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Economic development alone will not satisfy minority grievances

An Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala by Namini Wijedasa

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala at Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University - Mar 2010-pic courtesy: GWU

Jayantha Dhanapala, one of Sri Lanka ’s most eminent retired diplomats and a former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs, warned last week that filling a man’s pockets or stomach will not make him forget his political or human rights. Excerpts from the interview:

How is Sri Lanka faring on the foreign policy front?

We are facing perhaps one of the gravest challenges since the Indian challenge to us which culminated in the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.

There has been the cumulative impact of the panel of experts’ report of the UN secretary general, the Channel 4 documentary and The Cage by Gordon Weiss. I have seen and read all these three important elements in the campaign to accuse Sri Lanka of war crimes and general violations of humanitarian law and human rights. The government has now has shown some maturity in transitioning from personal abuse of the UN secretary general, and the questioning of his authority to appoint the panel of experts, to actually voting for his re-election with fulsome praise by Dr Palitha Kohona at the Asian Group meeting. So there is recognition that the secretary general should no longer be abused personally when he does something you disagree with but that you must deal with these things pragmatically. I’m glad that finally wisdom has dawned, first of all in our ministry of external affairs and subsequently in other higher places in government.

How would you assess our reaction to accusations of war crimes?

There appears to be some acknowledgement that the charges about Sri Lanka are in the public domain and have to be addressed. They can’t be wished away and they can’t all be attributed to nasty people who make dirty accusations about our country. They have to be confronted. At a recent meeting in New York , Dr Palitha Kohona and Maj Gen Shavendra Silva did make a very creditable effort to defend the Sri Lanka point of view. I don’t know whether they convinced the audience but at least they confronted the accusers. Likewise, they spoke at another event at which the director of the Channel 4 report presented his documentary. This is very good but not enough. We must stop the knee-jerk, emotional reaction to condemn critics of Sri Lanka as being hired by the Tamil disapora, the rump of the LTTE abroad and other denigratory phrases that are used. We must see that they could constitute a very serious challenge to our national interest. My strong recommendation, which was there in the Friday Forum statement on the panel of experts’ report, is that there has to be a domestic investigation by Sri Lankans of these allegations.

Do you find the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission inadequate?

The LLRC, much as I support what they are doing… I gave evidence before it… and as much as I have confidence in some of the members of the commission, I know that their mandate is a limited one. It’s not as extensive as that which is covered by these people who are accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes and other violations. It is confined to a certain period, it is also focused on reconciliation and, let’s face, it the whole intent of the LLRC was to point a finger at the UNP for what it did during the ceasefire period.

What would be the ideal composition of a local investigative body?

We have still very eminent judges in this country who have retired.

Are you recommending a quasi judicial mechanism?

It has to be. I personally don’t think an international investigation is necessary when we have perfectly capable people in this country who can investigate, provided they are given the independence, the facilities and the budget. But there has also got to be credibility which derives from the personalities of the people appointed as well as the assurance that whatever they report will be published and action will be taken. In the interim report of the LLRC, recommendations were made which were eminently sensible and humane, and which would have been a step in the process of reconciliation that the government talks about. The president accepted the recommendations very promptly, to his credit. A committee was appointed, the usual bureaucratic game, presided over by Attorney General Mohan Peiris, but we have still not heard about implementation. This, itself, is going to cut at the root of the credibility of the LLRC! What guarantee have we got that a) the report will be published b) that it will be implemented if the interim recommendations, which were very, very simple, are not implemented.

Which recommendations are you particularly concerned about?

They asked that the names of those who have been detained be published. This would have alleviated the mental agony of families who don’t know whether the disappeared youth and males in their family were killed or are in detention. All your proud claims about economic development in the north and east, and of having rehabilitated some of the child soldiers, are rendered meaningless when you can’t do a simple thing as reveal the names of these people. These flaws in our record can easily be rectified and it is sad these people who sit in power don’t realise that simple gestures like this can mean a lot to the families of the minorities who have been affected by the war. It is possible that some of these detainees are as guilty as hell for collusion with the LTTE and for various acts of rebellion against the elected state. Then frame charges and punish them. Don’t let them languish, it’s like Guantanamo ! We were righteous in our indignation about what happened at Guantanamo but aren’t we doing the same thing? We have to really clean up our act in a lot of these areas.

At what forum could there be international action, if any, against Sri Lanka ?

