[Editors note: Full text of speech delivered at the Justice Palakidnar Memorial Oration in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 24 July 2011 by former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Photo from Club de Madrid profile. There’s an interesting discussion on the speech on DBS Jeyaraj’s blog. As he succinctly avers, “I do not know what impact her words would make but I do hope that it would embolden like-minded others now keeping silent to speak out”.]

We are all aware of what is meant by Development and Peace, and somewhat familiar with the term inclusive societies.

While Development implies many aspects, it involves mainly the action of building physical or economic  and social infrastructure, as well as developing human resources – highways; transport; electricity and water supply, communications, housing, providing incentives for the development of agriculture, industries and commerce as well as health services, education and skills development and indeed employment.

This is not all.  Development also means Good Governance – that is the efficient management of government.  This would include –

  • a rational, effective Vision of Development, translated into a workable Action Plan,
  • implemented with transparency and integrity.

The Vision for development must be founded on scientifically assessed national needs and not on the whims of a few individuals nor their corrupt intentions of self – aggrandisement.

For this one needs to operate within a political framework of democracy and individual freedoms and the free and full participation of all citizens in the development process.  In the absence of this, government would soon deteriorate into dictatorship or anarchy and development into a farce, enacted to further the ends of a powerful few.

Permit me now to talk to you briefly of Inclusive Societies.  It is one in which development and its benefits are equitably distributed to All.  It is a society where the political and societal structures are designed to allow the equitable distribution of and equal access to the benefits of development and prosperity for All, irrespective of the ethnic, religious, caste, political group to which they belong.  The Constitution of the State, its political structures such as Parliament and other bodies representative of the People, and its governmental structures will all have to be constructed in a manner as to accommodate the free and active participation of, as well as the guarantee of equal rights in all spheres, to all citizens.

In an inclusive society, all citizens are aware that they have equal opportunities and will contribute fully to the national developmental process.

Thus Social and Political stresses in such a society will be minimal.

In a Nation where all citizens and communities feel satisfied that they are equal partners, sharing equally political rights, economic, social and cultural benefits, there will prevail political stability and economic prosperity.  Leaders and every citizen must recognize the value of diversity, rejoice in its richness and limitless potential and strive to build Unity within Diversity.  I would call this a Cohesive and Shared Society.

This is the eternal recipe for lasting Peace in any country.  A socially cohesive society would respect the dignity and human rights of everyone, whilst providing equal opportunity for all.

Former French President Francois Mitterrand once said peace is a battle.  It is not won easily.

Peace demands humility and sacrifice from everyone.  It requires strong, committed and visionary political leadership.

The victor of many wars, may not have the Vision nor the ability to win Peace.

The theory of Social Cohesion and Shared, Inclusive Societies is being taken up actively in major international fora, such as the Club of Madrid and some UN organizations.  The relationship between inequality among citizens of a country and potential political violence and conflict is studied widely and in depth by a number of academics in the West and in Asia.

The overarching conclusion of most of this work demonstrates that inequalities lead invariably to conflict and the absence of Peace and political stability and economic regression.

For the sake of clarity, I will group inequalities into four major areas.

(1)       Economic and Social inequality, especially horizontal inequality.   Economic inequality is usually measured by average assets of a household, which would include income from all types of employment and wealth, especially housing and land.  Social inequality center  mainly on levels of education and access to good health care.

  • Studies of many countries reveal that there is a significant rise in the probability of conflict in countries with considerable economic and social inequality, increasing by three times when they exist between different ethnic groups.
  • Another study of Indonesia, confirms a definite relationship between the occurrence of violent ethnic conflict and comparative economic and social deprivation of marginalized communities.  Low levels of economic development are also seen to give rise to religious polarization.
  • The relative socio-economic inequality suffered by Muslims has been found to bear a direct connection to the Moro rebellion in the Philippines – Similarly, there is strong evidence to support that the Maoist uprisings in Nepal are closely linked to the deprivation of specific communities, on a regional and caste basis, measured by poverty and literacy rates.

(2)       Cultural inequalities have also engendered political instability, even conflicts of extreme violence.

Ethnicity, language, religion define the identity of citizens within a State.

