Challenging Authoritarianism with a Politics of Democracy

Full Text of Speech by Ahilan Kadirgamar, at an Event organized by the New York chapter of SLDF:

“Addressing Sri Lanka’s Undeclared War: Demanding Human Rights, Justice and Peace”, Brecht Forum, New York, 13 May 2007:


I would like to thank all those who have come to this event. It is good to see so many non-Sri Lankans who have come out in solidarity. And it is a great pleasure to speak at the Brecht Forum and in New York City, my home turf, which nurtured my activism for so many years.

The Sri Lanka Democracy Forum is now in its fifth year since it was founded in Toronto, Canada. A number of us have been working as part of a New York chapter here in the US over the last three years. In late 2002, when we founded SLDF, the situation was different, as war was not on most people’s minds. Indeed those of us who founded SLDF sensed an opening of a space to talk about democratization, human rights, pluralism and peace. During the war years of the nineties, that space in the expatriate community had shut down. We were told to either take the side of the Army or the LTTE, in a senseless war where the civilians suffered the most. After 2002, we tried to shift the emphasis back to the people. Unfortunately, we are back to a time when the war is back, and we are again told by the warring parties that you are either with us or against us. And indeed we are against them. We are against all the warring parties. This event as with similar events in other cities around the world and in Sri Lanka, where the space for such events continues to shrink, is with the perspective that we can not take sides in this war, that we can only take the side of peace with human rights, democratization and justice.

I am going to first talk about the intellectual and political influences on myself and more broadly on those who are active with SLDF, though I can not represent the politics of the broad forum that SLDF has become. Such a sketch of the political influences, will help me develop SLDF’s broader politics of challenging authoritarianism with democratization. All of SLDF’s positions of course are in our statements, arrived at by our twenty member steering committee.

In the public domain, I have been associated with the former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who shares my last name and is a cousin of my father. Other than at a couple family events a dozen years ago, I had not met him since, nor did he have any major political influence on me. But what I will say is that, his assassination is reprehensible, if a dissenting Tamil politician and a Foreign Minister, could be assassinated during what was called a time of “peace”, then it is telling about the space for Tamils to be involved in politics.

Political killings are the continuing curse on Tamil society perpetrated by the LTTE and now again committed by the Security Forces, the Karuna Faction and other armed groups. My close uncle and Principal of St. Johns College C. E. Anandarajah was assassinated by the LTTE in the mid-eighties. I must mention that my early years of schooling were at St. Johns College in Jaffna, and it is a shame that very few of its graduates who have done well for themselves around the world and many who have become educationists, but few who are willing to publicly condemn the assassination of their Principal. It is perhaps also telling of the culture of fear in the Tamil community. Now there is a much longer list, two years ago two more principals in Jaffna of Central College and Kokuvil Hindu College were assassinated on consecutive days. As with every Tamil family from Sri Lanka I have lost many more relatives, friends and neighbors to the multiple armed actors who have perpetrated violence in Sri Lanka. But the culture of labeling people as “traitors” and the related political killings have to be opposed at all cost. If dissenters are labeled as “traitors” then we should all be proud to be “traitors.”

Now to those who did have a major political influence on me, Kethesh Loganathan, friend, mentor and comrade, who was brutally assassinated by the LTTE, exactly a year after Lakshman Kadirgamar on 12 August 2006. Kethesh emphasized the importance of a people-centered politics and the need for the emergence of a Tamil democratic politics out of the tragic history of Tamil militant politics, when Tamil militancy transformed into mere militarism.

There is the inspiring work of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), who have been recently awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award. UTHR (J) has carried the banner of Tamil dissent over the last twenty years at enormous personal cost to not only its founders, one of whom Rajani Thiranagama was assassinated in 1989, but to the large network of activists in Sri Lanka who support them.

There is the powerful book by Kovinthan in Tamil, Pudiyathoru Ulagam (New World) written in one month on the run as dissidents from the Tamil militant group PLOTE in 1984, as they wrote about internal killings and torture, and pointed to the early brutalization of Tamil militancy. Kovinthan himself was later arrested and killed by the LTTE in the early nineties.

But my influences are not limited to Tamil intellectuals, there is the progressive Left tradition in the South. There are individuals like Hector Abhayawardhana who educated me on the politics in the South. There are the works of perhaps one of the finest Lankan social scientists Newton Gunasinghe, who developed a political economy perspective on issues in Sri Lanka. This tradition that came out of the influences of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and Althusser has also influenced my thinking.

So, for me as for many members of SLDF internationally it is a wide spectrum of progressive politics that has brought us together under the banner of democracy. And here it is not democracy in the sense of majoritarianism, or democracy purely in the sense of parliamentarianism that we can rely on. We know its pit falls, and we recognize the limitations of what is called “bourgeois democracy”. But we have to deepen and radicalize democracy to allow for local struggles to find meaningful change. Democracy in this sense is about people’s dignity, of individuals and communities however small, it is about peoples’ participation and justice. It is a democracy that respects individuals and communities rights. It is a democracy that will challenge authoritarianism at every level.

The great disservice of the Norwegian design of the peace process of 2002 was that it was a process that was based on polarization and exclusion. It polarized Tamils and Sinhalese and entrenched them into the State and LTTE camps. It excluded other minorities such as the Muslims, but also excluded and refused to recognize the differences within the Tamil and Sinhala communities. Such polarization and exclusion has led to the strengthening of authoritarianism. This framing of peace in Sri Lanka as between Tamils and Sinhalese has to be challenged and we need to shift it in the direction of a politics of democratization.

