Groundviews

Re-imagining Lakshman Kadirgamar in Contemporary Sri Lanka: A Different Reading

From 2003, Lakshman Kadirgamar addressing a press conference with the Mahinda Rajapaksa (before he was President) and Sarath Amunugama are also seen. Photo via Tamilnet.com

Ever since his brutal assassination in 2005, those of us who have admired Lakshman Kadirgamar have often imagined what Sri Lanka would have been like, had he remained at the helm of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy making. In this imagination, Kadirgamar re-appears as a hero, almost super-man like, to save us from the diplomatic ignominies that have struck Sri Lanka on the international stage. This is what our deep attachment to the man does. We had an idea as to how he operated, we know that the current operation looks hopeless, and in comes Kadirgamar who shakes up the system, makes it work, makes it look wonderful.

This sort of imagination has been well articulated by many of Kadirgamar’s admirers and friends in the recent past. Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka’s ‘In Remembrance of Lakshman Kadirgamar’ (Colombo Telegraph, 14 August 2012) is in this regard the most recent intervention; a timely, moving and excellent tribute to the former Foreign Minister. In it, Mr. Jayatilaka recreates in our minds a picture of what little Sri Lanka would have been like had Kadirgamar been alive and leading Sri Lanka’s foreign policy making. The spirit of this imagination and the substance of Mr. Jayatilaka’s argument are captured in his final paragraph:

I am of the opinion that Lakshman Kadirgamar would have helped us to navigate these tricky, shark infested and polluted waters had he yet been the undisputed helmsman of our international relations as he was in his day. He would have forestalled post-war external interventions and led Sri Lanka to an acceptable domestic resolution of our crisis by working with our moderate middle. He would undoubtedly have finessed at one and the same time the dangerous external challenge arising from the extreme diasporic Tamils and that emerging from the ultra-nationalist Sri Lankans at home. Lakshman Kadirgamar would have realized that the best and the morally correct way of neutralizing external threats to our country is by doing ourselves what needs to be done to build a reconciled and united Sri Lanka from the ashes of a horrifying internecine war that is now mercifully behind us.

To reiterate, many of us have often hoped this would have been the case. Not only have we hoped, we have asserted with greater certainty that that would have been the case. We had no doubt in our minds about Kadirgamar’s ability.

However, this kind of argument, this kind of imagination, has always intrigued me; or rather, with each passing day, it has begun to intrigue me more. The more we think about Kadirgamar and his imagined post-2005 (contemporary) role in Sri Lanka in this way, the less we think about the underlying political ideologies and approaches which are presently at work in Sri Lanka. And if we begin to think a bit more of this latter aspect, the more fantastic our imagination of Kadirgamar’s role begins to appear.

The question is: is this the only way in which we can imagine Kadirgamar? In imagining that Kadirgamar would have helped us navigate the troubled waters, what are we, perhaps unwittingly, implying about him, about the current regime, and about contemporary politics in general? I do propose that we have reached the stage that different scenarios need to be imagined to add some perspective to this often comforting picture we draw in our minds. Alternative readings are necessary. A re-imagination of sorts needs to take place, which throws us away from this comfort-zone which we often fall into, especially at times like this during the year when we remember more of that brilliant diplomat.

The setting 

In this particular re-imagination, Kadirgamar appears not necessarily as a great hero. I re-conceive him more as another human being; a man engaged in politics; a man who has his political and ideological ‘enemies’ (and of course, who is leading a Foreign Ministry which is fragmented); a man who is extremely ambitious, having political aspirations, and one who is therefore vulnerable as all ambitious men are; a man who has to engage in an ever-changing internal and external political environment, having to constantly readjust some of his views and approaches to suit changing circumstances; but of course, a man who retains his oratorical brilliance and sharpness of mind. He is also a man who has to work with a different leader, let us not forget.

