SPEECH BY PRESIDENT CHANDRIKA KUMARATUNGA
ON "CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND PEACE BUILDING -
LESSONS FROM SRI LANKA" AT ASIA SOCIETY, NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER
Ladies & Gentlemen,
My present responsibilities permit me little time for such pleasurable
activities as being amongst thinkers and intellectuals like you
and the members of the Asia Society who are present here today.
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here and I wish to
express my appreciation to the President of the Asia Society,
Madam Vishakha N.Desai, and its members for inviting me to speak
to you this evening.
It has been proposed that I speak this evening on the subject
- “Conflict Resolution and Peace Building - Lessons from
Sri Lanka”. I will attempt to present to you some reflections
on this subject, in the time available to me.
Conflict resolution has become today, a high profile subject
taught in universities and lectured on, at many a seminar and
conference. Experts in this field are held in awe in some circles
in many countries. Yet, conflict resolution is not new. It has
only been packaged differently in our age.
Conflict resolution has been an important part of human life
since ancient times, when humans grouped together to form communities
to live in co-operation with each other. We are also aware of
nomadic communities that have fought against each other for domination
over certain areas of land and thereafter arrived at resolutions
of the problem through discussion and various arrangements.
From the time man evolved systems of fixed settlements situated
in specific geographic areas, conflicts between these settlements,
villages or cities whichever they were called, became intensified
for the purpose of domination over ever larger areas of land for
each settled community. History abounds with examples of resolution
of these conflicts through dialogue.
Great philosophers of the classical age such as Plato, Aristotle
and Cicero; or Machiavelli of the age of Renaissance; or philosophers
of the Age of Enlightenment such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and
Kant; thinkers such as Averroes, Maimonides and Al-Farabi of the
Arab world and Asian philosophers like Kautilya, Confucius and
Sun Tzu have given great treatises to the world on the genesis
and causes of conflict and their resolution. Philosophers from
Socrates to John Rawls dealt with the question of equal treatment
of citizens and how equality and freedom could address conflict.
Yet, we do not see sufficient efforts made at present to study
seriously and draw effectively on the concepts so painstakingly
formulated and given to us through the ages by these visionary
There is yet another aspect of conflict resolution which we encounter
daily as we move along life’s path. A mother who has to
divide a pie among her young children; a teacher who has to keep
young students from fighting with each other; a trade union leader
who negotiates a contract for his members; a businessman who attempts
to cut a better deal for his enterprises; they all practise conflict
The conflict resolution experts of our times do not seem to have
come up with anything more effective nor attractive than the great
thinkers of former times nor the mothers, teachers and trade union
leaders of our day.
I would say that conflict resolution has taken center stage,
perhaps since World War II, in an era where new nations have begun
to deal with establishing national identities and operating within
them, in the context of the potential conflicts that are inherent
to such situations where smaller nations are carved out of larger
entities, as well as nations attempting to emerge from the traumas
– economic, social, cultural and emotional, of colonial
domination and exploitation.
The resolution of intra-state or inter-state conflict, since
the growth of the modern State has taken on a more complicated
and certainly more challenging aspect. In ancient times what was
a simple war between two nations or between two groups within
a nation, has been transformed today into a multi-faceted conflict,
which in addition to the immediate adversaries, involve numerous
other states through the network of globalised economies and migratory
populations, as much as the international organizations, that
today play a most significant role in regulating relations between
When we take a look at the conflicts prevailing across the globe,
a common denominator emerges into view. Often, the cause of all
armed or violent conflicts appears to stem from demands by various
communities living within states for the recognition of their
own specific identities – ethnic, linguistic or religious.
It is important to note that the neglect of the aspirations of
different groups of peoples living within states, transform themselves
into demands often expressed through violent means, which in the
latter half of the 20th century developed into conflicts of a
violence practised on a scale hitherto unknown in human history.
Historical wrongs have been exploited by self-seeking groups
to create what we call “ terrorism” today. It is the
most unnatural, dehumanizing and politically dangerous phenomenon
of our times. It has established itself as a political strategy,
increasingly used by groups seeking to establish their separate
identities; by those who feel victims of a perceived injustice
to which they respond by challenging the authority of the State
- their own, or that of an outside State, which is perceived as
the perpetrator of the injustice.
