracy – the frightening ability to create a thousand Hitlers setting fire to a thousand Reichstags,” he said.
“Finding a balance between the democratisation of news and the legal obligations of the user to prevent harm is the complex question that which we, you and many countries, have to grapple with. The final solution will require an educated public – aware of their freedoms and the threats that are posed by the net and the web.”