Now, then, comes the other important aspect. In this re-imagination, I place great prominence on the power and popularity that the Rajapaksa-regime or rather the Rajapaksa-chintanaya holds over a majority of the people; a chintanaya which places particular importance on the defeat of the LTTE, and was always determined to defeat the LTTE come hell or high water. It is one which is ideological comfortable in placing greater emphasis on the aspect of defence and security (rather than foreign relations); one which cares little about principled foreign policy, and one which will use its envoys to promise many things to many people on the international stage without being committed to keep those political promises. It is also an ideology which is reluctant to devolve powers, which considers that the mighty defeat of the LTTE is precisely what was required to build a State which accorded with its ideology. This is not, to be sure, just one man’s ideology or policy. There is a strong, influential movement at work; a movement which, like the old priests that moulded and shaped ancient kings, moulds and shapes a leadership, having its own forms of checks and balances, having its own ‘plan As’ and ‘plan Bs’, etc. Also, in this re-imagination, our President appears not as someone who is always in agreement with Kadirgamar; but one who, given decades of political experience, given his own fierce political ambitions, is convinced that Kadirgamar, in his hands, is an effective political tool (something of a toy too, but a difficult one to handle). Kadirgamar knows this, and is therefore guarded.

The above, of course, refers to the bare basics of the setting I have in mind. But it is precisely such a setting which challenges us to re-think the kind of role the thinking and ideology of the current political leadership would have played, the kind of role that Kadirgamar would have had to play under this changed environment, and how this working relationship would have developed over time.

Such a re-imagination does not provide a comfortable narrative. This particular re-imagination entertains a far more fluid, uncertain state of affairs. It throws up a lot of questions, which challenge the underlying theme of our usual comforting imagination: i.e. Kadirgamar as a moderate, deeply principled, navigator who advices and guides a strong regime which is willing and able to listen to him, to learn from him, and act accordingly. Narrating an imagined story from 2005 to 2012 is unnecessary, but a few scenarios and aspects could be critically examined to show why the things could be different.

In this regard one can entertain, in broad terms, two different scenarios.

Scenario One: the graceful exit

With the above setting in mind, I do not see a grand progress-narrative taking shape; as many of Kadirgamar’s friends might imagine. In other words, had Kadirgamar been alive and had he been our Foreign Minister, I entertain the idea that the relationship between the two parties (Kadirgamar and the Rajapaksa-regime) would have been particularly tensed. I do not think there would have been an open confrontation, but there would have been a strong clash of ideologies and opinions. To say that this would not have been the case, to say that both parties would have, over time, entered into a harmonious working relationship, would have held hands together, sung the same song, etc, seems a bit too rosy. I am not confident that the present regime would have been too comfortable with someone of the caliber and stature of Kadirgamar at the helm of foreign relations. Such a regime which is ideologically geared to listen to or emulate someone like Kadirgamar would not, in my mind, act in the way it has done in the foreign relations sphere. The appointment of monitoring MPs (to oversee the Foreign Ministry?), the sacking of diplomats (even those who have been successful), are some of the factors which contribute to this lack of confidence. [Perhaps, in this regard, we need to take into account more seriously the question of whether Kadirgamar was actually interested in politics beyond 2005 in the first place; whether or not the very regime he served, that of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had dented his interest in politics.]

Under such circumstances, we cannot conveniently imagine the very presence of Kadirgamar in politics. Rather we would need to perhaps re-imagine Kadirgamar as a politician who had lost faith in domestic politics or one who was now ready to quit gracefully. When such an opportunity might have arrived one does not clearly know, but it would be important for those who still imagine him as a possible saviour to take note of whether he would have, for example, stood silent when something like the 18th Amendment was passed in Parliament.

Scenario two: between strained relations and capitulation

If the above scenario of bowing out gracefully is too cold (or kills poetry), we can imagine another scenario: which is not that of Kadirgamar prevailing over the Rajapaksa regime, but rather a regime prevailing over Kadirgamar (because all this time, our imagination painted only one picture: of a government coming to accept his views, which, to me, is a bit fantastic). It is also a scenario wherein Kadirgamar would not always appear as the more refined diplomat who is engaged in ‘silent’ diplomacy alone. A few critical aspects would suggest why things would have been far more complicated than we would have imagined.

