GoSL must recognise ‘collective rights of Sri Lankans’

Keynote Address by Hon. Bob Rae at ‘Remembering Kethesh’ 31 March 2007

Thank you very much Mr Chairman, and Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great privilege for me to have been invited to say a few words at this occasion. I can’t help reflecting on the fact that I think Kethesh would have expected what happened during brother Anandasangaree’s speech. I think he would have expected there to be a discussion and a debate. I don’t think he would be surprised at the emergence of continuing political controversy and discussion because this is so much of the life that he lived, so much of the engagement that he had as a political figure. From my observation, he was a political person to the tips of his fingers. He was deeply implicated in the struggle and saw his life from the lens, lived his life through that lens and tragically died through that lens. It’s because of his political commitment and his political courage that he is no longer with us.

I am very honoured to have been asked to speak because I don’t really come here so much as a public figure. When asked if I would come, I said I would for one simple reason, and that is my friendship with Kethesh. The last meeting that I had with him was a very memorable one. He phoned me at my hotel in Colombo and said that he had an urgent need for a private meeting, and could I have the meeting privately in a coffee shop where nobody would know that we were having the meeting. I was really surprised, but I said of course I would be glad to have the meeting. And I sat down and he said you have to help because a friend of mine may well be killed. I said explain to me why he will be killed? And he went through the description of the fact that he was a journalist, that he had been actively engaged in the struggles for democracy and human rights in the Tamil community; and could we find a way to getting him out of the country quickly so that he would be salvaged and be safe and would not be threatened. I did what I could. Let’s just say that we were able to do something in that instance. We were able to make a difference.

I mention this to all of you because I think that those of us who live outside, who are not part of the Tamil community and who are not Sri Lankans. To come from Canada and have a private conversation with someone who says the life of a dear friend of theirs is threatened and that they could well be shot is something that is a little bit outside our experience. In Canadian politics, you run for election and you win or you run for election and you are defeated. But once you have either won or defeated you go home and live your normal life, you don’t have to have bodyguards, you don’t have threats to your life, you don’t live your life in fear that you are not going to be able to get up in the morning and carry on your life. But that is very much a world which is lived in, that is a world which you find yourself, a world that many of you have found yourselves.

I can’t help but say on this occasion, that the very last conversation I had with Lakshman Kadirgamar who at that time was Foreign Minister, was a very vigorous one hour conversation about the country. I was sharing with him some ideas for the need for change in the governance and the need for greater openness on the part of the government of Sri Lanka and the respective changes that were required. And it was a very vigorous discussion and at the end of the discussion, he said to me, you know Bob, the trouble with this conversation is that you are a Canadian and I am a Sri Lankan Tamil, and you can never really understand from where you sit and your experience the threat that I am under. He then went on to say, I could be killed in my garden, I could be killed in my swimming pool. A month later he was. A month later he was assassinated.

So for Canadians, and for all of us, if you like, outside the country who have been so deeply affected by the country, and who have fallen in love with the country, and what to help make something happen, this occasion for me is a chance for me to say a few things. Not only about our dear friend who we lost, but also if I may, in the remarks that I am going to give which I hope are not too long, a few words, a few reflections on the struggle we have all witnessed over many many years. I knew Kethesh as an intensive, as a thoughtful man who was ready to speak ironically of his whole past, of his whole experience of Marxism, of the twists and of the turns of his life. He was a very proud Tamil, he believed profoundly in the recognition of his people, of the collective interest of the Tamil people. In the need to end the profound discrimination that has so deeply affected the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils.

But he was also very much a pragmatist, who in accepting his last job as a member of the Peace Secretariat, fought hard for the emergence of what he came to call “an enlightened self interest” of all Sri Lankan leaders to a resolution of the conflict that would lead to some kind of federal type constitution for Sri Lanka, where what he referred to as self rule and shared rule would be the order of the day.

My memories of him are very warm ones. It has already been mentioned, he was an exceptional intellect, he had a great capacity for thought, he was very interested in engaging, not in an argumentative way but in an intellectual way, with respect to the issues that were being spaced. His analysis was always thoughtful was always penetrative. How much we would all benefit today from his analysis of what is taking place. He had an ironic sense of humour, and a tremendous commitment to his friends, to his colleagues, and of course to his wife, Bhawani.

Like many of his contemporaries, like many of you, he was essentially obsessed with politics, because that was his life. He saw his role through a political lens, he lived his life through a political lens. And he was also obsessed with what he thought was ultimately the public interest, and that was what his life was all about. And there is little doubt, although we can argue as some have argued today about what happened. But there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that it is because of politics, that it is because of his commitments, that he lost his life. He could have chosen to lead a private life. He could have chosen to lead a life where he said I am going to run a business, or I am going to become a consultant or I am going to leave the country. I am going to simply become a private person. I am going to forget about this whole thing because there is nothing we can do about all of this. I am going to become a private person. He could have said that and could have done that. And he chose not to do that and that’s why he died. He died because of his public commitment. He died because of his commitment to the public interest. He died because he loved his people and because he loved his country. That’s why he died.

