Of International Forums and Local Aspirations


By Ahilan Kadirgamar

Over the last week, I participated in two discussions on Sri Lanka in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard University, as an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, I was on a panel discussion with Ambassador Palitha Kohona and Prof. Vasuki Nesiah, moderated by Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former Under-Secretary under the Bush Administration and now on the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government. At the other discussion, I spoke at length to a number of graduate students at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Both events attracted individuals who had some interest in Sri Lanka, and while the Harvard event was politically charged with respect to recent events, the Fletcher discussion provided some room to delve into deeper historical and political questions about Sri Lanka’s place in the international order and the manner in which global political economy has shaped our state and society.

There is always an element of disconnect at international forums, with respect to the historical and ground realities of Sri Lanka. Here, western academic institutions are also encumbered by the generalizations and biases of distance. At such talks, my first concern is to dispel what the mainstream media in the west often characterizes as a Sinhalese-Tamil conflict. Such characterisation ignores the existence of the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil communities, as well as the history and continuing coexistence of all communities. A deeper understanding articulates the problem as not one between communities, but between the state and various minorities and classes; of how, historically, the political elite in all the communities, particularly the ruling regimes, had failed to address this problem, allowed it to fester and permitted militant forces to respond with armed violence leading to the massive destruction of our society. Indeed, the decades-long war in the North and East and the two major insurrections have ravaged our social, economic and political fabric.

Rebuilding our society then is about reforming the state, borrowing on what many Lankan scholars have debated as constitutional architectures for devolution of power and power-sharing. It is also about demilitarizing state and society, which as a priority must include ending the culture of impunity and ensuring freedom of expression. Whatever reforms attempted in recent times have been mere tokenisms and clearly inadequate. Furthermore, it raises questions about our economy, of the rural/urban divide, the marginalisation of certain classes, the mounting inequalities, and our diminishing sense of social welfare. Such changes to our state, society and economy will not be possible without a deepening process of democratisation, which would allow for greater participation and empowerment of all sections of society and checks on the powers of our ruling regimes. Indeed our ruling regimes have either created or failed to address problems that come back to haunt us in the future.

My generation and the two generations before me saw destruction in ways that one never imagined possible. When I think about my discussions with students and young lecturers during my many visits to Peradeniya University, or for that matter my discussions last year at the Eastern University, they were engaging and enriching. Clearly, it is the political commitment to a shared future held by these youth that is encouraging. And it is here that I place my hope most of all, in the next generation of youth. What kind of society and what kind of democratic space is there for the generation that has come of age during the war? One likes to hope that, at least of this generation, visionary social movements and actors with a democratic and plural ethos will emerge to shape a future that might finally confront our troubling postcolonial history, a history replete with tragic and short-sighted politics that our past and current political leaders have continued to repeat.

In the interest of placing my views on record, and to give a sense of what I attempted to convey during the short time available for opening remarks at the panel at Harvard University, I provide a transcript here:

At the outset, I must express my concern about the contested character of any discussion on Sri Lanka. Critical views in the spirit of constructive engagement are often distorted in the public sphere. Here, the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, to which I belong, has always valued critical engagement and, when necessary, not shied from criticizing any actor, whether it is the Sri Lankan state, the LTTE or international actors. Next, neither I, nor my views are representative of any community within Sri Lanka or for that matter the Tamil Diaspora. In fact, the Tamil community is not homogenous. Rather, I believe in the importance of dissent. And my political commitments are towards a democratic, just, plural and united Sri Lanka.

The recent history of Tamil politics, from the separatist call to the armed struggle, has devastated the Tamil community. Tamil dissent foresaw this tragedy unfold, but was unable to change the political dynamics to salvage the country as a whole from such destruction, and the Tamil community in particular, in the face of the fascist and suicidal politics of the Tamil Tigers. However, there are no victors in this brutal war. Sri Lanka as a whole has lost in terms of the thousands of wasted lives, of tremendous suffering and economic devastation. Here the blame must be shared by the political elite from all communities for not arriving at an amicable solution that could have projected a politics to avoid the war. Thus we have all failed.

It is in this context that Sri Lanka’s post-war moment is an important opportunity to address the root causes of the conflict, through a far-reaching process of democratisation coupled with a constitutional settlement acceptable to all people: the Sinhalese population and particularly the minorities - Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Up-Country Tamils. Indeed, the devolution debate over the last two decades and the All Party Representative Committee process, appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, have recommended devolution of power to the regions and power-sharing at the centre. However, the President seems to have buried the final report and recommendations of the APRC, the substance of which I believe are essential political conditions for meaningful reconciliation.

Almost two years after the end of the war and the decisive decimation of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa government’s approach to post-war Sri Lanka has been very worrying. Their priorities seem to be two-fold, to consolidate the power of the Rajapaksa regime and a singular focus on "economic development" as the solution to all of Sri Lanka’s woes. The only constitutional change that it has engaged with is the 18th Amendment, which removes the two-term limit on the Executive Presidency and extends powers over the appointment of independent commissions responsible for broader governance. Now, development for a war-devastated country is indeed important, but the process of development and whether it is inclusive and transparent, will ultimately decide if all the communities feel they have a stake in such development. Without a parallel track of greater democratisation and a political process to address the grievances of the different communities and classes, "economic development" can breed resentment. Sadly, Sri Lanka’s great opening and opportunity for a sustainable peace with meaningful reconciliation, I worry, are quickly being washed away by the narrow interests of the Rajapaksa regime.

With respect to the issue of reconciliation, the centre stage given to Sinhala Buddhist nationalists by the Rajapaksa government continues to alienate the minorities and polarises the country. Indeed, throughout our history, extreme Tamil nationalism and extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalism have reinforced each other to the detriment of progressive actors within all communities. The appointment of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission a year after the end of the war is welcome, particularly given the near absence of reconciliation initiatives. However, the mandate of the LLRC is far too narrow to address the long history of the conflict and the breadth of abuses by all actors. The LLRC has the limited mandate of looking at developments between 2002 and 2009 and particularly the failure of the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002. We can only hope that the LLRC will bring out its recommendations soon and that its work will not drag on. Similarly, the panel of advisors appointed by the UN Secretary General also has a limited mandate. Both reports should be made public for engagement by the people and assist in the opening of space for reconciliation. However, both these mechanisms are clearly inadequate to address the challenges of meaningful reconciliation.

A country that has gone through decades of armed conflict and two devastating insurrections in its short six-decades-long independent history needs a much more robust process of reconciliation. From the war-time decades of militarization, there needs to be a process of democratisation that changes the political culture. The constitution of the country needs to go through fundamental change. There needs to be an accounting of those who were killed and disappeared, particularly given allegations of tens of thousands of deaths caused by both parties to the last phase of the war. The people affected by the war should be given the space to mourn and heal their wounds. In all of this, as with development, the United Nations and the international actors that engage with Sri Lanka have a role, but ultimately, it will be change that only the people of Sri Lanka can bring about. Creating the democratic space for the people inside the country to lead in such change remains the priority for any form of solidarity.

Opening Remarks, "War, Peace and Reconciliation: The Way Forward for Sri Lanka", Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1 March 2011

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