Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Foreign Relations, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Interrogating a public intellectual: Noted bloggers and youth activists engage Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

[Editors note: Beyond Borders, as part of a discussion series aimed at connecting youth activists with key opinion  and decision makers, organised a discussion with Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka on 8 October 2009. Around 25 young people interested in politics participated in the discussion. Well-known bloggers Aachcharya, Negligible Minoritist and SP who were present share some reflections on Dayan.]

Judging Public Intellectuals by Aachcharya

It is impossible not to be swayed by Dayan’s display of intellect. The way he answered  questions was exemplary, being able to quote from very ‘high theory’ and then engage with us the very next minute in some very good ‘common sense’ but vivid and sharp analysis, replete with anecdotes, a quality I must say, is in the dying in our intellectual tradition.

I asked Dayan a very lengthy question with primarily two limbs 1) the role of public intellectuals and the choices that they make regarding direct, mainstream political engagement 2) his prescription for Tamil politics (I asked him rhetorically: what would he say if he after twenty years is invited to lecture at the Jaffna University). I shall reflect only on the first one here and save the second for sometime later.


Dayan explained his alignment with Rajapaksa and earlier with Premadasa as justified because he thought the greater evil of the LTTE and JVP had to be wiped out. He argued that the Sri Lankan state offered always a ‘minimum democratic space’ which these two actors never were able to provide and for the oppressive politics that LTTE and JVP practiced they just had to go was his argument. He compared his engagement with the GoSL as something close to Kethesh Loganathan’s decision to join the Peace Secretariat.  He was careful to point out, as he has done in the past (see for example his interview with the Groundviews editor given shortly before his departure from Geneva) that he did not defend what he thought he could not associate with – some of the atrocities committed by this regime, like for example the Trinco five killings. He maintains that there was no willful targeting of civilians during the final war (which I am not sure) and that to have defended Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council was right because the resolutions brought by the West was not about things like the Trinco five but about war crimes which Dayan wants to believe did not happen. (This question of how to be ‘anti-imperialist’ and at the same time ‘anti-statist’ in a third world country is a pretty fascinating debate. Can you be unhappy about the West for its double standards and still agree with the content of their accusations of what they say are wrong with Sri Lanka? I think you can.) He told us that this was not him disassociating with the Rajapaksha regime and in an abstract sense said part of the decision to engage and take sides is also the readiness to take the moral guilt that comes with association. I am not sure however what moral guilt that Dayan is prepared to share with this regime. At this point I asked him about the process of disassociating as justifying any engagement including the Late Dharmeratnam Sivaram’s (Taraki’s) engagement with the LTTE. Could not then Sivaram argue that he never sided with the LTTE on all what was bad about them but only aligned with them because he believed in the importance of the struggle and chose to ignore the mistakes of the LTTE?

Sivaram is quoted by Mark Whittaker his biographer as having said:

“Let history judge.. to all these people I ask do you sell off your mother because your brother has cut off your arm? Because your brother is a scoundrel? So are we just going to say that the LTTE is a static thing, that it is fascist and that it killed a lot of people. Yes it killed a lot of people… I don’t care a f*** being called an LTTE apologist.. Because I am fighting another war – my war. .. This problem has nothing to do with the LTTE. It started long before there was a LTTE in the 1950s, when Prabaharan was a f***ing kid…If the LTTE was not there we would all be f**ed. At the end of the day that is why the Tamils do not want the LTTE gone. Because we know what the Sri Lankan state has done… So you have to make practical choices – that this is your own man, was a brother once, so you try to reform him. And it is not just him who is the problem”

(See Mark P Whitaker, ‘Learning Politics from Sivaram: The life and death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka’, Pluto Press, London (2007), pp. 216-7)

Dayan at the discussion referred to an article in which he was quoted, written by Philip Gourevitch for the New Yorker,

“Rather than blaming the dead journalist for failing to denounce the crimes of his side, Jayatilleka said, the Sinhalese should ask themselves what offenses they have chosen to ignore. He posed as “the final question” of his friend’s life a conundrum that belongs equally to every side in every ethnic-nationalist conflict on earth: “Had we been Tamil, are we sure we would not have been Sivarams?”

(available here)

I am very happy that Dayan acknowledges this difficulty – that choices of engagement by public intellectuals are not divorced from considerations like ethnicity. But I think Dayan argued (if I understood him properly) despite all of this that Sivaram’s choice of supporting the LTTE was a wrong one.

