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For Larger Freedom: Pursuit of Peace in Sri Lanka

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

New York
September 14, 2005

It is a pleasure to be here at the Asia Society once again. Over the past eleven years as President of Sri Lanka, I have had the occasion to visit New York City, several times. During these visits, I have also invariably visited your Society and addressed you. My visits to New York and the United Nations have become inextricably linked to my having to deliver a talk at the Asia Society. So that now I have begun to think of a visit to New York as a visit to the Asia Society. I also take great personal pleasure in getting an opportunity to brief the distinguished members and guests here about the situation in Sri Lanka, and to reflect on the challenges Sri Lanka faces in achieving peace and development, and consolidating democracy.

Speaking before a distinguished and learned audience such as you is also a challenge. As someone who left a doctoral academic program in politics because I could not resist the lure of politics in the real world, I continue to suffer from envy of those who engage on a daily basis in intellectual activity, and hold in awe those who have something to say that is not just novel, but intellectually so. So Mr. Chairman my opportunity to address you has also become for me an intellectually fulfilling challenge to describe our policies with regard to the key issues we face, and also how our thinking about it has evolved. I hope this could give you some elements to reflect upon similar political challenges in other parts of Asia, if not the world. This is also the last address I will make to the Asia Society as President of Sri Lanka . And I wish to express that I will always cherish the hospitality the Asia Society has extended to me over the years.

It is a sad and tragic moment in the United States today because of the destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina. We have been humbled before the power of nature, just as we were on December 26 th last year by the Tsunami. I wish to express the sympathy and solidarity of myself, my government and the people of Sri Lanka with you at this moment of incredible challenge. In an address to the nation two days after the Tsunami struck in Sri Lanka, I said:

"This is a moment of great humility for us all. We have been incredibly humbled by Nature's great forces. An ineluctable truth has been laid bare before us all. The mighty forces of Nature have compelled us to learn a lesson that some of us refused for long to learn……This disaster has not been selective in the destruction it has wrought. …Nature does not differentiate in the treatment of peoples. Loss of life, loss and destruction of property take place irrespective of whether it is in the North or South. It knows no difference between religions or castes: the high and low in society or the rich and the poor. It is necessary that we reflect carefully upon this lesson nature has taught us."

I dare say that these thoughts are no less relevant to you as Americans, even though, or especially because, you live in what many call the sole superpower in the globe today. And so my heart goes out to the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the wonderful city of New Orleans, especially the poor and the helpless who have suffered from the hurricane, and my government and I are ready to assist in any small way we can.

Mr. Chairman, you may recall that my Foreign Minister, Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar was with me, here, last year when I visited you at the Asia Society. He was assassinated just over a month ago. His killing is a dastardly act committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Mr. Kadirgamar was an opponent of Tamil and Sinhala extremisms.

He opposed the terrorism of the LTTE and he supported a federal solution to the conflict within a democratic and plural Sri Lanka that addressed the aspirations of all communities - a longtime demand of many Tamil political leaders. He was killed for his courage in acting on his views. And he was killed because he happened to be born a Tamil, who worked for a united and democratic Sri Lanka. Something the LTTE, which claims to be the sole representative of the Tamil people, does not yet agree with.

His assassination not only challenged my personal commitment, but also that of a vast majority of the people of the country to pursuing a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Although, my government had the option of a military response, we rejected it. And instead chose a different approach - to re-iterate our commitment to a ceasefire and to a political solution, whilst reviewing the approach towards negotiating with the LTTE we had hitherto taken. Such a review has just begun at a practical level with a call to the international community to help exert real pressure on the LTTE, in order that we can engage them in a process that will lead to a lasting peace, bringing about democracy and human rights.

This is also a good time for such a review because of Sri Lanka's political calendar. A new President will be elected in the next few months and he will get an opportunity to begin fresh efforts to move the peace process. And so I can be a bit more self-reflective about what such a peace process may look like.

As I reflect upon the different elements of the peace process at the national level in Sri Lanka – bringing an end to violent hostilities, rebuilding the conflict-affected areas, strengthening human rights, and working out a political solution – and the need to link these elements in a way that leads to what we hope maybe a positive cycle of peace - I see a resonance with the Secretary General's Report to the 2005 Summit – "In Larger Freedom".

There he observes that security, human rights and development go hand in hand. Some say that in Sri Lanka, or in other peace processes, it may be desirable in theory to tackle each element of the peace process one step at a time – first to end hostilities, then rebuild conflict-affected areas, then strengthen human rights, and finally to workout a political solution. However, reality is more complicated.

For example, a breakthrough in the political solution can promote opportunities for development. Or efforts at improving human rights can contribute to working out a political solution. Or for that matter, socio-economic opportunities gained from development can provide an incentive for avoiding war. In other words, we need to be open to the possibility that the world (particularly the world of war and peace) works in a non-linear and sometimes chaotic fashion, even as we, as rational human beings, may try to bring order to our understanding of it.

