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Transcript- Manel Abeysekera

23 August 2010

Mrs. Manel Abeysekera


C.R. de Silva: Mrs. Abeysekera, before you commence I wish to point out the procedure that we adopt in this Commission. Any person who is making representations can make his or her representations either in public or in camera. The choice is with the person who is making the representation. 

Abeysekera: Public hearing is OK by me.

C.R. de Silva: Thereafter at the end of the representations the Commissioners are entitled to ask questions to clarify certain matters which arise in the course of the representations or which are relevant to the Warrant, and you could respond either in public or in camera.  The choice is yours.  This is the procedure that we adopt, and also only the Commissioners can ask you questions. Nobody else can question you.

Abeysekera: Thank you very much. At the outset Mr. Chairman I would like to thank your Commission for recognizing that there is a civil society in this country and that it has a voice, and therefore permitted us to come and speak here.  Secondly, I would like to congratulate the Commission on the alacrity with which the receipt of our submissions were acknowledged and summoned to speak before you. So I sincerely hope that when your recommendations whichever of them, all of them or whatever, are accepted that the implementation of them will be as speedily done.

I am making this statement by way of summary of my submission which is already with you and there are some corrections and I also thought it will be convenient to have my statement on record.

Before I say anything else I want to emphasize that unlike the others who appeared before you, at least most of the others who have appeared so far, that I retired in 1993 from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and reappeared at the invitation of Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar to train foreign service personnel at this very Institute, in fact in this very chamber. Therefore I want to emphasize that I am not privy to any secrets, official or unofficial regarding any policy, negotiations or happenings towards the end of the battle against terrorism though I would have loved to have been a “Mata Hari”! 

However, I would like to endorse the statement made by several before me that our 30-year conflict was one launched against terrorism and not against any ethnic group. I recall foreign media stating that it was between Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus which I had to refute when I was serving abroad. I do strongly feel however that no ethnic group has the right to delimit any part of this country for themselves and that the whole of it belongs to all of us citizens of Sri Lanka, and I think the ethnic mix in the South is a telling example of this. I also feel that it is our neglect of Tamil sensitivity that we lost Tamil support later and also the youth particularly and led the Tamil youth to take up arms to try to achieve a separate state. Since the LTTE was Tamil and its protagonists, the military, was by and large Sinhala, it is not surprising that the conflict appeared to be an ethnic one. I emphasize the word “appeared”. Yet one needs to admit from hindsight that the main underlying cause was our neglect of the Tamil language – a national language like Sinhala – and our use of the latter, that is Sinhala as an official language without any documents, court procedure, communications and even road signs in Tamil was to my mind tantamount to an undermining of Tamil human rights or human rights of the Tamil people which caused  the aggravation of the conflict and the widening of the chasm between officialdom and the main minority, the Tamils.  

Therefore at this point of time, over an year after the vanquishing of terrorism, it is imperative that we waste no time in moving towards creating strong and lasting elements of inter-ethnic unity as a firm foundation of reconciliation. Hence my recommendations are forward looking and for practical reasons of their implementation, I have arranged them in terms of a time-frame of immediate, mid-term and long-term action. So let us not be just a talk shop, but act to implement measures, especially those that can be done without delay both to create credibility and trust and to refurbish our image. I strongly feel that it is imperative to do as much as possible as soon

The practical thing to do in my opinion is firstly to draw up an action plan with priorities and the implementation time-frame for each set down with the emphasis on urgent confidence building measures like that relating to the Tamil language. Secondly, to establish a committee responsible for implementation of the various categories of measures comprising representatives perhaps of relevant arms

The whole mechanism and the methodology must be carefully thought out to maintain a correct momentum of implementation to avoid haste making waste. I wish to emphasize the following points in my submission which I consider important for reconciliation through the demonstration of what I would call credible sincerity.

(1) Adoption of measures which will foster the feeling of being Sri Lankan as opposed to being a member of an ethnic group and dropping those which perpetuate the latter by:

(a) Firstly giving up the ethnic ratio, I mean the quota.

(b) Relegating ethno-religious observances to the private domain without their upsetting other ethno-religious sensitivities, especially through the use of microphones in the public domain.

