Sri Lanka Turkey Relationship: Detailing Warm Friendship

Starting from this issue of Lanka Courier endeavours to interview and solicit the ideas of diplomats and ambassadors serving in Sri Lanka for our new feature, Diplomacy in Focus. For this issue, we sat down with Demet Şekercioğlu Ambassador of Republic of Turkey to Sri Lanka. in this interview she has detailed historical diplomatic relationship between two countries and current social and economic situation in both nations. 

Excerpts from the Interview;

          It is said that diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Turkey extend to the Ottoman Empire. Can you briefly explain this fascinating history?

 The rumor says that the first contact between the Turks and the people of the Island goes back to the 11th century, when Prince Cemaleddin (Jamaldden) from Konya came and settled in the Island in 1016. However, the diplomatic/consular relations between the Ottoman Empire and the then Ceylon are established in the second half of 19th century. In 1864, Mr. Hassan Lebbe Marikar is appointed as the Honorary Consul of the Ottoman Empire in Colombo. What is less known to the public is that the Ottoman Empire appoints also Mr. Sultan Bawa Jaman as its Honorary Consul in Galle in the same year. Beginning from that date, exchanges between the Ottomans and the Muslims of the then Ceylon will intensify.

In 1901, Honorary Consul Abdul Majeed actively takes part in the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the accession of Sultan Abdulhamid II to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. To mark the occasion Consul Abdul Majeed lays the foundation stone of the new building of Al Madrasathul Khairiyyathul Islamiah which is the first Muslim boys’ school founded in 1883 in Colombo. Later, the school’s name will be changed as Hameediah School, in honor of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Among the legacies of Sultan Abdulhamid in Ceylon are the wearing of the fez cap and the display of the “star and crescent”, which were the symbols of the Ottoman Empire. A street in the Hulftsdrop area in Colombo is named after the Ottoman Sultan as Abdulhamid Street.

Honorary Consul Mr. Abdul Majeed is succeeded by Sir Mohamed Macan Markar Efendi, who serves as the last Honorary Consul of the Empire in Ceylon from 1903 to 1915. He is initially the Honorary Vice Consul for the Ottoman Empire in Galle and later the Honorary Consul in Colombo. As the Turkish Consul in Ceylon, Mohamed Macan Markar visited Istanbul in 1909. Inspired from the Ottoman architecture, he will get a residence built at the heart of Colombo, he will nameit after Istanbul “Villa Stamboul”. The Street on which Villa Stamboul is located is called Stamboul Place even today.

Following the independence of Ceylon on 4 February 1948, the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in New Delhi wasaccredited to Sri Lanka. From 1977 to 2000, Mr. Hema (Lofty) Wijeratne was the Honorary Consul General for the Republic of Turkey in Sri Lanka. In 2000, his daughter Mrs. BharathiWijeratne succeeded him to the position until she was appointed as the first Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Turkey in 2012.

          You have served as a career diplomat in number of countries. How do you feel about being able to serve as the Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka?

 I had the opportunity to serve in Rabat (Morocco), Lyon (France) and Brussels (Belgium) in the first years of my career, later I was appointed as Deputy Head of Mission to our Embassies in Kuwait and Islamabad (Pakistan). Before my ambassadorship, I served as Deputy Director General (DDG) for South Asia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara.  

I considered myself privileged for being appointed as Ambassador to Sri Lankafor two main reasons. First, I was in charge of a number of countries including Sri Lanka as DDG for South Asia. I had the opportunity to visit Colombo back in May 2019, for the first political consultations held between our Deputy Minister, H.E. Ambassador SedatÖnal and the then Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka, H.E. Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha. Therefore,I had already an acquaintancewith the Turkish-Sri Lankan relations, which is always an advantage when one takes up a new mission.

Second, Sri Lanka is a very hospitable country with which we have a positive agenda. Both our people share common values, such as respect for human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Sri Lanka just like Turkey is located at a strategic geography and is a mosaic of various religious,ethnic and cultural communities. Therefore, both countries also share similar challenges and struggles, which enabled us to develop mutual understanding and cooperation on issues of vital importance for our countries.

          Turkey has been a great support to uplift the lives of the people of Sri Lanka. Can you briefly describe your projects for human and physical development implemented in Sri Lanka?

