For a just peace for all

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in November 2001. - RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in November 2001. - RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS

Lakshman Kadirgamar, 1932-2005.

ON August 12, Sri Lanka lost a crown jewel. Lakshman Kadirgamar, its Foreign Affairs Minister, strode the world's corridors of power with singular determination, leading his country's campaign against the terror network of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) much before the concept of "war on terror" entered the diplomatic dictionary. Within the island-nation he pushed for a just and dignified peace for all its peoples. Kadirgamar, 73, a Tamil, who saw himself more as a Sri Lankan, was shot dead by a suspected LTTE sniper, bringing to a tragic end a life lived during the best and the worst of Sri Lanka's times.

Born on April 12, 1932, Lakshman, as he was fondly known to friends in high places across the globe, was miles ahead of the average political aspirant. The brilliance he displayed as a student - he won the gold medal for the best all-rounder from the prestigious Trinity College in Kandy - was afire all his life. His ability to keep track of varied interests was matched by his eloquence in effectively articulating the nuances that punctuate Sri Lanka's bitterly divided politics.

Quick on the uptake, Kadirgamar brought to politics the qualities of the sportsman he was in his school days, when he won the colours for rugby and cricket. In essence, Kadirgamar's political life reflected a successful career transition in line with a simple axiom: leverage the past for the future.

Debating the fine points of law and putting across his brief with telling effect was something Kadirgamar was trained for and excelled in. To place Kadirgamar in Sri Lanka's history, a step back in time is essential. Ethnically mixed and socially stratified, the paradise that was Sri Lanka has always carried a baggage of economic and social history. Early access to English education saw the residents of the northern Jaffna peninsula make major strides. After Independence, Sinhalese leaders saw in it a political issue that needed correctives. The correctives, however, turned out to be ill-articulated and replete with destructive rhetoric and were often overtaken by the politics of self-destruction. This resulted in the flare-up of an issue that could have been sorted out through negotiation and mutual accommodation.

Sri Lanka's invisible social stratification meant that the island's major ethnic groups were to struggle within their respective social grids. Post-1956, political moves initiated to establish a unilingual state had the cumulative effect of entrenching the majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist viewpoint. History since the mid-1950s also brings out scores of instances when political expediency and outbidding of the rival aggravated the most pressing national problem, differences on the question of the nature of the state, throwing Sri Lanka into extreme despair.

SRI LANKA was at peace with itself when the young Kadirgamar passed the Bachelor of Law (Honours) with a first class in 1953 from the University of Ceylon. A year later he topped the Advocates Final Exam of the Ceylon Law College. In 1955, he was admitted to the Ceylon Bar.

A successful legal career saw him rise to the position of President's Counsel (1991), Honorary Master of the Inner Temple (1995), the Amnesty International Commissioner to investigate the Catholic-Buddhist crisis in Vietnam (1963), a consultant to the International Labour Organisation (1974-76), and Director, Asia Pacific, for the World Intellectual Property Organisation (1983-88) - before he began his first innings as Sri Lanka's Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994.

By the 1990s, the LTTE had bombed its way to stake its claim to be the "sole representative" of the Tamil community. When the People's Alliance (P.A.) led by Chandrika Kumaratunga swept the polls on the overwhelming support of the minority Tamils in 1994, there was hope that the ethnic conflict would be a matter of the past. That was not to be. Mutual suspicion and the known rebel tactic of sustained brinkmanship pushed Sri Lanka back into war after the LTTE's attack on the Trincomalee harbour in April 1995.

For the P.A., Kadirgamar was a walking statement that the island-nation was making a perceptible change from the decades of despair, the 1970s and 1980s. As Foreign Affairs Minister, Kadirgamar was its assertion to the outside world that Sri Lanka was beyond ethnic differences.

The suave and sharp Kadirgamar, a natural debater who was President of the Oxford Union (1959), would, in double quick time, dismiss being identified as a "Tamil" and take pride in calling himself "Sri Lankan". The outside world, nevertheless, saw in him a powerful statement that the majoritarian Sri Lankan state was a matter of the past. By marshalling facts, elaborating nuances and delivering them with impeccable eloquence, he won hearts across the world.

By the time Kadirgamar became Foreign Affairs Minister, the international image of the LTTE had changed as a result of its role in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the "liberation movement" of yesteryear had descended into being listed as an internationally banned terrorist organisation. There was a squeeze on the flow of finances to it. Significantly, the last major Bill Kadirgamar piloted in Parliament was on July 7 giving effect to the United Nations Convention on suppressing terrorist funding.

WITHIN Sri Lanka, Kadirgamar rose in the esteem of many but tumbled in the books of the LTTE. For a section of Tamils, as one who had crossed the LTTE's line, there was no comeback for the Foreign Minister. The fear of running against the view of the Tigers, the feeling of safety in following the pack, and a sense of hurt that he had "not taken up critical issues faced by the Tamils" such as the aerial bombing of a church and a civilian pocket and the disappearances of Tamils in Jaffna, were factors that drove a wedge between them and Kadirgamar.

While Kadirgamar would emphasise that he not be seen as "a Tamil Foreign Minister", he would place equal emphasis on freedom for all. Essentially, Kadirgamar eschewed ethnic segregation.

His international campaign for freedom for all peoples within Sri Lanka, however, was accompanied by boundaries on his personal freedom meant to ward off LTTE strikes. A fortified residence, a convoy that was a moving fortress and the inability to take to normal pursuits meant that Kadirgamar's was a life of political success amidst huge personal constraints. More than anything else, in Kadirgamar's own estimation, it was his role as Sri Lanka's campaigner-in-chief for sanctions against the LTTE's terror that earned him the Tigers' wrath. After the P.A. lost the 2001 general elections, Kadirgamar was Senior Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs. In an interview to The Hindu, on August 7, 2002, asked how he reacted to the LTTE's wrath, he said:

"I start by saying that I was at that time the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. I was not the Foreign Minister of any particular group of people. I cannot accept that concept. If you take a public office of that kind, you represent the entire people and the entire government. And the concerns of the government and the people of Sri Lanka were very much... [the] questions of fund-raising and watching helplessly while the LTTE was gathering so much money.

"So the government, and I as Foreign Minister, simply had to take a stand on that. So what I say is I was simply doing my duty. I was doing my duty and I make no excuses for doing that.

"But on the other hand I tried to make it as clear as I could that I myself did not believe that war was an ultimate solution. I have made so many speeches and statements all over the world on that point over the years. And I took pains to emphasise that I hoped very much that the time would come when we could sit down and talk this thing through.

"Now, if that is not understood by the LTTE, there is nothing I can do about that. All I say is that was an honest approach by a person who was holding public office."

It was, for the Tigers, a duty too difficult to digest.

The true tribute Sri Lanka, particularly his political admirers, can pay to its departed Foreign Minister is to work together to deliver upon Kadirgamar's quest: not just peace, but a just peace for all. A peace that would bring along with it dignity and freedom for all its peoples - both Tamil-speaking and Sinhalese-speaking - within a sovereign and united Sri Lanka and not, as Kadirgamar in his own inimitable style had emphasised, "the peace of the graveyard".

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