S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Memorial Lecture
It is difficult to envisage delivering a lecture to commemorate Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam without reflecting upon the one issue that concerned him most – the minorities question in Sri Lanka. Mr. Chevanayakam and his Party, the Federal Party, engaged in a long and difficult struggle to win the Tamil peoples' rights.
I would like to present to you some thoughts about the ethnic and religious problems we have faced since Independence. I do not intend to go into the history of the problem as most of you here would be well versed in it. I shall focus on the possible causes of these problems and the options we have for its resolution.
The ethnic problem of Sri Lanka has led to political conflict, violence and terrorism. Problems began to arise between the three major communities that had lived in harmony and peace for many centuries, after de-colonisation in 1948. The leaders of all communities living in Sri Lanka fought side by side on a common platform for Independence. With the emergence of independent Sri Lanka after nearly five centuries, the various communities awakened to the existence of their rights – ethnic, linguistic and religious – individually and collectively. Similarly to other newly independent nations, the majority community in Sri Lanka established itself within the political power structures, claiming their rights in the economical, social and cultural spheres, setting up laws, institutions and practices to guarantee their privileges to the exclusion of the "other" that are the minorities. The ruling elite, comprised mainly of the majority community, arrogated an unequal share of opportunities to itself, while excluding the others.
Hence, as in many other countries, "identity" became a major platform for demands of minority communities. People felt that discrimination was occurring due to their specific identity, which was different from that of the ruling majority. Perceptions of discrimination and non-recognition of rights of different groups has led to conflict all over the world. Poverty and deprivation, the non-recognition of ethnicity, language and religious rights are all cited as causes for conflict.
We must adopt a holistic view of conflict, their genesis and causes. In recent times, scholars hold that the main cause of dissent and violent conflict is the existence of inequalities among different groups and communities living in a country. Inequality, deprivation and discrimination should be looked at not only in economic terms but measured in social, cultural and political terms.
Perceived injustice engenders violent or terroristic responses from the victims of that injustice. Frustration and despair caused by continued social marginalization, economic deprivation and political defeat has been known to result in violence. It was said that "young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs". Leon Trotsky described the two emotions central to terrorism as despair and vengeance.
Prof. Frances Stewart writing on Horizontal Inequalities states that the exclusion of some communities from an equitable share of the benefits of prosperity causes inequalities and lead to conflict.
It has also been affirmed that poverty, injustice and inequality and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunities for the excluded. The denial of rights to the excluded of certain groups with a common identity becomes the bedrock of dissent and violent conflict.
Governments have often actively engaged in discriminatory policies against minority groups. History is replete with examples of States and Governments employing the concept of the "other", represented as the "enemy", as a tool of Government management. For a large part of human history the "enemy" has helped entrench weak rulers and Governments in power. Governments whip up hatred against the "other" by maintaining the myth of the dichotomy between "us" and "them". This requires the oppression of the other and the denial of their rights. Such exclusion takes place not only through outright hostility but also through neglect of minority groups. Differences among diverse communities living within a country have been exacerbated by rulers, to their advantage. They tend to conjure up "an enemy" from peoples who belong to different ethnic, religious, caste or political groups.
As for Sri Lanka, the constant economic, social and cultural deprivation of the Northern and Eastern regions is clearly related to the violent conflict we have witnessed. Low levels of development of infrastructure, relatively little opportunity to access quality education and employment, political marginalization with minimal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes in the political and administrative superstructure, are undoubtedly the root causes that gave rise to the terribly violent conflict.
The consistent rejection by the State of the demand of the Tamil movements for language parity, led to increased demands for power sharing through Federalism, and finally the demand for a separate State.
It is of interest to reiterate that numerous studies have ascertained that when all communities living within a State are guaranteed equal opportunities – economically, socially, politically and their separate identities are respected and given free expression, they will become a productive, vibrant part of the State, celebrating the richness of its diversity, while building an united, strong and stable country.
Such a society is called a Cohesive, Shared or Inclusive Society.
It is a society where the political, governmental and societal structures are designed to allow the equitable distribution of and equal access to the benefits of development and prosperity for All, irrespective of the community to which they belong. The Constitution of the State, its political structures such as Parliament and other elected bodies, its government and administrative structures will all have to be constructed in a manner as to accommodate free and active participation of All, in political and governmental processes, as well as the guarantee of equal rights to all.
Sustainable development, prosperity and peace necessarily imply that the "other" be brought in and included fully and honestly into the processes of economic development, as full and equal partners of the process of government – to power sharing, for instance.
To end poverty, hunger and inequality in a durable manner, we need inclusive and sustainable development and an inclusive society. Without this, conflict and destruction will ensue.
Stewart and Brown in an Oxford University study affirm that cultural, economic, political inequalities occurring between specific groups cause deep resentment, resulting in violent struggles. They hold that violence in multi-religious and multi-ethnic Nations is not caused by the presence of diversity or by the "clash of civilizations" as stated by Huntingdon, but is due to the exclusion of the less powerful groups. The marginalized groups then mobilize around their group identity – be it religious, ethnic, linguistic, ideological.