The challenge can take place in international bodies such as the Security Council but we are fairly assured that, because of our friendship with some of the permanent members, we are likely to be sheltered from any Chapter 7 resolution against Sri Lanka which is condemnatory and punitive. We are also fairly confident that in the UN Human Rights Council we will not be the subject of a punitive resolution.

Why not?

The Non-Aligned Movement is still in a majority in the Human Rights Council. The minister of external affairs made a strange statement saying that twenty-two NAM members are in support of us. He forgets that there 116 NAM members so 22 out of 116 is not a sufficient majority. But generally the NAM feels identification with Sri Lanka , which is one of the pioneers of the NAM and a former chairperson. I think we are relatively safe but I don’t think we should be complacent about it. We have to take our case to everybody including those that we perceive to be our opponents. Where we are vulnerable is with regard to bilateral actions. The election of a Tamil woman, and a highly articulate one at that, to the legislature of Canada , albeit from an opposition party, is symptomatic of what could happen in future. There is a growing political power of expat Tamil communities who feel a sense of grievance against the government of Sri Lanka . This is either because they think there is Sinhala Buddhist triumphalism on our part or that the destruction of the LTTE was done on terms which were not acceptable to them and that we have not followed it up with a political solution.

Are you referring to action against Sri Lankan leaders and officials in domestic courts?

Yes, and also in domestic legislatures. The most clear and recent example is the decision of Howard Berman’s International Affairs Committee. It is possible for people like Berman to be converted to our case if we have a good case. There are other Western nations with significant expatriate Tamil elements that are a vocal and potent influence. Just as much as other minorities have helped to shape and influence US and British policy towards the countries from which they came, the same thing will happen. This can affect our fundamental economic interest. Until such time as we make a huge shift, which is like turning an enormous ship around, the pattern of our imports and exports remains Western oriented, the pattern of our tourism is largely Western oriented, the pattern of our investment is Western oriented and so is the pattern of our trade. You can’t immediately jettison all of this. If people are going to impose sanctions on us, it will hurt.

But the US assistance towards Sri Lanka is not significant.

It’s true that the aid package from the US is not so great. But there may be other more significant pieces of the economic cake that might be deprived to us if this snowballs. There is that danger, unless we take that action. Nobody really knows what happened in the concluding stages apart from the soldiers and those who were present on the ground. Let’s find out. I think this total denial is ridiculous. To say no civilians were killed beggars belief! We are painting ourselves into a corner with these Cloud Cuckoo Land theories. Somebody must get serious about it and find out what really happened. If there were no violations of international humanitarian law, fine. But if there were, say, one or two people who did some terrible things, then let’s find out who they were.

In a report released this week, Channel 4 has made further accusations against our military. It is difficult to believe such horrific abuses took place.

We have heard about the fog of war… various items of bestiality shrouded by the fog of war, not only in our war but in other wars. But what is sad is that the fog of war is extending into a fog of peace so that even when we have closed that sad chapter, we are being haunted by what is supposed to have happened. Let’s lay it bare and have a final accounting so that the consciences of the people of Sri Lanka can be clear. Yes, maybe there were one or two incidents but that does not mean the entire army was to blame. It’s a very legitimate exercise. We are not impugning the honour of our army. They did a magnificent job in beating this ruthless, bestial enemy.

Does the result of the recent local government poll in the north reinforce the need for the president to take an initiative?

Absolutely! We have already started a dialogue with the TNA. That should continue with some sense of urgency. We can’t let the minorities feel they have lost status in this country in terms of power-sharing, in terms of their fundamental rights. We know that in many police stations, still, the right to use their own language is not being implemented. We know that land is a serious issue, that there are evidently a lot of investments in land developments in the north and east which ignore the rights of minorities. There are allegations of demographic changes taking place, all of which are serious questions. TNA MP Mr Sumanthiran recently tabled a statement in parliament while Mr Sampanthan had an adjournment motion during which he produced a litany of charges against the government. I’m not saying all those charges are true but let’s have a reasoned response instead of dismissing them as coming from a party which once upon a time were so cowed by the LTTE that they adopted LTTE policies. The situation has changed. The people of the north have elected these people by over 70 percent and in some cases 80 per cent. You have to accept the democratic verdict. We accept it when it comes to the rest of the country but ignore when it comes to the east and to the north.

Could we not win over the minorities with development?

