Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Lakshman Kadirgamar: How the South Constructed Him, the Tamils Saw Him


by J. S. Tissainayagam, Northeastern Monthly, September 1, 2005

"The LTTE has wreaked havoc so many times and now killed the best foreign minister this country ever had. It was he who changed the international opinion of this Island, which was hitherto referred to as a land of barbarians."

These are the words of Venerable Ellawela Medananda thero of the Jathinka Hela Urumaya (JHU), spoken during the debate on August 18 to extend the state of emergency.  What was it that prompted this Buddhist monk, well known for his virulent anti-Tamil positions disguised as patriotic utterances, to say these words about the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was popularly regarded as a Tamil?

Even a cursory glance at the rhetoric that has been emanating from the south following the assassination of Kadirgamar shows how he had become a construct, which anti-Tamil forces could exploit for their own purposes.  At the time of his death, he symbolised the Sri Lankan state as the extreme sections of the Sinhalese community envisaged it.  As such, the construct was very carefully built, including what Sinhala nationalism wanted to project and rejecting what it wished excluded.

This construct was used by Sinhala nationalists in the south as a weapon to undermine the Tamil struggle to win their rights and establish their identity in this country.  It helped the Sinhala ruling class, both against the LTTE’s war for a separate state, as well as to block demands by the liberal sections of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities to reform the existing state structure and make it more inclusive and pluralistic.

The construct had a number of elements that were interwoven, with each element complementing and helping to reinforce the other.  These elements were articulated either singly or in a bundle to create the impression that the nationalist sections of the Sinhala ruling class and their constituencies required, both during Kadirgamar’s political life, as well as at his death.

The most important element that went into this construct was that Kadirgamar was known as a Tamil.  By making him the foreign minister, he became a Tamil who represented the Sri Lankan state in its relations with other states in the comity of nations.  His position as a Tamil representing the Sri Lankan state in its dealings with the international community, at a time when others in the Tamil community were fighting for self-determination alleging Sri Lanka was discriminating against that community, went a long way in undermining the rebel cause.  Kadirgamar’s high profile position as foreign minister was therefore strategic.

Having made Kadirgamar an important minister in the PA/UPFA cabinet, southern politicians angled their rhetoric cleverly to show that he was beyond parochialism and small mindedness.  By doing this, they automatically portrayed Tamils fighting for self-determination because their ethnic identity was inadequately reflected in the composition of the Sri Lankan state, as narrow-minded and intolerant, and thereby a lesser breed.  This strategy also fed neatly into the well-know stereotype of Tamils favouring their own kind – the ‘nammada aal’ phenomenon.

How Sri Lanka’s ruling class manipulated this for its own ends is best seen from a statement made by that great upholder of liberality and tolerance – the JVP’s Wimal Weerawansa.  "The late foreign minister was a leader of rare calibre.  He was a person who thought beyond his community to project a Sri Lankan identity," said Weerawansa at the joint party leaders' meeting after Kadirgamar’s assassination.

But while portraying him as a staunch defender of the Sri Lankan state, the south has also tried to show him as a greater lover of the Tamils.  Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake said, "He was a genuine friend of the Tamils…"  Kadirgamar’s ‘love’ for the Tamils is described differently in a curious piece appearing in a Sunday newspaper soon after his death, where the author claims that, when Jaffna was under siege by the LTTE in 2000, it was Kadirgamar who ‘saved’ the city.  Less said about such views the better!

The second element of the carefully cultivated construct was Kadirgamar’s Buddhist leanings.  The most vocal exposition of this was his request at the United Nations that Vesak be made an international holiday.  The publicity given to this was enormous.  Even if that was a brief that Kadirgamar undertook for the country, his very public profession of at least the ritual aspects of Buddhism was obvious from his meeting the mayanayakes and other members of the Buddhist hierarchy on personal matters, and offering flowers when he was sworn in as foreign minister.

Kadirgamar was laid to rest according to Buddhist rites, a ceremony that the south gave as much publicity to as it could.  As of now, nobody is aware as to whether he wanted to be buried according to Buddhist rites or not and the claims his family has raised about his Christian roots further muddies the question.  However, it does not gainsay the fact the south used Kadirgamar’s public participation in Buddhist rituals as liberally as it exploited his Tamilness for its own cynical purposes.

The third element in the construct contains two parts: he was an ‘educated’ man, and was associated with many icons of excellence both internationally and nationally.  His formidable achievements in studies and sports, as well as his career at Trinity College, Kandy, the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford, training in the law both at the Law College, Colombo and the Inns of Court in England, and a distinguished professional career were listed by the media in great detail.

What is interesting in Kadirgamar’s signal personal achievements is that they were attained outside the northeast of Sri Lanka.  In the hands of the southern nationalists, these went to reinforce the image of a man who had been trained and equipped to achieve what he did, not in the Tamil-majority northeast, but in the Sinhala-dominated south and of course, overseas.  It placed Kadirgmar firmly as part of Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie and, thereby, in a different social class from the leadership of the LTTE and the vast majority of its supporters.

