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Introductory remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

at the Panel discussion during the Seminar

‘Afkar-e-Taza: Rescuing the Past, Shaping the Future’

Lahore, April 1st – 3rd 2016

I will be very brief since I presume discussion, and responding to questions that are raised, will be a more useful way of dealing with this question. To introduce the topic however I will paraphrase some remarks I made at a seminar on working Towards an Asian Agenda also held in the Punjab, in Chandigarh just six months ago.

I noted then the need for more concerted Asian inputs in what current dominant forces believe is a unipolar world. This belief has led now to greater terrorist activity that threatens all of us, including the horrendous attack in this very city, less than a week ago.

One of the problems about concerted action from a South Asia perspective is possible worries about India taking a leading role. That seems essential, for reasons of geography as well as the size and wealth of India in comparison with its neighbours. But I recognize that this point may be challenged, and most obviously by Pakistan.

Personally I regret this, and I regret too the manipulation of the post-colonial situation in South Asia from the time in which the then dominant world powers realized the independence of their colonies was inevitable. The dispensation put in place then led to an othering confrontational situation, as opposed to the more civilized inclusive approach that should have been normal for the East.

All that however is water under the bridge, and we have to recognize that the suspicions that were engendered during the Cold War years will not be easy to overcome. Instead of engaging in wishful platitudes therefore, we need to think of ways in which the rest of South Asia will worry less about domination by one of our number. I was impressed then by the fact that the seminar in Chandigarh included participants from Central Asia, because that is a region which has ancient cultural and trade connections to the South, but it was cut away because of the dichotomies of the colonial era.

Strengthening links is vital, but I believe this may also contribute to resolving the South Asian problem, on the model of what Paul Scott suggested when he wrote of a stone thrown into a pond leading to ever widening ripples that then connect with the ripples of another stone. At its simplest, the overwhelming threat, that India’s size can be interpreted as by one or more other countries in South Asia, diminishes in the context of a larger group which will involve countries with greater economic leverage too, such as the energy rich nations of Central Asia.

Future discussions should focus then on how regional cooperation can be expanded, so as to avoid possible perceptions of security threats. The model of the European Union, which could not be replicated in an unbalanced situation as obtained in South Asia, can be more easily replicated in a larger grouping.

At the same time the problems that now beset Europe can be avoided, by greater mutual respect for the different cultural and social perspectives in the South and Central Asian region. For while we need to focus on what we have in common, we should also celebrate differences and seek out what we can learn from each other. In particular we all need to know more about the astonishing achievements of different elements in Islam basSouthed civilizations, that move beyond the monolithic vision of Islam that leads to confrontation such as many Islamic countries – but not those in Central Asia – are suffering from now.

Such educational initiatives should also include a cohesive programme in all our countries to increase awareness of the cooperation of the past, and the cultural connectivity that flourished. The way in which civilizations built on each other, and the role of trade in promoting personal interactions even in times of political hostility, needs celebration. That may also help to reduce prejudices, as has happened through for instance the Erasmus programme in Europe.

I should note too that, in addition to increasing cooperation with Central Asia, we should as a body move also towards better relations with ASEAN. That too will I think help to kick start SAARC again since – to return to Paul Scott’s metaphor of stones creating wider circles – success with other bodies will help to get over the distrust within SAARC that I have noted.

For this purpose I believe it would be helpful if there were regular meetings of senior administrators in our countries to work out not just common approaches, but also structures that would facilitate cooperation. At present SAARC centres hardly function, though I did find, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, that the SAARC Disaster Management Centre was an exception – and largely I think because of the excellent understanding between the Indian and the Pakistani heads of the relevant institutions, both professionals of the highest calibre.

More cooperation in such fields would I think help to bring us closer together, and also help countries like Sri Lanka, which no longer has as good civil servants as India and Pakistan have, to develop greater professionalism that would help to overcome the predilections of politicians. These can be destructive at times, for obvious reasons, but a bedrock of professional understanding would I think help us to work together more productively.

ht-home-logoThere were many firsts in the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka: An incumbent president was defeated; parties specifically representing different races and religious groups —  the Jathika Hela Urumaya for the Sinhalese, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress along with the All Ceylon Muslim Congress — came together on a common political platform; corruption was a major issue in the pre-poll campaign; and now a specific timeframe has been set for reforms.

However, the most important responsibility of the new government will be settling the national question. While the country owes him a debt of gratitude for eliminating terrorism from the country, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did nothing about the commitments he made in 2009 to ensure inclusive peace.

inclusive governanceAs a member of the Liberal Party, I urged Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment, which created Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka, but met with no success. I understand that there could have been problems about some aspects of the amendment but those could have been resolved through discussions.

When we negotiated with the TNA, MA Sumanthiran and I found a solution to what had previously been considered the vexed question of powers over land. We met stakeholders, asked them about their apprehensions and assuaged those fears.

Unfortunately, two members of the government acted in bad faith, one even refusing to fulfil instructions the president gave us to act on what had been agreed with the TNA.

Reaching consensus on these matters is a priority and the new government should set a time table for this. Successive Sri Lankan governments failed because they allowed talks to drag on without any purpose.

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I was privileged last week to attend a Conference at the Osmania University Centre for Indian Ocean Studies on ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Relations: Strengthening SAARC’. The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies had nominated me, along with scholars from Colombo University and the Kotelawala Defence University, as well as an army officer with diplomatic experience, who delivered an excellent paper on Security Concerns, and dealt ably with questions that arose.

