Dr G L Peiris, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, was congratulated at the recent meeting hosted in London by the International Institute for Strategic Studies for not using any notes to give his address (1).
There is no doubting his intellect. A Rhodes Scholar (in the same batch as another political smooth talker, Bill Clinton), Peiris completed two doctorates by age 28.
But sadly, intellect and integrity aren’t always aligned. And Dr Peiris is one academic whose ambitions go well beyond the ivory tower. He is seasoned at being “on message” despite the fact that he has switched sides twice to serve all the last three Sri Lankan Presidents in senior roles (2).
“Never judge a book by its cover” also applies to political intellectuals like Peiris because make believe does not need any script, especially for one so blessed with academic oratorical skills.Whichever continent, whatever the agenda and whoever the audience, since being appointed Foreign Minister earlier this year, Peiris has clearly been seeking through eloquent speeches to capture the high ground. Sadly, what is missing is the reality back in his home ground. Indeed, a consistent picture of reality is lacking: the fact that he paints contradictory pictures of reality has been captured by an astute journalist for the Sri Lankan Guardian (3):
In Beijing – far from any Tamil audiences – he said: “The conflict is now over and we must now remove the pain in the hearts and minds of the people by setting in motion a healing process, a process of rapprochement.”
“Suffice it to state that unless the political will prevails to reach out to the Tamil people and to allow them in whatever form and manner to have a say and manage their destiny, this problem will remain with us.”
He even mentioned the thorny issue of the thousands of alleged LTTE fighters; “Another problem which requires urgent attention is the large number of Tamil youth in detention under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act)…Most of them having been taken in only on suspicion and have been rotting in jail for years and would only have hate in their hearts, having lost the best years of their lives in jail. We must ensure that we do not humiliate these young persons. They could easily fall prey to the Diaspora and their millions to harm our country. We do need to come up with a political solution to head them off.”
But in India, however, the emphasis was less on urgency and more on the need to build Tamil leadership. Yes, the 13th Amendment – the political solution which was promised by Rajapaksa in return for India’s support for the decimation of the LTTE – is the right answer but ‘not just yet’.
“Sri Lanka is resurrecting its electoral process to empower people and provide political space for minority Tamils so that they emerge as credible interlocutors for the community on the issue devolution of powers….Tamil leaders that are thrown up by political process, many of them were wiped out like leader of opposition was assassinated by the LTTE, there is a gap to be filled.”
What Peiris fails to mention is that even Tamil leaders who were targeted by the LTTE and who supported the Government’s drive to destroy the LTTE are now questioning if they have been duped.
One such leader is Dharmalingam Siddharthan, leader of the PLOTE (Peoples’ Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) which has been anti LTTE for over a decade. In his statement to the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Committee, Siddharthan said (4):
“Today nearly one-and-a-half years later, there is still no sign of a political solution to the problems faced by the Tamil people. Many Tamil people, Tamil groups, political parties and militant groups helped successive governments in its efforts believing that a political solution would be offered by the government of the day.”
In contrast Siddharthan highlights that: “Today, we see state lands in the north and east being grabbed in the name of development in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Mullaitivu, Murukkandy etc and being allocated to big-time Sinhalese business people.”
Siddharthan also said that his organisation was deeply concerned about the sudden mushrooming of Buddhist temples in areas where no Buddhists live.
He adds: “Many parents whose sons and daughters were conscripted by the LTTE are deeply concerned that while these innocents still languish in detention camps, top (former LTTE) leaders and kidnappers are at large, many of them enjoying luxurious lifestyles.”
He ends by saying: “These fears must be allayed and the Tamil community made to feel they are a part of this country. It is up to the Sinhalese people to make the Tamils understand they do not look on them as second class citizens, but are their equals in all respects. For this it becomes necessary to provide a political solution which can help the Tamil community to look after its own affairs in the regions. I am not talking of separation. I am emphasising the need for a devolution of power to the regions……it is the Sinhalese who are the majority in this country (who have) to convince the minorities especially those who have undergone the trauma and hardship of war that they are an integral part of this country. “
That is the reality that Peiris and other apologists for Rajapaksa want to avoid.
Back in the UK, Peiris spoke of the “Sri Lanka model” being a positive option for dealing with “terrorism” employing the language to please the security specialists who predominated in the IISS audience. The government of Sri Lanka is actively promoting the Sri Lanka model to a range of countries (5). And why shouldn’t they when the IISS and others treat them as respected players in the international system?
But learned Peiris of course is not just a hawk. Just a few minutes later, he professed his admiration for Alex Boraine’s account of the Truth & Reconciliation process in South Africa. For sure, Peiris and other Rajapaksa apologists would love to engage in “leaving behind and moving forward”. But Sri Lanka’s half-hearted attempt at this will have no such effect. As Desmond Tutu, the chair of South Africa’s Commission has said: “It is doubtful that the President’s ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ will help Sri Lankans to work towards lasting peace and reconciliation.” (6)
The weaknesses of the Sri Lanka Commission have been well described by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group (7). The fatal flaw in the Sri Lankan process is that the “victor” is also the prime perpetrator of the human rights abuses and cannot bear to have the truth heard. As well, how can there be moving forward when there is no intention to progress in terms of putting in place a political solution?
Little of this discussion came up in the IISS meeting. Set up as a “dialogue” with the Government of Sri Lanka, the IIIS seminar focused on how to ensure ongoing stability in the region. The seminar had virtually no focus on what is really needed to bring peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, let alone democracy or good governance. Just the narrow agenda of counter-insurgency and economic development by pro government local and international business elites. How little the IISS seems to have learned about real security.
What true intellectual friends of Sri Lanka need to do is very different. Dialogue is desperately needed. But dialogue that challenges the lofty rhetoric of the clever people like Peiris and forces them to deal with the reality on the ground that they have played a large part in creating.