One: political and diplomatic confrontation

We always had a certain bias towards Kadirgamar, in that we often believed that his kind of politics was not necessarily aggressive; that he was more into ‘silent’ diplomacy, etc. And whenever he seemed to have crossed the line, we interpreted that as a more measured or elegant intervention. To prove our point, we generally refer to his famous and brilliant BBC Hard Talk interview, with Zeinab Badawi. But I don’t think this is an accurate reading. Kadirgamar always had that potential of being less-diplomatic than we wanted him to be, and if we are to re-imagine Kadirgamar as Foreign Minister during the last stages of the war, this perception about Kadirgamar engaged in ‘silent’ diplomacy would need to be set aside. Why?

As mentioned before, Kadirgamar did have his political and other opponents. That this was the case was clear even in his BBC interview when he suggested that the word ‘independent’ should come within inverted commas! (This was in response to Badawi’s characterization of Jehan Perera as an independent observer). There was, here, undoubtedly, a particularly elegant way of putting it, but given a domestic audience, in the heat of battle, during last stages of the war (in 2008-2009), with accusations piling one after another, I do not think that the same kind of measured and diplomatic response could have been expected. And I say this not because such responses are always necessary; rather, because we often think that that would have been the way that Kadirgamar, unlike others, would have handled the situation. [In addition, had Kadirgamar been part of the Government, we could not have always expected him to be in agreement with a group like the Friday Forum!]

This is also not to suggest that Kadirgamar would have gone berserk. Certainly not. But I think we should not believe too strongly that all responses under all situations would have been always diplomatic. But I fail to notice Kadirgamar’s friends taking into critical note the above kind of politics and its impact on Kadirgamar’s responses; especially under challenging domestic circumstances. After all, we also cannot forget instances when he was extremely critical of the UN; he once was reported to have stated that the UN would do better looking into malaria and mosquitoes than domestic issues! (‘Sri Lanka raps UN comment’, BBC, Sep. 27, 1999). How then are we to read such comments? And why are such comments uncritically accepted as measured, moderate or elegant?

This, in turn, tells me that even though there is much to be desired in what some of our diplomats write and say, Kadirgamar would not have been overly unsettled with the diplomatic approach adopted, for example, by someone like Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka in Geneva. In fact, I do not see any significant difference between the broader outlines of Kadirgamar’s foreign policy approach and the approach of, say, Ambassador Jayatilleka. Of course, I do not deny that Kadirgamar would have had greater control over his diplomats and what they said. But I am somewhat unconvinced about the argument that Kadirgamar’s was largely an approach of ‘silent’ diplomacy and not of ‘mega-phone’ diplomacy, whatever those two terms actually mean. I believe there was a healthy mix of both which we, given our love of hating those who engage in ‘mega-phone’ diplomacy, would not readily admit!

In sum, all I am stating is that we cannot be overly confident of the tone and tenor of Kadirgamar’s approach in a situation such as the one Sri Lanka faced in 2008-2009.

Two: accountability

Given the intensity of the war, and the seriousness of the allegations raised, I doubt if Kadirgamar could have been influential and prevailed over the President, the Defence Secretary, the Armed Forces etc. in initiating a domestic investigation. Kadirgamar would have been obviously mindful of the legal-political implications of advocating the need for an investigation of its own forces and politicians soon after the war (knowing especially his strong critique of the LTTE as well). And let’s not forget that the above comment about malaria and mosquitoes was directed at the UN when the UN raised an accusation concerning civilian deaths.

Of course, we know of Kadirgamar’s commitment to investigations, inquiries and even international mechanisms; a commitment which was well demonstrated when he was the driving force behind Sri Lanka’s accession to the ICCPR Optional Protocol (another interesting question here is: would the former CJ Sarath N. Silva given his infamous judgment in the Sinharasa case the way he did, had Kadirgamar been alive?!). But without pushing for an investigation, Kadirgamar would have perhaps influenced the speedy establishment of a mechanism like the LLRC. He would have also tried to influence someone like Judge CG Weeramantry, a close friend of Kadirgamar, to lead such a process (which I tend to think might have ultimately failed, given the latter’s reluctance to comment on domestic affairs and be part of domestic commissions which ultimately turn out to be useless initiatives shot down by disgruntled politicians).