The ethno-linguistic and religious identity of the majority communities is often different to that of smaller groups living within the same State.

Conflict has arisen in innumerable countries, when the State apportions a larger share of the privileges to the majority, marginalizing and excluding the minority groups – seen as “the others”.

  • In Peru and Guatemala, positive cultural discrimination was exercised by constitutionally prohibiting the use of indigenous languages – In Malaysia this was achieved indirectly against non-Muslims through the operation of Bhumiputra laws – and in Ivory Coast against non-Christians.
  • The protestant orange order movement in Northern Ireland – the destruction of religious buildings in India, Palestine and recently in Malaysia led to conflictual polarization of victimized communities and to violent conflict.

In Sri Lanka, language policy had a similar effect in polarizing a hitherto peaceful Tamil Community around the demand for equal status.

(3)       Political inequality is another major cause of conflict.  There exists much evidence to demonstrate that inclusive government reduces probability of political instability and violent conflict, when power is shared and there exists less political inequality.

We are aware of many instances where peace prevails,  even in the presence of serious economic and social inequalities when power sharing arrangements function well.  Formal systems of power-sharing, federal states, territorial autonomy and electoral systems giving a fair and equitable representation to all communities have proved effective in reducing potential conflict.

Political inclusion has prevented conflict among marginalized groups, even in the continued absence of policies to alleviate poverty and social deprivation.  The examples of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Bolivia are clear evidence of this.  Closer home, Malaysia is yet another instance where political inclusion of disadvantaged minorities, without policies to improve socio-economic status, has sufficed to prevent conflict.  It is interesting to note that when Kenya changed policy to become politically exclusive, violent conflict ensued, until a power sharing regime was introduced once again.  India has managed to contain serious conflict for 06 decades after Independence, by establishing a Federal State, whereby political power is effectively shared between its myriad communities, belonging to various ethnic, linguistic, religious groups.  The erection of an inclusive society through the operation of a non-religious, secular Constitution has significantly contributed to the cohesion and stability of the Indian State.

The recent increase in the occurrence of uprisings there, seems to be area or group specific, arising among disadvantaged communities and during periods when the political authorities have slackened in the strict and effective implementation of power sharing, secularism and equitable development.

(4)       The nature of the State has also been found to impinge upon conflict.

Democratic States with an inclusivist government have successfully prevented or smoothed over potential conflict –  In Ghana and Sabah in Malaysia, an accommodating and inclusive policy adopted by the governments have prevented the escalation of conflict.

On the contrary, the vicious and repressive handling of the small, nascent rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia led to its escalation into a full blown civil war, resulting in the formation of a separate State.

Let us now consider the situation in our own little country – “the resplendissant isle”.

As for Sri Lanka, very little serious research has been done in this field.  I will venture to state that, based on empirical evidence and knowledge, the constant and comparative economic, social and cultural deprivation of the Northern and Eastern regions is clearly related to the violent conflict we have witnessed here.   Low levels of development of infrastructure, relatively much less opportunity to access quality education and employment and political marginalization with minimal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes in the political and administrative superstructures, together with the language barriers erected by the `Sinhala Only’ policy, are undoubtedly the root causes that gave rise to the terribly violent conflict in our country.

The consistent rejection by the State of the demand of the Tamil movement, for language parity, led to increased demands for power sharing through Federalism, and finally for a separate State.

Several rounds of physical attacks on the Tamil civilian people in 1958 /1977 / 78 / 80 (torching of Jaffna Library and civilian dwellings) culminating in the horrendous Black July of 1983, pushed even the pro-peace Tamil civilians to believe they could not obtain justice and equal rights from the Sinhala dominated State.

The dismal failure of all Sri Lankan governments to resolve the problem of discrimination of the minorities led to the birth of five armed groups led by the LTTE, fighting for a separate State of Eelam.

No credible alternative was offered by any government until my government did so in 1994.  On the contrary governments implemented diverse laws and actions which sharpened the conflict.

The policy of `Sinhala Only’ adopted in 1956 entrenched the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhist polity to the massive exclusion of all others.  The 1958 communal riots was a direct result of this.  This policy positively helped rebuild a Sri Lankan national identity after 450 years of its systematic destruction during colonial rule.

