The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

13th April 1997



‘Into that heaven of freedom let my country awake’

Speech delivered by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at the launch of a programme for National reconciliation attended by President Chandrika Kumaratunga under the auspices of the Sudu Nelum Movement Trust on April 10.

The Sudu Nelum Movement seeks to draw on the enormous wellspring of goodwill, of reason, of decency, in the hearts and minds of our people. The Movement is based on a very simple perception of human nature. I do not believe, except for a very few exceptions, that the ordinary human being is born evil or distorted, or prejudiced. I believe that all human beings, all over the world, share the basic kindness, the decency, the sense of honour, the understanding that the human condition endows them with. In our country we have seen times, long periods of time, many, many decades, when all the people of our country, our different communities, lived in peace, in harmony and amity. They are different one from another, they were different, they will remain different. They subscribe to different faiths, different philosophies but there were periods, long periods, when they were friends.

I believe that at certain moments of time in the history of a country, leadership goes astray. In democratic politics, with all its virtues, with all its sound principles, with all its basic fairness there is perhaps arguably an inherent flaw. It might not be a flaw that overrides all the good that comes from democracy, but there is nevertheless a flaw which from time to time asserts itself to the detriment of all. That flaw in the democratic electoral system sometimes drives political parties in the adversarial arena of democratic politics to intense concentration on confrontation in order to achieve short-term political gains.

There are times when what becomes obsessive to democratic parties is winning power, holding on to power, retaining power for as long as possible, even illegally. These temptations of the democratic system rise to the surface every now and then.

We in Sri Lanka have suffered from that syndrome. In the last few decades we seem to have suffered from it more than before, and in those times, when that particular flaw comes to the surface, one of the early symptoms of the syndrome is that democratic parties yield to the temptation to play politics with issues that should otherwise be dealt with by all of us together. We are the self created victims of that syndrome.

During such times a great deal of evil comes to the fore, misguided sometimes, but often positively mischievous, positively sinister. We have suffered from this malaise. We must seek to bring ourselves back on to the rails of decent conduct, of understanding, of sympathy and respect for each other - qualities which all human beings are basically heir to, the battle for peace, it is often said, is fought in the hearts and minds of people. It is won or lost there. One can win wars but lose the peace, and the conduct of war by all the best professionals in the art of war throughout history has acknowledged that basic fact - do not seek to fight a war for its own sake; it is an illusion, a horrible mistake to believe that war has a mindless, sterile rationale of its own. War must have an objective, even though it be a short-term objective; it may be the acquisition of land; we are familiar with that concept.

It may be the acquisition of wealth for one people from another. But ultimately if there is no durable peace as a result of war, then you have only war and war and war. Therefore, when we say that in our country we are fighting a war for peace, it is a statement that has a lot of meaning. It is easy to dismiss it as mere rhetoric but reflect a moment: behind that expression lies a well-known philosophy, tested over the centuries, about the pursuit of war and the achievement of peace.

When we are fighting this battle for the hearts and minds of men and women, we must always remember the good things that the various communities in our land have done for each other. Let us not forget that Sri Lanka is home to all the major religions of the world. For the majority of our people it is the ancient and permanent home of the doctrine bequeathed to mankind by the Lord Buddha, the Prince of Peace; the teaching of Jesus Christ, also the Prince of Peace, has been followed in Sri Lanka by our Christians for many centuries, our Muslim community pursues the creed of the great Prophet who also sought peace and goodwill and brotherliness, comradeship among all peoples who adhere to that faith. Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world inspires the devotion of the majority of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Over the centuries these religions, philosophies, faiths, have co-existed in peace. Many foreigners visiting Sri Lanka note that cheek by jowl we have a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, a Mosque, a Hindu temple - all within a hundred metres of each other. We have many such configurations of religious places in this city and elsewhere in the country.

Visitors have marvelled at the capacity of our people for living together while the same philosophies, faiths, and religions in other lands have created division, acrimony and war. We have a great blessing. We have not had religious wars in our country. Buddhists worship at Kataragama and other Hindu temples. The adherents of many faiths seek succour at St Anthony’s, Kochchikade. Do we not then have a foundation on which a lasting edifice of understanding and empathy among our peoples can be built and preserved?

We have made mistakes, grievous mistakes. Let us never be afraid to say so. For the process of reconciliation to be meaningful we must openly recognise the fact that we have made mistakes. We have made collective mistakes. Some of our mistakes have been compounded by further mistakes.