We seem to be making a hugely mistaken assumption that economic development alone will satisfy minority grievances. This is a fundamental misreading of history. If you look at ethnic problems throughout the world, ethnic problems and the question of ethnic identify exists in the most developed countries. The Balkans was quite developed. I have visited Yugoslavia before the breakup and I was amazed. They had 20 million tourists and they were doing very well. They were bidding in developing countries for tenders and yet the Balkans broke up because of the strong ethnic identities. Look at what’s happening in Belgium between the Walloons and the Flemish speaking people; in Spain , with the Basques, and in so many other developed countries. Filling a man or woman’s pockets and filling their stomachs does not make them forget their political and human rights as ethnic or religious minorities. So we must not assume that because we are having development-and we are getting development done in the north and in the east, I have seen it with my own eyes-that is not going to help. The local polls results just this week showed that is not enough. People need to feel that they have equal rights with the rest of the country and we have to make sure that is satisfied.

Are we using India ’s position in the world to our advantage?

India is showing herself as gently as possible, no longer in the ham-fisted way in which Indira Gandhi functioned. India is telling us to please expedite a solution and trying to assist us in many ways. They have helped us with regard to the internally displaced, with regards to economic development, lines of credit and so on. A lot of this is happening but we seem to be not taking that message. courtesy: LakbimaNews


  1. TRN says:

    Refreshing article with words of wisdom.

    Focus on the reality and focus on the future.

    I hope the higher ups listen to Jayantha Dhanapala’s voice.

    Thank you for speaking like a true patriot JD. Where have the great diplomats gone ?

  2. SriLankan says:

    Tamils in the North do not want to be second class citizens in this country relying on handouts from the President and his family. They do not want to live in a gilded cage guarded by the military and war lords. They want to enjoy the full fruits of freedom just as any citizen in the rest of the country.
    The President should take heed of advise given by international scholars of the stature of Dr Jayantha Dhanapala in order to get out of the current impasse.

  3. Rana says:


    Why took examples from european countries like Balkans,Basques etc… That is the mistake of you sir. You are in Europe,USA or UK all the time. Take examples from asian countries like Malaysia,Singapore,Thaiwan or even India. If there is any ethnic problems,insurrections in these countries? It is happening only in SL, in this region. Please tell me why?

  4. Sunil Siriwardene says:

    Thank you Jayantha for your enlightning iterview Your unbiased opinions re the conduct of our foreign policy is much admired.The treatment of tamil dtainees without any hope of any a decent fair trial as you admit is really disgusting., Your comparison of our prisons to that of Guantanomo shows that we a Buddhist Caring people have lost all sense of decency.Why wont this Govt publish the names and whereabouts of these detainees?. The poor relatives and their wives and Children need some closure. Are they dead or alive?Their must be an end to emergency rule. Is this a pretexr for dictatorial rule. Wish you come back and advice these external affairs people who are nothing but yes men.; some of them only relatives with no qualifications nor do they know the fine art and skills of Diplomacy.

  5. monkey says:

    First of all the TNA does not represent the minorities of sri-lanka. The sinhalese are 76% of the popultion, muslims 10% up country tamils 5% and others 1%. The sri-lanka tamils are a mare 8% of the sri-lanka population. So over 92% of the sri-lanka population including minoroties are not represented by the TNA nor do they want ‘self rule’, exclusive rights and every other nonsense under the sun as the TNA wants! The international busybodies, muckrakers and international trouble makers should be told by the sri-lankan govt in no uncertain terms that over 92% of the sri-lankan population are satisfied in terms of political solutions since they are happy with the provincial council system of devolution of power which is functioning at present and does not want to go any further than that. These international busybodies must be told that you cannot demand anything I repreat anything at the expense of over 92% of the sri-lankan population. The TNA must accept this reality and stop demanding every other nonsense under the sun including exclusive rights and self rule at the expense of over 92% of the sri-lanka population. The TNA as way of making amends should first invite back the sinhalese and the muslims that prabhakaran threw out from the north as a gesture of goodwill at least.

    The provincial council system and the 13th amendment is the political solution. The sri-lanka population are not ready to go beyond this. The TNA should accept this and move on.

  6. monkey says:

    The sinhalese 76%, muslims and malays 10%, up country tamils 5% and others 1% together consitute over 92% of the sri-lanka population. The sri-lankan tamils constitute only a mare 8% of the sri-lanka population. Over 92% of the sri-lankan population which includes minorites are not in agreement with the TNA demanding self rule, exclusive rights and every other nonsense under the sun at the expense of over 92% of the sri-lankan population. These absurd and crazy demands must stop. Besides, there is already a political solution in terms of the 13th amendment to the constitution and the setting up of the provincial councils system. The international busybodies, international muckrakers and troublemakers should be told by the sri-lanka govt in no uncertain terms that the over 92% of the sri-lanka population is happy with the provincial council system as the political solution but is not ready to go beyond that.