 Allow me first to correct a misunderstanding or misperception about Turkey’s humanitarian support to Sri Lankan people. From time to time, some allegations are voiced in local newspapers claiming that Turkey is funding/supporting some NGOs, groups or schools. I would like to once again underlinethe fact that Turkey does not directly transfer money to any party in Sri Lanka. We only work either with the Sri Lankan government or with NGOs, which are legally registered/recognized by the Sri Lankan state.

I also would like to remind here that the Republic of Turkey is a secular state, where there is a clear separation between religion and state affairs. The foundations of a modern legal system were laid in the early years of the Republic. Although the majority of the population is Muslim, Sharia law is not applied in Turkey. We also have a unified education system where the medium of teaching is Turkish. Turkey is a member of NATO, European Council, G20, as well as a candidate state to the European Union.

Particularly since the tsunami in 2004, Turkey has provided humanitarian aid, as well as development and capacity building assistance to Sri Lanka. In the past, we built 450 houses for the tsunami victims of 2004 in Matara; after the end of the civil war, we funded the construction of 100 houses in “Sri Lanka-Turkey Friendship Village” for the IDPs in Mannar; later we constructed a school, a playground and a hospital in the same village. Providing fishermen with fishing boats and other necessary equipment; renovating/building water tanks and water pumps, maintaining irrigation dams to support farmers; donation of 3D printers and laptops to universities, journalists; organising some training programs are among other activities carried outin the past through official Turkish aid agencies TIKA and the Turkish Red Crescent in a transparent manner.

Recently, we have donated twelve benchtop centrifuges, ten ventilators and other personal protection equipment to fulfil the requirements of the Sri Lankan health authorities in the fight against Covid-19. They were directly and respectively handed over to Honourable Minister of Health and to Honourable Foreign Secretary. Currently, we are working on distribution of dry food parcels for the most vulnerable people during the holy month of Ramadan.

We will continue our efforts, within our capacities, together with our Sri Lankan counterparts to see a more developed and stronger Sri Lanka in her region in the future.

          Like Sri Lanka, Turkey is a country threatened by separatist terrorists. What is the current policy of the incumbent President of Turkey to ensure national security and the safety of the public?

 As you rightly mentioned, Turkey and Sri Lanka have been both subject to separatist terrorism. It is also striking to see the similarities between the two terrorist organizations, namely PKK and LTTE which target not only the territorial integrity but also the social fabric of our countries. PKK just as the LTTE began organizing in mid-seventies, it perpetrated its first terrorist attack in 1984. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, traveled to Syria in 1979 to receive military training, where he enjoyed safe haven until 1998.  He was captured in 1999 by the Turkish Intelligence, in Nairobi (Kenya) where he was offered protection by the Greek Embassy. He is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey.

The PKK which has so far claimed over 40,000 lives is also involved in organized crimes such as extortion, arms smuggling, human and drug trafficking, to fund its terrorist activities. It also uses many of the means and tools elaborated by the LTTE, like abduction of children, use of child soldiersand female suicide bombers etc. Its objective is to suppress the diversity of Turkey, prevent its citizens of Kurdish origin to integrate in the social, political, economic and cultural life of the State. As such, it mainly targets infrastructures, facilities, schools, teachers, health personnel in the southeast of Turkey, causing more harm to our citizens of Kurdish origin, although it is claiming that it fights for their rights.

The PKK is not only present in Turkey; it has also offshoots and affiliates in our neighborhood, Iran, Iraq and Syria under various names. PYD/YPG which is operating in Syria shares the same leadership cadres, organizational structure, strategies and tactics, military structure, propaganda tools, financial resources and training camps as the PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by various countries, including the members of the EU, the United States, Canada and Australia. However, PKK offshoot and affiliates largely exploit the democratic rights and freedoms in the West.

On the other hand, the PKK is not the only terrorist organization Turkey is fighting against. It will be recalled that on 15 July 2016, the Fetullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO) tried to depose the democratically elected government of Turkey. This terrorist organization is at the same time a criminal and intelligence syndicate with global aspirations. While operating under the guise of a peaceful charitable organization and education movement, FETO aims at infiltrating into the state apparatus. Therefore, FETO poses a threat to the countries where it operates.

The presence of DEASH in our neighborhood also poses a serious threat to our national security. So far, more than 300 Turkish nationals lost their lives and 1,300 were wounded as a result of DEASH terrorist attacks. More than 1,100 DEASH affiliated terrorists, among whom more than half are foreigners, have been sentenced. Turkey is an active member of the Global Coalition against DEASH since its formation. It is co-chairing the Working Group on Foreign Terrorist Fighters. I deem it important to remind here that Turkey is actually the only NATO member that puts its troops on the ground to fight DEASH.