I understand that the choice of side for political engagement that one makes can never be satisfactory. While I don’t blame people for non engagement for the reason that they do not want to be associated with any sort of guilt, I respect people who make the decision to do so and get their hands dirty. This paragraph from Edward Said which is from a speech that he delivered n the subject of public intellectuals says so much about the difficulty of taking sides:

“..Just as history is never over or complete it is also the case that some dialectical oppositions are not reconcilable, not transcendable, not really capable of being folded into a sort of higher, undoubtedly nobler synthesis. The example closest to home for me is the struggle over Palestine which, I have always believed, cannot really be simply resolved by a technical and ultimately janitorial re-arrangement of geography allowing dispossessed Palestinians the right (such as it is) to live in about 20% of their land that would be encircled and totally dependent on Israel. Nor on the other hand would it be morally acceptable to demand that Israelis should retreat from the whole of former Palestine, now Israel, becoming refugees like Palestinians all over again. No matter how I have searched for a resolution to this impasse, I cannot find one for this is not a facile case of right versus right. It cannot be right ever to deprive an entire people of their land and heritage. But the Jews too are what I have called a community of suffering and brought with them a heritage of great tragedy. But unlike Zeev Sternhell, I cannot agree that the conquest of Palestine was a necessary conquest. The notion offends the sense of real Palestinian pain, in its own way also tragic.”

Edward Said, “Public role of Writers and Intellectuals’, Alfred Deakin Memorial Lecture, 19 May 2001 available at

Given this complexity that Said so vividly explains how does one then pick and choose a side? I think we need people who will not pick sides and will make contributions that will help us see politics beyond what the different sides show us. I also think it is important that there are people who choose one or the other side and work towards transforming it. But the emphasis is engagement and the picking of one side should help transform the other side. Did Dayan and Sivaram do this is the question? How much of criticism did Sivaram make of the LTTE at least internally? Is Dayan with the demise of the LTTE now prepared to take on this Government for all what it is wrong about it, at least in the post war scenario?


The Dayan Paradox by Negligible Minoritist

Listening to Dr Jayatileka speak is always an interesting experience. He seems to me to be one of the few people who are able to articulate many of the grand political theories in a way that most people can understand them. Part of this I feel is due to a truly gifted capacity for rationalization that Dr. Jayatileka brings out in his presentations and analyses. However while I see why he would chose to rationalize the decisions he has made over time in this way, I feel that they are built on a fundamentally flawed premise – that the elimination of the LTTE (and the JVP) alone will signal a new dawning and a new phase of inclusive power relationships. It is perhaps pertinent to consider what has become of the Left following the decimation of the JVP by Premadasa and I wonder how Dr. Jayatileka’s socialist sympathies have reconciled itself to the kind of lunatic fringe that the Left in general has now been reduced to. What I mean to say is that while the decimation of JVP no doubt stopped the bloodletting (and indeed I too have issues with the way in which the JVP went about their revolutionary agenda) in the long term the decimation of the JVP has hurt the left more than it has helped it. Furthermore the political ideology of the JVP, in spite of its decimation of the movement, there appears to be very little that has changed in their rhetoric or their outlook.  This suggests to me that things with the LTTE are not going to be that different in the long term and while I am sure it would please the regime no end, I believe that as a polity we are only poorer for it (a Tamil nationalist movement that is like the Left of today).  My reasons for saying this is not because I am sympathetic either to the LTTE or to the JVP but rather because the lesson history has taught me is that when this kind of decimation takes place, the entire broader political movement that it is a part of also struggles for breath and flops around like a fish out of water and is eventually lumped together with the fringe lunatics of the political spectrum. This is not necessarily (in my opinion) a change for the better as it robs us of those alternative voices that serve at least at some level as reminders of what is very wrong with our society – the intolerance of minorities and the unequal distribution of wealth. In a situation such as this Aachcharya’s comments and the questions that he raises about the role of the public intellectual in this article take on immense significance.

Much was said and much was spoken about but what struck me most about that evening was the realization of the kind of paradox that Dayan embodies. On the way home today I saw a billboard with Dayan’s photo on it, showering praise on him for the coup –de’etat he and the rest of the Sri Lankan delegation pulled off in Geneva. Now no doubt Dayan is “bloody proud” of that achievement but it seems a bit strange to hear him now make critical noises about the government. As someone who was directly involved in establishing and stabilizing the current regime and government (for whatever purpose), Dr. Jayatilaka cannot escape the blood that he has on his hands of not just the innocent Tamil civilians but also the many lives of soldiers from the South who were killed, injured and lost due to the war. However, I also realize that if he had not been so intimately involved with the regime, the criticism he now makes would not be as resounding as it is. So this then is the paradox Dayan embodies – and in spite of his powers of persuasion and rationalization I feel it is still not one he has fully resolved it for himself either.


