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Sri Lanka and Turkey: an Interview with the Turkish Ambassador, R. Demet Şekercioğlu

As a part of my series on talking to the foreign diplomats in Sri Lanka for our newly initiated talk show; The New Normal, I have had an opportunity to sit with newly appointed Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka. In this exclusive interview she has detailed with me about diplomatic relationship between Sri Lanka and Turkey as well as the prevailing situation in Turkey. Ambassador R. Demet Şekercioğlu was born in 1969 in Bonn, Germany. She graduated from the Department of Economics of the Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University in 1995. After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey in 1995, she assumed duties at the Turkish Embassy in Rabat, Brussels, Kuwait and Islamabad as well as at the Turkish General Consulate in Lyon throughout her professional career. She served in the Directorate General of Consular Affairs, Europe and lately South Asia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey. She was appointed as the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and assumed her duties in Colombo in January 2020.

Nilantha: Your Excellency R. Demet Şekercioğlu, thank you for accepting my request for this exclusive interview.

Ambassador Şekercioğlu: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the Sri Lankan audience.

Question (Q): What was your first impression of Sri Lanka?

Answer (A): It might sound as a cliché but it is my sincere feeling that Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. You still have so much untouched natural beauties. It is important to preserve them while developing the country. Your people are so friendly and hospitable. I am very happy to serve in Colombo.

I did not have the opportunity to visit the country yet, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, wherever I went, whomever I met in Colombo up to now, I was so warmly welcomed. This is an extraordinary feeling.

I realize that despite the geographical distance between our countries, we share many similarities. We are both a mosaic of different ethnics and religious groups. This brings some challenges, but this is also a great richness.

We also share some cultural similarities. For example in Turkey when a friend or a neighbour offers us a meal, we never give the dish back empty. We will also cook something in return. I learned that you also have the same tradition in Sri Lanka. This is amazing.

Q: During your meeting with the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa you have emphasized that “There are so many areas where we can enhance our relations.” What are the areas that you have identified?

A: Turkish-Sri Lankan relations have a deep history dating back to the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire opened an honorary consulate in the British-ruled Ceylon in 1864. Later Turkey recognized Sri Lanka at its independence in 1948 and the Turkish Embassy in New Delhi was accredited to the country. However, the revitalizing of the relations came with the visit to Sri Lanka of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the then Prime Minister of Turkey, in 2005 after the tsunami in the region. This visit was followed by the opening of our Embassy in Colombo in 2013.

Our diplomats have always had a good cooperation in the international bodies, especially on counter terrorism, which is a matter of vital importance for both of our countries. But it is difficult to pretend that our people know about each other well.

Of course, the “Ceylon tea” is well appreciated by the Turkish people, who are a great consumer of tea; however, Turkey and Sri Lanka are still in the process of discovering each.

Before the pandemic, the Turkish Airlines was operating daily flights between Istanbul and Colombo. This was playing very positive role in bringing our people and businesspersons closer, as well as Turkish tourists to discover Sri Lanka. So let us hope that the pandemic will soon be overand that we can tackle the large range of untapped cooperation opportunities.

Actually, I believe Turkey can contribute immensely to the progress of Sri Lanka by sharing her experience and expertise on many fields. Tourism, agriculture, housing, environment, health, infrastructure, education and security are some of those fields.

Turkey is mainly exporting iron and steel, textile fibres as well as electrical machines and devices to Sri Lanka, and importing garment and accessories, coffee and tea. We should certainly join our hands to diversify our trade and explore new avenues of cooperation. The Turkish-Sri Lankan Business Council of the Foreign Economic Relations Board based in Istanbul is very much keen to do so. They are working on a webinar to bring together business people from Turkey and Sri Lanka.

Of course, we will also continue to strengthen our cooperation on counter terrorism, as the priority of our leaders is the security of their people. One cannot sustain economic development without security and stability.