The developments achieved in our defense industry programs over the last years have played an important role in the success of our fight against terrorism. Today, Turkey is much less dependent on foreign procurements. We also continue to engage with our allies and partners to promote regional and international cooperation in putting an end to sinister and destructive activities of these terrorist organizations.

Demet Şekercioğlu Ambassador of Republic of Turkey to Sri Lanka ( Photo: Mahinda Tennakoon)

          Border tensions between Greece and Turkey are not new. What are the prevailing challenges in the area?

 The Lausanne Treaty signed by both Turkey and Greece in 1923, among others, recognizes the boundaries of the newly established modern Turkey. It establishes a delicate balance between Turkey and Greece by harmonizing the vital interests of both countries including those in the Aegean. The basic thinking of the Treaty is to grant to coastal states (Turkey and Greece) limited areas of maritime jurisdiction and leave the remaining parts of the Aegean to the common benefit of both Turkey and Greece.

Thus, the Aegean is the common sea between Turkey and Greece. However, Greece regards the entire Aegean as Greek Sea. Therefore, while Turkey fully respects the provisions of the Treaty, since 1930’s, Greece has been tilting to unilaterally extend its jurisdiction in the Aegean, and more recently in the Eastern Mediterranean, in total disregard of Turkey’s rights and interests as one of the coastal states.

Many points of discord, which exist between Turkey and Greece have the same root cause and are interconnected. Various disputes like the delimitation of the Aegean continental shelf,  air space related problems, militarization of Eastern Aegean Islands contrary to the provisions of the international agreements, as well as territorial waters breadth arise from the uncompromising attitude of our Greek neighbour. Let me clarify the situation for you by elaborating on a few points.

Greece extended its territorial waters from three miles to six miles in 1936 (Turkey followed the suit in 1964). Under the present six miles limit, Greek territorial sea comprises approximately 43.5 percent of the Aegean Sea, while Turkey’s territorial sea is only 7.5 percent. The remaining 49 percent is high seas. If the breadth of its territorial waters were extended to 12 miles as claimed by the Greek side, Greece would acquire approximatively 71.5 percent of the Aegean Sea, while Turkey’s share would increase to 8.8 percent. The Aegean high seas would diminish to 19.7 percent. Let me show you on the map what would be the consequences of such a move. If Greece extended its territorial waters to 12 miles, not only Turkey, but also third countries would clearly be denied the freedom of high seas in the Aegean.

Likewise, according to the maximalist position of Greece, all Greek islands in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean automatically generate continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (CS/EEZ). Thus, Greece claims that a 10 km2 island (Kastellorizo), lying 2 km away from the Turkish mainland and 580 km away from the Greek mainland is supposed to create an area of  40.000 km2 CS/EEZ.

To sum up, you can clearly see on the mapthe CS/EEZ, Greece is accepting to concede to Turkey, which has the longest coast in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

I leave to the discretion of the reader to decide on the equitability and fairness of the intransigent attitude adopted by Greece. While Turkey is always advocating dialogue without any pre-condition to solve the existing bilateral issues with Greece, we have unfortunately once again witnessed their irreconcilable attitude during the joint press conference organized on the occasion of the official visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece to Turkey on 15 April 2021.  

          Turkey is the top shelter of humanitarian assistance to refugees coming from neighbouring countries. But, some Western countries criticize Turkey for not respecting democratic values and principles. May I have your response?

 Turkey is home for around four million displaced people from different nationalities. More than 3.6 million of them are Syrians under temporary protection. We practically assume the responsibility of nine million Syrians, including those in Syria. We provide all kind of basic services to these people. We have spent more than 40 billion US Dollars for the well-being of Syrians and we continue our efforts to improve their living conditions.

There are more than one million school-age Syrian children in Turkey, over 750,000 of whom are currently attending school. The number of Syrian youth receiving university education in Turkish universities is around 37,000. Health-care is another sector where we continue our efforts. Until today, more than two million surgeries were conducted on Syrians. The number of Syrians receiving in-patient treatment exceeded 2.5 million. You can assess the size of the burden.

Despite all efforts of Turkey, millions of displaced people in the Northern Syria are still in despair due to the prevailing situation in Syria. Unfortunately, EU has turned a blind eye to our calls and appeals for equitable burden and responsibility-sharing. While Turkey has fulfilled her obligations stemming from 18 March 2016 Statement, and illegal crossings to Europe were reduced by 92% since 2015; the EU has yet failed to meet its commitments emanating from the same Statement. Refugee crisis is essentially an issue concerning Europe; no country can shoulder this burden alone.

