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The following remarks had been prepared in the belief that speakers would have about 10 minutes each. However, speakers were only given a few minutes for a few introductory remarks, the rest of the 45 minutes for the opening section being devoted to answering questions from the Moderator.
Unfortunately I had no chance to make my introductory remarks since I was asked to respond to what Callum McRae said. I thought this required some analysis, in the time he had taken, but it seemed I was expected to respond only briefly, and then make my introductory remarks. This was made clear only after I had responded, but I suppose Stephen Sackur was doing his best to have debate from the start and could not then give me another chance to put forward some points for response myself.
So here they are now -
I am grateful to the Frontline Club for this opportunity to engage with at least half the Channel 4 team responsible for such effective attacks on Sri Lanka. I am sorry that Jon Snow dropped out after he heard that I would be attending this event, but I am used to that by now, given the manner in which Channel 4 has consistently refused to engage with me, except when the BBC kindly allowed me to highlight their pusillanimity on the Breakfast Show. The interview that followed I think made clear the sleight of hand in which Channel 4 had indulged, which explains why repeated requests for further live discussion have been turned down.
What should have been a lively discussion then on media manipulation and media ethics, or the absence of them, has now been transformed. We have only the commercial side of Channel 4, the Golden Dustman adept at turning rubbish into lucre. Interestingly enough, Dickens provides yet another clue to the motivations of Channel 4, given the Mutual Friendships that in a more just world would have been identified as conflicts of interests.
I am not talking only of the political motivations of Shirani Sabaratnam and Stuart Cosgrove, who actually voted in a preposterous LTTE rump election in this country. I am talking also of the researcher for Siobhain McDonagh who claimed to have supplied Channel 4 with video evidence, who changed his mind about sending me this evidence, doubtless because it would have been obvious that it was tainted. Instead he sent me another video that is so clearly manipulated that he was roundly scolded for engaging with me by his mentors. Much of the information about this is available on http://www.youtube.com/reconcilesrilanka and on my blog www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com at the time of the meetings covered in those videos[Part 1, Part 2, Part 3].
Mr Chairman, my distinguished fellow speakers Dr Shantha Sinha, Chair of the Indian National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and Mr Qamar Zaman, Secretary of the Pakistan Ministry of Training, Rotarians, I hope I will be excused a small anecdote on relations between our countries before I begin my presentation. It arises from the impressive use at yesterday’s opening ceremony, graced by His Excellency the President of Nepal, of Hindi and Urdu quotations which so many of you seemed to understand; and then from the announcement this morning of the approval by Pakistan of Most Favoured Nation status to India to promote commercial links. I hope this will be the precursor to even greater friendship between the countries of the region, and a greater role for SAARC in promoting common initiatives in fields such as education.
My anecdote dates back to 2009, when Sri Lanka faced hostility at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from some Western nations, and our ambassador there found tremendous support from Asian countries and in particular from both India and Pakistan. The ambassadors from those two countries were his advisers in negotiations, and once it seemed, when he was under some pressure, I think it was from the Germans, and was inclined to yield, the Indian and Pakistani started talking in a language that no one else understood. Then they turned to him together and told him to stand firm. They were talking in Urdu, the language of the heart, as we heard yesterday, but also useful in less romantic contexts.
To return to education, Sri Lanka has had an extremely good record as to literacy for well over half a century. Not only have we been consistently at over 90% during this time, but female literacy has also been commensurate with that of males. Coincidentally, the comparative excellence of Sri Lanka figured yesterday in some of the Indian newspapers that were discussing the UNICEF report released earlier in the week on the ‘State of the World’s Children’, and brought home to me again that we have much to be proud of, even though I have long argued that we can also do much better.