Q: Consequence of terrorism is our common painful experience. We all, I believe, are against terrorism and exercise of any form of violence. As you know, we as the nation have suffered from terrorism for nearly three decades. Then we were shocked by last year attacks allegedly launched by the Islamic extremists inspired by ISIS. Recently you have warned the return of members of Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO) to Sri Lanka. This is alarming. Why do they want to locate in Sri Lanka?

A: Last year’s terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka were also a great shock for us. In our minds, Sri Lanka was a secured and peaceful country. We also lost two of our young engineers who were working here in Colombo. I would like once again to extend my sincere condolences to the Sri Lankan nation.

This very painful experience proved us once again that we should never underestimate terrorist organizations and we should continue to trace them properly. It is the same message I wanted to convey this year, to the Sri Lankan people and authorities, on the fourth anniversary of the failed coup attempt of15th July, organized by FETÖ terrorist organization in Turkey.

To better understand why FETÖ would want to establish in Sri Lanka, we first have to understand what FETÖ is, its aims and how it operates. The history of FETO goes back to 1970s. It initially started its operations through establishing schools in Turkey and later all around the world, under the guise of a charitable organization.

However over years, FETO and his sympathizers strengthened their power, they infiltrated into the critical state positions, especially the security, the judiciary and the army. The education movement gradually turned into a secretive operational structure aiming to transform the society by taking control of the state from within. The final goal was to destroy democratic foundations of the Republic and establish a new state under the absolute rule of Fetullah Gülen, whom they consider as “Imam of the Universe”.

Of course, they needed finance to achieve their objectives. It was provided by establishing companies and collecting donations. Media houses were established to shape the public opinion. Today FETÖ is present in around 160 countries, and they continue to use the same method all around the world.

As I expressed previously, we see eye to eye with Sri Lanka on counter terrorism issues and we are very pleased to note that thanks to our collective efforts we were able to eliminate FETÖ elements from Sri Lanka. I would like to thank the Sri Lankan authorities once again for their effective cooperation.

Now that FETÖ has lost its influence and power in Turkey, it is trying to strengthen its structure abroad in order to survive. This is why it is important for Sri Lankan authorities to continue to be vigilant regarding FETÖ’s possible try to establish itself again in the country.

Q: Let’s talk about the situation in Turkey. What are the social and economic impacts of the failed coup in July 2016 against your government?

A: FETO elements had infiltrated not only every critical state positions, but also media houses, universities and businesses. They had abused their power to eliminate whoever opposed or tried to expose the organization’s subversive activities. They caused great sufferings to the Turkish nation, some great patriots from the army, academia and other segments of the society who opposed them died in prison because they had fabricated evidences and condemned them.

They have stolen the dreams of thousands of young people who could not reach their aspirations due to the mass-scale exam cheatings organized for university exams or the entry exams to critical government posts. FETÖ affiliated students were provided with the answers to those entrance exams.

Of course, our economy also suffered from the failed coup attempt. First and foremost the tourism sector was affected. Our economic growth in 2016 decreased to 3.2 percent.

But FETO coup attempt on 15thJuly 2016 was not the only terror incident that we experienced in the country. Due to our geostrategic location, our country has become the target of many inside and outside terrorist groups over the years. They are trying to manipulate and destabilize our country. As we have been fighting them for many decades already, we have developed a kind of social, political and economic self-resilience. Therefore, we have succeeded to overcome all these challenges caused by the failed coup attempt. Turkey’s GDP grew by 7.4 percent in 2017. Our progress and development are ongoing in many important areas.

Turkey is one of the major economies of the world. We are the 6th largest GDP by Purchasing Parity Power in Europe and the 13thlargest in the world.

Q: But, Fethullah Gülen and his followers are continued to deny their involvement in failed coup. “My message to the Turkish people is never to view any military intervention positively, because through military intervention, democracy cannot be achieved,” Gulen said in a statement published by many media outfits right after the carnage. I wonder if you can reaffirm his involvements in this brutal terror attack which killed over 200 innocents.