But for swift action of this nature, Kadirgamar would have needed some strong support from within: and most importantly, for Kadirgamar to sustain his political life within the establishment, such a policy should have been a policy shared by the political leadership, and not one which would have been seen to be imposed either due to foreign pressure or because one man, Kadirgamar, wanted it to happen. If then, Kadirgamar’s task would have been far more difficult than one could imagine.

Therefore, rather than great progress being made, I see far more controversy which would have either cornered Kadirgamar within the establishment leading to a cold war within, or capitulation on the part of Kadirgamar who finally ends up defending the regime to the hilt as he would have had to, being the foreign minister of the country. If not, there was always that option: exit.

Three: devolution

Also, what would have been Kadirgamar’s position regarding political power-sharing? Of course, we have no doubt that Kadirgamar was for peace. But then, you cannot find anyone against peace either. Of course, we have no doubt that Kadirgamar (and we have often quoted him on this) was a supporter of the 2000 Constitutional Bill. But could he have advocated or seen to have been advocating such a pro-devolutionary stance, serving the Rajapaksa-government, before the end of the war or post-war? We have already witnessed the sacking of our former Ambassador to Geneva precisely on this point: and one factor that led to this was the seriousness with which Ambassador Jayatilleka’s opinion on devolution, especially when articulated as a serving diplomat, was regarded by the diplomatic/international community. So, imagine the scenario of one Minister Kadirgamar advocating such a pro-devolutionary stance. How much more strongly then the advocacy of devolution by a leading minister such as Kadirgamar have been? And how more strongly would it have been felt by a regime reluctant to devolve powers in the first place? These, I believe, are critical questions that need to be thought of more seriously when remembering Kadirgamar and the imagined role he would have played.

Here again, there could have been a serious cold-war within the establishment. For example, this would have provided a fantastic setting for a Kadirgamar vs. Sinhala nationalist battle on the issue of devolution. Just like the debate in May 2009, I believe we would have witnessed a serious fragmentation in the pro-war camp: a camp which always consisted of those supporting war, but those supporting and opposing devolution as well. And if such was the nature of the battle, then to imagine that Kadirgamar would have triumphed over Sinhala nationalism, or that Sinhala nationalist would, after very careful and kind consideration, have suddenly believed that devolution is the way out would have been remarkable, to say the least. Kadirgamar would have certainly worked with the moderate elements: but what that ‘moderate’ element always stood for, or what kind of influence such ‘moderate’ forces have is a matter of speculation. I would even entertain the scenario whereby Kadirgamar might have had to face (and this might have come as a surprise to him) the fiercest and the most brutal political assault he would have faced; now that his views were expressed in a post-war setting.

It is important here to remember that Kadirgamar’s position, say in 2009-12, is not the one he was in when he defended the 2000 Constitution Bill. In the latter case, Kadirgamar was articulating not only his personal view but also the government’s position (in broad terms) and that of his leader, President Kumaratunga. Under our new scenario, his would not be the mainstream view within the establishment. In such a case, I do not see how Kadirgamar could have held on to his views on devolution under a significantly changed political environment.

This leaves us with two unhappy scenarios of course: a silent Kadirgamar; or one who now would need to alter his views to suit those of the regime, to soften his views about the liberating potential of devolution, etc. The remarkable quality of Kadirgamar was, I believe, that he seems to have been an extremely flexible character, which meant that his views on devolution would have been broad enough to such an extent that that very broadness would have given him the space to articulate his views differently. This seems to be clear even from his personal interactions: while he was not a Tamil nationalist, he had the strongest respect for the founding fathers of the Tamil Federal party; while he was not against devolution, he worked closely and had the greatest respect for someone like HL de Silva, PC, who, as we know, was one of the most intelligent critics of significant devolution of powers. Within such a context, what ‘moderate’ handling amounts to is questionable.