The importance the south paid to Kadirgamar as an elite product of Sri Lankan society is best seen in the newspapers, which ran his list of achievements and the encomiums he received from the high and mighty, juxtaposed to scathing editorials against his killers.  It was as if the Tamils were unable to appreciate his greatness and had, like the base Indian, thrown the pearl away.

Finally, the construct represented him as a man who valiantly strove to preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country by pursuing a relentless war against LTTE ‘terrorism.’  The venerable thero quoted above and others called him Sri Lanka’s "best foreign minister" because he helped to ban the LTTE in the U.S and elsewhere and, while the Sri Lankan military pursued a bloody ‘war for peace’ against the Tamils, defended the Sri Lankan state at international fora and with world leaders.

In the address to the nation following her foreign minister’s death, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said, "Minister Kadirgamar spoke against terrorism and convinced the international community that terrorism is not a freedom struggle.  He was instrumental in getting the international community to recognise the LTTE for what it is."

These elements form the main pillars that went into the construction of Kadirgamar’s public image.  The image-building was assiduously pursued by the Sinhala and English media as well as Sinhala politicians and opinion-makers so that Kadirgamar appeared to personify the Sri Lankan state to make it appear that he and the state were one in the war against the LTTE.

But how far does this construct, which is a product of the south, seem relevant to the Tamils?  For them, Kadirgamar’s aloofness from their fears and hopes meant he was far removed from the concerns of their community.  It was made worse by his actions to strengthen the Sri Lankan state, which the Tamils regard as a Sinhala-dominated entity.  The result was a deliberate and systematic undermining of the Tamil struggle for equality and justice.

We have to understand that Kadirgamar’s career with the government, spanning almost a decade, should have convinced him that a solution to the conflict would necessarily depend on how power is configured between the stake-holding ethnic and religious communities on the island.  As a government minister he would have been engaging in the conflict (or conflict resolution as his southern admirers see it) having conceptualised how he would like to see power distributed among those stakeholders.

There are basically three ways in which this could be done:

1) Sri Lanka could split into two sovereign entities, one governed by the Sri Lankan state and the other by the LTTE, 

2) There could be a sharing of power between the southern political forces and the LTTE, and

3) Sri Lanka could be governed by Colombo as the sole repository of power.

To this writer it is fairly clear which of these three options Kadirgamar chose – the last.  One can understand his hesitation to work towards the fulfilment of the first option.  After all, there are other Tamils, too, who think in the same way.  But there are a number of Tamils who have pursued the second option.  For instance, Tamils admire the late Minister S. Thondaman, who, despite being a leader who represented the Upcountry Tamils and functioning entirely within the Sri Lankan system, worked towards creating structures for a political resolution of the ethnic war, including authorship of the Thondaman Proposals in the early 1990s, which for that time were very progressive.

But Kadirgamar forsook the second option for the third.  His admirers, however, say he worked for the second option, albeit silently.  How such a thing is tenable is quite puzzling.

What Sri Lankans with even a modicum of intelligence have come to acknowledge today is that the Tamils have cause to be disgruntled with the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala hegemony.  The peace process is transforming that disgruntlement, expressed through arms, to bargaining through dialogue.

Where does Kadirgamar stand in this process?  While being at the forefront of violence during the ‘war for peace’ (1995-2001) and deliberately lying about military excesses, he stridently opposed every move that was made to share power with the Tigers, from the CFA to the ISGA proposals, and most recently the P-TOMS.

What is more, he was at the forefront of moves to rearm the state to pursue the military option against the LTTE by advocating closer military ties with India and undermining the CFA by encouraging the Karuna group and the likes of Douglas Devananda, whose EPDP works closely with the army.

Kadirgamar’s actions against the Tamils and moderate, accommodative politics do not stop there.  A little before his death he was known to have been conspiring with the JVP (the party whose democratic credentials he once openly defended in Britain) on how the more racist sections of the SLFP, hand-in-hand with the JVP, could wrest power from the moderate elements in that party.

So, from the actions of Kadirgamar, one could deduce that he would have favoured the third option, and worked towards a Sri Lanka governed by the Sinhala elite, with an utterly debilitated Tamil leadership of mostly anti-LTTE parties thrown scraps as part of the deal for peace.

Therefore, Kadirgmar was not a tortured soul uncomfortable with Sinhala hegemony as well as Tiger militarism and wracked by shades of intellectual doubt as to where he belonged.  He pitched his camp firmly among the forces interested in debilitating the self-respect and power-base of Tamils, hoping perhaps that, eventually, a rump Tamil leadership could come to some sort of accommodation with the Sinhalaese.  This is why after his death the Venerable Ellawela Medananda thero can call him "the best foreign minister the country ever had."

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Posted September 5, 2005