Appeal in the name of Nelson Mandela to all the peoples of Sri Lanka

Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Text of Speech by M.A. Sumanthiran-Delivered at the Sri Lanka Parliament on Dec 7, 2013:

We convene today as the world mourns the death of that outstanding human being Nelson Mandela. He passed away two days ago, aged 95.

I wish to place on record our deepest condolences to his family, to the people and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. Mandela was not just a son of Africa, but of the whole world and we too suffer the loss.

While we mourn the loss of his life, we celebrate it with thankfulness to God for giving us Mandela as an example of one who fought for the rights of his own people, even taking up arms at one point in his life, but without ill-will against the enemy, and most of all, one who did not wreak revenge but corrected the wrongs and showed magnanimity in victory. It was that ushering in of true democracy, justice, magnanimity and the spirit of forgiveness that helped unite a fractured country.

I stand up to speak today on the External Affairs Ministry’s votes when this country’s foreign relations are at an all-time low. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that there has never been a time that was worse than this in terms of our image abroad, in our post-independence history. We discuss this vote hot on the heels of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Colombo, and the appointment of His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Chair of CHOGM for the next two years – not as head of the Commonwealth, as some seem to believe. The Queen will continue to head the Commonwealth. This event has been a bitter pill for us. It started with the Queen announcing that she will not attend the event in Colombo.

There were several previous attempts to change the venue on the basis that Sri Lanka was not an appropriate venue, given its human rights record. Sri Lanka, though, fought all of this and succeeded in hosting the event, and thought its success lay in only warding off these challenges. And now that the event has been held we seem to think that is victory for our foreign policy! And this happened even as we have had two resolutions already passed in the UNHRC and are staring at another possible resolution in less than 6 months away.

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Hon Minister, I would like to invite your attention to a cost-benefit analysis of hosting CHOGM in Sri Lanka: was it really a success? Apart from the Queen herself, several other Heads of Government did not turn up, some explicitly citing Sri Lanka’s appalling record of human rights. Heads of Government of Canada, the largest country within the Commonwealth and India, the most populous country, stayed away. In all only 23 Heads of Government, less than half the number, attended the event. Mauritius even sacrificed their turn to host the next meeting for the sake of principles. Many of those who attended came with apologies saying that they were coming precisely for the purpose of raising the human rights concerns. This hardly can be said to be an endorsement of our record.

What benefit have we derived from hosting this event other than the fact that Sri Lanka has been put on notice?

If no credible and independent investigations are carried out before March 2014, an international investigation into violations of international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws by both sides to the fighting that ended in May 2009, would become inevitable. Not that we are being given barely 6 months to do this – the resolutions passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2012 and March 2013 unambiguously stated what was expected of us. We have retorted with the customary bravado – rejecting all of this and insisting that we are paragons of virtue and that the rest of the world is doing all of this because they are envious of us!

I want to pose a question to this House and to the country. Why is it that we react this way when the world wants us to investigate serious allegations of violations of international laws? The parallel is that of a husband who says that his wife has gone missing, while the neighbours insist that he has killed her and buried her body in his backyard. If he is innocent he will let them come in and see for themselves, but if indeed their allegation is true he will not let them in. There is no war in the world that is fought cleanly. All wars are dirty. There are violations committed in every war, invariably, by both sides. We are not going to convince anyone by insisting that only the other side violated the rules of warfare. This holds true for the Tamil side also.

M.A. Sumanthiran MP

M.A. Sumanthiran MP

How can we then drag ourselves out of this quagmire and get on with our lives for the future? I suggest that we do this firstly by being honest with each other. Both sides must acknowledge that we did terrible things to each other, not just during the last stages of the war, not just during the 30 year period of violent struggle, but even before that. The LLRC did look at some of these, but in their anxiety to whitewash the Government on its conduct of the war, they lost their way. In any case, the government has only paid lip service and not shown any political will to implement the more serious of the LLRC’s recommendations.

This again brings to sharp focus the usefulness of a purely domestic mechanism. If we are able to come to a point of resolving the long-standing national question first, then like it was in South Africa, it may be possible to thereafter deal with other issues of justice by ourselves. If not we do need independent involvement in these processes since there is a huge trust deficit between the communities to make any purely domestic mechanism work.

Why is an independent international investigation anathema to us? Is it because we are worried about our own culpability? When the truth is that both sides have committed violations, we need not fear this the way we do now. When the details of this truth emerge through a truly independent inquiry, both communities – indeed all three communities – will be forced to deal with that truth. There will be no room for revenge at that time, but only for justice to the victims, reparations and a guarantee of non-recurrence. That will also then define the long-term political solution: how we should rearrange our governance structures to affirm the distinctiveness of the different peoples and to forge a truly meaningful unity without utilizing the political majority as an instrument of oppression.