A Discussion with Dayan Jayatilleka: Random Thoughts by SP

Even to his critics, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is an impressive man. A political scientist by training and a public intellectual, Dayan served as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva till recent. His role in warding off “international intervention” is widely known. Dayan was the only war-time Sri Lankan government official easily accessible to the public. Despite heavy criticism, he never fought shy of debate but instead chose to actively engage his more constructive critics on Groundviews.

I have long believed that Dayan was the architect of Sri Lanka’s controversial war-time foreign policy. Grounded strongly in the tenets of non-alignment, his thinking endeared him to the Eastern and African blocs though some would argue, isolated him from the West. But on foreign policy, Dayan is a realist. So as far as preserving state sovereignty and crushing the LTTE were concerned, his work in Geneva was in line with the national interest.

On the domestic front, he was among the foremost advocates of the present Eastern model where Pillayan was installed Chief Minister of a once embattled province. He has often cited what he calls the Chechen model where Kremlin-backed former rebel commander Ramzan Kadyrov was installed President of Chechnya. To me, the Chechen model itself is deeply problematic. Kadyrov presides over a regime which stands accused of the murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, among others, showing clearly that it has no tolerance of dissent. The Kremlin for its part has not batted an eyelid. In Sri Lanka’s East, a spate of ransom killings and apparent cover-up operations by the police have severely discredited Pillayan’s provincial government and with good reason. With the East touted as a model for the North, one must be wary of a similar fate there.

But Dayan is a man of deep conviction. There’s never a time he presents an argument that is not carefully reasoned. Unlike others in the Administration, Dayan won the respect of his critics for his deep intellect, ability to engage and to reason. He is a firm believer in a political solution to the national question and has long advocated devolution above and beyond the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. His consistent argument has been that in order to devolve beyond the Thirteenth, one must first implement the Thirteenth. In other words, in order to make new laws, one must first implement existing laws.

From Geneva, Dayan vociferously argued that support for Sri Lanka’s counter-resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (that was adopted in place of the harsher resolution sponsored by the West) was dependent on Colombo’s display of goodwill towards its Tamil people. In other words, he reasoned that the national question required a political solution through the devolution of power to majority Tamil areas and that Colombo was duty-bound to fulfill this. He argued that support from the Asian (including India) and African blocs in Geneva was conditional upon such a solution and pushed Colombo to move towards this. Indeed, this cost him his job. To date, the Rajapaksa Administration has shown no clear signs of such intentions. It militarises the north and speaks of another ‘mandate’ to act, dousing out its own promises to overhaul the system.

Dayan’s dismissal brought forth a flurry of prophesied declarations from his critics, while some even said it served him right. Was Dayan then also a victim of the system that he had once fought so hard to overhaul? Meeting Dayan at a recent Beyond Borders meeting shed some light on the man and his motivations.

From the very beginning, Dayan was a deep thinker. He spoke of a bookish past during his days at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. He was exposed to the international perspective by his father, renowned journalist Mervyn de Silva. His recognition of oppression and general injustice started from a very early age. He spoke of his sympathy for Leftist politics and his belief in the revolutionary cause of the JVP. He told a group of us how he waved from his middle class Ward Place residence as incarcerated JVP ‘comrades’ were driven by in a prison van. So, revolutionary Marxism found its way into Dayan’s mind quite early in life. But ever the maverick, Dayan had his own ideas on how the cause should be pursued. He recalled how he attended JVP meetings but often argued with Rohana Wijeweera about the necessary course that the struggle should take.

Dayan is an intellectual and a revolutionary who tried to reform the system. When the EPRLF formed a provincial administration in 1988 in the then merged Northeast, Dayan was a provincial minister. He was also a journalist and wrote of ideas that he thought would reshape the system. But when Ranasinghe Premadasa became President in 1989, Dayan backed Premadasa for his ‘progressive’ qualities. Perhaps these were similar to what he once saw in Rajapaksa. Perhaps he also saw himself as a potential architect of a foreign policy that could fight the fascist LTTE on the international theatre and help bring peace. In this respect, he succeeded without doubt. But did he also see himself as one who could ensnare the regime in an international net so devolution could be implemented at last? Was it worth the effort?

For all the criticism, Dayan Jayatilleka is a great public intellectual and a very interesting man. Thank you Beyond Borders for the opportunity to meet him. For whatever it is worth, one hopes future regimes will not miss out on such a human resource that the country would do well to call on again to reshape the policy process in the undetermined future. Dayan, thank you for the talk.