ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13

Nation’s loss, a man and a vision

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara.

August 12, 2005, a friend woke me up to give the shattering news that Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was taken to hospital fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet. As I drove to the Accident Ward that night, I could not help the thought that this was a tragedy waiting to happen and the late minister more than anyone else, was acutely aware of it all the time. There was also this foreboding feeling in the air that the innovative cruelty of the LTTE assassin was going to reach its assigned target eventually.

It was not long before the tragedy Minister Kadirgamar remarked to me at one of those ‘security related’ discussions at the Ministry , that ‘the road ahead is long and risky but it must be travelled.’ “Since one has to die some day it would be an honour to die in harness,” he said. Lakshman Kadirgamar – or LK, as he was generally known to the folks at the Republic Square – had many strong points. But sentimental comment was not one of them. The remark remained etched in my mind for its emotive tinge.

Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar

Even as emotions tend to dissipate with the passage of time, August 12 each year seems to bring to the fore bewildering developments and discussions.. It is indeed shocking for those of us who worked with LK to witness the ongoing debates among those who were close to him and those who hardly knew him, concerning the ‘hardware’ part of LK’s legacy e.g. the statutes , premises etc, with little or no attention being paid to the substance of the vision he articulated and the institution building he undertook.

As we do every year since that dreadful day of August 12, 2005, our family was preparing to visit the little village temple close to where we live, to ‘reflect on matters’ and do ‘punyanumodana’ to a unique and complex man of exceptional courage and vision, who chose to ‘die in harness’ for a cause he believed in . It was about that time I received a telephone request from The Sunday Times to write on the anniversary. I declined to join the ‘hardware debate’. The kind lady who phoned agreed and said I can just write on LK. That was just fine with me.

In foreign policy as well as in peace policy, LK endeavoured to look beyond the horizon, beyond the parochial radar range of the usually ill-informed and noisy politicians whose only vision appears to be to plaster the city walls and blast the critics.Running through all of LK’s work and words on our foreign relations and peace building effort were his thought processes that stood out in their strategic clarity and hard-nosed professionalism.

He did not see countering terrorism and the vigorous pursuit of a political process towards a constitutional solution as mutually exclusive options. He saw them as essential and pragmatic complementarities to be pursued keeping in mind the need to maintain the important distinction that the Government is a Government that has superior ethical and legal standards to maintain while the LTTE is a terror outfit that has no such hallowed encumbrances. It goes without saying that it is to a democratic Government’s advantage that we maintain this distinction. He therefore refused to see human rights as a western or partisan concept alien to our ethos, Buddhist or other. He said in Parliament on February 22, 1996 that Human Rights Legislation is “going to outlive all of us” and that “who knows, some of us may need it ourselves one day!” On the ‘ethnic issue’, he told the Parliament on August 8, 2000, “as long as the LTTE is bent on a military solution, that has to be fought. It is logical…. But annihilating blocks of people on two sides is not going to bring a durable solution because you are not attacking the roots. Roots are there. They can sprout again. Therefore the virtue of a negotiated solution is that it is a durable one which is just.”

In many in-house policy discussions at the Ministry we often agreed, and he always contended and defended, that ‘the Govt power is best exercised when it is shared’ and ‘unity and integrity of the nation is best preserved when it is broad based’.

He argued that in democratic politics ( Sri Lankan style) “there is perhaps arguably an inherent flaw…which from time to time asserts itself to the detriment of all… this is the syndrome that makes democratic parties yield to the temptation to play politics with issues that could otherwise be dealt with by all of us together”. He urged the offending politicos including those in his own party ranks to practise consensual governance and to desist from the lure of parochialism at least on the ‘national issue’ (pragmatically implying that business as usual can continue on other electoral issues!) He said in this connection, “ we must seek to bring ourselves back on to the rails of decent conduct , of understanding, of sympathy and respect for each other.” ( April 10, 1997)

In advocating a bipartisan blueprint for a political solution, LK said in Parliament,“.. This is not a matter that should be dealt with as party politics to the point of extinction”… “ Let us lift this ( the ethnic issue) out of the arena of politics, party politics, there is too much at stake .. this involves the whole country, its future, young people..” (August 2000)

As we remember LK after two years since his life was snuffed out, and more than seven years after he made this passionate plea for a bipartisan political culture on national issues, LK’s exhortations remain as valid or perhaps even more poignant today. The rationale of his argument remains alive but the will to heed his fervent appeals remains dead. Tragically, the Sri Lankan politicos continue to be mired in what LK described as ‘self-induced myopia’. An inch of progress towards this life-saving bipartisanism would have pleased LK a great deal more than a taxing debate about hundred statues.