The reason for this exception – apart from the Maldives – as far as South Asia is concerned, as was noted in several speeches at your opening session last evening, is that we had a visionary Minister of Education from the time Sri Lankans were given executive responsibility through the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931. He built on the existing system which had begun with Christian missionary schools in the early to mid 19th century, and been expanded on when Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim societies realized the advantages education conferred. By 1931 there were excellent schools in almost all big towns in the country, often a Catholic and a Protestant school together with a Buddhist or Hindu one (and twice over, since these schools were segregated by sex). They were not segregated by religion, and it was indeed because many Buddhist and Hindu parents had had to send children to Christian schools that their religious organizations decided they had to develop their own initiatives.
It was good to hear the message of the President read out in all three languages, and the stress there, as well as in other messages read out, on reconciliation is most welcome. We have now emerged from several decades of great danger to the country, when we had to deal with terrorism of an extremely effective sort. That had to be destroyed, for the sake of all our people, in particular the Tamils of the North who had suffered so much repression, and I am happy that life is now back to normal in those areas and agriculture and commerce are flourishing.
But we need to do more to bring our people together, and in particular we must ensure better communication and understanding between our people. In this regard, the trilingual initiative of the President is an urgency, and I hope very much that the coming years will see all our people at least bilingual, if not trilingual. I used to think I was too old to learn another language, but the President puts us all to shame in the manner in which he communicates enthusiastically and effectively in Tamil as well as in Sinhala and English. Read the rest of this entry »
I should begin by thanking Dr Ganesh Devy for giving us yet another fascinating and stimulating day. It was a wonderful experience to come today to the Adivasi Centre he has set up, and to participate in the exhibition of photographs of their ancestors that he has managed to bring together here, from archives of the colonial period in Cambridge and Leipzig. Those two names make clear the serious scholastic nature of the use made of those photographs, but it is more heartening to see the human reactions of people whose ties to their community are so important, when faced with these early records of their lifestyles.
I am not so sure that I should thank him for asking me suddenly to speak at this closing session at which he would like ideas exchanged about how we are to move forward, with regard to the work we have participated in over the last few days. I am not a linguist, and his work and yours in promoting the study of languages that might otherwise be lost is beyond my area of expertise. However, perhaps I might make some suggestions based on my understanding of the very human element he had helped us to share.
Though I must admit I was more fascinated by the old mosque at Champaner, one of India’s less well known heritage sites, I was involved on the way here in a discussion on the People’s Linguistic Survey, the first fruits of which were launched in Varodara yesterday. There were suggestions that the methodology employed might not have been precise, given the vast range of volunteers involved, and the impossibility, except possibly through an official census, of knowing exactly how many people spoke any language, and at what levels.
The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation is now public. It has been generally welcomed, and the exceptions that prove the rule sadly confirm the distinction between those who seek reconciliation and those who have other motives in the extraordinary campaign that has been conducted against Sri Lanka over the last two years.
The vast majority of local and international observers have welcomed the Report, though many have noted that a positive report will serve little purpose if its recommendations are not implemented. This is an understandable caveat, for Sri Lanka has not always acted as swiftly as it should, and it has also often failed to publicize its actions. This latter shortcoming is unfortunate, not just because it allows critics to claim that nothing is being done, but more seriously because it prevents the analysis both by government and by concerned persons with no axe to grind of achievements, and thus, as importantly, understanding of deficiencies that need to be corrected.
This inadequacy has been startlingly illustrated by the failure to work coherently enough on the interim recommendations submitted by the Commission. Initially these were not adequately publicized. This was not because of any commitment to confidentiality, since they were soon enough readily known by anyone who was interested, but simply because government did not seem to realize the importance of the recommendations and of, not only acting, but being seen to act. Though a committee was set up to ensure implementation, the lack of transparency in this regard, and what can only be described as a concomitant absence of any sense of urgency, allowed for the feeling that government was not really serious. The views of the Commission, that many current problems might have been avoided had their recommendations been implemented coherently, is quite understandable.