Conceptual Underpinnings of "Larger Freedom"

Before I get into the details of the Sri Lankan peace process, I would like to begin with basic principles, and ask: what are the fundamental sources of conflict in a political community where many different people live together? I see three such sources of conflict: moral conflict over competing, if not contradictory ideals; inequality even in the presence of a moral consensus; and competition over goods and services. Let me elaborate, briefly.

  • As human beings, blessed with reason and imagination, we think about the world we live in. We ask questions of ourselves. Why are we here? What are we meant to do? How should we treat others? What happens when we die? These questions are so common, that they may appear trite? But they underlie an important universality about us, and reflect our yearning for something more than the houses we live in, the food we eat and the pleasures we enjoy.

    While these questions are common, the answers we supply to them are diverse. They differ if you are a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Jain, or if you are a liberal, a Marxist, a rationalist, a utilitarian or a libertarian. Clearly, each of us thinks that some answers are better than others. And so we differ in where the answers to these fundamental questions will lead us. But, if there is one thing we have learned from these thousands of years of human civilization, it is that we will always differ in the answers to these questions.

    They have differed, in the past, and they will continue to, in the future. No amount of rational and reasonable debate will lead to a convergence on these ideals. You in the west have a greater experience with the kind of violence this conflict can cause with the religious wars that were a tragic part of European history. But they led to important lessons, and so political institutions evolved that gave expression to human freedom – freedoms of conscience, expression and association. These freedoms have now become an integral part of all democratic societies, and we have learned to avoid the dark lessons that you were forced to learn through experience.

  • The second source of conflict is inequality. This is particularly true of societies that have a democratic tradition, where there is both a belief that human beings deserve to be treated with equal dignity, and that this ought to be enshrined in practical arrangements. It is of course hard to find a political community today where such sentiments do not exist. So when people, even if they share the same moral values, feel that they are not treated equally they can resist and fight. While it has become fashionable today to disregard inequality as a source of conflict, particularly globally, I believe that it will always be an important source of conflict, because of the deep belief we all have that unfair advantage over another is, unjust.

    And it is hard to find a political constitution today where the equal worth of a human being is disregarded or seen as irrelevant to setting up the rules that will govern a society.

  • The third source of conflict is competition for scarce goods and services, because we still do not live in an egalitarian world of abundance. We want more, so we get together in groups to ask for more and fight for more. These groups may be ethnic groups, political groups, neighbourhood groups, religious groups or language groups. The source of conflict here is not necessarily the group identity itself, but the claims made by a group for a greater share of the resources. When a province says that its development has been neglected or when an ethnic group asks for more admissions to university or when a city asks for more resources, they are making claims for greater resources to be shared with them. Whether or not these claims are justified, they can lead to conflict.

    These three sources of conflict are clearly intertwined and can also be sources of conflict, globally, when we fail to recognize and act on the equal dignity of all humans who live in the world today. The United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan, understands this when he says in his report: "I have named the present report "In larger freedom" to stress the enduring relevance of the United Nations and to emphasise that its purposes must be advanced in the lives of individual men and women."

    The Secretary General's report is a search for a practical way of recognizing and acting upon this equal dignity globally, in a world of great inequality of wealth and power. He seeks to do this politically by integrating human rights, with development and security. The deeper conceptual point in the Secretary General's report then is not just that people must have equal access to say health, and equal civil and political rights. But that equal access to health care is needed for equal civil and political rights.

And equal civil and political rights are required for people to have equal access to healthcare. The political philosopher John Rawls captures this point by talking not just about equal basic liberties but about the equal worth of basic liberties. Similarly, Professor Amartya Sen refers to "Development as Freedom" in order to emphasize that development is not simply to increase growth rates in order to increase per capita income and purchase more goods, but to improve health, education, housing, so that people will have improved quality of life.

But it is not just political philosophers who are concerned about the practical implications of treating people as equals. We have interesting developments in what is called "game theory" among economists that develops mathematical models for dealing with the technical challenges of equal division of goods among "n" persons in day to day situations. In a friendly critique of the talk I gave last year at the Asia Society, a web blog – pointed out some of these important technical advances in conflict resolution, curiously known as cake theory, because these models use cake cutting as a metaphor for dividing goods equally.

These theories, even those that are technical, have common assumptions. The first is that people want more goods, not less. Second, the rules for how to divide up the goods must be fair for all players or citizens, otherwise the game stops or the political community ruptures. And third, whatever value conflicts exist (religious or ideological) they cannot affect the fairness of the rules of the game or how societies make rules. In other words a constitution that says people X must have fewer rights than people Y (and sadly their were constitutions at one time, such as that of the United States that did imply this) is not something that the world, or for that matter people X or Y would propose, leave alone accept today.

