Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
The pursuit of peace in Sri Lanka
Following is a lecture by Bradman Weerakoon presented at the 7th Dudley Senanayake memorial lecture, on June 21, 2004 at the BMICH.
A public lecture on the subject of peace in Sri Lanka would have a validity and relevance at most times and most places. Given the contemporary political condition in our country when we seem to be hovering between peace and war again, and the decisions of our political leadership can have very far-reaching consequences, no subject can have a more immediate concern and significance to all of us.
The presence of so many important Sri Lankans and friends of Sri Lanka - who have worked so long and hard for peace in our land - at this memorial lecture, is just one indication and representation, of that deep yearning for peace amongst all our citizenry.
We have all experienced the horrors and anguish of war and savour today the joys and fulfilment of an islandwide ceasefire that has held with some few aberrations for almost two and a half years. Nothing can be more important for this country than the consolidation and preservation of that condition and its forward movement towards a durable and just peace.
I feel very privileged therefore to have been invited by the Dudley Senanayake Foundation to speak today on this subject. I believe it is particularly appropriate on an occasion which attempts to commemorate the life and work of the Dudley Senanayake - four times prime minister of Sri Lanka, (then Ceylon) - and one of our great political leaders passionately committed to peace.
I had the good fortune to serve as his secretary on two of the four occasions. Both were in the 1960s. In March of 1960 after the inconclusive election that followed the period of political instability on Mr. Bandaranaike's assassination in 1959, he headed the UNP that had won the most number of seats - our own historical 'short parliament'. That lasted only six months.
Then after an interval of five years, in 1965, he again came back to power heading a National government for a full term of five years in a seven party coalition. Crucially important, one of the constituent members in Dudley's then government (I shall refer to him by the name he was universally known by all without disrespect) was the Federal Party led by Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, who remained in the coalition for three years.
For the record the other two times he was sworn in as MP was in March of 1951 when he was prevailed upon to succeed to the position by choice of the party on the death of his father D. S. Senanayake and again in 1952 when literally on his own steam he won a convincing victory at the general elections of 1952.
As is customary in memorial lectures let me talk initially about some of the intrinsic qualities of the individual whose life we are recalling this evening, especially as they influenced and impacted on his own pursuit of peace, and non-violent action, as a primary objective of governance.
* His abhorrence of violence; an outstanding example of which was his resignation from the office of PM in 1953 when police shooting resulted in the death of several persons protesting against the cutting of the rice subsidy in the Hartal called by the Left parties. Incidentally, the one and only example of a political leader resigning from office on assuming responsibility for his action which caused loss or suffering to people.
* His innate sense of sportsmanship; which forbade him from ever hitting below the belt or when your opponent was on the ground. He was as his biographers recount a fabulous athlete - could play any game with the best of them; five colours in his school etc etc but most of all, he had internalised the essential ethic or culture or spirit of the sportsman.
This was, to compete with vigour and resolution but yet be mindful all the time of the rules of the game. This was most clearly manifested at election time when on the announcement of the results, and he did this time and again, when he found that he had lost he would resign within minutes. In 1970 he actually did so even before all the results had come in. The trend was clear.
The umpire had spoken. He was ready to walk. I remember some of us suggesting that a meeting of the Cabinet be convened to take a decision and Dudley's rejoinder. "What Cabinet? All the fellows have lost".
* His total lack of arrogance, intellectual or otherwise; a readiness to concede that others could know as much as he and that their views should be respected and if possible accommodated; that he had no monopoly of knowledge or power; that reason should prevail over one's own emotional attachment to a cause and his ability to accept compromise without it being regarded as a personal defeat. This made it possible for him to assemble the fractious seven party coalitions of 1965 to 70 and hold it together, barring the departure of the FP after 3 years, for the entire period of five years.
* And finally, I think his ability to fully empathise with the other; to be sensitive to the feelings and emotions of the less privileged - be they ethnic minorities, the economically powerless or the physically handicapped.
Time would not permit me to relate personally witnessed examples to illustrate these traits which Dudley Senanayake manifested in his private and political behaviour but suffice it to note that when he died at the comparatively early age of 62 years - and he then held no political office and was only a back bencher in opposition over a million Sri Lankans were present at Independence Square to bid him goodbye.