I say this with a slight but not overwhelming sense of guilt because one of my functions, as Adviser on Reconciliation, was supposed to be to ‘Monitor and report to HE the President on progress with regard to the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and promote appropriate activities for this purpose through the relevant Ministries.’ In mitigation I can plead that, though my appointment was made in January 2011, my terms of reference were only received in May. And I finally received an office only in October, with one operational staffer in December. I have no budget for work, though since December I have been supplied with fuel for visits to the North.
Why such incoherence? Whilst I have no illusions about the slowness with which government moves, in general, and find this culpable, I should also note that the more vociferous members of the international community, those who now criticize the LLRC Report, were not really concerned with reconciliation, as opposed to their own sometimes agendas. With a stunning ignorance of history, and exemplars such as South Africa and Chile where the country moved forward without bruising animosities, they confused reconciliation with retribution. Even more absurdly, they thought it was the democratically elected government that should be punished, not terrorists or those who hijacked power and used it brutally as the Pinochet government in Chile or the apartheid regime in South Africa, both of which were allowed to go away quietly as it were.
What is the reason for this? On the one hand there were countries such as Britain and other European states that were worried about the electoral power of the Tamil diaspora, and assumed that its more vociferous members were decisive factors. Fortunately that populist perspective has now diminished, and perhaps one of the most heartening developments in recent months has been the impression Britain has given of wanting to move on, instead of dwelling in the unprincipled wickedness of the Miliband years.
But, conversely, the United States of America seems to have got more intense, as was exemplified by its efforts to suborn military personnel to give evidence against the Sri Lankan state. The recent efforts of its political affairs officer to pressurize government with regard to Sarath Fonseka, whom earlier the Americans had fingered as a possible war crimes suspect, is only explicable in terms of a sense of guilt about the garden path up which he was led.
I should note that one should not of course generalize about the Americans. Even more than other countries, they seem to suffer from schizophrenia with regard to foreign policy, as was exemplified by the positive approach of their Defence Attache in Colombo, who was promptly rebuked for his pains. But, in addition to the endemic tussle between foreign affairs and defence perspectives, America also suffers from a strange combination of ruthless self interest, as their performances in Iraq and Pakistan over the years have shown, and a desire to be seen as decent guys. For Sri Lanka this has led to astonishing levels of persecution since, as one forthright Republican observer put it, the bleeding hearts had to keep quiet about Guantanamo and everything else they had shouted about before, so they transferred their attention to Sri Lanka.
I am most grateful to the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, and the other organizations involved in this conference, for inviting me to this momentous occasion. It was an honour to be present at the launch of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, and I must congratulate Dr Ganesh Devy, your founder, on so successfully pushing through this initiative, a landmark venture after the pioneering work of Grierson nearly a century ago. The ready collaboration you have received from the Sahitya Academy and the Central Institute of Indian Languages is a reflection of the deep commitment of your country, and its official and unofficial academic institutions, to expanding the boundaries of learning.
I am sorry that we are not so advanced in Sri Lanka. Indeed it was sad that my collection of short stories, written originally in English and Sinhala and Tamil by Sri Lankans, appeared not in Sri Lanka, for we have no similar public service oriented publishing house, but in India. I am grateful to the National Book Trust for taking on the book, and now getting ready a companion volume of poetry. In one sense however I should be thankful that the book had originally to appear in India in English, for this meant that it would be translated into all your national languages. And hence the deep satisfaction yesterday at being able to present Dr Devy, at the Chotro Conference yesterday on ‘Imagining the Intantible: Language, Literature and the Arts of the Indigenous’ with the Gujerati version of those Sri Lankan stories. I look forward now to the Tamil version, whereas in Sri Lanka, where we do not have enough translators, such an initiative would not have been easy.
What I like to think of as that trilingual publication, for the material was originally in three languages though I published English versions initially, is in line with recent policy developments in Sri Lanka. These have been laid out, I hope inspiringly, in our President’s budget speech last year. He dwells at length there on the trilingualism that he hopes to introduce into Sri Lanka, in a programme that will be launched on January 21st. That initiative will I hope fast forward, if not trilingualism in general, at least bilingualism in a significant mass of our people, to break free from the monolingual straitjacket in which absurd policies on the part of successive governments has confined us.