I say this not to belabour a conceptual point, but to emphasise that the ordinary citizens of societies that are deeply divided about the rules of the political game, will never argue that some must be treated less equally than others. I have found in my experience of campaigning for a just and stable peace in Sri Lanka, that the vast majority of Sri Lankans do not believe that they must have an advantage over others simply because of their ethnicity or religion. Like the hardnosed mathematicians who think they are doing models without any ethical standpoint, Sri Lankans who collide with each other about the rules of the game, share with philosophers like Rousseau and Rawls a basic commitment to equal dignity for all. And this is a moral and political resource that I have always drawn on in advancing peace in my country.

Reviewing the Peace Process

It is this confidence in the people of Sri Lanka that gave me the courage in 1994 to campaign on the basis of a political solution to the ethnic conflict. We had a resounding victory at nine out of eleven rounds of elections in a period of eleven years, because the people unequivocally endorsed my policy of a negotiated settlement in place of war, and a federal solution as against a separate State. With the support of a broad multi-ethnic coalition of parties I proceeded to talk with the LTTE about ending the war, and discuss with all the parties in parliament about a new more inclusive, political constitution that would share power with all communities. While talks with the LTTE broke down and they went back to war, my governments continued in its efforts to bring them back to the negotiating table. I proceeded to work with other democratic parties to discuss a political solution and presented in parliament for the first time in the history of my country proposals for a federal style constitution. Unfortunately, we lacked the numbers in parliament to make constitutional changes.

I believe that the qualitative changes wrought by us in the approval to the ethnic question changed the reality irreversibly in my country. It created the climate for the two largest political parties to evolve for the first time an important policy consensus: that war is not a desirable political option for the country, that negotiations with LTTE to the end the war should be pursued, and that a political C of a Federal type that addresses the concerns of all communities should be designed. I am proud to say that it would now be difficult to reverse the political momentum towards peace created by my Governments.

Mr. Chairman, let me now discuss in some detail the four elements of the peace process in my country that I mentioned earlier - bringing an end to armed hostilities, rebuilding the conflict-affected areas, strengthening human rights, and working out a political solution.

Ending armed hostilities has been an important step in changing the climate for peace in Sri Lanka. In February 2002, the then Prime Minister, Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe, signed a ceasefire agreement with the leader of the LTTE, Mr. Prabakharan. While there are elements of this agreement that have an adverse effect on the sovereignty and security of the country, its overall influence on the context for peace has been and still is positive. For one thing, it saved many lives. It allowed civilians, particularly those living in the conflict-affected areas of the North and East, to farm, fish and trade more freely than they had done before. There was greater people to people exchanges as students, businessmen, civil society leaders, government officials and even politicians got an opportunity to see for themselves how their fellow citizens, particularly in the conflict-affected areas lived. The ceasefire also provided a more conducive climate that enabled several rounds of peace talks to take place, where important commitments on the road to peace were sought and made.

Despite these important advances following the signing of the ceasefire, we are now at a point where we have exhausted the positive climate created by the ceasefire and are at the risk of escalating violence. The primary reason for this is the increasing number of violations committed by the LTTE. The Nordic staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission of observers who monitor the Cease-Fire Agreement has ruled that the LTTE has committed more than three thousand violations, while the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka have committed about one hundred and fifty. The actual violations committed by the LTTE as ruled by the Norwegian led monitoring mission, includes more than one thousand and five hundred child soldiers have been recruited and hundreds of cases of extortion. This is backed up by reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UNICEF. The LTTE has also engaged in assassinating democratic political opponents, mainly Tamil. Whereas the violations of the ceasefire by the Sri Lankan security forces, the same Nordic led monitoring team has ruled on, are primarily incidents of harassment at checkpoints.

While the ceasefire is necessary for the pursuit of a political process that will lead to peace, it is obviously not sufficient. It is clear that the human rights element of the Cease-Fire Agreeement needs to be worked out in greater detail and more attention paid to it, if the peace process is to move forward.

The second element of the peace process is development or rebuilding the conflict-affected areas of the North and East. I have always believed that one of the reasons why the Tamil people in Sri Lanka felt marginalized was because the regions where they have traditionally lived, have been among the least developed in the country. These areas have some of the lowest literacy rates, lowest growth rates, and this has been further exacerbated by the armed conflict.

I have, since 1995, tried hard to develop these areas, including areas dominated by the LTTE, and even during the fighting. Initially these efforts were rebuffed by the LTTE. They tried to kill a senior minister I sent to Jaffna to engage in development work for the Tamil people.

