5th December 1999

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Tribute to A.C.S. Hameed

Courageous man of peace

By Bradman Weerakoon

AC.S. Hameed who passed away suddenly last month will always be remembered for the sustained effort he made towards negotiating a political settlement to the ethnic conflict.

He was centrally involved in at least three of the major attempts made in the past 15 years to resolve Sri Lanka's intractable armed conflict through negotiation - namely the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, the Premadasa- LTTE talks of 1989/90 and the All Party Conference of 1990 -1992, of which he was vice-Chairman.

It comes as no surprise therefore that one of the last roles he would play was to lead the discussions on behalf of his party at reaching a bi-partisan political consensus on the ethnic question. Both by temperament and ideology he was ideally suited to play the part of mediator and peacemaker.

Almost alone among the non-Tamil political figures of the South, A.C.S. Hameed was regarded by the Tamil leadership as a credible personality with whom they could negotiate as and when the opportunity presented itself. This was not only because of his fluency in the Tamil language which enabled him to communicate in their idiom, while at the same time interfacing with the Sinhalese, but also due to his innate capacity, as a person belonging to a minority community himself, to empathise and understand the varying positions taken up by the Tamil opposition.

It is well known that he not only was trusted by the moderate Tamil leadership which was represented in Parliament but also enjoyed the rare distinction of knowing, and having had discussions on more than one occasion, with Prabhakaran, the reclusive and undisputed leader of the extremist LTTE. Mr. Hameed's loss therefore at this time, when a fragile window of opportunity appears to be opening for talks between the southern political leadership and the LTTE is particularly to be regretted.

While Mr. Hameed like almost all of Sri Lanka's politicians whose lives and actions are subject to intense public scrutiny - the inevitable consequences of a lively and imaginative media and a highly volatile and politically educated electorate- did have his critics, few would gainsay his whole hearted devotion and commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict that had wracked the country especially in the last two decades.

He had many things on his side in this respect. His early career experience as a teacher, his many years of unbroken representation as a member of Parliament of a rural electorate in the heartland of the Kandyan region, his able tenure of public office as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Education and Minister of Justice, and the many executive positions he held in the political party -the UNP - to which he belonged for over 40 years, all gave him a background of historical knowledge, acute awareness of the sensitivities involved and above all, a personal acquaintance of the political actors concerned which were unrivalled by any other contemporary politician. Above all, his identity as a Muslim -an ethnic community which not only represented eight per cent of the country's population but also resided vulnerably scattered as small minorities in almost all of Sri Lanka's nine provinces - gave him an unique and crucial perspective on the manner in which the country's post-colonial ethnic problems should be justly and durably resolved.

Accordingly, his basic position and the framework through which he projected his work, and proffered his advice to the highest leadership in the country, was that of an united country with a form of government that permitted the greatest possible latitude to pluralism and the emergence of institutional mechanisms both at the Centre and the periphery which encouraged the willing and active political participation of the varying strands that made up the Sri Lankan polity.

In his life and work he endorsed in several ways the thinking of the liberal intellectual and the processes of management of plural societies that have now come to be known as the principle of subsidiarity.

One of the more serious challenges to his lifetime's work on the ethnic question comes from those who question his apparently relaxed and laid-back approach and style in the actual conduct of the negotiations he was from time to time engaged in. But to those who knew and worked with him at these times there apparently was good enough reason for his adopting a strategy of gradualism and flexibility.

For one thing the intensity of the armed conflict, the deepening polarization between the Sinhala and Tamil people that the conflict had itself engendered, and the stereotyped responses between the communities that had developed through years of confrontation, necessitated in his view, a cooling- off period and the building of trust and confidence between the protagonists if there was going to be genuine progress. He was therefore willing to sacrifice time and energy to preliminaries which others impatient for quick results found irksome. The obvious irritation with this methodology, of political personae like the late Ranjan Wijeratne, for example, in the period of the Hilton talks in 1989/90 is a case in point.

But patience and unceasing dialogue were not the only tools in his armoury. When decisive and speedy action was necessary he was not the least averse or dilatory in taking it. A.C.S. Hameed's personal exertions and display of personal courage in flying to Jaffna for one last desperate effort to preserve the Peace when everything else was breaking down in June 1990 was one such outstanding example. Whether the gunfire that accompanied his hasty and unsuccessful departure from Palaly airport that afternoon was that of hostile LTTE cadres or a pre-emptory warning volley by troops manning the airfield perimeter is a matter of some contention. Whatever it be, the lesson that peace- making is a risky venture that needs to be engaged in with circumspection is something to be learned.

Seen in this light A.C.S. Hameed's ceaseless engagement in working for peace, reconciliation and harmony in a critically divided society signifies a singular and courageous contribution in these difficult times.

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