The vast majority of humans, like you and me, reject with total
disgust the politics of terror. Whatever may be the perceived
injustice the terrorist responds to, we know that this would in
no way offer the slightest solution to any conflict and will exacerbate
it to the point, sometimes of no return.
Our Experiences & Challenges
In Sri Lanka, my government is making serious efforts at resolving
a conflict that has arisen from the demands of one ethnic community
– the Tamils for equal rights and the continuous neglect
of the frustrations of the Tamil people by all governments since
Independence. The conflict worsened to the point of armed resistance
to the State, since the organized attacks against innocent Tamil
people and their property, executed by one particular government
21 years ago, in July 1983.
My governments have attempted since 1994 to adopt a new strategy
and radically different attitudes in the resolution of this problem.
- We studied and attempted to understand the root-causes of
the conflict and the particular form it has taken in Sri Lanka,
in a scientific and objective manner.
- We arrived at the view that our conflict was engendered by
the inability of our nation at the moment of decolonization,
56 years ago, to weld together the separate sets of aspirations
of the three main communities living in Sri Lanka, into one
collective national vision, in which each community could live
freely and in dignity within its own separate identity, in order
to comprise one harmonious and united whole - a strong, stable
and united state.
- We recognized that we had to build a new, pluralist, multi-ethnic
and multi-cultural state based on the cultural, religious and
social identity of the majority Sinhala people who constitute
around 75% of the population, as much as the two main smaller
communities, the Tamils and the Muslims and the tiny groups
of Malays and Burghers, who constitute the rest of the country.
For this, we believe that we will have to evolve methods of
managing the diversities between the different communities,
whilst directing the richness of this diversity towards positive
change, if we are to limit and finally eliminate the present
conflict generated by that very diversity within our nation.
In this respect we keep in mind that the rational political,
social and economic aspirations of groups of people within a state,
when continuously frustrated, give rise to protest, leading to
full-blown armed conflict and creating conditions that can give
rise to terrorism. We have to sift the root-causes of frustration
and despair out of the terrorist action and look at it separately
and unemotionally. We believe that legitimate aspirations can
be addressed objectively and honestly.
It has been said that “young hope betrayed, transforms
itself into bombs”. It is also said that socio economic
deprivation, political oppression and physical violence perpetrated
by the state or agents of the state, against other states or its
own peoples could be the womb of terrorism, while humiliation
is its cradle and continued revenge by the State - the mother’s
milk and nourishment of terrorism. Have we not seen these simple,
yet most perceptive statements being borne out everyday in the
conflict ridden places of the world and until some years ago,
in my own country and our region?
Let us for a moment consider the case of Sri Lanka, in the background
of the concept that poverty and ignorance invariably lead to frustration,
humiliation and conflict. The “ divide and rule” policy
of former colonial powers, dispossessed the vast majority of our
population, of established and developed traditional means of
livelihood, thereby marginalizing them, while privileges were
accorded to a small and selected élite class who were willing
to owe allegiance to the colonial rulers. In this process, the
traditional economy which prospered on the foundations of an advanced
technology was destroyed and torn asunder. The focus of development
limited to only those areas identified for commercial agriculture
for the benefit of the metropolis resulted in increasing poverty
in the rest of the country.
We are of the view that the resolution of our conflict lies mainly
within two areas.
- Firstly, we recognize the need to build a pluralist, democratic
State, where the human rights, freedom and equal opportunity
for all will be guaranteed and practised.
- Then we undertake the actions required to achieve this. We
believe that the solution lies in seeking alternatives to the
concept of a monolithic, unitary state - to blend power with
principle, to reconcile authority with freedom. We are looking
at an extensive form of devolution of power, with a high level
of democratic participation in decision making, law making and
governance by the regional authorities or the devolved units.
We do not believe that the dismemberment of the Sri Lankan State,
demanded by the LTTE through the employment of terrorist means,
would in anyway be a solution to the Tamil peoples’ problems.
We are seeking a compromise that would satisfy the aspirations
of all the communities of peoples living within our state - a
compromise that would be democratic and pluralistic. The lack
of democracy and the denial and violation of fundamental rights
of the people living under the sway of the LTTE, adds substantially
to fears that a separate state would not lead to a resolution
of the problem.