Over the last few years we have quietly changed the attitude of the LTTE towards development activities carried out by the government. They have extended cooperation to the Ministry of Relief, Reconstruction and Reconciliation, which I happen to head, in carrying out work in areas they dominate. We are deeply committed to undertaking development work in those areas. It is the Governments duty to ensure that all of our citizens irrespective of where they live, what ethnicity they belong to, or even who they are forced to live under, must have access to health, education and economic opportunities. Second we believe that development is good for peace. It gives the people living in those areas, particularly the youth, options other than being recruited and forced to carry arms. And it gives the LTTE an opportunity to engage in useful and constructive work that benefits the people directly, instead of preparing for war. Finally, it provides an area where the government and the LTTE can work together on concrete activities that can build confidence and even some trust that is vital for any peace process to move forward.

It is for this reason that I risked the stability of my government and signed a joint mechanism – Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure – with the LTTE to engage in reconstruction of the tsunami affected districts of the North and East. Unfortunately, some clauses of this mechanism are being temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court for constitutional considerations.

Nevertheless, the idea animating it – that the government, the LTTE, leaders of the Muslim and other communities can cooperate on development and build mutual confidence - should not be underestimated as steps towards peace. We believe that development is an area of common concern with the LTTE, which offers a great deal of political space for greater cooperation. This is because while there is a real desire for more developmental work in the North by the people living there, there is also a recognition and support for this work in the South.

The LTTE has been engaging in a systematic campaign of child recruitment, where they are abusing the lives of the most vulnerable members of the Tamil community. The LTTE have also been killing political opponents – members of Tamil groups who do not agree with them. The fact that these activities also took place prior to the Cease-Fire Agreement, and did so at a higher rate, is no excuse for not making every effort to bring them to a halt now.

A peace process, Mr. Chairman, cannot and does not operate in a vacuum. People demand that a process of peace should include active engagement, commitment and good conduct of all parties to a conflict. In a democratic society, the opinion of the people is paramount and fundamental freedoms are sacrosanct. Therefore a peace process cannot move forward as long as the people of the country, comprising of all communities, perceive and believe that a party to the conflict remains immune to the consequences of its actions and does not demonstrate signs of sincere commitment to peace. This has serious implications for the ability of any elected Government to garner the support of the people to its approach to the peace process.

Strengthening human rights in the context of the peace process is vital to saving lives, improving peoples living conditions, and restoring public confidence in the possibility of peace. It is therefore important that the parties seriously consider ancillary arrangements derived from the Cease-Fire Agreement that can lead to new mechanisms for monitoring and implementing human rights as a part of the peace process. This is also an area where the United Nations with its panoply of conventions and its universality can play an important guiding role. Whatever the risks to the peace process inherent in dealing with a challenging issue like human rights, it is my conviction that the failure to do so will lead to a greater risk to the peace process.

The fourth element of the peace process is the political solution. I have always stated that you cannot defeat terrorism, militarily alone. It is also a political, social and economic phenomenon. While there may always be individuals who may take up arms or engage in wanton acts of violence, these individuals become strong and powerful, because they attract large numbers of others who feel marginalised to join with them. So when I understand terrorism as having root causes, I mean political social and economic causes, and not military ones. To put it more concretely, we as a responsible government would have to address the challenge of transforming the State so as to include all communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim - equally. And this requires a durable political settlement.

I have argued that it is hard to neatly separate the key elements of a peace process – ending armed hostilities, rebuilding the war-affected areas, strengthening human rights and working out a political solution. Rather than thinking of a political solution as following these developments, we should think of it as making these developments possible. In other words a political solution is a framework that will contribute to ending armed violence, re-building the country and strengthening human rights, not one that precedes or succeeds these.

Concluding Comments

So security, human rights, and development are linked, both at the national level and the international level. And a durable peace is not possible without understanding these links.

I want to conclude my talk by highlighting what I see as the dual challenges we concretely face in Sri Lanka – transforming the State and transforming the LTTE. As I have mentioned in my talk we need to transform the State so it is more inclusive - equally reflecting the concerns of all communities. My view and the view of overwhelming sections of Sri Lankan society is that this will involve transforming the State from a unitary one to one that is plural and federal in nature. Through a series of proposals to parliament and discussions inside and outside parliament my party and I have been at the forefront of the efforts to transform the Sri Lankan State .

While a transformation of the Sri Lankan State from a unitary to a federal one may help include the Tamil community and the Muslim community, it alone will not bring lasting peace. To achieve peace we also need to deal with the second equally important, but neglected challenge - transforming the LTTE from a dictatorial and ruthless militant group that regularly engages in the use of terror, to a political force that engages with the State and does not resort to violence to make its arguments heard.

This process needs to be analyzed and addressed in a conscious and systematic manner together with the LTTE. And just as the LTTE has a stake in the transformation of the Sri Lankan State, all Sri Lankans have a stake in the transformation of the LTTE.

The challenge of dealing with these dual transformations will not be easy for any single political party in Sri Lanka, however powerful. It requires a broad consensus and joint action between the major political parties and groups in the country.

Thank you.