Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

A Man of Straw

by V Gunaratnam

"All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field." - Albert Einstein on Peace 1879-1955

Death comes to most of us without warning, but anytime this happens to a prominent politician, we are filled with intense emotions, depending on which side of the political divide we stand.  It was no different when Lakshman Kadirgamar fell to a sniper’s bullets.  The Tamils had no love for him, but it was not news for rejoicing, nor do we suspect did the ordinary Sinhalese care very much either way.

We have to look at Kadirgamar’s tenure in office against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s major foreign policy initiatives during that period, and apply a simple test: Did he depart leaving the country better than when he joined President Kumaratunga’s cabinet in 1994?

Kadirgamar crafted and launched the major diplomatic assault which resulted in the LTTE being banned in key western countries: their purpose was to cutoff the support of the Tamil diaspora for the LTTE, and thus to undermine their military capacity to prosecute the war.  It was the linchpin of Kumaratunga’s strategy to isolate the LTTE internationally and destroy them with her 'War for Peace.'  But the strategy had unintended consequences.

The humanitarian work of Tamil organizations engaged in providing aid to the needy Tamils in the northeast was seriously impeded when they, too, fell under the ban, and the people suffered.  But, as events were to prove later, there was no discernible impact on the LTTE, and the accusation that the humanitarian organizations were financing the LTTE could not be sustained.  The ban, however, remained and it took the affected organizations years to recover.

Sri Lanka’s strategy to cut off support for the LTTE from abroad was a humiliating failure.  It was brought home to the government by the crushing defeat at Elephant Pass.  The armed forces were routed by the LTTE, and the government was forced to accept the ceasefire declared unilaterally by the LTTE.  But, before that happened, tragically, tens of thousands of nameless Tamil civilians had perished, wantonly killed by the rampaging government armed forces.

For Sri Lanka it was a fundamental failure of the strategy crafted by Kadirgamar, based on a false premise, and a fraudulent peace initiative.  Instead of talking peace, the government went for an all-out a military solution, in the guise of a war for peace, hoping to dictate a settlement on their own terms after victory.  Instead, they suffered a devastating reversal.

It is now history, but after the 'war for peace' fiasco, Ranil Wicremesinghe and the UNF came to power, and peace talks took off, only for Kumaratunga to promptly sack the UNF government and install her own UPFA in power following the 2004 election.  It was then that she and Kadirgamar started masquerading as peaceniks, and went through the motions of peace-making with the LTTE, while the peace process slowly ground to a halt, because they still had not given up the military option, albeit now recognizing the need for outside assistance.

With the peace process stalled, Kadirgamar went courting India, shopping for defence pacts and security arrangements.  There was a flurry of activity, but in the end nothing seems to have materialized out of his efforts to get India involved.  However, valuable time was lost, and when tsunami hit, things got infinitely worse for the government.

How did Kadirgamar become alienated from his own Tamil people and lose sight of their aspirations?  After being born in Manipay in the north, he spent his early years mostly in Sinhala country and foreign lands: in Kandy and later Colombo, then it was Oxford University and a career practicing law in Colombo followed by Europe.  He came back to Sri Lanka after more than two decades of living abroad, and missed some of the most crucial years of Sri Lanka’s history in the '70s and '80s.  Naturally he was well informed, but had lost the vital experience of having actually lived through these times, and getting a grasp of the underlying Tamil ethos, and struggle, and how their peaceful campaign for equality was violently denied for decades, and how they were forced to take up arms.

Kadirgamar became a cabinet minister mainly because he was a well-educated Tamil, and there was genuine hope he would help steer Sri Lanka towards peace and an accord with the LTTE.  But it did not turn out that way.  Although it was not a crime for him to be working with the Sinhalese to govern the country, it was quite something else when he started distancing himself from the Tamils and working against the LTTE.  Strangely he kept silent about the injustices and oppression suffered by the Tamils and did nothing to fight the discrimination against them in education, employment, business, and government.  Like everyone in Kumaratunga’s cabinet, he was too eager to please, and not willing to stand up to her on matters that were important to the Tamils, betraying himself to be a man of straw.