These are only a few of the characteristics of heart and mind that he exhibited in his public and personal life and that I have personal knowledge of. Shakespeare could well have said of his life, as Mark Antony did about the noblest roman of them all;. ;His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'this was a man!"
To the political scientist he was truly and accurately described as a liberal democrat. The late Chanaka Amaratunga, one time leader of the Liberal Party and a committed follower of the political vision of Dudley Senanayake has commented that Dudley was utterly devoted to four principles. These underlie liberal democracy;
* Sincerity of political conduct.
* The liberty of the individual and representative institutions
* True national unity based upon respect for the rights of minorities
* And, the maintenance and development of a market economy while ensuring an adequate standard of welfare for the underprivileged.
Chanaka also reminds us in his brilliant article which was carried in the Press last Saturday, Dudley's birthday of his complete acceptance of right of dissent, one of the essential characteristics of a liberal democrat. One, who was able to say to a political opponent, as Voltaire would have said;
"I entirely deplore and condemn what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it"
One more quotation to round off this brief commentary on the man we are honouring today; from Herbert Hulugalle, one of the country's finest biographers and the editor of the Daily News when it was a great newspaper, adding a postscript on Dudley in his work on Don Stephen Senanayake - Ceylon's first Prime Minister;
"He would rather lose an election than make promises that he could not fulfil and his respect for democratic institutions was carried to a degree that sometimes weakened his own political base. He sought to maintain and promote national unity and fair play for all races, even when it meant losing votes".
Possibly a few lessons there for those in the contemporary political firmament seeking the basic building blocks of a new political culture our people and country deserve.
Let me with that somewhat inspiring backdrop of a man of peace turn more specifically to the subject of my talk today.
As several have said it is much easier to make war than peace. So speaking about the pursuit of peace is truly appropriate. It is a goal to be pursued with persistence, with tenacity, with resolution and with courage.
It is not for the chicken hearted. It is necessary to emphasize this for often the peacemaker is held to be the opposite of all the qualities I have referred to a moment ago - he or she is cowardly, indecisive, always conceding, timid and so on. The hero in history is the one who won the great battles - either in other lands or defending his own.
So popular history - which we all grow up with - extols the warrior king or emperor - the Alexanders, the Napoleons and our own Dutu gemunu who defeated the Tamil Elara and united the country. There is romance in war - and tales of valour, of heroism and self-sacrifice which stir the imagination and kept one's pulse racing. It makes good stories in film and print.
Of course what it does not show is the suffering, the death, the loss and pain of the millions usually civilian and poor, who are left behind after the victory parades are done.
Bad news is usually not news; so one hardly gets to know about it and in any case why think about it. It's depressing.
Our country, Sri Lanka has I think experienced over the past 50 odd years most of the negative effects of war. Perhaps some have savoured the thrill of small victories. But they have been short-lived. Most of the time as far as the mass of the people have been concerned war has meant deprivation, lack of mobility, disempowerment and limitations on freedom.
To combatants directly involved - much more; thousands of men permanently disabled and the dead; (it was recently officially announced that the number of dead and missing in the armed forces alone was 21,000). This figure presumably did not include the police.
And the calculation was apparently for the last 20 years since 1983 when the war is said to have officially begun. But what about the other side who are also Sri Lankans The LTTe some months ago referred to around 18,000 on their side but this could well be an understatement. And the civilians - as the news reports euphemistically say "caught in the crossfire"; Scholars of internal wars - incorrectly called civil wars - because there nothing civil about them, and there are no rules governing internal wars, unlike in wars between countries in which the Geneva Conventions guide behaviour - have led to the most ghastly atrocities on both sides.
Generally the number of civilian deaths in internal wars is about double the number of combatant deaths. Which would give us a figure in excess of 100,000 and not the economical figure of 60 or 65,000 which the news agencies have been regularly putting out since about 5 years ago. But beyond the figures - the spectacle of broken families, displayed people, loss of livelihoods and anguish and fear replacing joy and hope regarding the future.
