'Long War, Cold Peace'


by Kalana Senaratne

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has returned from Paris; a return marked by his characteristic interventions in the press and the release of a book, titled 'Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka' (Vijitha Yapa, 2013). The book, his second major publication on Sri Lanka, brings together most of his writings on Sri Lankan affairs which were published in the papers during the past few years.

This is a timely intervention; not only because the author was a former diplomat who had staunchly and successfully defended the country overseas, but mostly because his views on numerous domestic and foreign policy matters seem to run counter to the dominant ideological positions adopted by the present regime. The confluence of these factors makes Jayatilleka's intervention a coruscating and critical one, with the delightful (or dangerous?) potential of irking the regime.

But how does Jayatilleka's approach differ from the regime's, on some of the critical problems confronting the country?

Armed conflict, investigations and human rights

The regime's understanding of the consequences of the armed conflict, about what had to be done to avert international pressure, was always problematic. Its propagandists considered the bloody and necessary confrontation with the LTTE to be a 'humanitarian mission', with zero-civilian casualties; therefore, investigations were considered wholly unnecessary, and calls for human rights protection were often dismissed. But these were never going to be convincing arguments in the diplomatic arena, especially in the long term. The conflict was, at best, only partly 'humanitarian', and a policy of 'zero-civilian casualties' was simply that, a policy.

Jayatilleka, to be sure, was a staunch defender of the crushing of the LTTE. He had advocated the need to defeat the LTTE for a long time (even in his 1995 book, 'Sri Lanka: The Travails of Democracy). And he argues in his latest book, rather unsurprisingly, that "at no time were civilians wittingly targeted as a matter of policy" and that issues pertaining to "accountability will be dealt with by each society at its own pace" (p. 348). But Jayatilleka begins to adopt a different and useful stance when he advocates the need to carry out investigations into specific incidents or allegations of crimes (as he once informed Radio France Internationale). The war, as the LLRC Report showed, was not squeaky clean; and Jayatilleka has had no problem in endorsing it. This is unlike the regime's approach; a regime which is determined to undermine the relevance of the LLRC. Ironically, the regime has decided to appoint a member of the LLRC as Jayatilleka's successor to Paris at a time when the country is being censured for not properly implementing the LLRC's recommendations.

Jayatilleka also rejects cultural relativism, and writes that human rights "are not a Western invention or booby-trap, to be decried and shunned like the devil." (p. 351). Therefore, there is support for "a strong, independent Commission on Human Rights, Equality and Elimination of Discrimination headed by a person with international credentials and of acknowledged international stature" (p. 349). Furthermore, Jayatilleka seeks to uphold international law while continuing to regard state-sovereignty and sovereign states as the cornerstones of the world order (an approach similar to the late Lakshman Kadirgamar's).

Sri Lanka, the West and the UN

The current regime has a dubious relationship with the West, wherein the latter configuration is often regarded as an 'enemy'. The regime despises the West, but it also wants to impress them. Sri Lanka is part of the UN, but it is also famous for its mindless and insipid attacks on the UN and its representatives, who come to be often viewed as 'terrorists' or their foreign representatives.

Jayatilleka is an anti-imperialist - a strong admirer of Che and Castro - and a believer in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He was also a most forceful critic of the West's attempt to pass a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in May, 2009. Yet, he advocates the need to avoid being polarized on Western-centric and isolationist lines, and thereby attempts to chart a middle course which is globalist (especially in its outlook on politics, security and culture). Adopting a more pro-NAM, pro-Asian approach, he argues for a "successful project of Sri Lankan social democracy" which needs to synthesize Asian concerns with uneven development into "an Asian social democracy" (p. 64).

More importantly, Jayatilleka recognizes that the West does not constitute an 'enemy'; however divergent the views and interests of Sri Lanka and certain members of the West may be. This approach has many advantages. It helps the country to be both critical of the West or the UN, but not be seen as an 'enemy'; to be mindful of the politics of its representatives, but without relapsing into inelegant and unnecessary attacks which antagonize them; to be critical of selective, Western-inspired, attempts to hold Sri Lankan leaders accountable, but also be clever to ensure that by rushing to hold the Commonwealth Summit it is only attracting increased scrutiny and attention (as Jayatilleka has pointed out in a recent interview). There is, in such an approach, a realistic appreciation of the strength of the country, its size and place in the world; an appreciation that is totally lacking at present.

India and 13th Amendment

Sri Lanka and India are currently in a tensed relationship. Sri Lanka believes that China will be there to rescue her, even if it means that China has to jeopardize its relationship with India; but what Sri Lankan policy makers fail to realize is how deluded they are, or how more intelligent China is. Furthermore, the regime's views on devolution are confusing; wittingly or unwittingly. The President promises the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, while Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa rejects the need to do so. The regime's current policy is to remind India about how it provided arms and training to the LTTE and other groups promoting secession in Sri Lanka in the 1980s; a useful reminder no doubt, but not in the form of a daily mantra.

Jayatilleka's, to be sure, has been a very contrasting approach; which is partly why he got sacked from Geneva. He has not denied India's responsibility for exacerbating the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and there is a useful critique of the understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict by Indian diplomats and policy makers such as JN Dixit (p.167-77). Yet, Jayatilleka believes strongly in the continuing relevance of India's goodwill, and the need to ensure that the Indian centre does not capitulate to the whims of Tamil-Nadu. He understands more clearly the dangers confronting the country, in the context of BJP's threatening stance and the 2014 Indian elections. For Jayatilleka, this is a diplomatic game which needs to be played with the 13th Amendment; i.e. by implementing it, not simply by promising to do.

