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I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.
Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.
But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.
Presentation prepared by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Oslo Debate on
Whether or not to engage with extremists
Held on June 18th at the Oslo Forum 2014
(Delivered after the presentation of M A Sumanthiran, MP)
When I was first invited to participate in this debate, I was told it was about talking to terrorists. I thought then that I would like to speak in favour of doing this. This was in line with a position I took up a quarter of a century ago, at one of the early seminars when the Liberal Party proposed a programme of far-reaching constitutional reforms.
We were faced then by two terrorist movements, one in the North, the other in the South. I had been strongly critical of some appalling terrorist activity that had taken place recently, and was challenged by one of my former students about my condemnation of those he saw rather as freedom fighters – and I think he referred then to both groups. My response was that I did not think it correct to refer to people as terrorists, though this did not detract from the moral obligation to stand foursquare against terrorist activity.
This was perhaps a naïve view, and needs fine-tuning. But I do still think that those who turn to terrorist activity may have reasons for this that the authorities they challenge need to understand and also respond to. Engaging with them then is a necessity, though it must be done with care, and based on principles that make clear that violence is not acceptable, and certainly not acceptable against individuals who have no responsibility themselves for oppression and abuse that is intolerable. But we need to distinguish actions which are reprehensible from motives that may arise from unacceptable situations for which we too are responsible.
Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014
A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.
Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.
This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.
Reconciliation and the role of India
Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
At the Observatory Research Foundation
Delhi, December 13th 2013
I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.
But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.
Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.
On ‘Asia’s Political and Security Environment: Avenues for Inter-Regional Cooperation’
At the 6th meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
On ‘Global Power Shift: Implications for Asia-Europe Relations’
November 9th 2013
Two weeks ago I was at a seminar in Rio de Janeiro, arranged by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, on the topic of responses to the emergence of bipolarity, in terms of the United States and China. I was there when I got details of this discussion, and it struck me that the different ways in which the topic, essentially the same topic, was phrased represented two different views of the world, or rather of how we relate to each other in the same world.
This factor was indeed the subject of my presentation at that seminar, the difference between the oppositional view of the world, in terms of Western philosophy, and the more inclusive Eastern one. That first perspective, discussed by Tagore a century ago, when he advised Japan against adopting the Western ‘selfish separation of exclusiveness…in the name of false patriotism, it engenders hatred against other countries at times leading to conquest by war’ was conceptualized by Nirmal Verma when he spoke of ‘the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire’.
The alternative view of the world is one based on circles, concentric and overlapping, which encourages inclusive perspectives. That is the view which should inform our discussions, given their basis in our shared visions of and for Asia and Europe, those large and heterogeneous entities. We should be seeking what we have in common, and how we can expand areas of shared objectives rather than seeing things in terms of absolutes and of zero sum situations.
Central to our discussions of course is China, as the President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, just indicated, in beginning his presentation with its significance. But I would also stress what he said later, that our discussions should be about China, and they should be about Democracy.
This is a vital factor, but I am old enough to remember how the latter was considered totally unimportant in the bad old days of the Cold War, when China’s discovery of the free market was considered enough, and its authoritarian political dispensation considered almost an asset. Indeed, one of the saddest statements I have heard from a representative of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which we look to as a celebrant of freedom, was the assertion that it was not at all worrying to claim that economic development was a priority and political freedom could wait. This was in the context of a Sri Lankan politician suggesting that what had happened in China, and in South Korea under its military dictators, and more recently in Vietnam, should be a model for us too. To find that acceptable seemed to me a betrayal.
Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on
Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World
October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro
Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.
When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.
Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.
Text of a Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
At the Conference on the
Changing Scenario in South Asia: Leveraging Economic Growth for Collective Prosperity
Held at the Centre for Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh
March 30th-31st 2013
I am grateful to the organizers of this Conference for this timely initiative to discuss leveraging economic growth to promote collective prosperity. As the concept note indicates, the discussion is intended to go beyond economic growth and, as befits a Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, it is concerned as much with changing mindsets as with promoting prosperity.