But it erred by ignoring the necessity to incorporate arrangements to include “the others” – The Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays, so that they too may live within the Nation, with dignity and equal rights and opportu-nities.

The 1978 Constitution – the insistence on Swearing the Oath of allegiance to a Constitution entrenching exclusion, led to the mass resignation from Parliament of all elected Tamil representatives of the North and East.

Both the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions failed to introduce any arrangements to resolve the minorities issue by enacting inclusive measures to guarantee the rights of the minorities in the political, social and economic fields.

We have compared the policies adopted by India soon after independence with ours, there appears a significant difference in the philosophy and the nature of the State erected by the two respective countries.

The leaders of India realized full well that it was essential to weld together the myriad groups of Indians divided by caste, ethnicity, language and religion into one nation with equal rights and privileges for all.  They adopted the concept of a Federal State.

Jawaharlal Nehru stated “Religion is alright when applied to ethics and morals, but it is not good mixed with politics”.  He advocated “a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State” and a State that “protects all religions, but does not favour one at the expense of others and does not adopt any religion as the State Religion”.

Mahatma Gandi   also stated at this time that “a political association based exclusively on adherence to a particular religion was worse than undemocratic”.

The Republic of India has a Federal Secular Constitution.  A rational scientific analysis shows that the continuing political stability of modern India for over 60 years, despite various political disturbances, owes a great deal to the effective functioning of the Federal and Secular nature of its State.  She continues to function as a modern democracy, in the face of many challenges and shortcomings, due to the strength gained from its Unity in Diversity and inclusive flowing from secularism as well as federalism.

For the first time in the history of independent Sri Lanka, my government offered a comprehensive solution to the minorities’ problem.  Even while war had to be waged, we began and completed a large number of essential development projects in the North and East.  Infrastructure damage during years of war was reconstructed – roads, bridges and culverts, irrigation works, telecommunication, electricity schools and the University, hospitals, Jaffna Library saw extensive reconstruction and credit for agriculture, small industries and fisheries.

This no doubt created employment locally for youth, who until then had seen no hope of a better future for themselves.  Thus we were able to demonstrate to the Tamil civilians that there could exist Sri Lankan governments with honest intensions of including the Tamils and all other citizens equitably in the development process.  Empirical evidence showed that numbers of youth joining LTTE armies were considerably reduced, since we adopted these policies.

However, we understood that economic development alone could not succeed in creating a society where all our people would feel they were fairly and equitably included.  For this, it was required to share political power which we the Sinhalese had jealously guarded for ourselves since independence, marginalizing all others not only in practice but also by law, by means of various legal enactments of constitutions and laws.

Hence we proposed to enact a new constitution, containing extensive devolution of power to the minorities, together with various other measures adopted to guarantee their rights.   This draft constitution also contained measures to abolish the Executive Presidency that I have always believed to be most undemocratic and reactionary – if applied in the letter, as three out of five of our Executive Presidents have done.

I still strongly hold that if this constitution was promulgated and effectively implemented, the problem of  the Tamil’s and minorities would certainly have been resolved in a sustainable manner and this country would not have had to suffer international rejection and hence the difficulties we face today in obtaining aid and credit, as well as the ignominy our government faces today.

We could not translate our dream of enacting this constitution and transforming a divided violent Lanka into a united nation where humanity and peace prevail, because of the consistent and violent rejection of our Peace Proposal by the LTTE as well as the obstinacy of the parliamentary Opposition in refusing to give the government the few votes required to make up the required 2/3rd majority in parliament.

Three rounds of discussions with the LTTE and innumerable rounds of formal and informal discussions with the main opposition party did not give a positive result, although my government had obtained full agreement of all five Tamil parties represented in parliament and the one Muslim party, as well as all other Southern parties in parliament who any way were part of the government coalition.

I must also add at this point that the Tamil movement in general saw a recrudescence with its demands for equal rights hardening into the demand for a separate State and the adoption of terrorist politics.

We are aware, you and I that the majority of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka and abroad would have been satisfied with the extensive power sharing arrangements and guarantee of rights contained in the package of solutions proposed by my government.