(c) Not allowing an influx of Sinhalese to the North for rehabilitation related development work which will cause apprehension of a wave of Southern colonization there perhaps.

(d) Politics to be devoid of ethnic chauvinism, but be based on a Sri Lankan platform for the benefit of all.

 (2) What I would like to state is, all statements, practices, comments and innuendos must not have any ethnic slant. 

(3) Concentration of the thrust of reconciliation must be particularly on the youth. I have said in my submission that both Sinhalese and Tamil must be languages in schools and thereafter we can communicate with each other in each other’s languages. 

(4) The concept of being and feeling Sri Lankan must over-arch all divisive forces and it will become a reality sooner than later if a sincere and all out effort is made in the process of reconciliation by us all. 

Thank you.

Q & A:

Rohan Perera: Thank you for your presentation.  At the very commencement of your presentation you did refer to the fact that you were entrusted with the task of – even after retirement- training our junior diplomats. My question to you would be, in this post-conflict scenario what would you see as challenges for Sri Lanka’s diplomats abroad?  In other words, you would recall that in a conflict period their role was in a sense negative of countering adverse propaganda, countering allegations of human rights violations and so on. So now in the present scenario, post-conflict scenario, isn’t there a shift of focus to a more positive role, a more proactive role of, for instance, engaging the different communities who are living abroad and diverting their energies to the reconciliation process and what are the measures that you would suggest in harnessing the expertise of our diplomatic service in this post-conflict scenario? What I meant was that going back 30 years, during the conflict period the challenge for our diplomatic service was to counter certain negative aspects of the conflict that was adverse propaganda, allegations of human rights violations and so on.  Now in a post-conflict scenario isn’t there a more positive and demanding role? What are your views on how the diplomatic service should rise up to this new challenge, which I see as a more positive approach?

Abeysekera: I think the Diplomatic Corps cannot do anything more than what the Foreign Ministry can direct it to do. There should be interaction; they should say what they think is necessary and the whole thing should become an amalgam of policy. But what I find rather distressing and perhaps can be avoided  is that there are too many irons in the fire, in the sense that we don’t have one clear statement – I don’t know whether it is from a government spokesman or whoever– that X is X and Y is Y and the two things are going together, whether it be for the IDPs or whoever and sometimes if we here cannot get the picture clear it may be very, very difficult for one of our diplomats abroad to convey what exactly is happening to the foreigner who already has a bias, as you said the old bias of our not upholding human rights etc. etc. is still there as we all know. So in that context it becomes doubly difficult, and what I would first suggest is that we have a very clear policy line coming down from the President through the Ministry of External Affairs and conveyed in precise terms, and of course there should be some inward feed-back also from the missions first of all as to what that particular mission is faced with, and secondly, the reaction of the briefing that that mission has given to whoever needs to be briefed, because I recall that when I was abroad during the previous insurgency we had and I was in Germany, I was always called to the Foreign Ministry and lectured about us not observing human rights and so on and my great lack was quick information from the Ministry as to what was happening.  So I could not give precise answers. They wanted to know who was court -martialled and so on. There was nothing, even the facts were not made clear to us. But then when the leader of that insurgency disappeared, died, I was called again and this time the Deputy Minister shook my hand.  So I really was annoyed. I said, “Excuse me, what do you think you are shaking my hand for?  Do you think I went back home and bumped off that person? “So I didn’t like it at all. Then I realized that nothing succeeds like success. Now we have succeeded against the terrorists. So we should cash in immediately with positive responses. We don’t have to always take into cognizance and refute every little thing they accuse us of, human rights and so on. But the totality of it, the whole atmosphere, the impression, the image that is important. So I hope that all this kind of thing will be very cohesively, comprehensively done and be very intelligible to any one, and I think it is worthwhile that the civil society also gets the correct picture. Otherwise how can you expect civil society elsewhere or people who are waiting to take us to task to understand it?

Rohan Perera: Thank you. I think what you have clearly underlined is the imperative need for the government to speak in one voice on critical policy issues, and that the diplomat who is out there be given a very, very clear brief as to what his functions are.

Abeysekera: Of course I should have added that we should have real diplomats who can understand how to present these things – no reflection on anybody – but sometimes I think we may not. 

