Remembering Lakshman Kadirgamar:
Bridging the Divide and Reaching Sustainable Peace in Sri Lanka
Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona
Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“I am first and foremost a citizen of Sri Lanka. I don’t carry labels of race or religion or any other label. I would say quite simply that I have grown up with the philosophy that I am probably, kind of a citizen of the world. I don’t subscribe to any particular philosophy; I have no fanaticism; I have no communism. I believe there should be a united Sri Lanka. I believe that all our peoples can live together, they did live together. I think they must in the future learn to live together after this trauma is over. We have four major religions in the country. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity. All these religions exist very peacefully. They get on very well. I see no reason why the major races in the country, the Tamils and Sinhalese cannot again build a relationship of confidence and trust. That is my belief. That is what I wished for and in working for that, I will not be deterred by having some labels pinned on me.”
The above excerpt of an interview with the Japanese National Television (NHK), in September 2004 by the late Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, perhaps best encapsulates that great man’s visionary idealism and his aspiration for a Sri Lanka, devoid of conflict and at peace with itself. A Sri Lanka where children grow up to be adults and die of natural causes; Where every mother does not have to worry whether her child will return home from school; where every spouse does not live in suspense until the breadwinner comes home in the evening; where every journey carries with it the risk of being shredded to pieces by a suicide bomber; where the country and our people prosper in the natural course of events. Kadirgamar aspired to such a future and we must all make this our goal.
At the very outset, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations and sincere best wishes to the President, Executive Committee members and indeed to all members and well wishers of the Sri Lanka United National Association (SLUNA) on the 25th anniversary of its foundation. I am grateful for your invitation. The silver jubilee of any organization is a cause for justified celebration; SLUNA has more than one reason for jubilation. It was formed at a time when Sri Lanka was reviled internationally and our country’s fair name had been besmirched by the virulent hate campaign unleashed by its detractors in the aftermath of July 1983, the biggest blot on Sri Lanka’s recent history. Many of these erstwhile critics had earlier benefited extensively from the country’s free education system, its free health services and even held very senior positions in government. It is to the eternal credit of the few dedicated men and women, motivated solely by patriotic zeal and undying love for the land of their birth that they braved heavy odds to band themselves into the SLUNA, to redeem the good name of their motherland. I salute the founders of SLUNA for their timely initiative, their courage and their selfless commitment to take on the daunting challenge posed by the well – oiled, slick anti-Sri Lanka propaganda machine. There are other similar organizations elsewhere which perform a yeoman service. But we are particularly conscious of the service rendered by SLUNA in Canada, given the large Sri Lankan community in this country.
SLUNA has acquitted itself admirably in countering the hate filled and racist propaganda, orchestrated by the LTTE and its sympathizers, backed by the deep pockets of the large Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, many of whom have been intimidated and threatened to part with their hard earned dollars to fund the Tiger war chest. This has been well documented in the Amnesty International Report. It has been a challenge to counteract not only the propaganda but also to change perceptions established over the years. A persistent barrage of negative comments on Sri Lanka, deliberately disseminated to facilitate the goals of the LTTE, had to be countered by organizations such as SLUNA. It is with admiration that we acknowledge your service.
July 1983 was indubitably a period of trial and tribulation, not merely for the hundreds of Tamils who lost their lives and means of livelihood, their life savings looted and properties burnt to the ground by marauding mobs, but to the vast majority of peace loving Sinhalese and Muslim people, who had to watch with horror and shock at the unfolding carnage, even as the law enforcement machinery of the Government of the day simply stood petrified. It was a time that we have struggled to erase from our memory but we continue to be confronted by the ghosts of that event. Unfortunately, those who seek to besmirch the good name of the country continue to highlight those grey shadows, not for any constructive purpose, but to drag the country back and its people down. It is the strongest argument for them, even after twenty five years, while the vast majority of the people in Sri Lanka wish to move on and let time heal the wounds.
