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What will become of us without barbarians?

by Shanie

"What does this sudden uneasiness mean, and this confusion? (How grave the faces have become!) Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying,and why is everyone going back home so lost in thought?

Because it is night and the barbarians have not come.And some men have arrived from the frontiers and they say that the barbarians don’t exist any longer.

And now, what will become of us without barbarians? They were a kind of solution.

- Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933)

(February 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over the past fortnight, we had two of our most distinguished diplomats of recent times deliver two powerful public lectures. Last week, this column commented on a lecture by Jayantha Dhanapala where he spoke on how an energised civil society could promote good governance. Earlier this week, H. M. G. S. Palihakkara delivered the Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture and spoke about the challenges facing Sri Lanka following the end of the LTTE insurgency. Those who were privileged to listen to the addresses, heard these two distinguished citizens of Sri Lanka focus on different aspects, one domestic and the other international, of what is required for Sri Lanka’s polity to deliver on good governance. Criticisms were veiled in diplomatisque but there was the usual LTTE-bashing. After all, as the Greek poet wrote, what will become of us without the LTTE, even if they do not now exist? They were a kind of solution to all our other problems. So the LTTE needs to be fed to us regularly through our media to re-create a phantom from the past so that our present self-made woes can be pushed to the background.

Palihakkara served our country’s Foreign Service for over thirty years, ending up as Foreign Secretary and later as Head of our Permanent Mission to the United Nations. In all these roles, he was required internationally to be the public face of the Government of Sri Lanka and to present its actions in the best possible light. In his retirement, he was appointed to serve on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). This was a more independent role where he, along with the other Commissioners, was required to listen and sift evidence led before the LLRC, make his own independent judgements and to collectively report, and if necessary present a dissentient report, making recommendations to the President for implementation. It was a role different from his previous one as a public servant and it may have been a pity that various civil society actors, both here and abroad, did not recognise this distinction and pre-judged the role of the LLRC.

Diplomacy, Palihakkara told the large audience at the SLFI which perhaps represented a fair cross-section of Sri Lanka’s intelligentsia, is about dealing with people whom you disagree with or agree to disagree. It is not a zero-sum game of cultivating one set of friends at the expense of the others. Diplomacy is about securing common ground where none seems to exist. Such a common ground, apart from obvious investment and economic benefits, also creates a favourable image of the country as a civilised and pluralist society where peaceful dissent is seen as an enriching experience and ‘an exciting democratic challenge and not an act of treachery or treason’. Our sovereignty, he said, was best protected in this way rather than by sloganeering it.

Meeting the post-conflict challenges

There are several challenges facing Sri Lankan society. It is nearly two years since the conflict ended on the ground and it seems a pity that we have to be reminded by Dhanapala and Palihakkara of these challenges after so many months. It is true that some progress has been made. An LLRC was appointed and tits report should be sent to the President soon. But let us hope that its report and recommendations will be released, publicly discussed and implemented. Some of the ‘High Security Zones’ have been vacated and re-opened to the civilians, though it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the vacated land is cleared and made fit for civilian return. The road from Maviddapuram Temple to Keerimalai, which was once a flourishing residential area, now resembles the Yala Centre Road with thick overgrowth on both sides of the road. Civilian administration, albeit on a limited scale, has been returned to all administrative districts, even though the military presence is all pervading. The military imposed registration of persons in Jaffna district seems a clumsy effort that will impede genuine reconciliation. Instead, a co-ordinated civilian census of the population, overdue for nearly three decades, even though taking longer to conclude, would have achieved the same purpose with less resentment.

These measures at restoring a semblance of normalcy, however small, are certainly welcome. But it is now nearly two years since the end of the conflict, and much more can and needs to done. Infra-structure development, the restoration of the road and railway network is painfully slow. The new bridge and causeway at Sangupiddy was opened by the President last month amidst much publicity. But vehicular traffic cannot still use the bridge as the roads on either side of the causeway are not motorable. Apart from the Jaffna-Point Pedro Road which is now being re-laid by the Chinese, none of the other main highways, including the Jaffna-Kandy A9, are up to scratch.

Human Rights and the Rule of Law

Sri Lanka has come under immense pressure to allow an independent investigation on accountability issues particularly during the final months of the conflict. The LLRC, of which Palihakkara is a member, had a limited mandate but it did well to receive representations from a wide range of affected citizens. But Palihakkara’s comments at the lecture on this are very valid: "It is important to show that the nation after emerging from an injurious and costly conflict, still retains the strength of character and the political will to introspectively look at its own track record and see if we had gone wrong somewhere and if we had, what remedial measures can we, as a civilised society undertake and what course corrections need to be made."

Palihakkara also made the point that our leaders must not claim to be infallible. We are quite liable to have made mistakes and we must have the humility to self-examine where we have gone wrong. He was also very clear that the rule of law should prevail. Permitting armed groups to operate in government-controlled areas undermines the rule of law. The Government and its security agencies must have the monopoly of the use of force within the country’s borders. When a government is unable or unwilling to exercise that authority, certain crimes will go unpunished, certain offenders will enjoy impunity and certain investigations will waver.

According to Palihakkara, Sri Lanka had ‘a diplomatic profile quite disproportionate to its geographic or demographic attributes and military or economic clout. As a resurgent nation brimming with hope following the elimination of a terrorist menace, we should look forward to asserting our sovereignty... We can do so most effectively when we are at peace with ourselves and when we invest our military gains in sustainable political and socio-economic processes. Harmonising our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society without pandering to elements of polarisation is the way forward in this regard.’

He also referred to the human rights issues raised by various parties, both here and abroad. It was not prudent to say that these problems are not unique to us and point the finger at other countries. It may be good political rhetoric for local consumption but in the long-run it will militate against our political, economic and commercial interests. It must be noted that many of the core human rights values are embedded in Lord Buddha’s Sutra Pitaka. We should follow them as they constitute a great Bill of Rights, pre-dating and perhaps surpassing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

Towards Reconciliation

Palihakkara also referred to the activities of the Sri Lanka diaspora. To refer to these migrants of various types as the diaspora is really a misnomer. But be that as it may, Palihakkara felt that there was a need to engage this expatriate community in a constructive way. Although Palihakkara did not refer the Sinhala expatriate community, it is clear that extremist elements among the Tamil and Sinhala expatriate communities are both working to an agenda that presents Sri Lanka as a polarised nation. The government must not seek the easy way out by pandering to the whims of one section of the expatriate community. It should engage only the pluralist elements within this community. It should also discourage the expatriate community fracturing itself into political groupings supporting one party or the other at home. The government can win the support of the pluralist (and perhaps the vast majority) elements of the expatriate community by engaging them in genuine development work that goes beyond political, regional or ethnic differences.

Our foreign relations must be guided by a broadly bipartisan approach and led by professionals in our Foreign Service. Our country requires healing at this point of time. Rhetoric and sloganeering must give way to bringing about a consensual and democratic society. Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the end of that process, he said: "We have been wounded but we are being healed. It is possible even with our past of suffering, anguish, alienation and violence to become one people, reconciled, healed, caring, compassionate and ready to share as we put our past behind us." It is towards that end, that all South Africans sing their National Anthem in four languages. Despite their past violent history, a government of vision led by that redoubtable Nelson Mandela has ensured that all South Africans take pride in their country. South Africa does not have boat people wishing to migrate to other countries. Can we not learn some lessons on reconciliation from Mandela’s South Africa?

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