19th October 1997

Lounge lizards and Kadi

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Mr. Kadirgamar: ambassador with special mission
The world's most fero- cious terrorist attack for 1996, said Lakshman Kadirgamar, Minister of Foreign Affairs , about the LTTE attack on the Central Bank in January. But, before Mr. Kadirgamar's voice went over the airwaves, carrying that message, the LTTE gave Mr. Kadirgamar, above all else, a potent reminder that they haven't lost their form in 1997 either.

The urbane Kadirgamar was the President's representative the night of the bombing at a Sudu Nelum function. He was standing-in for the President who was chairing an urgent security council meeting. Mr. Kadirgamar nibbled at some canapes served from a special tray, containing food pre-tasted to detect any poisoning attempt.

Mr. Kadirgamar now fits in easily with the role of the President's special ambassador. Often the avuncular unruffled Minister is projected these days as a potential number two in the cabinet, quite a remarkable image for a Tamil to have in any Sri Lankan government.

But, Mr. Kadirgamar is also potentially the LTTE's number two target. It's almost unfair that a Tamil had been required to carry the can for a Sri Lankan government in international fora. It's equal to asking the man to hand over his life to the LTTE on a platter.

So, with the dust settled on the Wednesday's bomb blast, this man looked more like the tall signpost that stood at the country's historical intersection. Political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda told a Colombo audience, on the eve of Wednesday's bombing that he feels "this is the last generation in which the Sinhalese and the Tamils will live together." In that case, Mr. Kadirgamar must be that loner, surviving stoically in one of the tail-end multi-ethnic cabinets?

But, it seems Mr. Kadirgamar shakes the foundations of Dr. Uyangoda's oracle. In the politiqualese that a person like Uyan is quite used to, perhaps, Mr. Kadirgamar is a sub-terranean influence that moves in such a way that he can decide the shape of the future. Amidst the fissiparous ethnic volcanoes that surround him, Mr. Kadirgamar is the sort of person who can maybe, just maybe, sit back and think of himself as the sort of Tamil that Lee Kuan Yew has in his cabinet. i.e: a technocrat to boot, a member of the minority ethnic community that a leader from the majority cannot do without.

Mr. Kadirgamar represents, in a certain way, one intellectual reaction to the ethnic conflict, while a man like Uyan reflects another. Mr. Kadirgamar is the quintessential pragmatist, a lawyer technocrat by persuasion — a bit of a mover and a shaker, who could make the dream of reconciled ethnic communities a reality. Uyan represents the polar opposite. One is the classic brooding intellectual, the other the typical intelligent realist.

The question now is, whose version is more likely to decide the shape of the future? (Kadirgamar and Uyan have never been on a collision course, and the pitting of ones world-view against the others is purely my construction. But yet, that's what the hard reality of the bombings etc., will eventually decide. To whose version of the future will the country eventually yield?)

The only point of agreement at an USEF sponsored seminar on evolving answers to the national crisis was that the two ethnic communities were polarised as never before, and that this is perhaps the last chance we have for peace. (Uyan said that "last chance has now become a hackneyed cliché, but that this time it may be for real.'')

Uyan deplored, also, that the nation is slowly losing the middle ground ( .... I might add , the kind of middle ground that is represented by the likes of Mr. Kadirgamar. ) But, the seminar room had that familiar ring of the polity being analysed by the personality. At bottom, most of the panelists came up with their personal reactions to the crisis, which of course is not all bad because those are the reactions they are supposed to come up with.

But, the ringing tone was one of truculent simmering despair. It was difficult to find a trace of optimism in that air-conditioned space.

It's not news that the two ethnic communities are terribly polarised, but the seminarists at the USEF symbolised some of the polarising tendencies as well. Dr. Uyangoda in his deep-going cynicism, was giving the message that the two major ethnic communities are irreconcilable. Obliquely, his thought was leading in the direction of a separation, a parting of ways. In the same mould, others such as Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, albeit more flamboyantly, pointed at the extent of the chasm in the ethnic divide. These were all angry young men.

But, a somehow more pleasanter quantity during times of crisis are pragmatists rather than doomsayers, and here, particularly being from the Tamil community, Mr. Kadirgamar represents, if not a refreshing change, at least a brighter alternative. Though it's more charming amongst the intelligentsia to breathe fire and be the angry young man, the charmed circle often resolves conflict in the abstract, leaving the nuts and bolts of peace to the others.

The Foreign Minister, on the other hand, is a member of the minority who got under the hood to fix the jalopy. His work with the nuts and bolts of the peace process, has so far, not even earned him any critics from the lounge lizards of peace. It shows Mr. Kadirgamar can be a factor, perhaps a more potent one than some of us think, in bringing about ethnic reconciliation before that concept is written off.

It's not to say that one man can solve the ethnic conflict, or that its ultimate resolution depends on personalities. But, it's merely to point out that there are several ways to skin a cat, several mindsets from which the country's major conflict can be approached. In the psychological continuum, some such as the Foreign Minister seem to stand for optimism.

Many seminarists and angry young men see only the cloud, because it's sexier and maybe more chic. As far as attitudes go, these are very polarised ways of thinking. But to the credit of those who want to reconcile the two communities, as opposed to the others, they are at least doing something practical about it...

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