He was assassinated, and we use the term assassination to refer to the killing of a political person, to the specific targeting of one individual, who for whatever reason, his enemies believe, he is a threat to their cause, and to their position and to their goals. He was assassinated as so many others have been killed. And when we think of here when in the struggle for peace and justice in Sri Lanka. The struggle for peace and justice for the Tamil people, we have to understand that many many people have died in the struggle and not all of them have been killed by the Sri Lankan army or the military conflict. Many have been killed because of the internal struggle within the Tamil community and because the struggle for power within the Tamil community. Kethesh was one of them. We have to recognise, now, here the lapse of the ceasefire, that Sri Lanka has become a terrible, terrible killing field. Military jets bomb orphanages, villages, and hospitals, soldiers kill soldiers, political leaders are gunned down in their homes, children are killed in school buses, teen-age children are indoctrinated to strap a bomb around them, walk into those crowded spaces, and blow up themselves and dozens of others. It’s very hard to find the words to express the sadness and outrage that we all feel to describe the tragedy that is now taking place in Sri Lanka.

Because of who he was, and how he lived his life, Kethesh would have wanted any ceremony about him to focus on the country that he loved. I express my deep sympathy to his wife on their terrible loss. We must also re-commit ourselves to the cause of peace and justice in Sri Lanka today.

It is a truism that there is always, in life, a gap between words and actions. But nowhere is this gap truer than in Sri Lanka. We are still today waiting for meaningful action from the government of Sri Lanka on a new constitution. We are still waiting for the proposal that has supposed to have been coming for the last several years. The peace process, in my view, collapsed because of this incapacity for action, this unwillingness to take the next logical step that needed to be taken – by the government on real change, and yes, I would say, by the LTTE on recognizing the rights of other Tamils to their own political opinions – and this paralysis has now led to the humanitarian crisis we see today, thousands killed in the last year, two hundred thousand, at least, rendered homeless and refugees in the north and east, more beatings and disappearances, and children recruited into guerrilla armies under the nose of the government of Sri Lanka.

But I have to say there is lots of blame going around because the world itself watches and the world does nothing. What is happening in Sri Lanka is certainly as bad as anything happening in Lebanon or in Gaza. But the difference is that the television cameras of the world are kept away, and it is much harder to reach Batticaloa than it is to get to Beirut. But the destruction and loss of life are just as brutal. Its amazing, and Kethesh really understood this, in the politics of the world today it seems to really just depend on where can the cameras get to, where can the journalists get to in order to have blazing headlines as to the humanitarian crisis that is taking place? And because they can’t get to what is taking place in Sri Lanka, people are unaware of it, governments don’t respond to it, they don’t realise that it is a humanitarian crisis that is getting worse day after day. There is malnutrition, there are beatings, there are disappearances, there is homelessness, there is just as much a crisis there, as in any other part of the world that people read about or hear about on a worldwide scale.

From this meeting to honour the memory, of our brother Loganathan, we must recommit ourselves to the need for international engagement in Sri Lanka. We cannot allow the indifference to continue. In particular, I believe the Sri Lankan government must accept the presence of international human rights monitors in all parts of the country. There cannot be any part of the country which is a no-go zone. For the implementation of human rights, and for the monitoring of what is actually happening to the people. There is no exclusively military solution to this conflict. It is an illusion to think that there is a military answer to the conflict. There is no military answer to the conflict. Because already the price this past year has been too high. We have seen in this last year more deaths, more refugees, more malnutrition, more despair. None of these can be the answer. But for peace with justice to happen, the reality is, change has to come from all sides. The LTTE and the other organisations, the Karuna group, all organised groups that have got the possession of arms have to make the transition to democracy. The killing must stop as well; as much as the recruitment of children. And the world community must take its responsibility as well – a lack of focus, the lack of discipline, the lack of resources after the ceasefire agreement has helped the goodwill that was there slip through our fingers. I had the occasion to attend virtually every one of the so called negotiations that took place after the ceasefire and the reality of these discussions was that there really were no negotiations, there really were no deep discussions about change. There were no serious proposals on the table that will lead to further change from the government. There was a refusal to do that, an unwillingness to bring forward positive motions and positive events. And that in itself has made this process of considerable concern for people.

And finally I would say that the critical step that must take place is for the Sri Lankan government to recognise not only the individual rights of Sri Lankans but the collective rights of Sri Lankans. Not only the rights that pertain to one national group but the rights that pertain to all national groups. This has been the central question in Sri Lankan politics for the entire 20th century. How to create a country that reflects pluralism, that reflects diversity, that reflects the differences, that reflects the collective personalities of Tamils, of Hill Country Tamils, of Muslims, of Sinhalese. And that gets rid of this pathology of an excessive nationalism which never recognises the dignity and the difference and the personality of the other.

In the 20th century, the great conflicts which took place were often between empires and between countries. In our century, the great conflicts are inside countries, in Sudan, in Rwanda and Sri Lanka. And so we have this terrible tragedy of people who have grown up side by side, whose children played together in the schoolyards, whose lives were intertwined. And who because of this pathology of exaggerated nationalism, which denies the personality of others, has been allowed to fall into the spiral of death and violence and destruction. That is the spiral that we must break. And it is in honouring the memory of Kethesh Loganathan, that we go on to recognize the need to build a better world. A world in which everyone’s personality is recognized and a world in which everyone’s unique and collective personality is recognized.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that politics in Sri Lanka has become addicted to violence. The outside world has gotten used to lethargy. And indifference has become an addiction as well. These are all the things that must change.

My dear friend, you died believing in the possibility, and indeed the need for peace. Those of us who you left behind, must live with the same beliefs for which you died. Thank you.

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