The long war…and the cold peace that follows…

2013-03-29 18:30:04

I would like to attempt to explain how perhaps the most successful defenders of the Sri Lankan strategy in 2009, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, were a former Stalinist and a Liberal. I don’t think there will be any challenge to the claim that Dayan (Jayatilleke) and I, though he of course was the senior partner and the strategist, worked together effectively. This was based on two things. First, we had no doubt whatsoever that Sri Lanka was fighting a just war and fighting it justly, a position I still stand by, and which I believe I have argued more thoroughly than anyone else.

Second, we also believed passionately that the destruction of terrorism was vital for the emergence of a pluralistic society with equal rights for all its citizens. And I think we were right, in believing that was government policy, as was exemplified by the manner in which we resettled the displaced quicker than in other such theatres of war, and swiftly rehabilitated and sent back to their homes almost all former combatants. We could certainly have done more, in terms of training and reintegration assistance, but by and large we can be proud of that achievement.

There are reasons why we have not moved swiftly in all respects. This has to do with the suspicions engendered by ruthlessly opportunistic behaviour on the part of those who resented our triumph over terrorism. They ignored the opposition of the President to efforts to impose an Israel type solution, by increasing the size of the army and engaging in settlements while holding back the displaced. Instead they supported against the President the chief proponent of that strategy, while claiming that they were critical of the government for the sake of the Tamils who had suffered. That obviously made the government dubious about their motives, and increased the influence of the hardliners who remained loyal to the government.

I will conclude though with an evocation of political theory, to explain how Dayan and I found ourselves on the same side, even though our political philosophies might have seemed inextricably opposed. I am not as knowledgeable about political theory as Dayan is, but introducing something of the sort seems fitting, in speaking at the launch of a book that contains sharp historical analysis and compelling anecdotes, but fits them within an erudite framework of political theory.

I will rely however not on the many distinguished academic theoreticians Dayan refers to, but rather to the founder of the Liberal Party, Chanaka Amaratunga, who wrote an essay on ‘The Fundamentals of Liberalism’ for a volume entitled Liberal Values for South Asia which we brought out in 1997, shortly after his untimely death (an updated version called Liberal Perspectives for South Asia was published a decade later by Cambridge University Press in Delhi).

Chanaka wrote there, and this is particularly important in a context of increasing extremism which both Dayan and I deplore, that the hallmark of Liberalism is that it is individualist, egalitarian, universalist and meliorist.

He cited the modern Liberal thinker John Gray who wrote that Liberalism is ‘individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity.’  That incidentally is the element as to which Dayan and I probably differed most in the past, and I believe he has now moved closer to my Liberal perspective, and understands the value of individualism, as opposed to the Marxist collectivism he celebrated earlier.

Gray went on to say that Liberalism is ‘egalitarian, inasmuch as it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal and political order of differences in moral worth among human beings; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms.’ These elements need to be considered carefully, in a context in which there are efforts to hijack the Sri Lankan state on behalf of particular interest groups.

Chanaka pointed out that, paradoxically perhaps, Marxism cannot claim to be egalitarian, or indeed universal, since it sets up ‘a structure which does not recognise the real possibility of rival conceptions of the good. They believe that a particular group, be it the working class, a specific racial group… have a special status that confers moral excellence and is worth protection’. Now it would seem that the privileging of the working class to the exclusion of others is no longer a danger (and perhaps the opposite perspective, that sees no reason to ensure a level playing field through increasing opportunities for the disadvantaged, is now again the greater social threat). But the privileging of particular groups continues apace, and it is no coincidence that Dayan and I feel the same about the need to resist this in favour of a pluralist outlook, because not to do so would nullify the moral impact of the triumph over terrorism in 2009.

Finally Gray noted that Liberalism is ‘meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.’ This element, which used to strike me as less important than the others, is perhaps of particular significance now as we pursue, to quote Lord Macaulay, ‘reform, more reform, constant reform.’

Macaulay went on to say, ‘we desire more reform in order to preserve not to destroy.’ That needs to be our watchword as we try to build on the victory of 2009. The manner in which, ignoring the principles enunciated by Dayan and Tamara, the Ministry of External Affairs conducts itself reminds me rather of what Lenin said: We shall destroy everything and on the ruins we shall build our temple.’ But, unlike Lenin, the decision makers seem to be concerned only with a temple to themselves, with no understanding of the issues at stake.

Dayan shows graphically, that the Resolution in Geneva sprang not from concern for human rights but from a political agenda, that saw Sri Lanka simply as a means to domination, for strategic reasons as also for ideological reasons. But they also said, such an agenda needs allies to succeed, and those allies are often idealistic. Countries like India and Brazil and Japan and South Korea, as well as those who voted for us, dislike the replacement of a multilateral United Nations by instruments beholden to just one perspective. But they are also concerned with Human Rights and equity, and we need to work on ensuring these for all our citizens. If we do not do so actively and convincingly, those countries may well decide that the possible threat of Western domination is a small price to pay, especially because they would see themselves as never offering pretexts of the sort we seem to be doing.

I do not think they will be safe since, once some countries are brought under supervision, it is easier to do the same with others. But we need to help others to help us, and our failure to do this, to study and understand and put in practice the principles this book lays down, will surely cost us even dearer in the future.
(The article is an excerpt from remarks made by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the launch of Dayan Jayatilleka’s book ‘Long War, Cold Peace’ (Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2013))

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