Remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
At the launch on Saturday March 23rd 2013 of Dayan Jayatilleka’s Long War, Cold Peace
In Parliament yesterday I told Dr Jayalath Jayawardena, who is a master manipulator, that instead of making insidious use of the government’s misfortunes, he should be constructive, and move a motion to suggest that Prof Pieris be replaced as Foreign Minister by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka. He told me, characteristically, that he would be happy to suggest me instead, but I assured him that I knew my limitations. I had no doubt that I would do a better job than Prof Pieris, but so would almost anyone in this room – but there was no need to think of simply improving on what we have, when there is available a man who understands international relations thoroughly, and whose track record is one of great success.
I was reminded then of what Mangala Samaraweera – yet another Foreign Minister who was certainly better than the incumbent – had said a couple of years back, when he accused me of being responsible for all the ills from which he thought the country was suffering. When I asked for an explanation he expanded this to include Dayan as well, claiming that it was because of the victory in Geneva in 2009 that the government thought it had leeway to do whatever it liked.
Though I was involved at the time with Dayan, I cannot take credit for the triumph he architected. Although the size of the victory led idiots in Colombo to assume that any idiot could achieve such a victory – which perhaps explains the failure to register the intellectual weaknesses of his immediate successor – in fact what he achieved was carefully crafted, in terms of the principles that he and Tamara Kunanayakam expressed so eloquently at the discussion on Foreign Policy that the Liberal Party organized earlier this week.
Dayan pointed out that the thin, ie bare bones, notion of sovereignty we assert needs to be thickened through a sincere commitment to pluralism that encompasses all within the bounds of that sovereignty. Tamara noted the importance of strengthening our bargaining power through alliance building and genuine cooperation, not just asking for votes at a time of crisis. Our failure to work on these lines was apparent in perhaps the most worrying element of the vote on Thursday, which was Brazil voting against us.
Instead of getting upset with Brazil about this, we should try to understand why a country that voted with us in 2009 now votes against. Does it have something to do with our failure to engage with them, as exemplified by the manner in which the Ministry of External Affairs sabotaged the decision of the President to send Tamara as a sort of roving ambassador to South America? Does it have something to do with the fact that, when she had begun the process of winning back the support in Geneva that her predecessor had squandered (as was exemplified by the manner in which, in September 2012, she ensured that the effort of the Canadians to put us on the agenda was resisted), she too was dismissed.
But there will be no sensible analysis of this result, just as last year there were only clarion calls to follow the West blindly, while simultaneously claiming that we had gained a great victory since the total of those who voted against the resolution and those who abstained was almost equal to those who voted for. This year even that cold comfort is not available, but the pronouncements we read suggest that we can be satisfied since, if we doubled the number of those who voted against the resolution, we would have more votes that those in favour.
Very simply, there is no capacity any more amongst decision makers in the Foreign Ministry to either think or analyse, and the bright youngsters who could do better are crushed, transferred whenever they do something sensible – as happened not only to Dayan and Tamara but also to Tamil officers in London and Chennai, and to the intelligent Deputy High Commissioner who tried to prevent the fiasco of the President’s visit to Oxford in 2010 (which started the slippery slide downward), to name just a few.
I do not propose to consider who is responsible for this self-destructive behavior, since it should be obvious. Rather we should think about who benefits from this. And in this regard, while we read in the pontifications of our more destructive patriots attacks on countries that supported the resolution, we see little consideration of the points Dayan made, relating to the efforts of the United States in the last few years to undermine us. The passage he quoted from Wikileaks makes it clear, contrary to what I believed at the time, that the United States was solidly behind the 2009 resolution too, and the very positive behavior of some of its diplomats here was combined with ruthless realpolitik on the part of Hillary Clinton.
But going beyond the change of heart of the American administration in 2009, we can see also what I might term fundamental prejudice in the description by Robert Blake in 2007 of Dayan as a Sinhala hardliner. Given the continuing attacks on him by those who think of Sri Lanka as belonging to Sinhalese alone, this is bizarre. I would like to think it was simply ignorance on the part of Robert Blake, who was comparatively a decent man.
But it is also related to the relentless othering the West engages in – as explained so eloquently by the great Indian thinker Nirmal Verma – so that anyone who was in favour of the destruction of Tiger terrorism had to be a hardliner. And perhaps it is naïve to think of such othering as springing only from ignorance, because it can also precipitate the polarizing it affects to deplore.
This became clear in the manner in which Blake explained to an Indian friend the American support for Sarath Fonseka. I cannot vouch for the truth of this story, but it certainly fits the evidence. What he was said to have declared was that the Americans had found the perfect weapon to pressurize Mahinda Rajapaksa into political reform.
Obviously the Americans would have thought this would please India, though thankfully India was too sensible to subscribe to such strategies. But what happened in fact was that, while the support engendered for Sarath Fonseka certainly put the President on the defensive, it led to him relying more on the hardliners who appealed to the same sort of sentiment as Fonseka would have done. I would like to think the Americans did not anticipate this, but in the strange world of polarization in which they live, one can never be sure.
The bottom line is that they, like our hardliners here, simply do not understand synthesis, the moral need to see what we have in common, and work towards mutual understanding and respect, rather than use pressures that can destroy trust and hence cause excessive reactions.