I believe the importance of peace for us in Sri Lanka arises from the impact that its constituent elements - states of emergency, road blocks, militarization and criminality, cost escalation of goods and services, misallocation of limited state resources - indeed all of what is captured by the phrase the costs of war, - have on all of us. It is not as some imagine something that can be hidden away in a part of the country. In Sri Lanka it has been all pervasive. It cripples and engulfs us all, in unimaginable ways.
That is why the people of this country have so often - in public opinion polls, and at election time voted so overwhelmingly for peace and the approach of peaceful settlement of our outstanding national problem - call it the ethnic problem, the national problem or if you will, the terrorist problem, - by negotiation rather than by the resort to arms.
Today more than at any time in the past the public (barring a few who will perhaps never be converted) are convinced that it is not possible to overcome the situation we are faced with by force of arms - the conventional ultimate sanction of the sovereign state.
Lessons abound around the world from Chechnya to Bosnia to Palestine or Iraq confirm over and over again that superior arms alone cannot bring about a durable peace of conflictual situations in the present times. Peace which has been often sought through war - and possible achieved in another age and time, seems impossible in the 21st century. There are a variety of reasons for this which I think most of us are well aware of but time does not permit exploration.
So perforce whether we like it or not, we like many of the past leaders, I shall now turn to, resorted to the alternative approach - the more difficult one of talking; of discussion; and of negotiation of a political solution.
A Brief Historical Survey of the pursuit of Peace
I shall now attempt a quick visual run down of the highlights of the 50 year 'peace process' between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in the nation building project we commenced in 1948. constraints of time compel me to skip over particular events that are relevant and important in any comprehensive survey but time necessarily compels me to be selective.
I shall try to be as objective as possible. To make what may be dull and factual, or something which everyone knows, as attractive as possible, I shall illustrate this section of my lecture with a Power point presentation.
In this final section I shall attempt to draw some general propositions from the experience of the processes we have touched on above.
1. The political pursuit of peace has always represented some very challenging choices. Life is not easy for the decision maker at the top. And whatever the extent of consultation and discussion on the southern side the final decision is made by the leader of the government. The Leader always carries and bears the responsibility for the choice which is always excruciatingly difficult.
The precise determination of the offer or response on the government side is one made by the leader - PM or President and a very few like minded persons around him or her:
* Whether BC pact
* DC pact
* Indo - Sri Lanka accord
* Ceasefire Agreement
* Acceptance of the ISGA proposals as a basis for discussion
Often it is a matter involving life and death, not only indirectly to many thousands, but as has happened in our history to the chief actor himself or herself. Either by death or serious injury.
2. Not ever possible to obtain bipartisan political support. Our competitive political system ensures that the other major political formation will oppose the proposed solution.
They would deny its validity and expose its many flaws and with the help of many others - nationalist minded civil society organizations, prominent individuals, some parts of the media and even external agencies do all possible to thwart the actions of the government.
What motivates his non-cooperative attitude is the recall of an earlier period when one's own call for cooperation was not responded to, or worse vigorously opposed.
Political memories are long and the ejected overture is not easily forgotten. At the worst the other party who can make the difference and even help obtain the 2/3 rd majority to change the Constitution, remains arms folded on the sidelines or at the worst starts attacking from the rear. The end result is failure.
The tactic is to attack the devil in the detail.
The Southern political opposition to the Government of the day has usually focused on the following elements:
* This is the First step to a separate state; there is a great attachment to the post - Westphalian soverignity issue and the unitary state.
* Conceding far too much in the face of terrorism; and more recently with human rights entering the discourse
* Bartering away the human rights of groups within the disputed territory
These are all issues with enormous potential for the mobilizing of widespread political opposition to the Government policy or strategy.
4. Cracks or fault lines appear within the government party itself and the leader feels and is more and more isolated. The support constituencies leave.
* EBP and bhikku protest
* Resignations from Cabinet
* Important persons within Cabinet dissent-eg Prema re Indo - Sri Lanka Acord
* JVP reaction to ISGA response of President.
3. Growing pressure for return to the easier option of WAR to settle the issue. Force rather than negotiation. The impulses for war to settle the issue are very strong and pervasive.