For those who even think within the Norwegian design of the process, there are many foundational flaws. Lankan activists would have told the Norwegians at the outset, that is if they were willing to listen, that their bi-polar process had foundational flaws even in addressing their push for peace as stability and no-war. Unless the LTTE was willing to transform politically with a commitment to work towards a negotiated solution within a parliamentary democratic context, and unless the LTTE was willing to allow for political pluralism and not put forward totalitarian claims such as “sole-representation”, and further respect human rights, there wasn’t going to be any serious process. Similarly, with the State, unless there was a consensus to move towards state reform through a new constitution and unless the State was willing to address impunity in Sri Lanka through security sector reform, the Norwegian process was not going to be sustainable.

The Norwegians were unwilling to address such concerns and thought they could strike a deal between the LTTE Leader and the Prime Minister at that time. Democratic rights and human rights concerns were sacrificed for stability. Political concerns relating to a constitutional settlement were sacrificed in the name of a narrow humanitarianism and development. Ironically, there were perhaps a broader discussion of constitutional reform and a permanent political solution during the warring years of the late nineties than there were during the early years of the peace process. Furthermore, as many of us have written critiques, the coupling of conflict resolution with neo-liberal economic reforms which backfired in alienating rural constituencies, not to mention the economic injustice of such neo-liberal economic reforms.

However, we can not blame the Norwegians or the main actors of the Norwegian process alone for where we are today in Sri Lanka; in a political, humanitarian and human rights crisis where authoritarianism is taking hold. The years of no-war no-peace soon after 2002 were a time when social movements for peace and democracy could have emerged, but we did not produce the kind of movements that could have challenged authoritarianism today. For that I think, all of us concerned about Sri Lanka have to do some hard soul searching.

It is to salvage what little can be salvaged out the Norwegian peace process that the focus shifted to the All Party Conference to find a Southern consensus to address Tamil and Muslim grievances and aspirations. But even that process has suffered a major setback with the proposals of the President and his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party put forward on May 1st. These proposals have set the clock back a few decades and it is telling of the lack of political will and seriousness on the part of the President to move on a political solution.

The war is back with a vengeance. And we are calling it an “undeclared war” to expose the hypocrisy of the Government and the LTTE, who both claim they are for a ceasefire and peace. As everyone knows there is neither a ceasefire nor peace, nor even committed steps in that direction. The predicament of civilians now calls for urgent attention on human rights concerns and that is what I would like to address next.

There are many critiques of human rights, its politics or the lack of politics, its limitations to address the concerns of the marginalized. But here, I would like to return to what we have learned in Lanka. UTHR(J) did not see human rights as merely writing reports followed by advocacy. They saw their human rights work as contributing to expanding democratic space, they did not see a major distinction between human rights work and a political critique of the ideologies of oppression in Sri Lanka, whether it be of Tamil nationalism or Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, whether it be from the LTTE or the State. My dear friend Kethesh saw human rights as central to a people centered politics, to turn Sri Lanka back from war, violence and brutality. He saw that without the basic freedoms such as the right to life, freedoms of association and expression, our ability to do any other form of politics will also be inhibited.

We know of the ongoing displacement of Tamil civilians in particular in the East, and the raging humanitarian crisis in the North and East with the government stepping up the war. And here we have to remember the myriad forms of elimination, displacement and exile. During the early years of the ceasefire, the LTTE eliminated many Tamil political activists. Tens of Tamil human rights defenders, who would have been speaking on behalf civilians today, had to flee the country into meaningless existence of exile. Humanitarian disasters and displacement do not occur in a vacuum, there is a definite politics of power behind it.

And this is where we appreciate the solidarity and concern of not only groups such as Human Rights Watch, but also more grassroots solidarity groups in the region and in the West. The Sri Lankan government has a Human Rights Minister, the LTTE has a Human Rights Secretariat and a Human Rights Representative. If the perpetrators of human rights abuses are trumpeting their human rights commitments, there is absolutely no reason for progressives to vacate the human rights space, rather, we have to galvanize all actors concerned about human rights into action.

Today, Sri Lanka is going through a dark period reminiscent of the late eighties and early nineties. We in SLDF have come out very clearly against the authoritarianism and militarism that has emerged in Sri Lanka and perpetrated by all the armed actors. We have come out strongly against the LTTE’s brutal elimination of dissent within the Tamil community, and the authoritarian tendencies of an emerging oligarchy in the South. We have opposed the inherent dangers of nationalisms backed by militarism, the LTTE’s unpardonable violence against the Muslim community and the Sinhala nationalist agenda backing the military efforts that are devastating Tamil civilians.

Challenging such authoritarianism on all sides perhaps requires a strong commitment to a radical democracy and the emergence of a people centered third force. If the moderates in Sri Lanka are to transform into a multi-ethnic progressive third force capable of challenging war and authoritarianism, it is a mammoth task that requires solidarity not only from Sri Lankan activists in the expatriate communities, but from activists from other countries as well. And here, I must reiterate the sad fact of the last twenty years, where the bulk of the active expatriate communities, rather than contributing towards democracy and justice in Lanka, they have encouraged war and authoritarianism. This event here in New York, I hope, is a step in the direction of changing that and moving in the direction of solidarity for peace, democracy and justice in Lanka.

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