We have gone to the brink of chaos. For some time we have hung precariously on that brink before miraculously drawing back. If we give ourselves time, patience, goodwill, understanding, which is what the Sudu Nelum Movement attempts to do, we will not go down that perilous road again. We will see well in advance that there are looming difficulties ahead, there are pitfalls, there are precipices. We will learn to avoid them. There was a time when we did avoid them.

More recently we have ignored them. We have careered headlong, foolishly, down a dangerous path, without pause or thought, looking only to short-term gains. Consider the price we are paying now for the self induced myopia of the past. I believe strongly, 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. It is not too late. What that cause requires is vision, direction, energy, a purposeful drive towards a noble goal. I believe that we have enough people in this country who will rise to the occasion. It is happening now and we must do everything we can to see that process gather so much momentum that thereafter it will always be irreversible.

In my maiden speech in Parliament in August 1994, I said that the mass of the Sinhala people are not racist. They never were. If it could ever have been said that they were, the events that occurred in 1993 and 1994, showed conclusively that they were not. I stand by that statement.

My assessment today remains exactly the same. What has happened from time to time is that this basic reservoir of goodwill that exists among the great majority of the Sinhala people has been damned or diverted for reasons of expediency, for temporary gain. That can happen to any people. That has happened to many people right through history.

No nation inherits a legacy of perfect rectitude. All have erred, all civilisations have flaws and faults. We should be sad, that our recent past has been seriously marred by the brutal treatment meted out to a minority. But I am confident that those days are over.

We must remember, that if we look around us we will see that each and everyone of us at some time or another experienced goodwill, friendship, decency, understanding from a neighbour, a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger, completely irrespective of what community he or she belongs to. In July 1983 horrible events occurred. They must be faced squarely even at this point of time. We all know that the events of Black July in 1983 contributed to a very large extent to the predicament the country finds itself in now.

There are many people who were responsible for those events who have gone unscathed, unpunished, never brought to book. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Tamil people were murdered, mutilated, humiliated, their possessions looted and burnt. The famous Jaffna Library was destroyed. Can one ask them to forgive and forget. Forgiveness is, perhaps, an attribute of divinity; the ability to remember, not to forget, to nurse long memories is very much a mortal quality. How many thousands of people went away from this country, went away in the firm belief that reason had fled our shores, that evil had become entrenched, that there would never again be justice and dignity for the Tamil people.

Those who suffered may hold that view till the end of their days; perhaps nothing can be done about that. Such events must never be allowed to happen again in our country. I believe, that they will never happen again because that is one lesson everybody in all our diverse communities has learnt. The kind of holocaust, that occurred is totally destructive of our society. The consequences are incalculable. Terrible seeds, dragon’s teeth, were sowed in our soil.

What we are trying to do now, what the Sudu Nelum Movement is trying to do, is to see to it that once again, as it was before, all the people of our country collectively resolve that a minority shall never again be bullied and humiliated. We have gone through many problems - insurrection, the disaffection of the young. Many of those problems are caused by a lack of awareness, they are rooted in political and socio- economic inequalities that could perhaps be redressed.

But the other kind of violence that springs from a needlessly heightened awareness of ethnic division is something we can finally put behind us, never to witness again. During that terrible period, you will all recall, or you would have heard, that there were many, many instances of decent conduct, of good neighbourliness, of basic human compassion on the part of many Sinhala families towards the Tamils who had been so brutally treated. There are many Tamil homes that remember that very well thereby giving hope that an older philosophy based on trust and goodwill can be resurrected. The goodwill is there. It can never be exhausted.

There was a time, many decades ago, before we achieved independence, when great Tamil leaders, political leaders, fought valiantly, not merely for independence, but for the rights of the Sinhala people. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was one outstanding member of that generation. That was many years ago. More than 70 years ago. But there are still some people who know that chapter in our history. It is good to recall episodes of that kind. The Sudu Nelum Movement will revive memories of the many good things that the communities have done for each other.

Now we come to a time, when we are attempting once more to make a modest start in trying to forge a basic understanding between the major parties in this country, trying to overcome that inherent flaw in confrontational democracy which leads to chronic schism. We are trying 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. We hope very much that we will succeed.

There may be those who do not wish us to succeed but I would like to think, indeed I believe, that there is only a minuscule minority, if you count heads, who would wish to see us fail. Letters have recently been exchanged between the President and the Leader of the Opposition which herald an agreement to adopt a bipartisan, consensual approach to the resolution of the conflict that has plagued our country.

