Peace and Conflict

Interview with Austin Fernando, a Peacetime Secretary of Defence in Sri Lanka

Interview with Austin Fernando, former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and author of ‘My Belly is White: Reminiscences of a Peacetime Secretary of Defence‘.

Austin, disarmingly charming and humble, was Defence Secretary when the Prime Minister at the time, Ranil Wickremesinghe, signed the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002.

We speak on the challenges of peacebuilding, the hidden challenges of implementing the erstwhile Ceasefire Agreement, dealing with the media during a peace process, his thoughts on future negotiations with the LTTE, the state of the UNP today and other vital points related to war and peace in Sri Lanka raised in his book.

  • Sinthaamani

    A man with good heart, and shows remarkable empathy for the suffering. I find his personal demeanor humbling, and that his thoughts come from his heart. A few more Austins are what Sri Lanka needs to chart a peaceful path towards reconciliation…

  • CheeLanka

    Good interview. His belly may be white, but is his card green? I’m not talking about his party loyalty, which must have green (UNP) affinities, but about whether he has one foot in the USofA as the current Offence Secretary does…

  • punitham

    1.’Peace talks’ of the last twenty or so years failed because negotiation was not expected to be messy and the slightest glitch brought them to end because the negotiators did not have good negotiating skills because there was no real urge on the government side as a whole or the Sinhala masses to end the suffering of the ethnic minorities.Otherwise Rajapakse would have known that Chandrika signed a pact with Prabhakaran. If that was a lie he shoudn’t be the President of a country afflicted with one of the most intractable intrastate conflicts of our times. If that is not a lie that is more reason why he shouldn’t be the President.
    All the Sinhalese who knew about this kept quiet during the elctions? I want to see what happens between UNPers and SLFPers now that it is known to a few more.
    2.The fact that Sinhalese masses have been kept in the dark on so many matters has been greatly complicating the conflict to a large extent.- the press was hampered for several periods at crucial times. If only the Sinhalese masses knew a fraction of the mass killings by the Army in the last three decades?
    3. The author (let the cat out of the bag when he) said ‘no party can stay in power or come back to power if all what the LTTE asked for was granted’ without saying whether the demand was reasonable or not.
    4.The interview is an additional proof to the fact that it is the tug-of-war between the UNP and the SLFP that has been standing in the way of a solution.

  • .Nice man, typical senior civil servant, with a greenish yellow shirt or was it yellowish green ? Same difference. Reminds me of Ranjith Fernando’s Cricket commentary ! are they related ? Not suitable for the realm of defense. Ideal for the ministry of comparative religions. Our forces would not be sacrificing so many lives today if these people,departments and leaders had foresight, acumen and clear understanding of the saying ‘ Even though tigers change their forests they never change their stripes’. They messed it up, they were fooled lock stock and barrel by the LTTE and fortified them selves with the so called Tamil Air Force and Tamil Navy. Perhaps the politicians at the top had private agendas themselves

  • Bandulal Gunawardene

    I want say that Mr Austin Fernando may be humble and unasuming person.I can recall the days he was assuming as the defence secretary our armed services were starved of money,equipments,training and were not given the permission defend themselves.He with the priminister then with his henchmens initiated the so called peace treaty with LTTE given them uper hand wich ran amock in the civilised world creating defacto state inside Sri Lanka soliciting taxes/travel charges and so on.He was a failure of the administration in comparision with the current defence secretary

  • punitham

    45 years ago, B.H.Farmer(member of Ceylon Land Commission 1955-1958) in his book, Ceylon: A Divided Nation(1963): ‘’The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon…. But need it have been as violent as in fact it(Racial riots 1958) was? Constitutional safeguards might considerably have done something to control the violence of the communal dispute; though, since the Senanayake Government found a way of disenfranchising the Indian Tamils one is left to wonder what value other safeguards might have had in the event and in the Ceylon setting”.
    (C Suntharalingam was utterly ridiculed by Tamils for speaking about separation in 1965).

  • punitham

    Sinhalese folks,
    Show your audacity of courage to serve justice to ethnic minorities (ireespective of chances of coming back to power – ooops, that era is gone anyway)

  • Ajith

    Justice comes when those who point guns at us are willing to settle things humanely. Long as the LTTE blast Sri Lankan people into blood soaking ripped out flesh pieces at every public place – school, bus stop, market, etc. we cannot hope for peace. Evil thrives when good men do nothing.
    If you can’t understand the purpose of this war then you are not a real hopeful for lasting peace. If there is anything to take by this interview it is that we can’t build peace with the existence of the LTTE. Even after UNP stripped down its clothes in front of the LTTE and bent over they couldn’t achieve peace.

  • reka perera

    Unjust policies of oppressive governments are worse than guns to the oppressed. Many Sinhalese have no idea what that means. Many don’t even know what the occupying army has been doing in the last four decades in the Northeast.