The most potent source of violent conflict today is identity.
In an inclusive society, all citizens are aware that they have equal opportunities and will contribute fully to the Nation building.
Thus Social and Political stresses in such a society will be minimal.
In a Nation where all citizens and communities feel satisfied that they are equal partners, sharing equally political rights, economic, social and cultural benefits, there will prevail political stability and economic prosperity. Leaders and every citizen must recognize the value of diversity, rejoice in its richness and limitless potential and strive to build Unity within Diversity. I would call this a Cohesive and Shared Society.
This is the eternal recipe for lasting Peace in any country. A socially cohesive society would respect the dignity and human rights of everyone, whilst providing equal opportunity for all.
I could cite examples of many countries where benefits of development as well as political power are shared equitably, resulting in the creation of inclusive and shared societies. These countries have successfully resolved conflicts arising from ethnic, religious and linguistic differences by adopting policies of inclusivity and the granting of equal opportunities and rights.
The experience of these countries is proof enough that peace ensues when benefits of development, prosperity and political power are equally shared. These States effectively built inclusive Nations. I must underline here that the proper functioning of inclusive societies can only be achieved within the framework of a free and democratic State.
The challenge of the 21st Century for many Nations remains the enterprise of erecting pluralist, multi-ethnic, multi cultural States. This requires that we manage the existing diversity within our Nations, directing the richness of this diversity towards positive change in order to build Free, Democratic and Prosperous Societies. We need to accept and celebrate diversity, not reject it. The combined efforts and skills of peoples of different communities can only enrich our Societies, not damage them.
Let us reflect a while on the conflict that prevailed in Sri Lanka.
I need hardly say that we lived through an extremely violent and destructive civil war waged against the State by some factions of the Tamil citizenry. Six years ago, in 2009, the civil war was brought to an end after 25 long years of suffering on all sides of the divide. We have won the war, we have not yet won peace. The ending of a conflict or a war does not necessarily bring peace. The mere absence of war is not peace. Peace entails much more than victory in war. The victor of many wars may not possess the vision nor the ability to build peace. In the words of Francois Mitterrand, a former French President, "Peace is a battle. It is not won easily. Peace demands humility and sacrifice from everyone. It requires strong, committed and visionary political leadership". It requires the will to comprehend and accept the root causes of a conflict and to seek solutions to them.
The Tamil community and their leaders first demanded equal opportunities, especially in education, jobs and political sharing. The continuing non-resolution of the issues led to political mobilization and the demand for political powers – first a Federal State and then a separate State. The rise of the Sinhala majority with successive Governments apportioning the best and most of the public benefits to the Sinhalese majority community led to the frustration and anger among the minority communities who had, during the colonial administration, enjoyed many privileges. The Tamil political leaders at the time were all committed to democratic policies. They made innumerable efforts to negotiate with successive Governments to obtain equal rights for the Tamil citizens. The continuous denial of this led to the mobilization of armed militias, violence and even terrorism.
We know that Mr. Chelvanayakam left no stone unturned in his attempts to arrive at a political settlement of the minorities question. The Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact, the Dudley/ Chelvanayakam Pact and so many other Agreements were arrived at with much difficulty. However, every one of these Agreements were thwarted and prevented from being implemented. Invariably, the opposition to these Agreements was always led by small groups of Sinhala extremists who would join themselves to the major political party in Opposition.
Sinhala Only : The Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact and the Reasonable Use of Tamil Bill, for instance, was arrived at to guarantee the rights of the minorities after the promulgation of the Sinhala Only Act.
Although some saw the Sinhala Only Act as an affirmation of Sinhala supremacy, I maintain that the then Prime Minister, Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, did not see it in that way. Granting the Sinhala language its due place after nearly five centuries of colonial suppression of the Sri Lankan identity and our different cultures, bringing back the official use of Sinhala was seen as the driving force for the regaining of our National Lankan identity. The mistake made may be said to be that the language of the other two major minorities was not given its due place at the same time and that a third language was not brought in as a link language, as was done in India.
I need hardly say that, leave alone the Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact, the implementation of the Reasonable Use of Tamil Bill has not yet taken place nearly 60 years after its birth. Then there was the Indo/Sri Lanka Agreement and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. These too were sabotaged by the same Government which was persuaded to promulgate it.
The moral of the story is that non-violent attempts at resolving the minorities question through a negotiated political solution has been consistently thwarted by the extreme opportunism of the two major political parties in our country. Indeed, there were extremist groups and individuals, but they were not in any way a major force until the rise of one chauvinistic political party and a couple of extremist groups, less than two decades ago. If I may give you one example of the opportunism of so-called political or civil society leaders in this country, there is a certain gentleman, who calls himself a Doctor of something or another, who fought hard for Eelam and a separate State while he was a member of one of the five armed groups in the 80's. He asked for and obtained a ministry in the North/East Provincial Council, fully supporting the 13th Amendment and even a separate State at that time. Today this man has taken to expressing theories against any form of political sharing, having changed his view a few times for and against power sharing in the interim period, according to the bidding of his political patrons. It is truly sad that people of some intelligence and knowledge adopt such attitudes knowing full well how dangerous and destructive they can be to the Nation's progress.
