In late May 2009, I happened to be visiting Rome, walking on a Sunday afternoon with my Rome-based brother near one of the city’s lovely parks, when we noticed a huge and apparently cheerful crowd of people at the nearby Sri Lankan embassy. We walked over to see what was the occasion, speculating that it must be a victory party. As one would expect, we were quickly invited to join the party – which turned out to be a Vesak celebration. We spent about 45 minutes enjoying Sri Lankan hospitality and some delicious kiri-bath. In that short time, the Ambassador and two members of his staff each pulled me aside and spoke earnestly of the importance of creating genuine reconciliation in the country. It was a moment of honesty and hope.
Gnana Moonesinghe’s wide-ranging collection of essays is another response to that moment, in the same spirit. She sets the tone in the Editor’s Note that begins the volume: “This publication is a response to the post war dilemma of how best to bring together the different communities and build a nation on strong foundations, of inclusivity, fairness, justice, equality and contentment for all.” She sets forth an ambitious definition of nation-building, and sees the end of the long ethnic conflict as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to seek this elusive and challenging path.
The writings in this book cover a remarkable range of subjects. Some are devoted to the post-war agenda as conventionally understood. This is the case particularly with the discussions of ethnic community relations by A.C. Visvalingam, Javid Yusuf, P.P. Devaraj and Chandra Jayaratne.
Many chapters, however, take a more comprehensive and searching look at Sri Lanka’s institutions. Leelananda de Silva’s analysis of public service makes an eloquent plea for a more autonomous, more accountable, and above all better trained and prepared public service. Lynn Ockersz’ discussion of the media finds them “disappointingly silent” on nation building. N. Sathiya Moorthy’s analysis of Sri Lanka-India relations is one of the most policy-oriented essays in the book, reflecting the closely linked ties between these two neighbors. Perhaps the most unusual entry in a volume of this sort is Ambassador Ernest Corea’s discussion of diplomacy in the service of nation building, which discusses the classic challenge of the diplomat in pursuing his or her country’s foreign policy while also creating international support for its most pressing domestic needs – a task at which Corea himself excelled during a long and distinguished career.
The chapters dealing with constitutional issues and with the judiciary focus on issues that have been in play since Sri Lanka’s independence. This is particularly the case with the editor’s own chapter on the judiciary. Unlike many other writings on Sri Lanka’s constitutional structure, this volume does not posit constitutional change as the principal instrument of reconciliation of the issues that drove the ethnic conflict. Rather, in keeping with the book’s theme of inclusivity, it takes a searching look at the features the authors believe have fallen short of the needs of all Sri Lankans, and makes a plea for their reform.
The book closes with a more philosophical section entitled “Rightful Inheritance of Future Generations,” which delves into the need for civic education in schools and the need for individual moral development (Sajeeva Samaranayake’s “Realising the True Self for Nation Building”).
Looking at this book against the background of my three years in Sri Lanka and continuing association with the country, I find the plea to take the military victory of 2009 as an opportunity to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” in the words Abraham Lincoln used about my country, compelling. But much of what one hears from Sri Lanka’s representatives abroad, in contrast to what I heard in Rome that day, starts from the proposition that there is no reconciliation needed, that ethnic relations are already warm and uncomplicated, and that the nation, in Moonesinghe’s phrase, is already built.
This book presents a more sobering view, and one that to me seems more accurate. Its ambitious agenda is both a strength and a weakness. Some readers will find the philosophical conclusion inspiring; others may find it a bit preachy and off-putting. But I believe that the underlying premise – that Sri Lanka still has some “building” to do – is correct. To me, the third section, with its sector-by-sector analyses, is the most persuasive; the fourth, on constitutional frameworks, is in many ways the most disturbing, because it demonstrates how long some of Sri Lanka’s institutional problems have been there. What makes it particularly important is that these perspectives are almost all presented by Sri Lankans, and by people who want to participate in building – or rebuilding – their own nation.
The reviewer, co-director of Southasiahand.com, was U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1992-1995