Palihakkara: Mrs. Abeysekera, your distinguished track record as a senior diplomat from whom we all learnt is well known. I want to ask you, after your retirement you have been very active in civil society and women’s affairs. One of the things we observed when we visited Vavuniya especially in the IDP and the resettlement areas was that the majority of the households, the house units, are headed by females or rather more accurately by widows – widow headed households – and I recall listening to one lady, a teacher, who said ,” it is good that you people came to listen to us and  we also need to talk to someone and that whatever development plans are implemented the wounds inside will take much time to heal.” So as a person who was very much involved in our women’s affairs and civil society what are your thoughts on what the immediate measures supporting and eventually realizing reconciliation in that environment should be?

Abeysekera: That is a question which is after my own heart, because even when I was Chairperson of the National Committee on Women, we tried our best and I think finally it succeeded. After all some of them got widowed when they were quite young. That is on the military side. They could not get the pension of their late husbands if they married again. So theirs was the problem we tackled. With regard to the widows of the North they also may be of different ages, because some young women were taken into the fighting force, but  those who were widowed naturally they have a double or treble burden and I am glad you gentlemen after talking to them realize that. What I am trying to say is that there is an ILO slogan or statement saying women are workers. So they rose to the occasion because they were used to be good time managers and they did the house work and they did this and that, and they were probably as good or if not better than the men in doing the various chores. So I think it is very important that we promote measures to alleviate; at the moment I am involved in a vocational training programme for youth. I don’t believe in having gender observances in vocational training. So this is to mend more than 50,000 bicycles, which are lying around damaged, and as we all know people in Jaffna are all cycling around usually and then to make that a vocation and then may be part of their rehabilitation and also to assist them to buy a bike. So similarly those will also include girls – if they want to do that for God’s sake let them do it.   Like that we have to find ways and means, but I think it is very important to consult them as to what they want to do.  Not everybody can do the same thing, because some may have very young children, some may not have children and some maybe too old, and another thing I would like to say since I am an elder that we are very guilty of neglecting elders. I asked someone” but where are the elders?” The reply I got was, they have gone.  I thought what they meant was that they are dead. It is not that they are dead, but that the IDPs have gone to their homes. So whatever it is, we have to plan a whole gamut of projects for them, but of course it has to be according to what they want to do for themselves and their families, and I hope that one of the recommendations of the Commission would be that it is necessary to have a gender balance in all these activities that we do to promote not only resettlement, but also rehabilitation.

Ramanathan: Mrs Abeysekera, in your memorandum you have stated in page 4 that all development measures must be people centered and not merely for infrastructure alone or as show pieces where the cost  benefit is not in favour of the people. Could you kindly elaborate on that?

Abeysekera: Yes. Because I must say some are both, say like the Hambantota Port, which in time will be something which will benefit the whole area. But some other things I am not so sure; when we already have theatres, do we want yet another theatre just because we are getting a loan from somewhere or the other? Loans necessarily have to be repaid to my knowledge and then how much money are we using that we have earned for benefit of the people, meaning people centered, and everything cannot be just buildings. Even for Tsunami when buildings were put up, what is the use of a building – people can’t sit inside and look up? Now, for the fishermen boats were supplied. Like that there must be some rehabilitation work, some beneficial work for people together with these projects and it should go hand in hand and also be a visible element in developing infrastructure work.  I remember asking somebody who spoke at an organization about all the rehabilitation work that is planned, how much of it is people centered. What I mean is, now I think people want to put up hotels in Jaffna. May be the labour will give them some livelihood and all that and ultimately you have to be sure that the tourists that go there will also be not harmful perhaps mainly to the children and so forth.  You have to have safeguards. The other thing is that perhaps hospitals, equipment, may be the more useful thing rather than hotels. I don’t know. But one has to in my opinion – I am not an economist – but when you plan as an economist you have to see what are the needs of the people in that particular area, and to my mind the best judges of that are themselves and there are lots and lots of people now living in the South, and also there may be Tamil civilians living in the IDP camps still who will know what would be worth their while. Thank you.

C.R. de Silva: May I take this opportunity of thanking you on behalf of the Commission for the representations that you made and for the views that you expressed.  We certainly will take into consideration the views that you expressed in the formulation of our recommendations.  Thank you.

Abeysekera: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.



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