Dr. Nallai Nallainayagam, a former Sri Lankan civil servant, now resident in Canada wrote to a Sri Lankan newspaper last month, on his personal experience of the riots. I was deeply touched by his complete absence of rancour and his sense of equanimity in sharing his thoughts. I believe, that it is fitting that I quote from his article. Dr. Nallainayagam, narrating his experience had this to say : “ The riots brought out the worst and the best of human traits. Some neighbours who have lived in harmony and peace for a long time turned informants, guiding the mobs towards Tamil homes. At the same time, many Sinhalese and Muslims, both neighbours and strangers, risked their lives to protect the lives of Tamils by hiding them in their homes and feeding them till they could be taken to safety. My family sought refuge in the house of a very close Sinhalese friend and was well looked after for more than two weeks due to the kindness and the generosity of this family and friends in the Muslim community. We have no words to thank them for their bravery and kind heartedness “. This was not an isolated or unusual story. It was repeated over and over again across the island. But what we are always reminded of is the worst excesses that occurred and not of the numerous heart-warming stories such as these. Since then, despite the many provocations by the LTTE, the Sinhalese and Muslims have not responded with violence. Since 1983, terrorist violence unleashed by the LTTE has claimed the lives of thousands of our people belonging to all communities, be they civilians or soldiers. The cream of our political leadership and intelligentsia have fallen victim to the ruthless killing spree of the Tigers-- President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranjan Wijeratne come to one’s mind. Tamil politicians and intellectuals who were perceived to show the slightest dissent were not spared either; starting with the Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah in 1975 to A. Amirthalingam and V. Yogeswaran in the early 1990s, and more recently T. Maheswaran, the LTTE has systematically and mercilessly eliminated virtually any form of alternative political voice of the Tamil community. The sole exception perhaps is Minister Douglas Devananda, truly a living miracle, having survived numerous attempts on his life, for daring to challenge the hegemony that the LTTE seeks to impose on the Tamil people. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, Ms. Maheshwari Velayutham, Kethesh Loganathan and a number of human rights activists, who spoke out against the brutalities committed by the LTTE, were not so lucky. I wonder whether there is any other country in the world where atrocities such as those perpetrated by the LTTE at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy or at the Sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura or at the mosque at Kaththankudy would not have given rise to uncontrollable passions. We need not search far to see how lesser infractions have given rise to raging fires of communal violence. I believe that the vast majority of our people are decent human beings and it is to their eternal credit that they have resisted these provocations.
Dr. Nallainayagam went on to describe with a degree of wistfulness, the pain of leaving his motherland. In his words, he says: “It was, therefore, a painful decision for my wife and me as we were leaving two good jobs, the country that we loved very much and many close friends who had enriched our lives over the years.”
Dr. Lakshman Abeyagunawardene, a medical doctor wrote about his personal experience of those dark days, to another Sri Lankan newspaper last month, which I feel, I ought to share with you. He wrote : “ The Black July of 1983 was a time when most Sinhala people too went through untold misery, distress and mental agony. The homes of many Tamil friends were going up in flames. In the days that followed the racial riots, innocent Tamils irrespective of their social standing, were all incarcerated in refugee camps. Every morning, for almost a month, I went out visiting refugee camps with a stock of drugs and other medical needs. In a hangar at the Ratmalana airport, I met a refugee doctor with whom I had enjoyed a drink at his plush home just a week before the riots broke out.
The speed with which the balance of racial harmony was ruptured surprised many. But one needs to remember the constant prodding, the repeated provocations and the unnecessarily threatening attitudes, including the senseless murder of Jaffna Mayor, Duraiappa, and the blatant killing of 13 soldiers, all of which contributed to what happened in July. We must learn our lesson. We must understand the background to avoid a situation of this nature again. We must remember to heed the danger signs and be sensitive to what is not acceptable in the future.
It is never likely that the majority of Sri Lankans will agree to a partition of their land. This would apply equally to the Muslims who are scattered throughout the country, the Tamils, 54% of whom have chosen to live in the South, mostly in Colombo and the Sinhalese who used to constitute over 2% of the population of Jaffna, sadly they are no longer there. The Muslims who used to inhabit Jaffna are still in refugee camps. Once we acknowledge the basic sentiment that the country is not going to be divided, then we need to address the issue of living in it together as equals – with equal rights, equal privileges and equal dignity. As Lakshman Kadirgamar so eloquently stated, we have lived together for centuries. We must be able to do so now.
We need to move forward – we will undoubtedly remember the pain, we also must look to the future. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga made a public apology on behalf of the nation to the victims of the July ’83 riots in July 2004 on its 21st anniversary. Her Government also took action to compensate the families who lost their loved ones, or whose properties were looted or destroyed in the riots. While monetary compensation will not bring back the innocent lives that were lost; it is a sentiment that is probably shared across the entire racial patchwork that in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, our future lies not in perpetually scratching the old wound but in applying the soothing balm of compassion and looking to the future.