It is with an example of such coming together that I will conclude, in trying to explain how perhaps the most successful defenders of the Sri Lankan strategy back in 2009 were a former Stalinist and a Liberal. I don’t think there will be any challenge to the claim that Dayan and I, though he of course was the senior partner and the strategist, worked together effectively. This was based on two things. First, we had no doubt whatsoever that Sri Lanka was finding a just war and fighting it justly, a position I still stand by, and which I believe I have argued for more thoroughly than anyone else, not least because I granted from the start – and was scolded for my pains by the dogmatic cheerleaders Dayan described earlier – that there had been aberrations that should be investigated.
Second, we also believed passionately that the destruction of terrorism was vital for the emergence of a pluralistic society with equal rights for all its citizens. And I think we were right, in believing that was government policy, as was exemplified by the manner in which we resettled the displaced quicker than in other such theatres of war, and swiftly rehabilitated and sent back to their homes almost all former combatants. We could certainly have done more, in terms of training and reintegration assistance and so on, but by and large we can be proud of that achievement.
And we should note that there are reasons why we have not moved swiftly in all respects. This has to do with the suspicions engendered by ruthlessly opportunistic behavior on the part of those who resented our triumph over terrorism. They ignored the opposition of the President to efforts to impose an Israel type solution, by increasing the size of the army and engaging in settlements while holding back the displaced. Instead they supported against the President the chief proponent of that strategy, while claiming that they were critical of the government for the sake of the Tamils who had suffered. That obviously made government dubious about their motives, and increased the influence of the hardliners who remained loyal to the government.
I will conclude though with an evocation of political theory, to explain how Dayan and I found ourselves on the same side, even though our political philosophies might have seemed inextricably opposed. I am not as knowledgeable about political theory as Dayan is, but introducing something of the sort seems fitting, in speaking at the launch of a book that contains sharp historical analysis and compelling anecdotes, but fits them within an erudite framework of political theory.
I will rely however not on the many distinguished academic theoreticians Dayan refers to, but rather to the founder of the Liberal Party, Chanaka Amaratunga, who wrote an essay on ‘The Fundamentals of Liberalism’ for a volume entitled Liberal Values for South Asia which we brought out in 1997, shortly after his untimely death (an updated version called Liberal Perspectives for South Asia was published a decade later by Cambridge University Press in Delhi).
Chanaka wrote there, and this is particularly important in a context of increasing extremism which both Dayan and I deplore, that the hallmark of Liberalism is that it is individualist, egalitarian, universalist and meliorist.
He cited the modern Liberal thinker John gray who wrote that Liberalism is ‘individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity’. That incidentally is the element as to which Dayan and I probably differed most in the past, and I believe he has now moved closer to my Liberal perspective, and understands the value of individualism, as opposed to the Marxist collectivism he celebrated earlier.
Gray went on to say that Liberalism is ‘egalitarian, inasmuch as it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal and political order of differences in moral worth among human beings; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms’. These elements need to be considered carefully, in a context in which there are efforts to hijack the Sri Lankan state on behalf of particular interest groups.
Chanaka pointed out that, paradoxically perhaps, Marxism cannot claim to be egalitarian, or indeed universal, since it sets up ‘a structure which does not recognize the real possibility of rival conceptions of the good. They believe that a particular group, be it the working class, a specific racial group… have a special status that confers moral excellence and is worth protection’. Now it would seem that the privileging of the working class to the exclusion of others is no longer a danger (and perhaps the opposite perspective, that sees no reason to ensure a level playing field through increasing opportunities for the disadvantaged, is now again the greater social threat). But the privileging of particular groups continues apace, and it is no coincidence that Dayan and I feel the same about the need to resist this in favour of a pluralist outlook, because not to do so would nullify the moral impact of the triumph over terrorism in 2009.
Finally Gray noted that Liberalism is ‘meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements’. This element, which used to strike me as less important than the others, is perhaps of particular significance now as we pursue, to quote Lord Macaulay, ‘reform, more reform, constant reform’.
Macaulay went on to say that ‘we desire more reform in order to preserve not to destroy’. That needs to be our watchword as we try to build on the victory of 2009. The manner in which, ignoring the principles enunciated by Dayan and Tamara, the Ministry of External Affairs conducts itself reminds me rather of what Lenin said: We shall destroy everything and on the ruins we shall build our temple’. But, unlike Lenin, the decision makers seem to be concerned only with a temple to themselves, with no understanding of the issues at stake.
Dayan shows graphically, as Tamara argued forcefully earlier this week, that the Resolution in Geneva sprang not from concern for human rights but from a political agenda, that saw Sri Lanka simply as a means to domination, for strategic reasons as also for ideological reasons. But they also pointed out that such an agenda needs allies to succeed, and those allies are often idealistic. Countries like India and Brazil and Japan and South Korea, as well as those who voted for us, dislike the replacement of a multilateral United Nations by instruments beholden to just one perspective. But they are also concerned with Human Rights and equity, and we need to work on ensuring these for all our citizens. If we do not do so actively and convincingly, those countries may well decide that the possible threat of Western domination is a small price to pay, especially because they would see themselves as never offering pretexts of the sort we seem to be doing.
I do not think they will be safe since, once some countries are brought under supervision, it is easier to do the same with others. But we need to help others to help us, and our failure to do this, to study and understand and put in practice the principles this book lays down, will surely cost us even dearer in the future.