    The TNA must accept that over 92% of the sri-lanka population while happy to accept the provincial council system as the political solution is not ready to go beyond this. The TNA should therefore stop demanding self rule, exclusive rights and every other nonsense under the sun. the TNA if it really wants to make amends they should invite back to the north those sinhalese and muslims that prabhakaran threw out to show at least their good will.

  7. Rationalman says:

    Rana…you say…”Take examples from asian countries like Malaysia,Singapore,Thaiwan or even India. If there is any ethnic problems,insurrections in these countries.”

    I don’t know about any Tamils in Taiwan, perhaps you could illuminate us. The reason why there no ethnic Tamil problems in India, Singapore or Malaysia is because, other Indians, Singaporeans and Malaysians merger, kill or rape the Tamils living there on a regular basis, like what the Sinhalese did to the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983. Perhaps the Sinhalese are far, far less civilized than the Singaporeans, Indans and Malysians?

    As far as Singapore is concerned I think I can point you to a clear answer… “In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid – racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.”” and ….

    I hope I have answered your question.

  8. Rationalman says:

    Monkey, the Tamils consist of almost 12% and along with the Indian Tamils consists of 18 % of the Ceylon population.

    So get that number right and please don’t presume to speak for anyone other than the Sinhalese.

    “The TNA must accept that over 92% of the sri-lanka population while happy to accept the provincial council system as the political solution is not ready to go beyond this. The TNA should therefore stop demanding self rule, exclusive rights and every other nonsense under the sun. the TNA if it really wants to make amends they should invite back to the north those sinhalese and muslims that prabhakaran threw out to show at least their good will.”

    This is the kind of arrogant nonsense that got you people messed up in the first place. keep on repeating it and history will repeat itself.

    And as for the provincial council system, I doubt even 50% of the Sinhalese are in favor of it

  9. Kanda says:

    “……there are people in this country who can investigate, provided they are given the independence, the facilities and the budget…”

    Who are these people? Could you name a few with back-bones on top of those qualities? Another hurdle would be that they would have families and relatives whose safety could not be comporomised. Don’t you recall the incident where the most venerable Mahanayaka Hamuduruwo thought enough is enough and opened his venerable mouth to give some advise and he had to retract his version and go with his tail between the legs? Words are easy and noble thoughts are dime a dozen. If any action taken employing local talent would necessarily have to fall within the specified parameters of the perpetrators and no more.

    When was the last time any such body was formed and investigated for any crime (corruption, misappropriation, wanton murder, misuse or abuse of power etc. etc.) committed in the country either under this government or previous ones? I do not recall any. Of course (C)ommissions were appointed, committees were assigned when the issues were voters sensitive and the reports, if there were any, consigned to WPB (Waste Paper Baskets)! By the time these commissions and committees complete or ostensibly complete deliberations, an unduly long period of time lapses. Time is a healer you know. And by this time several such issues come and go and the people (including opposition politicians) forget the issues altogether. Very convenient indeed! Sri Lankans do have the kind of amnesia that is more than suitable for the politicians.

  10. P.R.Kirubai says:

    Singapore a country with Chinese majority, theur national anthem is in Malay language, the currency notes has the head of the first president who is a Malay, the present president is a Tamil and the Deputy PM is a Tamil? These thijgs are not happening only in Sri Lanka ! Please tell me why???

  11. Ward says:

    Dear Dr Dhanapala

    Thank you – the country needs urgently several who can speak up their conscientious minds

    Please don’t let the government thrust an upside down Maslow triangle on the North trying to find its feet. Conscientious Sinhalese in Friday Forum, etc should oppose this anti-sustainable development – in all what he has been doing in the last five years the President has been indirectly saying that he won’t let Tamils raise their heads:
    Building a new life after the war in Sri Lank, 21 July 2011
    Construction work of Kilinochchi international sport complex begins today. 20 July 2011

  12. R Pathmanathan says:

    Very impressive and truthful answers Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala.

    You are indeed one of Sri Lanka ’s most eminent diplomats ever.

    All the best to you Sir!