No nation can march forward wearing sackcloth and ashes. We have many examples from around the world where the worst memories have been laid to rest for the common good. Germany and Japan, which have risen like the mythical Phoenix, which have risen literally from the ashes and rubble of the Second World War, shedding their pre-war ideologies and policies, which had caused colossal loss of life, unspeakable atrocities committed by man against man, unimaginable destruction of properties, not only in the lands that they invaded, but also to their own people. Both Germany and Japan have reconciled with the nations that bombed them to shreds, towards the end of the war. There is no bitterness among those people. Today, these two nations, Japan and Germany are the second and third leading economies of the world respectively, and models of democracy and good governance, worthy of emulation. They collaborate closely with the powers that opposed them during the war. Germany which had a history of endless conflict with France is today a member of the European Union with its former adversary. Both countries have prospered in the process. Today they are talking of common foreign policies and common rapid deployment forces.
Similarly, I strongly believe that the moment of truth has arrived for Sri Lanka. As you are all aware, our valiant security forces last year succeeded in evicting the LTTE completely from the Eastern Province, which paved the way for the restoration of civil administration and democracy, after a lapse of almost two decades. The LTTE left behind vast stocks of arms and ammunition, including sophisticated suicide boats as they retreated. On 10th March this year, the Tamil Makkal Vidudalai Pulikal (TMVP) a break away faction of the LTTE, which embraced the democratic mainstream after renouncing terrorism and violence, contested the local Government elections in the Batticoloa district and made a virtual clean sweep of all the local bodies. The public endorsement of the TMVP was further manifested at the ensuing elections two months later to the Eastern Provincial Council. It is perhaps an irony of fate that a former child soldier of the LTTE, Mr. Sivanathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan), commanding the majority support of the people of the Province was elected the Chief Minister. In a deeply moving statement, Chief Minister Chandrakanthan made during an address to well wishers from “Samasevaya”, the first ever peace group to meet him at the Provincial Council Secretariat in Trincomalee earlier this month, he said : “ We (the LTTE) in hiding, were starving in Maduru Oya sometime back. A young Sinhala woman carrying an infant brought me food and drink. I inquired from her about her husband and she said the LTTE killed him. Her reply made me speechless. Her husband was killed by the LTTE and she was still offering the terrorists, food and drink. It was then that I decided to give up terrorism.”
Ven. Walpola Piyananda Thero, the Chief Sangha Nayaka of USA commenting on the transformation of a terror master into a humane person, all due to the single act of human kindness and compassion of a Sinhalese woman who had lost her husband at the hands of LTTE terrorists, had this to say: “ In my view, this is the true spirit of Sri Lanka, the land, where for centuries – in spite of 400 years of colonial domination – people from diverse cultures, races and religions co-existed in peace and harmony. I am happy to welcome Chief Minister Chandrakanthan into the leadership of our reunited Sri Lanka, and I feel certain that he will fulfill his duties for the benefit of the entire country. If this Chief Minister’s heart was touched by the Sinhalese widow who reached out and offered him food, I suggest that we allow all our hearts to be embraced by compassion and forgiveness. As I have often stated, it is time to put the past behind us and go forward together, creating a new and stronger Sri Lanka for the good of all. “
There is a clear message here. Terrorism and violence is not the answer to political disenchantment - certainly not in a democracy. The world has said “no” to terrorism in no uncertain terms. Thirteen UN conventions and many a Security Council resolution have affirmed this stance. Terrorism has been denounced in no uncertain terms by almost all regional organizations. The SAARC leaders did not mince their words at the recently held Summit in Colombo. There is no political cause or vainglorious individual dream that would justify the violent shattering of a child’s smile. As Chief Minister Chandrakanthan has opted to do, our task is to make our democracy work. Our democracy has had, and will have, many a fault. Our task is to make it work and ensure that all of our people will have a dignified future in our country.
