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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.

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I referred some weeks back to the games being played by various individuals and institutions in Colombo with regard to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the political foundation of the German Free Democratic Party. This is a member of Liberal International, though its Liberalism is generally more concerned with free market economics, and does not have the same commitment to social equity as say the British Liberal Party. Still, there are enough people in the FDP, and also in the FNS, who understand our commitment in Sri Lanka to a more Gladstonian version of Liberalism, though sadly they have been in comparative short supply in dealings with South Asia.

I suppose this is understandable in that South Asia tended, at the time the FNS established itself here, to be committed to social equity from a more socialist standpoint, and it was free markets that needed nurturing. However this led to at least some personnel neglecting other aspects of Liberalism, as with the official who said he saw nothing wrong with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that democracy could be delayed, as in South Korea and other East Asian countries, until development had reached a satisfactory level.

This mindset has contributed to a generally hostile attitude to the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, though there have been honourable exceptions, including the Regional Director who encouraged my conducting workshops on Liberalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sadly he was soon sent away from Delhi, though he has since contributed immeasurably to Liberalism in South East Asia, where the command model of an open economy held sway, and it was necessary for Liberal parties to argue for the restoration of democracy and social equity.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2017
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