In line with the related human rights instruments and 1951 Geneva Convention, every state has the obligation to receive asylum applications and offer international protection to those who are eligible. However, we see that Greece continues to push back and ill-treat asylum-seekers reaching its border. In the last four years, more than 80,000 migrants and asylum-seekers were pushed back to Turkey by Greece. It is also regrettable to see that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex is deliberately helping Greek authorities to push migrant boats back, hence putting the safety of migrants at risk.

Certain circles unjustly accuse Turkey for backsliding on fundamental freedoms and erosion of the rule of law without taking into account the unique challenges Turkey continues to face. As I explained earlier, Turkey does not only shoulder the burden of four million asylum-seekers inside Turkey, and five million Syrians in Northern Syria, but is also under a considerable security threat emanating from its neighbour. Turkey pursues a simultaneous fight against multiple terrorist organizations operating within its territory and along its borders. Our fight against terrorism protects not only the basic human rights and dignity of our citizens and those of the millions of displaced people, but also the borders of the EU, where hostility against refugees, xenophobia, hate speech and Islamophobia are on the rise.

          Diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Turkey are improving day by day. In 2019, Turkey’s trade volume with Sri Lanka was around $180 million. Tell us about future plans?

 Although the Turkish-Sri Lankan relations have a deep history dating back to the 19th century, the visit of His Excellency President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the then Prime Minister of Turkey on 10 February 2005, in the context of his tour to the countries affected by the 2004 tsunami marks a threshold in our bilateral relations. Turkey lent a helping hand to Sri Lanka’s efforts to overcome challenges caused by the tsunami. The warming relations were followed by high-level visits and the opening of the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Ankara and our Embassy here in Colombo, respectively in 2012 and in 2013. Since then, our relations have been steadily developing in a cordial atmosphere. My mission in Colombo is to further deepen and strengthen both the government-to-government and people-to-people ties for the mutual benefit of our people. We have a number of mechanisms and tools we can use to this end.

One of the most important tools is the Turkey-Sri Lanka Joint Economic Commission (JEC) which was established back in 1988. We revived this mechanism through the meeting held on 11-12 November 2016 in Ankara. The second meeting, which was scheduled to take place in Colombo at the end of May 2019, has been postponed due to the tragic Sunday Easter Attacks and later due to the pandemic, which took the World hostage last year. We are now hoping to hold it, at the earliest appropriate time, to review the whole range of our economic and trade relations and to discuss the ways and means to overcome the impact of the pandemic together. 

After the opening of our Embassies, Turkey-Sri Lanka bilateral trade figures have progressively increased up to 229 million USD in 2018. During this JEC of 2016, a goal of 500 million USD was set to be achieved by 2020. Unfortunately, the unexpected developments of those last years did not allow us to reach this goal. Yet, there are positive developments that enable us to be optimistic. 

Turkey became top tea importer of Sri Lanka in 2017, and except in 2018, she continues to occupy the first rank. Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines (THY) has been operating passenger and cargo flights between Istanbul and Colombo since 2013. The flight frequency was seven times per week before the pandemic. Although passenger flights were suspended for a short while, continuing its cargo flights, THY has undertaken an undeniable task to deliver Sri Lankan goods to the world market. THY’s passenger fights are currently operating five times per week, and offering an immense service to the revival of the Sri Lankan tourism sector, as well as to the development of people-to-people relations between Turkey and Sri Lanka.

The Turkey-Sri Lanka Business Council of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey has been organising regular online webinars to bring together the business communities from Turkey and Sri Lanka during the pandemic. Its members are also very keen to visiting Sri Lanka, to discover the business opportunities on the site, as soon as the conditions permit. I am glad to observe that despite the pandemic, some Turkish business people were willing to invest in various sectors in Sri Lanka. Direct capital investments from Turkey to Sri Lanka are estimated to be around 3 million US Dollars. Considering the potential of both countries, there is ample room to increase this figure. Of course, Sri Lanka should do its share of the work to realize this by easing doing business climate in the country. 

Last but not least, the establishment of the Sri Lankan-Turkish Inter-parliamentary Friendship Association within the Sri Lankan Parliament last March, is also a step forward to enhance relations between the representatives of our people, which will certainly contribute to the existing cordial relations.  

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