Sri Lanka Embassy holds public discussion on “Sri Lanka: Beyond the Ceasefire Agreement”

Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke addresses the audience

At a time when the world is focused on Sri Lanka’s attempts at conflict resolution and peace building, it is fitting that the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC decided to initiate a thought-provoking discussion on the subject, in the political heart of the nation, on Capitol Hill, on Friday January 25, 2008.

Titled, “Sri Lanka: Beyond the Ceasefire Agreement,” the discussion was a stimulating presentation of perspectives by Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, who spoke on The Ceasefire Agreement, the Peace Process and the International Community, by Dr Stanley Samarasinghe, who spoke on The Way to Realistically resolve Sri Lanka’s conflict, and by Ambassador Ashley Wills, former U.S. Ambassador in Sri Lanka, who spoke nostalgically of his sojourn in Sri Lanka and his observations and comments of a conflict in a country he finds “heartbreakingly beautiful.” He was also the moderator of the event.

Ambassador Goonetilleke, who took the podium first, addressed a widely represented audience, from officials of the administration, to Congressional staffers, to media, NGOs and think tanks. He had the riveted attention of the audience for the many pertinent observations and arguments he made, while placing Sri Lanka’s case before them.

Said the Ambassador, “The international community needs to be cognizant that democracies cannot take extra-constitutional measures, and, political solutions to conflicts require discussion, debate and compromise before consensus is reached.”

Keeping in mind an impatient international community which generally appears to favor cut-and-dried solutions, and referring to the devolution proposals of the All Party Representatives (APRC), handed over to President Rajapaksa a few days ago, he said, “Complex arrangements for devolution and power sharing, that also involve constitutional changes and consultation of the people, are inevitably, an incremental process. It is necessary to remind the international community, that this is only a beginning of an evolving process, which requires its fullest and continuing support.”

Ambassador Ashley Wills addresses the audience

From a vantage point of having been personally involved in the peace process when the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed, Ambassador Goonetilleke was able to present a convincing argument.

Having explained the background of LTTE intransigence, Ambassador asked, “Against this backdrop, the question we ask from those who urge the government to seek a negotiated settlement is, are they asking us to negotiate with the LTTE once again? If the LTTE demand for a separate state is non-negotiable, what exactly are we going to negotiate with them? There are more questions. How can a democratically elected government hand over a part of its sovereign territory to an undemocratic entity like the LTTE, which engages in terrorism? What is the fate of the Muslim and Sinhala people, living in the areas claimed by the LTTE, as the traditional homeland of the Tamils?’

He followed it by another pertinent question. “…we have to ask, who would guarantee that this time around, the LTTE will not walk away from the negotiating table. Some may even ask, if the players were different, for example, would the US negotiate with a terrorist group, which has used suicide bombers to assassinate one president, nearly killed another president, and assassinated several secretaries, including the Secretary of State?”

Referring to the parallels being created by promoters of Tiger interests in the U.S., Ambassador said, “There are certain individuals, who try to draw parallels between the LTTE demands with the American demand for independence from Britain. However, in my view, the more appropriate comparison is to describe the LTTE to the secessionist Confederates, who tried to break away from the Union. As President Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, “Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy." Likewise, “Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them.” The Sri Lanka government too, being a representative entity like the Union, finds secession wholly unacceptable, and seeks friendship of all its citizens, and genuine peace, as President Lincoln did, where all citizens in the country can co-exist as equals in harmony, as they did for many centuries.”

Ambassador also made very pertinent comments about the failure of the CFA, and the reasons it failed, and, in the light of that, the futility of international concern that the abrogation of the ceasefire would lead to more violence. As he said,“…sane thinking would indicate that it was not the abrogation of the CFA that would lead to increased violence, but it was the ever increasing violence and grave provocations that led the government to abrogate the CFA.”

Dr. Stanley Samarasinghe addresses the audience

Dr. Stanley Samarasinghe, a member of the faculty of the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University, New Orleans, and Executive Director of the Sri Lankan think tank, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, who took the podium after Ambassador Goonetilleke, focused on the theme of realistically solving Sri Lanka’s conflict. He began his presentation by introducing himself as an academic and was keen to emphasize that his views were independent and scholarly, and he was not being partial to any views, but was merely presently facts as he saw them.

Dr. Samarasinghe first focused on the viability of a separate state for Tamils, when more than half of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population lives outside the north and the east, which is being claimed as “a traditional Tamil homeland.” It bonded very well with Ambassador Goonetilleke’s argument earlier that the whole concept of “Tamil Eelam” is “fictitious” at best,“for there was never, at any time in Sri Lanka’s history, “a traditional Tamil homeland,” as the Vadukkodai Resolution of 1976 declared, based on an erroneous claim by the first British colonial Secretary Hugh Cleghorn.” Dr. Samarasinghe said that he feared what would be the fate of the Tamils living in the south, and referred to the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Dr. Samarasinghe’s presentation was credible and full of common sense, as he dwelt on resource constraints in carrying out a war. He said that before the CFA, Sri Lanka spent 20% of GDP on the war. After the CFA, the expenditure on war decreased to 13% of GDP. With an escalation of the conflict, the war budget in 2008 has increased to $1.7 billion, he said. Thus, a substantial percentage of total GDP is being spent on the war, which Sri Lanka should be spending on developing the lives of the people. Dr. Samarasinghe’s explanation of the opportunity cost of the war was much appreciated by the audience, and was voiced by Ambassador Ashley Wills at the end of the presentation.

Dr. Samarasinghe also dwelt on the intrinsic resilience of the Sri Lanka economy, whether there is a war or not, and the nexus between the war and some sectors of the economy, which are boosted by the existence of a war. He said in a survey conducted recently, they found that it was the poorest of the poor that joined the army, and, salaries being a substantial cost of war, various sectors of the economy receive a boost through war. Thus, when the Opposition grouses over the cost of war, it is not totally correct, because the poorer sections of society may actually achieve a higher standard of living than previously because of increased revenue.

Dr. Samarasinghe also spoke of the complexity of political system in Sri Lanka, and how one needs to understand its dynamics, in order to be able to understand the way to go. He said that the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which presented devolution proposals to the President a few days ago, “may not be totally representative of the Sri Lankan polity,” because of the absence of the UNP, the JVP and the TNA, but it is yet important because it denotes a good start to a potential end of the conflict, provided there is serious attempt at implementation. He said that the centre needs to provide adequate funds to provincial councils to effectively carry out their functions, otherwise the system cannot work. He illustrated the point with an example of how in1988, schools in the country were divided into provincial and central schools. Before long, the provincial schools could not function for lack of funds. Following the repeated demands of parents, the provincial schools were once more categorized as central schools, the reason being that provincial schools could not function effectively without adequate funds. He repeated the need to empower local authorities with the necessary resources, if devolution is to take root effectively.

The question and answer session that followed Dr Samarasinghe’s presentation, was a reflection of the diverse perspectives in the U.S. of the Sri Lanka situation.

Full Text of Ambassador's speech

Embassy of Sri Lanka
Washington DC

25 January 2008

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