A: We have very strong proofs of their involvement. We have the testimonies of a number of FETÖ members who participated in secret meetings organized by the close aid of Fetullah Gülen, confessing that he told them he had received the approval and further instructions from Fetullah Gülen regarding the coup plot.

All the evidence collected so far throughout the investigations and trials demonstrates that the bloodiest terrorist attack in the history of Turkey was orchestrated by FETÖ under the instructions of Fetullah Gülen.

But before all, we know that those of the FETÖ affiliated military personnel who kidnapped the then Chief of General Staff, our current Minister of National Defense General Hulusi Akar, on the night of 15th July 2016, tried to persuade him to directly talk to Fetullah Gülen, in an attempt to convince him to join their rank.

This was the deadliest terrorist attack that our country has ever experienced in its modern history. FETÖ terrorists tried to bring down the government, assassinate the democratically elected President, shot at innocent civilians, and bombed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which is the symbol of our sovereignty.

After the Turkish nation’s strong response to the coup attempt, where thousands took the streets and 251 lost their lives to protect the Republic and its democratic foundation, one cannot expect Fetullah Gülen and his followers to recognize such a cruel act, which has been condemned by every segment of the Turkish nation.

That night the Turkish nation proved once again its commitment to democracy and that, it will never follow those who are betraying the nation.

Q: Who are supporting Gulen? And, what is his strength in Turkey at the moment?

A: Fetullah Gülen is living comfortably in a country, which is our NATO ally since 1999, when he was faced with criminal charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional regime. After the failed coup, some of his followers fled abroad.

Although FETÖ continues to pose a threat on a global scale, unfortunately, some of our friends, allies and neighbours close their eyes to this fact. Its members can find safe haven in many countries. Some so-called “democratic” countries advocating “rule of law” try to obstruct our legal efforts to bring them to justice.

Those who are supporting FETÖ are probably the same of those who want to reverse our steady progress. Those who want to prevent us from implementing independent policies that will serve the interest of the Turkish nation, and not their own. Those who do not want a strong Turkey, but rather a destabilized country, which they can manipulate.

Fortunately, we also have some friends like Sri Lanka, who has cooperated with us to eliminate FETÖ elements from its territory and Pakistan whose Assembly has recognized FETÖ as a terrorist organisation.

The strength of Turkey comes from the resilience of its people and its ability to unite in the face of a danger threatening the nation and the country.

Q: In your assessment, Gulen is a terrorist. Let me quote a portion from his statement on Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, “Nobody should have any doubt that these senseless attacks are not aimed at Sri Lankan people or Christians, but at all humanity. They are meant to add another incident to the cycle of violence that target peace, tranquillity and solidarity of humanity.” If anyone read these lines they will emotionally think Gulen is a nobleman fond of peace, isn’t it?

A: Fetullah Gülen and his followers continue to fool the world, as they did with the Turkish people over years. They continue to hide their radical faces behind a humanitarian and charitable mask. It is important to understand that FETÖ is not an ordinary terrorist organisation. This is why its leader and this organisation are so much more dangerous than any other terrorist organisation known to date. They need and they will continue to uphold this false public image, which helps them operate through schools, foundations, companies and so-called NGO’s in nearly 160 countries.This is a matter of death or life for them.

There is a great number of Fetullah Gülen’s discourses to his followers which have been released on social media, where he clearly advises them to hide themselves, their real intentions/objectives until they become strong enough to accomplish their final goal. The message is very clear and this is the method they followed from 1970’s up to 2016 in Turkey.

Q: Your Excellency; your government keeps on requesting from host countries to extradite Turkic originated alleged terrorists, including Gulen, to prosecute in the court of law. But, I’m afraid why do most of those demands were gone unheard?

A: You are perfectly right. Our request to extradite terrorists to Turkey unfortunately fall on deaf ears. For decades, we have been fighting a number of terrorist organizations simultaneously. PKK, DAESH, FETÖ are some of them.