But, this is not to deny the urgency of the need to resolve the
contradictions that have arisen between the State and the nationalist
consciousness of the Tamil community. We have to find means and
procedures to accord expression of this consciousness and to give
constitutional, legal and political authority.
So, our approach to resolving the conflict that has prevailed
in Sri Lanka for well-nigh two decades is a negotiated, political
solution to the problem, on the lines that I have enumerated here.
We do not believe in war
We have and we shall - do all that is required of a democratic
and responsible government to ensure that we do not return to
But here I must reiterate - we believe that peace is more than
the simple absence of war. It entails active engagement to identify
and rectify the root causes of conflict.
On the one hand, we have to address the problems of socio-economic
marginalization through an effective programme for poverty alleviation
and development. On the other, we have to formulate, in discussion
with the adversaries and representatives of our polity, new structures
and systems to satisfactorily meet the shortcomings and problems
faced by the Tamil community, whilst safeguarding the rights and
interests of all other communities.
Whilst we believe that peace has to be negotiated, we do not
believe in peace at any cost. We believe that the sovereignty,
the territorial integrity and security of the state must be safeguarded.
We believe in a just peace, which means not only the just rights
of one community or one group within that community, but the just
rights of all Tamil people, as much as all other citizens. We
believe in a democratic and pluralist polity that rests on the
bedrock of the Rule of Law and the guarantee of human rights in
every corner of the country. We believe in a just peace with democracy.
In order to achieve this we have now embarked upon a bold experiment
in Sri Lanka. We are engaging one of the world’s most ruthless
and anti-democratic organizations which employs violent terrorist
means, in a process of dialogue and negotiations in the search
for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
We have chosen this path because we believe in life, because
we believe in humanity; because we believe that even the most
unreasonable terrorist group or at least some of them, must sometime
reassume their humanity. We do not believe that any problem could
be resolved through the destruction of life, the protection of
which in the last count, is the only moral justification for the
existence of all human institutions, including the state.
We remain firmly committed to our concept of resolving conflict,
based on the assertion most socio-political conflicts (whether
they be expressed in ethnic, religious or other demands) have
their origins in some form of injustice and unequal treatment.
In the Sri Lankan case, my government was the first to publicly
accept that the Tamil people have undergone discriminatory and
unjust treatment by consecutive governments, although we do not
accept and cannot in anyway condone, the extreme responses of
one group claiming to represent the Tamil people. If the government
is to turn them away from this extremism, we believe that we must
begin with finding solutions to the main reasons that generated
Therefore, my government entered the process of negotiations
10 years ago, with a detailed proposal for extensive devolution
of power. After the LTTE refused to discuss it and went back to
war, we presented it to the Tamil people and the country in August
1995, then to a Select Committee of Parliament in 1997, where
it was extensively discussed for two and a half years, after which
the main opposition party refused to support it. The proposals
for devolution of power were presented in parliament by me in
August 2000 in the form of a new Constitution. We engage in a
process of intense dialogue with all parties represented in Parliament
and agreement reached on the text of the new constitution. The
Constitution could not be adopted due to the lack of a mere 7
votes to complete the requirement of a two-thirds majority in
Parliament. One opposition party once again refused to support
it. I wish to underline here that my government undertook this
arduous task as we are committed to the concept that the prime
responsibility lies with the state, to correct historic injustices
suffered by the Tamil minority community.
At every turn the LTTE has, refused to negotiate a lasting solution,
other than a separate State. The government accords priority to
negotiating a definitive solution first with the LTTE. But when
the LTTE repeatedly refused to engage on this issue, even though
they were ready sometimes to negotiate on others, the government’s
strategy was to place before the country, the legal and constitutional
framework of our proposals to resolve the conflict. This gives
to the LTTE and the country the advantage of being fully informed
of the government’s position with regard to the ultimate
resolution of the conflict.
I also appointed a Truth Commission to hear grievances from the
victims of the anti-Tamil attacks of 1983 and to recommend compensation
for them. I am told that this is a rare instance of a Truth Commission
being operative before a lasting solution is reached to a conflict.
As Head of State, I have also tendered a national apology for
the violence carried out against the Tamil people, in Black July
of 1983, by a small number of goons of the government of the day.
This, whilst the Sinhala people rose to the occasion all over
the country to protect their Tamil brethren.