Elections by themselves will not solve our problems. We must be constantly vigilant. Above all, there must be adequate funding for our democratic institutions to work. Happily, the government has allocated over 20 billion rupees for the rehabilitation of the Eastern Province. Vast efforts are being made to repair the roads, restore educational and medical facilities and re-establish the economy. The international community has begun to contribute substantially to these efforts. Their involvement is further endorsement of our own efforts to eradicate terrorism and give our people a brighter future.
The example of Chief Minister Chandrakanthan is a clear unambiguous message to all those misguided youth, whose minds have been unfortunately poisoned by the racist and fascist ideology of the LTTE, and are still engaged in a futile and violent struggle against the Sri Lankan State, to see reason, eschew violence and terrorism and enter the path of democracy. I am particularly troubled and saddened at the fate of the thousands of young children, who have been brainwashed into sacrificing their lives for a hopelessly lost cause. Everyday the security forces keep advancing towards their goal. Every minute the flower of Tamil youth is being flung at the roaring furnace of violent confrontation to satisfy the whims of an individual and snuffed out in mosquito infested jungles. I do hope the remarkable transformation of a former child soldier into the Chief Executive of the Eastern Province will have a salutary effect on the minds of these lost children. The Government has already initiated several projects for the rehabilitation of all LTTE surrendees, especially child combatants, which includes intensive psychological counseling, literacy and numeracy skills for those who have been deprived of formal education, and vocational training, in order to ensure that they could be re-integrated into civil society, with gainful employment and live as law abiding citizens of the country.
If July 1983 is considered as the black mark on our nation’s good name , then August 12th would surely rank as one of its darkest days. It was on 12th August 2005 that Sri Lanka lost not only her Foreign Minister, but a veritable national treasure, when a LTTE assassin felled Lakshman Kadirgamar in cold blood. This great son of our soil did yeoman service to the nation, fighting a heroic battle, armed only with his brilliant intellect and superb understanding of the world, nailed the canards and false propaganda carried out relentlessly by the LTTE and its extensive international network. His ready wit and inimitable turn of phrase, not only impressed any audience, but was put to good use to silence veteran hard boiled journalists.
To a question posed by the interviewer in a “Hardtalk” programme on the BBC in March 2005, a few months before his assassination, which I would like to quote :
“By your own admission, you are at the top of the Tamil Tiger hit list. How do you feel as an ethnic Tamil, yourself to be reviled by the group?”
Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, in his characteristic style and unruffled demeanour, gave the following reply:
“Well, see it is like this; at birth I was given a label. If having been given that label the LTTE, nobody else, wants me to accept and approve everything that they do, the suicide bombers, the child soldiers, the political assassination, the extortion of ordinary people, if being opposed to all that makes me traitor which is what they call me sometimes, I am absolutely delighted to accept that appellation. I do it with pleasure.”
Lakshman Kadirgamar was a hero in his lifetime. He stood tall and brave, defending the interests of his motherland and in this noble endeavour, he paid the supreme sacrifice. Even though the LTTE finally succeeded in killing the man, who was their implacable foe, the philosophy that he espoused and the vision for Sri Lanka that he so cherished is immortal, and cannot be destroyed. Although the man was killed, his dream lives on – hundreds will brave the odds to achieve that goal.
Nation building is no easy task. It is too important and onerous to be left solely in the hands of the Government. It cannot be willed by the Government for it to materialize, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat. It requires the participation of all stakeholders of the nation, above all else, the commitment of all sections of the people. It requires tons of patience, painstaking and persistent efforts to overcome the innumerable obstacles strewn along the path, a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, the ability to co-exist peacefully with people who belong to a different community professing a different religion or speaking a different tongue or hailing from a different social class. This would mean that we should rise above all these artificial barriers that have hitherto divided us, and embrace the spirit of our nation and celebrate the diversity of the various cultures and religions that have so enriched our island home.
The greatest tribute that we Sri Lankans can pay to this outstanding patriot is to break free from the prisons that we have ourselves built, that have trapped us into thinking along parochial and insular lines, which have stultified the growth and development of our small but great nation. We have no time to waste simply by basking on our past glory; nor on rekindling old animosities, the roots of which lie deep in our colonial past or even beyond. The past is gone. We should look towards the future with optimism and courage and move forward as one nation. I believe SLUNA can and I hope will take up the challenge to reach out, particularly to our compatriots in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. They too could, and in fact should, be legitimate stakeholders of the new Sri Lanka that we all should build together, devoid of conflict, as one nation and one people.