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Text of a Lecture given to the Masters Course at the Kotelawala Defence University

June 15th 2013

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to – and was used for the purpose of exacerbating – ethnic tensions.

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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

I was honoured last week to be invited to a Conference on the ‘Changing Scenario in South Asia: Leveraging Economic Growth for Collective Prosperity’ organized by the Centre for Rural and Industrial Development in Chandigarh. Indian think tanks have always impressed me, and participating in discussions with the range of intellects they bring together has always been a pleasure as well as a learning experience.

This particular Centre was not one of those that is associated with government, like IDSA, the superb strategic analysis outfit that was almost simultaneously hosting another dialogue of particular interest to Sri Lanka. But CRID also attracts government attention and support, as was apparent from the fact that the Conference was opened by the Indian Minister for External Affairs. This indicates the interest the Indian government has in independent thought and analysis, and suggests the direction we too should move in. We must begin consultation of a wider scale, and building up consensus in the many areas in which that would be so easy, if we are to harness all our energies to pursue the immense task of development and national integration that we must now concentrate on.

The Conference was intended to cover a broad range of topics, and speakers were asked to choose from a range of issues, from Economics to Religion and Ethnicity. I thought of addressing two concerns together, namely Security as well as Ethnicity, since it seems to me that, in the current context, they are inextricably linked. I thought however that I should think in terms of cooperation, since we are in great danger of turning our backs on this, both internally and regionally. The solipsistic mindset that seems to dominate national discourse, following the recent vote in Geneva, needs to be overcome, if our national interests are not to be sacrificed on the altar of big power politics.

I have always believed that, to ensure our security, we must have good relations with India. The disasters that happened in the eighties made it clear that, if India were hostile, no one else would come to our rescue. And though commentators with no sense of time or causality still attack India for encouraging terrorist movements in the early eighties, the simple fact is that we started the distrust by trying to become proxies of the West in the Cold War. Unfortunately the West in those days – and perhaps now – has a polarizing view of international relations, and demanded total loyalty, which was combined with unremitting hostility to India, which it saw as a Soviet ally. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2018
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