This paper then will look at Security and Ethnic Issues in Sri Lanka in the context of both internal and regional cooperation. In terms of the sub-text of the Conference, the changing scenario in South Asia, I will look particularly at enhancing relations with India in the context of current concerns. I fear that there are a number of forces striving to drive India and Sri Lanka apart and, given the close cooperation we have enjoyed in recent years, and the support we received from India to deal with a grave terrorist threat, we must do our best to overcome these. I trust that, despite recent events in Geneva, decision makers in India feel the same.
The greatest threat to security in the region is internal dissatisfaction which can be used for political purposes by national and international players aiming at destabilization. Whilst usually the reasons for dissatisfaction are economic, they are exacerbated by perceptions of discrimination based on class and caste and ethnicity.
This last is of crucial importance in Sri Lanka, understandably so given policies that seemed to militate against minorities. Unfortunately agitation has now gone beyond practical issues and has led to emotional dogmas that threaten security. Such threats can also affect India, given the current practice internationally of encouraging small national units that are more easily managed for economic as well as strategic purposes.
It is essential then for us, throughout South Asia, to ensure that separatism receives neither encouragement nor excuse. I should add that we also need now to be conscious of the danger presented by what is termed autonomy too. Changes in the world scene have made that a very different kettle of fish now from what it used to be. In the old days indeed, those of us who believed that majoritarian policies in Sri Lanka had led to very understandable grievances amongst Tamils felt that regional autonomy was a solution. We argued that even Federalism was preferable to a highly centralized state that had no mechanisms to look at and overcome local problems. Read the rest of this entry »
Of the proceedings of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Synthesis – Managing Burma’s Political Transitions: The Challenges Ahead
Producing a synthesis of the various interesting and instructive papers we heard today is not an easy task. Understandably, almost all speakers looked at the issue under discussion through the prism of their own experiences, but unfortunately very few made any clear connection between the problems they discussed and those of Burma, which is supposed to be our primary concern.
Nevertheless the issues they raised suggest what I hope will be productive lines of thought. I will look at these in terms of a formula suggested by a former President of Sri Lanka who had to deal with the aftermath, in the early nineties, of not only the ethnic conflict and the settlement brokered by India, but also a Sinhalese youth insurrection that used dissatisfaction with that settlement as a focus to rouse armed opposition to government. His argument was that we must have consultation, compromise and consensus, and I was reminded of this when Cambodia raised the question of the possibility of talking with the devil, and Hong Kong talked about dancing with wolves.
The answer to what might be a conundrum was outlined in the very first presentation we had on Burma, which fleshed out the position put to us by Aung San Suu Kyi when I was privileged to lead the CALD delegation that met her way back in January 2011. Earlier we had been to the NLD headquarters where some of the party elders seemed to suggest that no compromise was possible. But her position was clear, that she was prepared to talk and to aim for consensus, but she would not compromise on basic principles. Compromise I believe is generally a good thing, when it is based on sensitivity to the positions of other individuals. It should not involve abandoning principles, but one should be prepared to be flexible with regard to other people in trying to reach a common understanding.
Dr Aung this morning, in a moving description of the approach taken by his party now, mentioned that they engaged in talks with all parties based on mutual respect. Their aim was long lasting peace and reconciliation, and this clearly required understanding of what the different parties wanted, what they needed, and what they stood for.
Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand
The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.
In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.
But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.
Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.
Text of an inaugural presentation at the Fifth South Asia Economic Summit on Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia.
Islamabad, 11th September 2012
I am grateful to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan for inviting me to this Summit, and giving me an opportunity to discuss its theme in relation to Sri Lanka. As you are aware, Sri Lanka recently came out of decades of conflict which had impaired economic development, and in particular the promotion of equity in such development.
Comparatively speaking Sri Lanka in fact did reasonably well with regard to growth, except when there were grave problems, as in 2001. However that growth was lopsided, with almost all the increase in wealth that has propelled us upward from being a low income country into middle income status occurring in the Western Province. Since it was such lopsided development that contributed to a series of youth insurrections in the last four decades, it is vital that we correct this imbalance if we are not to face further disruptive unrest in the future.