When the People have spokenů..
By Rajika Jayatilaka reporting from Washington DC

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on "Third World Democracy in Action: the Sri Lanka experience" at Brookings Institute, Washington DC

May 13 (IL) The two major parties in Sri Lanka are tired, flabby, very corrupt and inefficient, which is why the people turned to the JVP in a big way, said Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. He was speaking last evening ( 12th May 2004) at Brookings Institute in Washington DC on " Third World Democracy in Action: the Sri Lanka experience."

The Minister in his inimitable manner of openness and sophistication of speech, made a stimulating presentation of the current political scenario of Sri Lanka. "I want to say this very clearly in Washington," he said, "which is, that the JVP clearly shows a very sound approach to politics." It was obvious the JVP had made a positive impact on the Minister. Among the qualities that impressed him was a healthy respect for punctuality the JVP displays, each time a meeting is scheduled with him. It is also a party which has swiftly learned the process of survival in Parliament. " They do solid homework, one speaker at a time and no duplication because they have good communication among themselves, hardworking, dedicated, committed, with a good deal of idealism thrown in." The Minister said, "You may not like them, but they are the choice of the people." And in Sri Lanka, he said, there is no substitute for democracy.

The basic message from the people at the elections last month, was, "Remember the basic needs of the people. Whatever, you do in the international arena, remember the rural people, the rural economy. You need to do something quickly." The message was clear. And as the Minister responded during question time, this was the message he brought to Washington DC, although he had no time to meet with the World Bank or IMF officials during this bilateral visit. With Sri Lanka being one of 16 countries chosen to benefit from the Millenium Fund of the US, and with part of the money being available soon, there will be opportunity for some sound development projects in Sri Lanka in the near future, both in the south and in the war-torn north and east.

Minister Kadirgamar analysed the current situation in Sri Lanka as something akin to a social revolution, a notable characteristic being the emergence of a party of Buddhist monks. "It is a very interesting phenomenon,"he said. And it remains to be seen how the monks adjust to the social conditions they have chosen to be in. This need to adjust was clear in several anecdotes the Minister related. For instance, the monks did not have white cloth draped on the seats in Parliament, as is customary in interacting with Buddhist monks. The monks were shown they were being treated as any other Member of Parliament. When they were stepping out of line with Parliamentary procedures, the present Secretary General of Parliament, a female, had to instruct them to be seated - which in the context of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, is a unique situation.

The Minister termed the remarkable absence of violence before, during and after elections last month, as "a huge victory for democracy in a time of turbulence."

The topic at hand was appropriate to clear some misrepresentations of the truth. Minister Kadirgamar said that his comments about the LTTE "being the sole representative of the Tamil people" was in the context of the negotiation table. The LTTE would be the only party at the table representing the Tamil people. But there will a structure in place to entertain representation so that all parties, communities, groups will be heard and their concerns attended to. As the Minister said, they have learned from past mistakes of preceding governments where negotiations were shrouded in secrecy and were exclusive. This time round, the peace process will be very inclusive.

A Sri Lankan who appeared to exhibit extremist views, belligerently asked Minister Kadirgamar whether he, who played a pivotal role in banning the LTTE as a terrorist group internationally, did not think he would be an impediment in the peace process. The Minister was not in the least ruffled. "If that is so, then I will step down and ask the government to continue. I do not seek headlines or flashlights. The issues are more important."

The Internal Self-Governing proposals put forward for negotiation by the LTTE could be "a possible blueprint for a future separate state." Each clause needs to be dealt with carefully and in detail. The Minister was keen to clear up another misrepresentation of the truth. 'The LTTE have not said take it or leave it." They are willing to negotiate. But as the Minister had discussed in Washington, "the time has come to lock horns." Issues have to be taken head on. "This shadow-boxing needs to stop."

He believes that the internationalization of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict has gone too far. As much as Sri Lanka needs the solid support of friends in the world, the issue needs to be solved by Sri Lanka. And in this, he truly appreciates the stance of the US. "The principles and policies of the US have always been consistent." The US accepts there can be no solution other than within the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. In other words, no separate state. He did not wish to speak of dates for talks. What matters is that the parties concerned must have done their homework, be ready and committed to engage in fruitful dialogue and tackle the issues head on without beating about the bush. "And there can be no viable solution to our problem without the support of India." The Minister was being direct as always, and disarming in his responses that led to a lively, thought-provoking discussion on democracy in the heart of the land of freedom from oppression.