When my Government first came into power in 1994, I was deeply committed to attempt to change the prevailing political culture and the attitudes of political leaders.
I was personally committed to the concept that political power sharing and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka's minorities' question. I had ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belonged to a small minority of the elite ruling class politicians and clergy and others closely linked to them. The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.
We understood that we must negotiate with the minorities and their leaders and bring in suitable concessions and that sharing what we possess with others will not reduce our strength. Instead, it will enhance it, by bringing together divided communities to work together bringing in skills, talents and knowledge of the marginalized that were deprived to us since the beginning of the conflict. The diverse skills and talents of all our peoples, actively participating in the nation building process, will immensely enrich and unify our divided Nation. Our country is economically weak and our State is fragile. We needed to do much to build a strong, democratic and prosperous State.
Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the path of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of a federal constitution and by building a cohesive Nation and an inclusive State. We won three major elections within eighteen months, with an increased majority vote at each one.
A gallup poll we conducted at the time my Government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 per cent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. We undertook extensive programs to take the message of peace and shared societies to the entire country. We held seminars, workshops, street theatre and used the media widely. At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 per cent.
I must emphasize that my Government only employed democratic methods to persuade the people.
For the first time in the history of independent Sri Lanka, my Government offered a comprehensive solution to the minorities' problem. Firstly, we began and completed a large number of essential development projects in the North and East, even while war had to be waged. Infrastructure damage during years of war was reconstructed – roads, bridges and culverts, irrigation works, telecommunication, electricity schools and the University, hospitals, saw extensive reconstruction and we made available credit for agriculture, small industries and fisheries.
This no doubt created some employment locally for youth, who until then had seen no hope of a better future for themselves. Thus we were able to demonstrate to the Tamil civilians that there could exist Sri Lankan Governments with honest intensions of including the Tamils and all other citizens equitably in the development process. Empirical evidence showed that the numbers of youth joining LTTE armies were somewhat reduced, since we adopted these policies.
Secondly, we understood that economic development alone could not succeed in creating a society where all our people would feel they were fairly and equitably included. For this, it was required to share political power which we the Sinhalese had jealously guarded to ourselves since independence, marginalizing all others not only in practice but also by law, by means of various legal enactments of constitutions and laws.
Hence we proposed to enact a new constitution, containing extensive devolution of power to the minorities, together with various other measures adopted to guarantee their rights. This draft constitution also contained measures to abolish the Executive Presidency which accords excessive power to the President.
Today, with the end of the war, as well as the convincing defeat of terrorist politics in our country, we have an opportunity as never before to do what is required to resolve the minorities question, especially the Tamil peoples' problems. For the first time since Independence we have the two major parties participating in Government together. They are jointly committed to a common policy and action programme. The Government has clearly enunciated the need to resolve this problem quite contrarily to the policies of some previous Governments, which stated that there were no ethnic or religious problems in Sri Lanka. The Government has agreed to several essential actions to promote reconciliation in our divided Nation : Resolving the Land issue, implementing a comprehensive infrastructure development, creating livelihoods and a focus on women headed households.
It has also agreed to undertake actions to ensure accountability with regard to violations of fundamental freedoms that may have occurred on both sides of the divide during the war. Firstly we must engage in the difficult but most essential exercise of arriving at a political solution acceptable to all. Then, and only then, would we have won a durable peace. The Government has also rebuilt very quickly confidence in itself and good relations with the International community. I am confident that we will receive the support of the majority of our peoples, as well as that of the International community for our enterprise to transform a divided and violent Nation into a united, free and prosperous Lanka with a strong and stable Government, and for our efforts to build a democratic, pluralist State which is the only magic potion I know, that can bind together diverse peoples of our multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and cultural country and transform it into one undivided and strong Nation.
To achieve all this we need to essentially change the attitudes and deeply entrenched fears of our people. We cannot continue to dwell on history, chanting forever who did what wrong. We have to rise above hatred, anger, fear to reach out to the humanity we all possess. We must start writing on a fresh page, if we are to cease the unprecedented opportunity history has today presented to us.
Rabindranath Tagore said "Bigotry tries to keep Truth safe in its hands, with a grip that kills it". Let us not allow one moment of Truth to be stifled by the bigotry of a few.
Let us build a new future for our children, children trapped in poverty, in ignorance, traumatized by political and social violence, children without the opportunity to enjoy the freedom and joys of childhood. An environment where they will have access to good education, health care and nutrition and a peaceful and stable society, where they can grow up healthy, enlightened and skilled, secure in their faith of the future we all dream about.