Sri Lanka has recently emerged from a long struggle against terrorism, and is deeply conscious that measures must be taken to prevent terrorism being revived. Given what all our people suffered, we must ensure security for them, and we therefore make no apologies for maintaining the security apparatus at the appropriate levels. This is especially vital in a context in which external threats continue, supported sadly by politicians in foreign countries who are concerned about winning votes and therefore continue to pander to those who funded terrorism in the past.
At the same time, we know that prevention is much better than cure, and that the terrorism that troubled us for so long might have been avoided had successive governments not been insensitive to the problems of those who turned against the state and even took up arms against it. After all, the principal proponents of conflict in the problems many societies have faced in recent years are those who feel alienated from the state because of deprivation. Measures to alleviate such deprivation are therefore not only a moral compulsion for governments that derive their authority from the people, they are also essential from a practical point of view.
Based on this obvious truth, I believe education has to focus on two distinct priorities. The first is to promote equity, by ensuring that quality education is available to all, and in particular to those who are, or who feel themselves, deprived. The second is to ensure that the privileged are aware of the advantages of an equitable society in which opportunities are available to all.
Let me begin by thanking the High Commission here, and the Consuls in Sydney and Melbourne, for inviting me to Australia and hosting my programme. I should also thank all those, in particular the Sri Lankans, Burghers and Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils, who have come to meet me. I am the more appreciative of this because, given distances between places in your towns, and the weather, I think getting out for such meetings requires considerable effort. Read the rest of this entry »
Sri Lanka has a very good record as far as the present topic of discussion, ‘Mother and Child’, goes. Statistics with regard to infant mortality and maternal healthcare, with regard to education and health facilities, suggest that we are the best in this regard in South Asia.
However, this is an area in which things can always improve. We used to be much better than almost all Asian countries 50 years ago, so in fact we seem to have fallen behind, in comparison with some countries in East Asia. And, in any case, where mothers and children are concerned, we should think in terms of zero tolerance. I know we can do nothing about accidents and sudden tragedies, but what is avoidable should be avoided.
Talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India – 29 October 2010
All this will contribute to reconciliation and the full inmcorporation of all our citizens in the body politic. So too we need to ensure structures that promote political influence for the minorities, not only with regard to decisions that affect them closely in areas in which they are predominant, but also with regard to national policies, since as we saw those affected them adversely in the past.
One way of achieving this last is through a Second Chamber weighted towards the regions, as with the American and Australian Senates and the Indian Rajya Sabha. Sadly, though the President has expressed his desire to establish such a body, the main Tamil opposition party does not seem interested. While it is all very well for them to say that they want other matters settled, the impression created is that they see no role for themselves or those they represent at the Centre. This is a dangerous attitude. It also suggests that they are still stuck in the mould of the politics of confrontation, since they showed themselves perfectly willing to get involved in national politics through support for the main opposition candidate in the Presidential election. Given his previous pronouncements about minorities, and indeed about Tamil politicians in India, the decision seemed perverse, explicable only in terms of a wholesale cynicism based on hostility to the incumbent President.
This is the sadder, in that they should also be working towards ensuring involvement in the national cabinet for representatives of the people whose interests they claim to uphold. Sadly, whilst the Muslims played their part in all cabinets after independence, Tamil politicians from the North withdrew after the divisive games played by their Sinhala brethren in 1956, and we did not have them, until the advent of Douglas Devananda, contribute to cabinet decisions. This we hope will change, with Tamil politicians from the North exercising influence on the lines of our two Foreign Ministers from the minorities, Mr Hameed from an area far from Colombo, and the brilliant Lakshman Kadirgamar who was from the capital’s multi-racial elite.