Currently the terrorism originating from Syria is serious threat to our country. We are the only member of the Global Coalition against DAESH to put a chest-to-chest combat against DAESH in Syria.

But the terrorist attacks targeting our borders is not limited to DAESH. We have also been exposed to many attacks of PYD/YPG, which is the Syrian offshoot of PKK, the seperatist terrorist organisation Turkey has been fighting since 1984.

PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the EU and NATO. However, instead of working with Turkey to eliminate DAESH, one of our NATO ally is continuously supplying arms to PYD/YPG under the pretext that it is fighting against DAESH.

Q: According to the media reports, Turkey is bearing brunt of refugee crisis. Turkey is currently hosting over 4 million refugees — with 3.7 of them are Syrians. H. E. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told recently that, “Turkey is the number one country in humanitarian aid compared to the national income.” Tell us about the current situation in the country?

A: Turkey pursues a foreign policy guided by its founding principle “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” with an “Enterprising and Humanitarian” approach. This approach reflects the character of the Turkish people and represents the essence of Turkish foreign policy. We put considerable effort to reduce global vulnerabilities and undertake leading roles in humanitarian assistance and development aid.

Our priority is to achieve security, stability and prosperity in our neighbourhood and beyond. Within the scope of this approach, we address all items on our foreign policy agenda through a responsible, human-oriented, diligent and principled frame.

The concrete translation of this foreign policy approach to the refugee issue is that Turkey is hosting almost 4 million refugees, among whom the majority are Syrians. This is the highest number of refugees in a country in the world. According to the Development Initiative’s (DI) Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, Turkey became the most-spending country in terms of global humanitarian assistance for two years in a row with a total of 8.1 billion aid in 2017 and 8.4 billion aid in 2018.

However, this number does not include our spending for the Syrian refugees we have been hosting in Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian crises. So far, we have spent more than 40 billion USD for the well-being of the Syrians who are living in our country.

The foreign policy of the Republic of Turkey, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2023, continues to safeguard national security and interests while contributing to the common goals of humanity.

Q: Your Excellency: Sri Lanka and Turkey are maintaining a very cordial diplomatic relationship since it’s established. You have supported Sri Lanka for many developments programmes. What are your future plans?

A:  Turkey sees Sri Lanka as a reliable friend and a partner. Both countries have been maintaining cordial and friendly relations over the years. We wish to see a more developed and stronger Sri Lanka. In this regard, we always extend our support to Sri Lanka within our capacities.

 

Our assistance to Sri Lanka comprises humanitarian aid, as well as development and capacity building assistance. Distributing our assistance to the different regions and communities in the Island is also of great importance for us.

If I may count some of the assistance we have extended to Sri Lanka so far,

We built 450 houses in Matara for the Tsunami victims

After the end of the civil war, we funded the construction of 100 houses in “Sri Lanka Turkey Friendship Village” in Mannar for the IDPs.

Later, we provided assistance to construct a school, a playground and a hospital in the same village.

We provided Fisherman and Farmers in Trincomalee with fishing boats, fishing gear and water pumps.

We renovated a water tank in Lahugala.

We donated a 3D printer along with filaments to the Agriculture Faculty of Peradeniya University.

We distributed laptops and cameras to career journalists. We were able to send several Sri Lankan journalists to undergo special training on journalism in Turkey.

All these assistance were provided through official Turkish aid agencies TİKA and the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) in a transparent manner.

I am confident to say that our humanitarian, development and capacity building aid to Sri Lanka will continue according to the needs of Sri Lankans in the future, as well.

We will also continue to work together with our Sri Lankan counterparts to encourage Turkish business people to contribute to the progress of Sri Lanka.

Nilantha: Your Excellency; It is an honour to have you on our show; We wish you all the best. Stay safe and well.

Ambassador Şekercioğlu: Thank you, in my turn I wish peace, health and prosperity to the people of Sri Lanka.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan born author. He was the-editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He was also the editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine, co-published by the Danish Institute Against Torture ( DIGNITY) based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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