Usual arguments are; defence analysts and political theorists become very active; They are arming; setting up camps; binging in arms shipments; (in the current peace process we are told by high authority that 11 shipments came in. When, where, how and what they carried has never been disclosed. We long for details. What action did our Navy take to stop this violation of the CFA etc)
We are the majority we should just smash them up before it is too late.
The military; We will do the job; Leave it to us but we need more troops and destroyers and planes and gunships and RPGs etc. etc. Of course the more balanced like General Denzil Kobbekaduwa always said it would only be possible to have a peace through a politically negotiated settlement.
4. With all this, the engagement with the Northern party - the armed opposition which has temporarily ceased fighting comes under strain. It's almost the end of the honeymoon.
- the discussion or letters become acrimonious
- phrases like - broken promises, undertakings un-fulfilled;
- being led into a peace trap
- charges of duplicity etc fill the air.
And then the fuse reaches the powder keg and the whole thing starts again.
5. All Governments in going forward to a politically negotiated settlement have to face this environment and work in a generally hostile background. But there are also some formidable factors which keep the peace process going.
I think a question, we the public, should seriously be asking ourselves is why do our leaders, as they have consistently tried to do with varying degrees of success, finally taken the peace approach rather than, as is made out the easier alternative of war as a final solution.
I believe that the lessons of our history have taught them - that contrary to the advice of various experts of many kinds - legal, constitutional, military and so on - the war option for many good reasons is not an option at all.
In today's world - the globalised, interdependent, technologically advanced 21st century the easy option of war as a solution of a political problem has been found gravely wanting. It does not solve anything and makes the problem more difficult to solve in the long run.
Government finally have to factor in some realities
* These are:
* The strength of the 'other' party
* Conventional forces
* Guerilla tactics - hit and run
* 'Safe houses' in the capital
* Suicide bombing (eg of US situation in Iraq)
* Emergence of the TNA as representative of the LTTE in Parliament and popular support. (flawed elections, UTHR reports and child recruitment not withstanding)
* Tamil diasporic influence
* Human rights concerns around wars launched by governments. The perception of the State as aggressor is hard to debunk.
* International community pressure-donors; aid agencies
* The domestic economic imperatives.
* The effect of war on the Southern economy;
* Distortion of Budget
* Trade and
* Employment (except for increase in defence and security industry)
To fulfil its 'protector' and 'provider' functions modern governments of SL have to have massive aid. Both for rehabilitation and development.
- 50% on salaries and pension and payment of earlier incurred debts
- Balance 50% on care and maintenance of existing services - irrigation, health, education etc (at what levels of efficiency?)
All real new work needs foreign support of various kinds - loans, grants etc. All these, more and more, imperiled by war.
So in the last analysis modern Governments are in a fix.. Most times you don't want to have to go to war. But you are pushed to it. You have to retaliate.
There are some interesting new factors in the current peace process;
* the neutral intermediary. Some one to sort out the misunderstandings;
* the peace lobbies; NGOs; writers; activists;
* the international community - of the UN system and the bilateral donors
On this final rather more positive note than where our earlier discussion would have led us allow me to generalize on our crisis-ridden condition.
There are some profound questions to be addressed.
* Can the modern state with its limited resources resume its responsibilities as provider and protector?
* How does it act, in the face of the centrifugal forces generated as a reaction to globalization, to win back the loyalty of individuals who have withdrawn into their communal identities?
* Can the strong centre, as symbolized by the unitary constitution and the executive presidential system hold?
* Could a transformation of the country's political and economic institutions in the direction of federalism save the democratic state?
The late Dudley Senanayake among other leaders in a less complicated time were troubled by similar questions. But our future leaders will have to face them, enhanced and magnified in their complexity.
They will be called upon in the coming days to redesign and reconstruct, boldly and creatively the new institutional structures - political, economic and social - that will enable us to reach the yet unachieved goal of a durable and just peace for all our people.
Grasping that cherished goal and right, and holding it, will not be easy. It will need a Herculean effort; immense courage, patience, unremitting toil, an appreciation of the realities to be addressed, and most of all a practical hands - on approach to the problems as they arise each day.
The Daily News, June 23, 2004
Posted June 23, 2004