    LTTE is not preventing Rajapakse from offering reasonable devolution of power to ethnic minorities. Unashamedly Rajapakse distanced himself from APRC proposal of devolution of early2007 and produced the most condemned proposal on 1 May2007.

    It is the very fact that we think that offering to explore federalism is stripping down our clothes that has been preventing us from serving the ethnic minorities justice for six decades.
    The present Eastern Provincial Council members are saying that they don’t have even the slight power they are supposed to have under the thirteenth amendment.

    The day may soon come when we have a Sinhalese leader as OUR ‘Obama’.

  • kichchi

    Point of View – The causes
    After the bestowing of independence in 1948 the relative peace that prevailed in Sri Lanka in the preceding century was steadily eroded. The process began with the introduction of the “Indian and Pakistan Citizenship Act” and the State sponsored colonization of predominant Tamil areas with Sinhalese “Island Reconvicted Criminals (IRC’s)” to weaken the political strength of the Tamils in those parts of the country by the UNP government of D.S.Senanayake and later the venting out of popular Singhalese umbrage against the Tamils by electing S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for his “Sinhala Only” (a policy of making Singhalese the sole official language) policy in 1956. The treachery of S.W.R.D with regard to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam Pact of 1957 amplified increasingly strained relations between the two races. These reached a boiling point in May 1958 when riots broke out in Colombo and the provinces; the most notable implication of these pogroms, besides the greater level of antagonism between the races, was that the Tamils began to lose confidence in the Government of Sri Lanka to safeguard them and treat them as equitable citizens. The primary reason was for five days (until the Indian High Commissioner intervened) the government had stood aside and had done nothing. This perception was intensified by the riots of 1977 (where the UNP government of J.R.Jayawardene failed to protect Tamils from Singhalese gangs with the words ‘War or Peace, you decide’, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library (a symbol of Tamil culture and an important repository of original texts relating to the origins of the Tamils).
    The role of standardization must not be forgotten; the Jaffna Tamils depended on education for economic advancement. The introduction of standardization in 1973 meant that Jaffna Tamils would lose their niche position in the Civil Service and private sector. In 1969, the Northern Province, which was largely populated by Tamils and comprised 7% of the population of the country, provided 27.5 percent of the entrants to science based courses in Sri Lankan universities. By 1974, this was reduced to 7% (through the ‘standardization handicap’ race). This is repeatedly cited as evidence of State discrimination against Tamils, and hence heavily contributed in undermining the Tamil’s confidence in the State.
    By 1983 the Tamils were treated as second-class citizens; their language not recognized, advancement in the civil service limited, discriminated against in terms of education and not protected by their State. Furthermore, they were considered aliens in their own land. This general perception was dominant at even the highest levels of government:
    “If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go back home (India) where there would be no discrimination. There are your kovils and Gods. There you have your culture, education, universities etc. There you are masters of your own fate”
    – Mr.W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.P. in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, July 1981
    This can be considered with ease as a lucid breach of the social contract; the Tamils then felt it their right to rebel and restore their rights. The Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 had firmly placed this restoration in terms of a separate sate. A guerilla movement emerged from those dissatisfied and brought the conflict into a new phase.
    One of the root causes of the ethnic issue is the feeling of inequality and oppression and for the ethnic conflict to be solved these must be dealt with; however this must be done within a framework considering the mutual hate and the deep rifts created in the last 25 years.
    A country deeply divided, over 100,000 dead, a generation (or two) lost, children brainwashed, hatred and above all fear. What can be done? The solution is simple yet concurrently complex. It is based on the cry of the French Revolution “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”; all ethnic groups must be treated as equals. How it is to be achieved? The solution lies in the creation of a modern liberal democratic structure that ensures the rights of all citizens are equally upheld. All citizens must be treated equally. A sense of national identity based on the principle of the nation state rather than ethnicity must be instilled and cultivated.
    On a practical level this means that the government should not consider the race of a person for any purpose e.g. the indication of race on national identification is unnecessary and counterproductive. Furthermore, the use of a common non-sectarian language (such as English) should be encouraged. In addition, a culture of principle and policy, not ethnicity, politics must be encouraged. A firm independent judiciary with power to enforce its decisions must be developed. Finally, the state must be secular, in order to prevent discrimination from that direction.
    For all of this to occur the legislative, constitutional, administrative and sociological change must occur. The burden lies on the average Sinhala voter (the majority) to elect a government that will ensure that all these goals are achieved. The perceptions of the Sinhala voter must be changed via education and exposure. Only when these goals are achieved and all ethnic groups feel they are equal citizens the “voice of strife” be dumb and only then will “we march to a mighty purpose”, the betterment of all our citizens, united as one.

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