Therefore, when taking into account these different dimensions, I do not think one can easily arrive at a conclusion as to what Kadirgamar’s final approach to devolution would have been. He would have been also mindful of the developments within certain segments of the Tamil diaspora. The political context, which does play a crucial role, would have been uppermost in the mind of Kadirgamar. And how Kadirgamar would have felt the weight of the problem would have depended, inter alia, on his own political ambitions and attitudes as well.

In search of a conclusion

The death of Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005 was a shattering experience. Many of his friends and followers had begun to admire a particular way in which Kadirgamar operated in this world; as a lawyer, as a politician, as a diplomat, as an orator, as a critic of the LTTE, as a proud representative of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. It is perhaps this mode of operation as a whole that we tend to miss today. But what we often forget is that to operate as he did, there were myriad factors that had to come together; the political leadership, its ideological leanings, the status of internal and external politics, the independence afforded to Kadirgamar, etc. So whenever one imagines Kadirgamar, one needs to always remember this broader political framework and environment within which he operated. And where there is a different framework, a different ideology, a different set of circumstances at play, a politician’s operation, his approach, his arguments, his strategies are always subject to modification and change.

If then, I believe that so far, our imagination of Kadirgamar has been unable to take into account this underlying political framework into account. The more we think somewhat broadly, the more alternatives we are able to find that challenge our often comforting imagination of Kadirgamar has a smooth contemporary navigator leading us from darkness to light. Whenever the story is too rosy, critical re-imagination is called for. And the more critically we re-imagine, the darker the picture gets and perhaps a tad more realistic too. In our new re-imagination, Kadirgamar now appears as a politician who, like many others, has his own personal and political ambitions and prejudices; or, he appears as yet another intelligent but fierce political operator; or, for example, as one who could have told the UN and other individuals and groups where to get off in more forthright and less-diplomatic terms; or, as a politician who is constrained politically and is made to take decisions and adopt approaches that he may not have endorsed under different circumstances.

A cold and discomforting picture, as the one I have painted above, would have left an upsetting impression about Kadirgamar in our minds. Had he been alive and engaged in politics, we might have (who knows?) begun to love him less. There is great uncertainty here, and one cannot be sure of anything. But it is precisely at this point then that our re-imagination of this dark and gloomy picture stops and helps us to give a different reading to Kadirgamar’s death. It is a reading which would tell us that bullets do kill, but so does time: and had he lived long, time would have intervened in dubious ways leaving us with a confused picture of Kadirgamar. If then, before time could have ‘killed’ him, the bullet did it. In fact, before time could have ‘killed’ him, the bullet seems to have ‘saved’ him. This sounds indecent, but it is another way of moving on.

Kadirgamar’s death, let there be no doubt, will continue to be a great tragedy. There was much that we could have learnt from him. But a re-imagination of the difficulties Kadirgamar would have faced helps to remind ourselves about the difficulties we face today. That is why to continue to believe that Kadirgamar would have been the answer to many of our problems (diplomatic, political, etc.) is to delude ourselves, to belittle the gravity of the problems we confront today. Kadirgamar’s death, in the broader canvass, is then a death which should wake us up from our slumber and remind us of how pathetic we look at times without him. It is a death which reminds us that while there is much to learn from Kadirgamar, it does not necessarily mean that he could have been a saviour. Rather, the time had come to remind ourselves of the here and now, and most importantly, that there is no one to save us but ourselves. Our comforting foundation had been unsettled; we had now entered that uncertain post-foundational stage. It exposed our weaknesses, our inabilities, our poverty, unlike before. This is good, for now there is no banner named ‘Lakshman Kadirgamar’ behind which we can continue to hide our rotting nakedness.

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Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy, The New Yorker and the New York Times. This section, inspired by Longreads, offers more in-depth deliberation on key issues covered on Groundviews