It takes courage for our leaders to make an arrangement of this kind because it involves renouncing the prospect of extracting short-term gains from an issue which so vitally affects the future of the country. These arrangements reflect a new mood in the country. They have their genesis in what Her Excellency did in 1993 and 1994.

In more than one election campaign in those years she spoke to the people openly, freely, without fear, and said to them: this is what I believe in, we must bring an end to the war, we must seek a political solution to the grievances of the Tamil minority: now I ask you to judge. Others may believe in another approach. In a democratic society it is one’s right not only to hold but also to profess any belief, and as long as you profess it peacefully it is your right to keep on professing it.

But it took courage to make that proposal to the people because for too long our politicians have been content to wait and see- to see who says something first, who puts out a piece of paper first. One side merely reacts to what the other does. The approach has been to say not what ought rightly to be said but what it is most expedient to say in the context of short-term political gains in the confrontational era in which we live in our democratic society.

But what Her Excellency did in those years was something totally different, and you will recall what happened as far as the people were concerned, especially the Sinhala people. Given every opportunity to renounce, to denounce, to refuse to accept what she said, they did the contrary. They exhibited that spirit I spoke of a moment ago. They drew on that vast reservoir of goodwill, decency, good thinking and reason that lies embedded in the collective psyche of our people.

Again in the agreement that was concluded a few days ago, the same spirit comes through. The leaders have, in effect, said: let us take that particular bull also by the horns.

On such significant, if not historic, occasions, it is good to offer praise where praise is due.

We must celebrate publicly those moments in public life which promote the unity of our people. I would like to say that there are many in the United National Party, and in other parties, who share the belief that peace can come in our country with justice and fairness for all, and that a common attitude to our national problem can and must be forged. To all of them, and especially to the Leader of the Opposition, I would like to pay my own tribute for having risen above the party politics of the day.

Now, there is some speculation as to what these letters mean. There are people who ask, what next? - to which my short reply is, so what about what’s next? In the long history of a country, of a problem, only the foolish would expect that on the morrow a beautiful flower will bloom in a garden ruined by neglect. No sensible achievements come in haste to capture a headline or to placate some group or other. No responsible government will barter the future of the country just in order to prove that one is capable of decisive action.

For too long we have seen how when we act in haste we go headlong down a path that has taken us to the brink of disaster, and then we hang on precariously, waiting for rescue from somewhere. So I say to those people, what is the hurry, let us rejoice for a moment. It may be a brief moment, who knows, let us rejoice that there has been a new attitudinal approach, adopted consciously, deliberately by our major parties representing millions of our people.

Some might wonder whether suddenly the Government is going to barter away half the territory of the land. I do not understand why such thoughts should be entertained.

I would like to say to the armed forces who have for so long fought valiantly, under daunting circumstances, sometimes under circumstances of great hardship and deprivation, to preserve the unity and integrity of the country. and to the the families of those heroic men who have died in battle, they are not going to be betrayed. Most emphatically not. Are they to have fought and died in vain? That is unthinkable.

A large portion of the country is not going to be handed over on a silver platter to a small group of men who do not observe a single scruple of democratic behaviour. What is there to fear? The country is led by a person who enjoys a handsome popular mandate, who has already demonstrated not merely sagacity but courage. You need courage to say yes, you need courage to say no. You need wisdom for both. So I say to those people that if they have goodwill towards our country, then they should rest content in the belief that our affairs are in good hands, and that no significant developments will take place concerning the ethnic question without the concurrence of the Opposition.

I started by saying that I have a great belief in the innate goodness of our people. I have a strong belief that we are going to see the wellsprings of that goodness restored and replenished. I think we are at the dawn of another freedom. Next year we celebrate the 50th year of our freedom from colonial rule. In 1956 S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike said that he would strive to give the country freedom of another dimension, not merely political freedom on paper, but freedom from want, freedom from poverty, freedom for hunger.

Those were the goals that he set himself. The path that he carved out is one that we have trod for many decades. Sri Lanka has a noteworthy record in the social field - literacy, education, health, welfare. Finally, there is yet another dimension of freedom that we must strive to create in our country. It is the freedom of the spirit. I would say with Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depth of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward into ever widening thought and action - into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.

Continue to the News/Comment page 5 - The cat, a bell and a few strategists

Return to the News/Comment contents page

Go to the News/Comment Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED Plus Sports

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to