Ampara, Batticaloa, Foreign Relations, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Trincomalee, Vavuniya, War Crimes


When faced with challenging human rights and humanitarian law issues who should we seek out for advice but a celebrated former Vice President of the International Court of Justice? Faced with the task of peace building after a Thirty Years war, to whom should we turn to spearhead a state-aided national effort, or at the very least, for ideas and guidance, but the sole Sri Lankan to win the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education? If the Sri Lankan state and society have done neither, what does that say about us, where we are at and where we are headed?

One of the more refined gratifications in my life is the friendship of a few renowned intellectuals like Richard Falk, Emeritus Professor of International Law and Policy at Princeton, and the occasional receipt from him of work in progress. The other day’s email contained three scintillating draft essays, two of which I have finished reading and one that I have commented on.  This time however, what is a guaranteed treat also gave me cause for sorrow. A closely and creatively argued piece on Threat Diplomacy contained an important segment on the World Court’s judgment on nuclear weapons and war, and made several references to Justice Weeramantry’s dissenting judgment.  I had known from conversations that Richard Falk had known and liked CG Weeramantry from encounters when they were much younger, but I felt a twinge of sadness that so fine a mind as to be acknowledged by so renowned an intellectual (almost a sage) as Prof Falk, has not, as far as I know, been consulted by the Sri Lankan leadership at a time that the Sri Lankan state is and has been facing complex challenges of international law. This is so despite several recommendations by me to that effect to the highest authorities, and prompt assent which was never followed up or implemented.

A prophet is without honour only in his own land, says the Bible, and this is true of Judge Weeramantry, whose stances, when taken together, constitute a principled and distinctly ethical ontology: anti-terrorist (Lockerbie), anti-nuclear war (dissenting judgment of ’96), pro-sovereignty and international law (critiques of NATO Kosovo bombing, Iraq War), pro-human rights (definitive three volume work) and inter-ethnic, multi-religious peace-building (UNESCO prize, Weeramantry foundation).  We have therefore, the best stance for Sri Lankan ‘being in the world’, what I choose to call (given their close friendship and intellectual congruency) the Kadirgamar-Weeramantry outlook, approach or model. We also have at least two paradigmatic choices for Sri Lankan engagement with the world order: Weeramantry or Weerawansa?

What pains me most is not that the Sri Lankan state has not availed itself of the counsel of Judge Weeramantry, but that it has gone in precisely the opposite direction of the counsel he has publicly given. It has ignored and contradicted the wisdom of this sagacious man on matter of the greatest national importance for this and future generations of Sri Lankans. In the post-war year, Sri Lanka has proceeded far more in consonance with the narrow views of raucous lawyer-ideologues than with the counsel of that greatest of Sri Lankan jurists.

Shortly after the victory over the Tigers last year, Judge Weeramantry wrote a two part essay which I read in the Daily Mirror.  He advised us that we were at a crucial turning point, and brought to our attention the lessons of history as represented by two contradictory models of post war policy architecture, which brought two enormously varying sets of consequences. The first was in the aftermath of World War I, when a punitive ‘victors peace’, the Treaty of Versailles, was designed and imposed on defeated Germany. The result ten years later was the emergence of fascism, in fifteen its triumph and in twenty a terrible new war. The second model was the post World War II peace. Though the destruction of Germany and Japan were the most awful (and in the latter case, unprecedented in human history), these two states became peaceful and firm partners of the Western alliance thanks to a generous and far sighted policy, based on the recognition of the mistakes committed after the First World War. The Marshall Plan and the creation of a free, prosperous liberal society with political freedom permanently pacified these countries and turned their citizens into firm partners of the West. This was the cement of the security alliances, pacts and network of bases that locked these areas firmly into the Western strategic architecture.

Judge Weeramantry warned us explicitly against the Versailles spirit and a ‘victor’s peace’, and urged us to adopt the post WWII model of sensitivity, liberalism, generosity, political freedom and alliance building. But have we done so? Are we doing so? Or are we heading in exactly the opposite direction?