As part of this strategy for peace building, we began 10 years
ago to address the issues that obstructed the return to normalcy
in the daily lives of the people in conflict areas, where the
LTTE also live and operate.
- The ban on the transport of certain essential goods was lifted
and restrictions were relaxes on fishing and other forms of
- After a period of more than a decade, development of the North
and East was recommenced and continued, even as the military
Thus, as you may note, our strategy of conflict resolution is
one which is rooted in the rational analysis and understanding
of the reasons that caused the Tamil problem also requires the
courage to declare honestly and clearly the acts of commission
and omission of the state in contributing to the exacerbation
of the problem, then employing the ultimate democratic means of
dialogue and negotiations with the adversary.
In this process, my government invited the Royal Norwegian Government
of Norway to act as facilitators of our peace efforts. Norway
has worked hard to assist the Government of Sri Lanka for 5½
years, achieving considerable success. We have a ceasefire, which
has lasted for 2½ years with some problems. It is the ceasefire
arrangement that has lasted the longest since the armed conflict
began 20 years ago.
We do not insist on prior disarmament. However, we do insist
on the LTTE’s acceptance of a solution that is not the dismemberment
of the State. In our scheme of things, disarmament must come when
the agreed solution to the conflict begins to be implemented.
The renunciation of violence is implicitly expressed in the Ceasefire
Agreement, reached between the government and LTTE in some clauses
of the Agreement. The renunciation of the demand for a separate
state is implicit in the LTTE’s agreement to explore a federal
solution within a united Sri Lanka. We would now like the LTTE
to make more explicit their commitment to these principles to
take the peace process forward.
- It is of interest to note that the LTTE has accepted for the
first time that government agencies undertake development programmes
for poverty alleviation and provision of basic infrastructure.
- A free movement of persons and goods is permitted for the
first time in 20 years. There is a general opening up of the
Northern Province, which operates at the physical as well as
These are the gains of the past few years in our process of conflict
resolution, but, we have experienced several setbacks. The LTTE
continues to eliminate all their democratic opponents. Child conscription
and illegal collection of tax continues.
For the first time in the 20 year long conflict, the LTTE presented
their demands formally 10 months ago - not for the definitive
resolution of the problem, but as they state, for an interim one.
The global spread of the phenomenon of terrorism has at last
sent a wake up call to the developed nations, to the problems
that the third world faced alone for many years. Terrorism may
outweigh nuclear proliferation as the most fundamentally dangerous
political phenomenon of our age. The international community must
continue to place the fight against terrorism and the resolution
of its causes on the top of its agenda.
The most powerful nations will also have to recognize that pursuit
of their interests – regional and international, will have
to occupy a back seat when searching for solutions to the conflicts
that are raging presently in some parts of the world. Conflict
resolution requires more than anything else – first, a deep
understanding of the causes of the conflict and then the political
will of the state and its people if we are to effect positive
change. Then we could persuade those who have taken up arms that
they could achieve dialogue, more than they could through terror
I need hardly tell you that in today’s greatly integrated
and globalized world, the policies and actions of one state, can
have multiple effects and influence on the affairs of another.
Our friends in the international community have played an important
role in assisting us with political support and funds, to move
forward the process of peace.
Our vision of Sri Lanka beyond conflict consists of addressing
the problems of poverty and development with the objective of
leading the country to become the growth centre of South Asia
and the financial and services hub of the region. We are confident
that we can achieve this objective when we consider the following
- we have maintained an annual economic growth rate of around
6 percent even during the period of armed conflict
- the advantages of our geo-strategic location vis-à-vis
the vast South Asian market of nearly 1.6 billion people
- the investment potential generated by the existing Free Trade
Agreement between India and Sri Lanka and other Agreements under
negotiation with several South Asian and South-east Asian countries
- the high levels of human resource development in Sri Lanka,
including our high literacy rate.
\We have formulated a comprehensive development plan, an important
part of which comprise the accelerated rehabilitation of the conflict
affected North and East in order to bring the population of those
areas into the economy as active partners in the development process.
In Sri Lanka we need strong and continued support from the International
Community and especially from our friends in the USA in the great
enterprise we have undertaken to graduate from poverty to development,
from armed conflict to democratic negotiations, from violence
and terrorism to mutual understanding, reconciliation leading
to a lasting resolution of the conflict.