  13. Self Rule is out of the questions as SL is small country and the Governement should look after the majority as well as minority with equal treatment or oppotunities.Dhanapala is pro western and he relies on US aid and so on and it is very little. We get more aids and grants from China, India and others. Uk economy is so bad as they cannot look after themselves and how can they give grants to us and it seems they are even reling on LTTE extorsion funds going to parties and and even media. President’s way of thinking is right to get support from far east and Russia. There is lot discrimination in offices and they look after their own and we should not grumble and this is not our own country and if we done like it we have to lump likewise the tamils have to get on with sinhalese and get on and country should not be divided.

  14. Justice & Fairplay says:

    To dismiss the likes of JD as ‘pro-west’ is part of the ailment we suffer from. Argue without insult – stating facts, not heresay or a fertile imagination should be the way.

    If we have trouble even acknowledging the capabilities of men such as JD and instead worship at the altar of the likes of DJ, then we are troubled mightily on the foreign front, for sure.

  15. Leon says:

    Excellent analysis Jayantha. I am sure that there are many Singalese people just like you and think like you, but they are silent.They should come out openly and express their views like you. I hope they will.

  16. Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan says:

    I am saddened by the fact the country is unwilling and/or incapable of using the enormous fund of
    expertise within our fold. Jayantha Dhanapala is a distinguished Lankan whose learning,, experience and diplomacy have served the UN/world with such distinction. And here we fail to use his talents at a time when we are so short of able men? Why? CBK once again showed her political savvy by gaining from Jayantha’s knowledge and global network. I believe she asked him to look over the Peace Secretariat.

    Whenever he speaks on matters of public interest JD holds the scales even. Truly a man acceptable to all sections of Lankan society.

    I too have often asked the question why is the Govt unable to provide a list of Tamils held. After all, the Govt tells the world it is “zero civilian casualties” from its side. This list is a request made by the TNA (now in their 10th round) in their talks with the GoSL team – whose members keep changing most of the time. The Constitution provides the State is responsible for every individual taken into custody. In one of the more recent TNA-GoSL talks relatives of those held were asked to report at TID offices in Colomb, Boosa and Vavuniya. The anxious relatives fled there. The officials passed the buck between the army and the Police. While over 40,000 are missing (my figures are subject to correction. They could be higher) the authorities said they are
    responsible only for a few hundreds. Most relatives returned dissappointed and in tears. As Jayantha says
    they could be guilty as hell as LTTE” but please confirm where they are held – if they are alive.

    If the public is to maintain faith in government bodies men like Mr Jayantha Dhanapala should be asked to head
    bodiess such as the vital one between the TNA-GoSL now in place. That is provided peace and unity is in the agenda of those at the helm of affairs.


  17. Soma says:

    “This is the kind of arrogant nonsense that got you people messed up in the first place. keep on repeating it and history will repeat itself.”

    There are lot of Tamils on the Web who are threatening Sinhalese that history will repeat if Sinhalese do not change and all that the underlying implication being, if history repeats, Sinhalese will suffer to a greater extent than Tamils. Rationalman tell me how rational is that?

  18. Soma says:

    Rana, if you want to understand why look at the distribution of Tamils throughout the world during last 200 years and the proximity of Tamilnadu with 60 million Tamils to Sri Lanka coupled with the fact that Tamils do not have an independent state of their own. As a result there is a fear element etched in the Sinhala psyche who consider that they are only 15 million in number limited to this small island. Prabakaran ( and the massive support he received) showed the Sinhalese what is in the cards in no uncertain terms.

    I agree with you that Sri Lanka should have adopted the Malaysian and Singaporean model now that lot of Tamils like you also seem to be favoring that.

  19. Thillaimpalam Rajendran says:

    Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan

    Such a good post! It touches my heart and brought tears to my heart.

    Yes, we need the answers … We need to know what happened to our loved ones …
    The sufferings are unending, the sleepless nights, the emptiness

    Thank you, Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan for caring ..May god bless you

  20. Prabodhani De Silva says:

    I do not understand why we Sri Lankans continue to be divided as ethnic groups in an era like today! Isn’t it high time for us to be recognized as Sri Lankans? Also there shouldn’t be political parties to represent ethnic groups, as it only makes the division of the nation!

  21. Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan says:

    If the Govt takes forward the thoughts of reader Prabodhani and the like to bring in legislation to ban political parties with racial and religious tones this is likely to engage the support of the more initiated across the racial and political divide. Even the Int’l community is likely to encourage such a move. Is our legislature mature enough to place this as a consensual piece of legislation to be passed unanimously? Who will bell the cat?


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