Kadirgamar railed against the LTTE, saying there was something sinister about the support they were getting from the Tamils in Sri Lanka, but had no explanation why the vast majority of the Tamils living abroad, professionals, academics, businessmen, and others were also standing strongly behind the LTTE.  To then arrogate to himself the right to speak for the Tamils and against the LTTE, ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Tamils everywhere, was not only the height of intellectual dishonesty, but also an exercise in futility.  It was clear from his performance that, as far as the Tamils were concerned, he was for all purposes a servant of his Sinhalese masters, not an honest broker trying to bridge the divide between them.

Kadirgamar's foreign policy initiatives thus paid homage to Sinhala supremacy, and only served to complicate an already difficult situation with the LTTE, by actions that were not compatible with an outward expression of peace, or the search for a settlement.  Characterizing the freedom fight as terrorism and at the same time trying to negotiate with the LTTE, were actions at odds with each other.  It constrained Sri Lanka in a legal sense, and placed friendly countries in the same difficulty.  The Supreme Court ruling on the P-TOMS, and America’s inability to release aid under its terms are prime examples of this and of Sri Lanka’s mindless rationale for doing things.

The ramifications of Kadirgamar’s failed strategy to contain the LTTE have reached into every aspect of the country’s working.  The ruling coalition has broken up.  Parliament is shackled.  International aid for development and the tsunami continues to come in trickles.  Tourism is taking a hit.  The stock exchange has taken a plunge.  The law and order situation could not be worse.  Radical elements are running loose.  The vaunted presidential powers are in check. Kumaratunga has become a lame duck president.  And the government itself seems paralysed by its own mechanisms.

Kadirgamar was a learned man, but learning means nothing, only what you do with that learning counts.  In that respect he was of the same ilk as SWRD Bandaranaike, and Lalith Athulathmudali.  We know only too well what these honourable men did to the Tamils.  They were all Oxford Union luminaries, but returned after imbibing the liberal highbrow stuff, only to put it aside and embrace parochial ethnic and divisive politics for self-aggrandizement and political power.  The Tamils are still paying the price for their waywardness and folly.

How far Kadirgamar had veered off course in his politics was clearly exposed when he found favour with the JVP, who were able to identify with him on how to deal with the LTTE and the Tamils.  If that were not so, they could not have wanted him to become the prime minister after the 2004 election, favouring him over Mahinda Rajapakse, a Sinhalese.  That Kadirgamar acquiesced in their choice was very revealing of where he stood on the Tamil question, and why he found common cause with the extremist elements who had slaughtered tens of thousands of their own Sinhalese in an insurgency, attempting to install their radical Marxist party in power.

Today there is no denying that Sri Lanka is in a vastly more perilous state than when Kadirgamar took office in 1994.  The peace process is stalled.  There is a palpable danger of the resumption of hostilities.  The country’s economy is in tatters.  Life has become very hard for the large mass of people everywhere.  Tsunami victims are especially hard hit.  People are waiting in nervous anticipation of what is going to happen after the presidential election in November.

Kadirgamar, as the principal advisor to President Kumaratunga, was a central figure in government.  His influence roamed the gamut of government, because foreign policy plays such a pivotal role in the fortunes of a small country like Sri Lanka as so much depends on sound international relations.  If today Sri Lanka stands at the crossroads, not knowing which way to go, and is confronted by so many problems, it is a terrible indictment of Kumaratunga’s decade in power.  That is the reality.  It is common knowledge that Kadirgamar was at the heart of all the major decisions made, not just those in foreign policy.  If there is something that vindicates his time in office as Foreign Minister, we are unable to find it.  Soon his name will disappear from the headlines to being a mere footnote in Sri Lanka’s history.

We do not have to sit in judgment over Kadirgamar.  His deeds speak harsher than all the words we can muster to describe his days as the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka.


Posted September 6, 2005