In a critical review of my first book, Prof AJ Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick and son-in law of SJV Chelvanayagam, kindly ventured the opinion that “Dayan… is perhaps the last liberal thinker among the Sinhalese” (Sunday Island, March 23, 1997, p14, 16). If I am a ‘liberal thinker’ then I am a liberal Realist who supports the establishment of a sufficient and permanent Sri Lankan military presence on state land in the North and East. However, I am also wary of the establishment of permanent housing for military families and the acquisition of privately owned land for that purpose.

The reason for my support and opposition is security of the state and society. Sri Lanka is one country and the state has every right to establish armed encampments and deploy its armed forces wherever it sees fit. I have no problem with the exercise of that right. Yet, just as every other right it must be exercised prudently, because the unity of Sri Lanka as a single country is not the only aspect of Sri Lanka’s reality that must be taken into account. Ours is also a multiethnic country with a historically evolved and stable ethno-demography. The Tamils consider the Northern Province as their ancestral lands, the land of their grandfathers and great grandfathers.  I have met seventh generation Malaysian Tamils who are emotionally attached to Kokuvil as their native place, where their roots run back to.

The establishment of a strong military presence is necessary because the state and the citizenry can no longer be suckered. The Sri Lankan state must internalise the military lessons of all the wars it has had to fight in the North East and deploy troops in a manner that the area is strategically as impregnable as is possible to render it. The Sri Lankan military deployments in the North and East must never be vulnerable again, militarily or logistically. They must be capable of safeguarding our outer borders as well as preventing/pre-empting terrorism and low intensity insurgency.

The Sri Lankan military configuration in the North and East must be capable of deterring or fighting and winning future wars. But it must not be the cause or catalyst for future conflict.  That would be self-defeating because it would not enhance national security; it would undermine it.

Had Sri Lanka either been bereft of an internal ethno-national question (the Tamil question)  or had the Sri Lankan military been multiethnic in composition,  the acquisition of private land for high security zones and permanent housing for military families would not have been so serious a problem.  We are dealing with the reality of a mono-ethnic, monolingual, mono-religious military establishing permanent housing for their families in a differently mono-ethnic area with a high degree of sub-nationalist consciousness.

There would be those who argue that a mono-ethnic army was able, against all expectation, to win a war against terrorism and separatism on the home turf of the insurgents. This is not strictly true. The achievement of the Sri Lankan armed forces was both greater than that and different from it.  The Sri Lankan army defeated a rival secessionist army, a powerful militia, not a guerrilla insurgency or terrorist network. The Tigers had long outgrown those stages and hypertrophied to the socio-politically unsustainable level of a parallel armed force, fighting a quasi-conventional war.

Today, the state must deploy the armed forces in the North and East in a manner that deters and prevents future conflict and rather than sows the seeds for it, either in the forms of terrorism, guerrilla cells or unarmed civic resistance. The establishment of permanent military bases strictly within state (‘Crown’) land is doubtless imperative to guarantee the first objective, but the acquisition of private land and the settlement of military families could trigger the latter. The permanent settlement of military families means places of religious worship, schools, shops, cinemas, services, etc, and the first sign of protest would also mean widening the zone, narrowing access to the civilians of the area, perhaps new access roads and the proliferation of checkpoints. This may seem an excellent method of population mixing, but that works as a method o conflict transformation only if population movement is as a result of natural economic factors, not unilateral state policy.  The Tamils in Wellawatte were not brought there as part of state policy.

These ideas for the North and East are not new—and nor is the critique. A read through the Lanka Guardian and The Island’s ‘Kautilya’ column of the 1980s would show the repeated warnings by Mervyn de Silva, who was, among other things, widely acknowledged as the country’s leading expert on Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, about the ideas of a wing of the JR Jayewardene government of the time. These ideas, identified with then Minister of National Security but also shared by the President’s son and security advisor Ravi Jayewardene, located in and derived from an irrelevant external matrix, were dangerously inapplicable to Sri Lanka, would worsen the ethnic problem and generate a backlash from the regional power, warned my father. ‘In an age of identity, ethnicity walks on water’ he said, pointing to inflamed sentiment in proximate Tamil Nadu and the increasingly influential Diaspora, of which the Sinhalese had no equivalent or counterweight to.  As it turned out, it was not the Tamil Tiger insurgency which put a halt to Minister Athulathmudali’s and Ravi Jayewardene’s importation of ‘the West Bank model’ as the Lanka Guardian called it, but precisely the ‘geo-political realities’ – the absence or furling of a superpower umbrella in the event of an abrupt assertion by the regional power — that Mervyn de Silva had tried to drum home into the ruling elite, to no avail, until the external ‘seismic shock’ of mid-1987.