By the time my government proposed solutions, the LTTE had become strong and perhaps felt no need to compromise on their extremist demand for Eelam having successfully killed or frightened into silence and/or obeisance all Tamil persons who disagreed with them and having built up their treasury and war arsenal massively.  The LTTE felt strong enough to reject all proposed solutions other than that of a separate State.

Another reason that impeded adoption of solutions proposed by my government was the incapacity of the Tamil Civil Diaspora to comprehend the importance of supporting of our proposal, together with the lack of courage displayed by the Tamil democratic politicians when faced with the challenge of LTTE Terror.

I am told sometime, that I should have used the excessive power of the Executive Presidency to proceed with the promulgation of the new Constitution, setting aside the stipulation of obtaining a 2/3rd majority, even if it was anti constitutional.  This would have meant adopting authoritarian rule.  If at all, I would have engaged in this only, for that brief period required to enact the constitution.  I have seriously agonized over this possibility during my presidency and even now, in retrospect.  My deep and abiding commitment to democracy and my disgust of authoritarian rule prevented me from doing this.

Would I have been wrong to have gone ahead and become anti-constitutional for a few days to promulgate this new Constitution with the sole purpose of resolving the nation’s most pressing and dangerous problem and indeed for establishing lasting peace and prosperity? We would then have had a more democratic government through the abolition of the Executive Presidency which is also contained in our constitutional proposal?

I wonder when I see that today the State has clearly adopted authoritarian rule, not to strengthen democracy and human rights, but to do the opposite.

Today, we have a situation where the War has been won by the State.  The major antagonist the LTTE, has been defeated and decimated.

The victorious government and the Sinhala community must comprehend that the Tamil civil community is different to the LTTE – which is an extremist outgrowth of the long unresolved Tamil problem.  The Tamils as well as the other minority groups, simply desire to live as equal citizens in Lanka.  They wish to live with the Sinhala, as our brothers and sisters, in a land where all enjoy equal rights and opportunities, in an inclusive, harmonious society of a united and peaceful Sri Lanka.

This, my friends, would be the best recipe to ensure that Lanka remains undivided; that we progress to reach the great heights that we have the ability to attain.

On the other hand, I dare say, that there are reasons to justify the fears of the Sinhala.  History records that ancient Lanka was invaded 52 times in 14 centuries by South Indian rulers, and was conquered and ruled a few times.  This may be sufficient to sow fear in the common conscience of the Sinhala people.

In order to knit together a strong national identity, consecutive Lankan rulers adopted Buddhism as the State religion and employed it to mobilize citizens for war against “the enemy”,

Thus the Sinhala Buddhist identity came to be accepted as the dominant one.  But this was to respond to a specific historic situation which had changed radically during colonial rule and at Independence.

After independence, we needed to have given serious consideration to adopting policies of inclusion of the other communities, if we were to engage successfully in our project of Nation – building – a Nation that is peaceful and hence progressing towards prosperity.  We needed to celebrate the richness of our diversity and build unity within that Diversity.  What, have we done instead?

We have erected a terribly divided Nation at War with each other – the Tamils and Sinhala against each other, the Tamils and Muslims similarly and the State against the Tamils and now against everyone who opposes them even democratically, irrespective of their community.

We have begun, in the past few years, to engage in an extremist discourse of Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism.  Anti-terrorist emotions are being recruited to increase anti-Tamil, and now anti foreigner and even anti-everyone else sentiments, by means of a massive State led media campaign.  They dig deep into the Sinhala Buddhist psyche, searching out the fears and concerns of a small and weak country to direct them against so-called “enemies”.  The Sinhala Buddhist identity is projected as the exclusively legitimate one, with the right to dominance over the State and the body politic and the attendant privileges.

Our leaders need to, must, rise above emotional responses and adopt objective, rational policies even now.  It makes me sad to hear some leaders state that there is no requirement to grant political concessions to the minorities and that some development would suffice.  This is excellent.  But, I say that though building roads, schools, hospitals, giving electricity, water and so on will help, this is definitely not enough to resolve the problem in any sustainable manner.

Why cannot the North and East be given the Provincial Councils system, we have given the rest of the country?