I would also urge the Tamil people to use this opportunity for the long-needed introspection.

Where did we go wrong? Was the Jaffna Youth Congress wrong in boycotting the elections in 1931 insisting on poorna swaraj? Were our leaders wrong in rejecting the demand for federalism put forward by the Kandyan League to two imperial commissions? Was G G Ponnambalam wrong in calling for 50-50? And then supporting the Government after the passage of the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship Act? Was S J V Chelvanayakam wrong in calling for a federal state in 1951 and for a separate state in 1976? Were the leaders of the TULF wrong in accepting the District Development Council in 1981 and then not accepting the Provincial Council system in 1987? Were the Tamil political leaders complicit in the emergence of an armed struggle?

What about the Tamil youth? Were they wrong in commencing an armed revolt against the state? I think it is appropriate to quote Nelson Mandela on that decision ANC made back in 1961 on resorting to violence:

“It may not be easy for this Court to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence – of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country, and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in June of 1961, it could not be denied that our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing, and that our followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism….

At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence [in this country] was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.

This conclusion, My Lord, was not easily arrived at. It was when all, only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the Government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto published on the 16th of December 61, which is Exhibit AD, we said’, I quote:

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”, unquote

This was our feeling in June of 1961, when we decided to press for a change in the policy of the National Liberation Movement. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did”.
Was there ever a similar decision such as this by responsible Tamil political leaders for the use of violence as part of the struggle? I ask this question as one who does not believe in violence at all; but even those who think that the use of violence was justified must answer the question whether violence advanced our struggle for equality and freedom from oppression?

What about Tamil unity? Was our disunity exploited by the majority? Was Prabakaran wrong in killing members of fraternal armed groups? Was he wrong in ordering the assassination of Tamil political leaders, Sinhala political leaders and foreign political leaders?

Was there ever any justification for the attacks and killings carried out against civilian targets? Against Buddhist places of worship and inside Islamic places of worship? What about squandering opportunities to settle the political question when the LTTE was strong militarily? Were they wrong in acting in collusion with the UPFA at the 2005 Presidential Election and calling for a boycott? Were the Tamil armed groups including the LTTE guilty of forced conscription, particularly of children? What about the quislings? What about those senior LTTE leaders who are now well ensconced in the government’s bosom?

This is indeed a long list of questions. But can we avoid answering them and ever hope to be free?

A truly independent international inquiry will certainly assist us and our peoples to come face to face with many uncomfortable truths. There is no better time than today, when we celebrate the life of that icon of reconciliation who did not sweep the truths about his own ANC under the carpet, but brought out even the most uncomfortable truth to light, to call on all sides to our bitter conflict to move in the same direction. I do not think it is a coincidence that an offer of assistance from the Republic of South Africa is presently pending before us. This has been made consequent to an appeal by HE the President to the President of RSA, HE Jacob Zuma, to share their experiences and assist us in this regard. President Rajapaksa must be commended for inviting an international involvement so that the different peoples of this country can view the process with less suspicion.

There is intense suspicion on the Tamil side, not without justification, that this invitation has been extended solely for the purpose of overcoming the challenge facing the Government in March 2014 in Geneva. The Government must know that any such skullduggery will only boomerang on itself. If you make an honest effort to ascertain the truth and are prepared to enter a process with an open mind with the active assistance of our neighbor India and the efforts taken by the USA in the UNHRC and are willing to learn from the South Africans and apply those lessons, you will have our active support and participation in such a process of accountability and reconciliation. But so long as you continue with your present agenda of oppression and subjugation we will resist it with all our might.

We are an ancient people who put a premium on our dignity. We will not cow down to any form of oppression. But if you sincerely change your present direction and are willing to treat us as equals in our dealings with you, we will reciprocate and sit down with you to resolve the national question equitably and in a manner that will be acceptable to all the peoples of this country.

The Government agreeing to an international inquiry, or at least an international involvement in the process of resolving our differences will move this country forward leaps and bounds. Questions of accountability will never go away until we meet them squarely and sincerely. We do have a great opportunity now to harness all the goodwill in the world that is available to us and agree to a process under the aegis of the United Nations in March 2014. One hopes that the Minister of External Affairs will take this seriously, change course, advise the country accordingly and make history. We on our part will act responsibly and with genuineness and advise our people to participate in such a process in order to bring an end to the decades-old misery they have been suffering. We have less than 6 months to go before March 2014. But that is enough if we decide today to tread the correct path. I make this appeal in the name of Nelson Mandela to all the
peoples of this country, but notably to the President and the Government of Sri Lanka. At the time of his treason trial in 1963Nelson Mandela said, and I quote:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Thank you.