LK’s courageous assault on the stereotype ethnic polarity and on the ethnic ‘schism’ of the LTTE was variously appreciated, understood and even misunderstood . But the simple folks who constitute the democratic mainstream encompassing all ethnic groups of this country, saw a glimmer of hope in it. He declined for himself any ethnic labels by birth and said that if the LTTE calls him a traitor because he opposed their abhorrent anti-democratic, anti-human and ultimately, anti-Tamil ‘schism’ he will be delighted to take any befitting appellation! He recounted how Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan stood in defence of the honour of the Sinhala people in 1915. LK highlighted as well how Sir Ponnambalam’s work towards recognizing the Vesak holiday earned him the richly deserved admiration from the likes of Anagarika Dharmapala, C.W.W. Kannangara, A.E. Goonasinghe and other Sinhala leaders. While projecting these enlightened efforts as the core of a mature model of national harmony, democracy and tolerance of which SriLanka had an unmatched reputation to protect, LK boldly declared both in our national Parliament and in the United Nations General Assembly that as a Tamil, he takes pride in saying that “Sinhala people are not racist”. “They never were,” he said. He then urged the confused local politicos to liberate our collective effort to build sustainable development, lasting peace, and common security in this little but beautiful land of ours, from “ that inherent flaw in confrontational democracy which leads to chronic schism….. and to build a platform on which the major parties can unite in an approach, in an attitude, if no more, to the gravest problem of our times”. . Quoting the inspiring and moving words of Rabindranath Tagore….. “where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action; into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake”, he expressed the strong belief “that there is in this country such a large reservoir of goodwill among our people that it is not too late to re-establish communal harmony before it becomes a total wreck”. (April 1997)

In another seminal contribution to his unrelenting advocacy of consensual politics, LK reminded our Parliament that the legislature, after six years of labour had come within ‘the striking distance’ of agreement; in LK’s words “we came within five percent , I would say five metres of the winning post of (that bipartisan) consensus”. (August 2000) However, once again it turned out to be five metres too far for the quarrelling Sri Lanka politicians!

LK’s largely successful efforts at inculcating professionalism in the Foreign Office was ironically demonstrated in the immediate aftermath of his assassination when the men and women of the ‘leaderless Foreign Ministry’ as The Sunday Times put it appreciatively, brought about a sanction regime on the LTTE which later culminated in the unprecedented EU ban on that terror outfit. The tide has begun to turn against the LTTE internationally. LK who did so much for so long to make this happen, could not live to see it happen. Those professionals of the Foreign Office and in our Missions abroad, senior and junior, especially the young in whose intake LK was instrumental, who worked day and night on this quietly and purposefully, would have been commended by LK, in contrast to the prevailing practice of silly political whipping and insults directed at them from time to time. Whether this international sanction regime will be invested in a political process that will bring about sustainable peace, security and development to Sri Lanka or will be wasted by the high decibel politicos on both sides, only time will tell.

In devising systems and methodologies for policy making as well as in developing conceptual frameworks for formulating policy statements and positions on foreign policy, human rights, peace related issues etc. customized for different diplomatic interentions, LK wanted open and wide ranging discussions with the experienced seniors as well as talented juniors of the Foreign Office and with different line agencies. Almost always we agreed. Occasionally we disagreed. However I never sensed or experienced any resentment, only mutual professional respect. It was after many such inputs, discussions and the clinical analyses that were the hallmarks of LK’s immensely educative workoholism, a first draft would emerge. Once everyone is satisfied with the wholesome nature and the substantive content of the first draft (or when the text is ready for editorial ‘surgery’ as LK used to say somewhat mischievously) he goes to work on it himself and makes it one of those LK brand name products. LK of course set very high professional standards. Compliance could have been exhausting to some but the rate of return for the performers was great too. As Foreign Secretary during the LK regime at the Republic Square, it was my great pleasure to have been able to make a humble contribution to managing this process. It was physically taxing but intellectually and professionally rewarding. I knew that LK knew it too.

Much water has since flown under the bridge. But the political leadership needs to cross that bridge over the murky waters of swirling adversarial politics. They need to arrive in that bipartisan territory LK had been consistently pointing at, up to the very day an assassin finally silenced him.

The most enduring monument to LK would be for the politicos from all sides to reflect deeply and act before LK’s next death anniversary, on what he said seven years ago about their collective folly of not being able to free Sri Lanka’s ethnic troubles from our electoral politics. …..“ we must never forget that people are always looking at us and saying what are the legislators from all sides of the House, whom we sent to parliament, doing?..... ultimately people are not going to be fooled…….they are going to say, surely they will rightly say, these people are behaving irresponsibly. .. people expect, I do not draw lines here, all of us to put our heads together and hammer out a compromise. If we fail, we are failing the nation, and we are failing them, in a disastrous way. How much bloodshed is to go on until this opportunity comes again?” LK asked in Parliament just four days before that dreadful day of August, seven years ago.

So it still seems ‘a long road ahead’. Our family for one would be relieved if we continue to be kept unaware and uninformed of the ‘monumental’ debates and the likes, as our family like many other simple folks shall continue, Samsara permitting, of course, to trek to that little serene temple every year for reflection and thanksgiving. If those whom LK addressed do not have the political will, intellectual capacity, the strength of the inner soul or the pure and simple village guts to ‘hammer out those compromises’, then the least one can do is to ‘let Kadir sleep’ as Prabath Sahabandu of the Island recently put it.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.