We must also negotiate with the minorities and their leaders and bring in further suitable concessions as required today.  Sharing what we possess with others will not reduce our strength.  Instead, it will enhance it by bringing together divided communities working together bringing in skills, talents and knowledge of the marginalized that were deprived to us since the beginning of the conflict.  The diverse skills and talents of all our peoples, actively participating in the nation building process, will immensely enrich and unify our divided Nation.  Our country is weak and our State is fragile in every sense of the word.  We need to do much to build a strong and prosperous State

At this point, permit me to describe my personal experience as Head of State.  I was personally committed to the concept that Federalism and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka’s minorities’ question.  I had also ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belonged to a small minority of the elite ruling class-politicians and clergy and others closely linked to them.  The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.

Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the path of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of a federal constitution and by building a cohesive nation and an inclusive State.  We won three major elections within eighteen months, with an increased majority vote at each one.

A gallup poll we conducted at the time my government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 per cent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.  We undertook extensive programs to take the message of peace and shared societies to the entire country.  We held seminars, workshops, street theater and used the media widely.  At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 per cent.

I must exphasise that my government only employed democratic methods, never force, violence nor murder.

The vision and actions of leaders of government have been instrumental in defining the choices made by the Sri Lanka people.

There is a recent phenomenon that scares me.  I hear many voices of non-Tamils, pronouncing that they do not care what happens in the country, as long as the war is over and they do not have to fear terrorist bombs and violence.

I too, am glad, extremely happy that the War has ended and terrorism defeated.  But, I cannot blind myself to the fact that although we have won the civil War, we have not even begun to win the battle for Peace.  For winning Peace, implies bringing in and including “the others” fully and honestly not only in Development, but also as full and equal partners of the processes of government – to power-sharing.

An essential prerequisite for Peace, a stable and strong government and prosperity is a democratic, pluralist State.  This is the only magic potion I know to bind together diverse peoples of a multi-ethic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and cultural country like ours, as one undivided and strong Nation.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending an unique event in Colombo.  It was the Geoffrey Bawa Awards ceremony for excellence in Architecture.

It was a most beautiful example of the richness of diversity, of what could be achieved in harnessing the talents of all.

The great Bawa was a Sri Lankan of Malay/Burgher lineage, the members of the Bawa Trust which accomplishes excellent ventures are Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers.  The 02 special awards for lifetime excellence in creatively promoting and nurturing Lankan arts and crafts and architecture, went to two ladies – one a very Kandyan Sinhala lady of Chjristian background and a very Burgher, Lankan lady!

The annual awards for architecture went to a Sinhala and a Tamil.  Michael Ondaatje, a very Sri Lankan Burgher delivered the keynote address.  Just pause a moment with me, ladies and gentlemen.  A massive number of our Burgher and Tamil people have left this country.  If we persist in the present policy of winner takes all, we certainly will lose the remaining members of the minority communities.

Could the Sinhala community alone have produced a Bawa, a Barbara Sansoni, an Ananda Coomaraswamy a Muralidaran, a Duncan White, a Michael Ondaatje, a Shyam Selvadurai?

Let us have the humility to admit that we Sri Lankans have failed as a Nation.  Let us look Truth in the face, have the honesty and the courage to accept our mistakes and the generosity to make amendments.  Continued Denial of proven facts and abuse of our honest critics will not resolve the problem for anyone.  Our leaders must take the lead in the noble task of Reconciliation and Reconstruction.

I shall remember till the end of my days the morning when my 28 year old son called me, sobbing on the phone to say how ashamed he was to call himself a Sinhalese and a Lankan, after he saw on the UK television a 50 minute documentary called “The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka”.

My daughter followed suit, saying similar things and expressing shock and horror that our countrymen could indulge in such horrific acts.

I was proud of my son and daughter, proud that they cared for the others, proud that they have grown up to be the Man and Woman their father and mother wanted them to be.

Our little nation can boast of a great and noble civilization, a people with rich and diverse skills and excellence in numerous fields.

We have not had the good luck of being led by great Leaders long enough to lead the way to that greatness we deserve.

Could we not strive to leave the past behind, look to the future and march towards the Stars?