I was pleased to attend, for I have always believed that one of the keys to good relations with India is interaction with its lively academics. Last year, the then Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, a Tamil diplomat who had very good connections with the media and the intellectual community there, arranged a series of meetings for me, during which my interlocutors indicated I was the first person to have discussed such issues in depth.

In turn I found them balanced and willing to listen, and the concerns they raised were understandable. It was more our fault than theirs that we had not engaged in disseminating information about the conflict and its aftermath, and indeed I found that responses I had prepared to the Darusman Report, which had been sent to Delhi, had not found their way down to Chennai.

I have long known, having made several presentations in the course of the last few years at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, of the keen and generally positive approach of Indian academics to Sri Lanka, but I was astonished in Hyderabad last week at the range of scholars who participated. I was fortunate to chair a session in which some young students presented very clear and scholarly papers, including two bright young ladies from JNU who spoke about the Diaspora and, with slightly different emphases, noted the disjunct between Diaspora aims and the much less aggressive objectives of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue at Indian International Centre, New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.

But, in addition to these areas where we should work together for conceptual change, there are obviously more practical ways of improving things. In particular I believe we can profitably follow Indian examples with regard to providing a range of options in higher and vocational education. Replicating something like the IITs for instance in previously deprived regions would help with promoting the excellence we need while also showing our commitment to equity.

I was thus delighted recently to hear that our Ministry of Youth Affairs has been in contact with an Indian Non-Governmental Organization that has developed a heartening model for Vocational Training. In Sri Lanka we had concentrated too much in this regard on technical training that came close to being academic, with long courses that made no provision for the varied needs of the workplace. Aide et Action, as the Organization is called (actually of French origin, but it has developed a decentralized system of management that gives priority to local expertise), has instituted short carefully targeted courses that also develop soft skills. I was pleasantly surprised, having attended a couple of their events in India over the last year, to see the confidence of the youngsters who had benefited from their training, the skills bestowed on girls who were breaking into non-traditional occupations whilst also able to stand up for themselves in the workplace as well as at home, the capacity for self-expression and analysis.

This sort of model can benefit us tremendously, especially in the context of the single parent families that will be one of the lasting legacies of the conflict we have gone through. It was encouraging therefore that the Ministry now in charge of Vocational Training had registered the possible impact of such work, and has encouraged an expansion of Aide et Action’s work in Sri Lanka.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.

Returnees at Work

But all this is for the future. For the present, what needs to be done to ensure continuing cooperation of the sort that allowed us to overcome terrorism so effectively, while forestalling any backlash within India? In the first place, obviously, we need to continue with activities that will ensure the confidence of the Tamil people within Sri Lanka, but also outside. I refer here by the latter not only to people in Tamil Nadu, but also to the diaspora, some of whom were prepared to threaten the unity of India in addition to that of Sri Lanka, in seeking to deal with grievances real and imaginary.

In what are I think the most important respects, we have done a good job, and will obviously continue on that path. I mean here the programme of rapid resettlement, together with the rehabilitation of former combatants, most of whom we realize were relatively innocent victims of Tiger compulsions. The figures here speak for themselves, and we cannot stress enough how the myths of yesteryear, that we were keeping the displaced in long-term detention, that we were treating former cadres as prisoners, have been so conclusively exploded.

We made it clear that we could not return the displaced immediately, because of the landmines, because of the need for at least basic infrastructure to be in place before people could resume their lives, and because of security considerations. But we made a pledge, soon after the defeat of the Tigers, that the bulk of the returns would take place within six months, and we stuck by this, albeit with slight delays. We must appreciate in this regard the confidence India placed in us, and also the enormous assistance proffered for the purpose, in particular with regard to demining and the provision of shelter. In a sense that approach was an object lesson to those who were less anxious about the displaced than about scoring brownie points with pressure groups through vociferous criticisms of the Sri Lankan state.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi 21-22 October 2010.

The election of President Rajapakse in 2005 saw a regime that began with a perspective that its predecessors had wasted valuable time in acquiring. Though he continued with the Ceasefire Agreement and tried to negotiate with the LTTE, he also realized the importance of strengthening his defences, spurred as he also was by the blatant violations of the CFA by the Tigers in the first couple of months after he took office. Helped by having a Presidential Secretary and a Secretary of Defence who had no financial or family connections with arms dealers, an unusual state of affairs for Sri Lankan officials, he was able to build up a confident and disciplined military. So too, when the negotiations began, the Sri Lankan government had no illusions about the bad faith of the Tigers, and they could stick to principles without succumbing to Tiger threats or blandishments. Efforts by the Tigers to sweep the issue of child soldiers under the carpet for instance were resisted firmly.

This was the more difficult because the Tigers had used the follies of the Wickremesinghe years, and the slipshod approaches of the Kumaratunga period that followed, to enhance their standing with the so-called international community. The UN for example had poured money into Tigerland with no supervision of what was done with it, while a few Western nations hankered after the happy days of Wickremesinghe when they were allowed to call the shots. The United States, I should note, was an exception to this since, though under severe pressure from the Tiger led diaspora and international agencies that saw themselves as arbiters of the destiny of smaller nations – the smaller the better, for their proconsular purposes – they understood the need to stand firm against terrorism.

But even the United States had to speak with a characteristically Western forked tongue, and it was on its old friends in the Non-Aligned Movement, plus the former Socialist bloc, that Sri Lanka had to rely most heavily in this most momentous period in her recent history. India was foremost amongst these, and kept its position straight despite much more potentially significant pressures from politicians in Tamilnadu. The Indians made it clear that there should be no indulgence to the Tigers, but all efforts should be made to improve the position of the Tamils.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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