Jayatilleka correctly acknowledges that Sri Lanka "is the only homeland that the Sinhalese as a collective, have" (p. 365). But, what needs to be prevented "is the break up of the country based on monopolistic ethnic ownership of the North-east… we cannot deny the Tamils right to co-ownership, and such recognition is the only means to prevent separate ownership" (p. 263). A Sri Lanka "which remains unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East" is necessary (p. 265).

Within this overarching plan, Jayatilleka believes that the "struggle to implement the 13th Amendment fully remains as progressive a task as it ever was" (p. 267) - that the implementation of the 13th Amendment is to be regarded as a progressive task perhaps tells us where we are. Adopting a realistic and practical approach, he notes that his support for the 13th Amendment is largely because "it is already in place and does not have to be (re)negotiated" (p. 268). Why? "Anything else would be too risky. Open up the issue again and the Sinhalese may offer less, the Tamils may ask for more and the world may see an even more divided island" (p. 271).

But Jayatilleka is not blind to the nature of Tamil politics which, according to him, has failed to adopt a realistic approach. Given the TNA's dismissal of the 13th Amendment and its belief that a solution even within a united Sri Lanka may not be possible, he argues for "both the retention of the 13th amendment and the freeze, pause or slow-motion movement of the electoral process to the Northern Provincial council unless and until there is verifiable proof of a change of paradigm on the part of the ITAK/TNA" (p. 297). If there is a greater threat, it would even be necessary to dissolve the Northern council; as he points out in a recent article ('TNA President's Avurudu Gift to the Hawks', Daily Mirror). And, such a policy has to be implemented only in a way that safeguards Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity; a matter which is non-negotiable by any means whatsoever (p. 298).

Likewise, the book contains a valuable discussion on questions of 'Sri Lankan identity' which would be of topical relevance today.

Realist approach

Jayatilleka's, then, is a 'progressive realist' approach, but the book also contains much of Rortyan pragmatism. He believes that a "progressive Realist must work with what exists, not what might have existed - and he/she must do so precisely in order to transform that reality for the better or to avoid its turn for the worse" (p. 294). In adopting such an approach, Jayatilleka strives to show consistently the "reality within which one [has] to situate oneself and work" (p. 296). It is such a realist perspective that he urges the Left to adopt: a "radical realism" which is also ethical.

Limitations and concerns

The first limitation of Jayatilleka's account is also his strength: the realist approach, one which he is extremely fond of. The problem here is that like most 'realist' approaches, Jayatilleka's too is one which is constructed and determined by his own political preferences. Now, this is fine; for no political approach is neutral or objective (and any political analyst who calls himself 'neutral' or 'objective' should not be trusted). But given the uncertainties of politics and the flexibility with which a realist-approach needs to be constructed, such an approach will tend to be seen as an ever-shifting one.

This is perhaps best exemplified in an important essay titled 'Tamil politics' (p. 278-301); wherein Jayatilleka advocates the implementation (and freeze) of the 13th Amendment (p. 297), but also goes on to advocate a policy of 'LLRC first, 13th Amendment second' (p. 301) [I believe this has happened due to the fact that this particular essay is a synthesis of a series of articles Jayatilleka wrote about the TNA, and the two policies came to be highlighted in two different articles].

If then, what is necessary is not the abandonment of a realist-approach; rather, it is to realize that there is no inherent advantage in adopting the realist-approach given that it needs to constantly shift in an ever changing political environment. Jayatilleka's claim that his is a realist-approach therefore need not be uncritically endorsed, however alluring the call for 'realism' tends to be.

Secondly, even though Jayatilleka is perhaps the best foreign minister President Rajapaksa never had, he was one of the best diplomats the latter had. This, however, reminds one how marginal Jayatilleka's voice has been, even unsuccessful, in bringing about any kind of serious reform of the regime's domestic and foreign policies. This regard reminds one of the unimaginably complex and gargantuan task of reformation that confronts the people.

Thirdly, this in turn suggests that Jayatilleka now has to take his critique to another level wherein he will need to argue that this current regime is indeed unable and unwilling to reform itself. But here, I admit that Jayatilleka has initiated such a critique; the best piece of evidence being his speech at the seminar organized by the Young Journalists Association in which he both critiqued the regime and noted the impending necessity of a possible (peaceful) regime change at the next election. Yet, it is questionable whether the call for regime change can be unconditional. Would future developments make Jayatilleka feel, for example, that the first call needs to be for a change within the regime (the hawkish elements, as he might put it) and not the regime itself; given also the hopelessness that has come to characterize the opposition?


Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is one of Sri Lanka's most prominent and eloquent political analysts; a scholar who has also made a useful contribution to the global debate on ethical violence. And engaging with Jayatilleka's work has been an interesting and challenging enterprise. I have supported some of his views, while also critiquing him on certain occasions; an approach I will continue to adopt. As with the writings of any analyst or political commentator, vigilance, or constant revaluation, is required when following Jayatilleka's work.

Yet, 'Long War, Cold Peace' is a useful reminder that one can, while defending the defeat of the LTTE, still adopt realist and pragmatic approaches to problems confronting the country which are different from those adopted by the current regime. Jayatilleka's critique, in a sense, unmasks the mediocrity that has come to define this regime. But precisely because it does so, the title of the book might also define the very nature of Jayatilleka's relationship with the current regime. It might not be a long war, but most certainly a cold peace, as always. For now, however, Jayatilleka is back after a few years of thankless service in the diplomatic arena, back in Sri Lanka where it all began.

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