Realism tells us that the North and East have to be secure over the long term. It tells us that the Sri Lankan security forces will remain overwhelmingly mono-ethnic at least in the short term. Realism, which is drawn in large part from world history, further tells us that in such a situation, a policy of permanent encampments and fortifications must be accompanied by alliances with the local elites and a degree of local autonomy. That autonomy must not be so large as to be dysfunctional to security and strategy but must be sufficiently broad to pre-empt local disaffection.  This has been the policy of successful empires from Rome to Britain.

Having an intermediate structure elected by the local populace and positioned between itself and the local populace, provides the Sri Lankan security forces with a social shock absorber and vital adjunct in preventive counter-insurgency. Sadly, it would seem as though Sri Lankan policy projections do not involve this latter aspect of sufficient local autonomy, and that the security aspect is designed to overlook, override, bypass or undermine that local autonomy should it be implemented under external pressure or internal political compulsion. The great Asian strategic thinker-practitioner Mao Ze Dong advocated a policy of ‘walking on two legs’. We seem intent on marching forward on one. The increased alienation of the Tamil people of the North and a widening gulf between the collective psyches of our main communities cannot be a pathway to stable security and permanent peace. The so-called demographic solution is no solution, as has been proved even in its conceptual birthplace — and notwithstanding a superpower blank cheque that Sri Lanka will never have.

While ‘facts are being created on the ground’, if the elected representatives of the Tamil people remain divided, with some dreaming of self-determination and others of federalism, and still others refuse to talk to their erstwhile comrades who are in government, instead of collectively pressing for the reasonable demand of the ‘turnkey’ re-activation of the existing Constitutional provisions as reiterated in bilateral statements and international undertakings, then these Tamil representatives will have only themselves to blame for the continuing and perhaps irreversible Tamil tragedy.

As if the inter-ethnic gap was not bad enough, the dominant ideology seems intent on setting the stage for generations of inter-religious hostility as well. Spokespersons for the Catholic Church well known for their moderation such as Fr Benedict Joseph and Fr Cyril Gamini have raised their voices in protest against the religious prejudices and overt mono-religiosity of the new History text books currently in use in Sri Lankan schools. What I find particularly disconcerting is that there was an earlier series of History text books in the pipe-line prepared and/or approved by some of Sri Lanka’s highest qualified historians and archaeologists such as Profs Sudharshan Seneviratne and Nira Wickramasinghe. Those rational well founded and enlightened texts were scrapped at the insistence of the rabble-rousing dominant ideologues and replaced with those that the spokespersons of the Catholic Church are now protesting against.

Sri Lanka is today at a crossroads. One road leads to reconciliation and a fresh start which enables us to integrate with Asia’s march to modernity. The other leads to a new and prolonged cycle of conflict.  The right kind of security policy for the North and East, a policy which derives from the best practises globally, a policy which is scientific and professional rather than driven by wrong interpretations of history and ethno-religious motivations, will enhance and ensure security. The wrong kind of security policy for the post-war North and East in which Sri Lankan armed forces cantonments become interlinked oases embedded in a hostile local population, may turn the entire area into a high insecurity zone.


Justice C.G. Weeramantry was bestowed Sri Lankabhimanya, the highest National Honour of Sri Lanka in 2007. Justice Weeramantry also won the UNESCO Peace Education Prize in 2006 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2007, considered alternative Nobel Prize.

In this interview conducted several months ago, Justice Weeramantry talks about the importance of peace education in post-war Sri Lanka as a pillar of reconciliation. He also looks back at his career in law and experience as a Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1991 to 2000.