60TH YEAR OF SRI LANKA’S INDEPENDENCE
INTERVIEW WITH DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA, H.E. THE AMBASSADOR/ PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE TO THE UN IN GENEVA
M. DWEGGAH, D. WINCH, E. RIOUKHINA
Dr. Jayatilleka received a team from UN Special, who had been invited by the Mission on the occasion of the country’s 60 year of independence. Below is a brief history and socio-economic status of the country. Articles on a number of interesting topics on Sri Lanka have been published in the UNSpecial over the past few years, inter alia: Perahera: a pageant in fragile peace (October 2003); Ayurveda: cure, philosophy, or fashion? (February 2003); Adam’s Peak (July 2004); History of tea (December 2003); Tsunami: two years after (December 2006). Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon before 1972) is an island nation in South Asia, located about 31 kilometres (19.3 mi) off the southern coast of India. Popularly referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, it is home to around twenty million people.
Because of its location in the path of major
sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link
between West Asia and South East Asia, and
has been a center of Buddhist religion and
culture from ancient times. Today, the country
is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation,
with nearly a third of the population following
faiths other than Buddhism, notably
Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The Sinhalese
community forms the majority of the
population, with Tamils, who are concentrated
in the north and east of the island,
forming the largest ethnic minority. Other
communities include the Muslim Moors and
Malays and the Burghers.
Famous for the production and export of tea, coffee, rubber and coconuts, Sri Lanka boasts a progressive and modern industrial economy and the highest per capita income in South Asia. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s tropical forests, beaches and landscape, as well as its rich cultural heritage, make it a world famous tourist destination. After over two thousand years of rule by local kingdoms, parts of Sri Lanka were colonized by Portugal and the Netherlands beginning in the 16th century, before the control of the entire country was ceded to the British Empire in 1815. During World War II, Sri Lanka served as an important base for Allied forces in the fight against the Japanese Empire. A nationalist political movement arose in the country in the early 20th century with the aim of obtaining political independence, which was eventually granted by the British after peaceful negotiations in 1948. The Sri Lankan independence movement was a peaceful political movement to aimed at achieving independence for Sri Lanka from British imperial rule. It was ultimately successfully and Sri Lanka was granted independence on February 4, 1948. Dominion status under the UK was initially retained, but after British influence was gradually removed over the next few decades, Sri Lanka was declared of a full Republic in 1972.
It was impossible for the UN Special team to speak of Sri Lanka without addressing the ongoing ethnic conflict in the country. A political scientist by training, Dr Jayatillka graciously accepted that the interview move away from “safe” subjects – relating to the sixtieth anniversary of his country’s independence and cultural topics – and discuss the thorny issue of insurgency and political issues in his strife-torn homeland.
Dr. Jayatilleka noted that in its 60th year of independence his country was “at a decisive crossroads”, locked in armed conflict trying to maintain its identity and dealing with “existential issues” through democratic means for the most part. “We have been voting since 1931, so our democratic roots go deep, and have never been anything but a practicing democracy continuously since independence.”
He noted that the Tamil insurgency had coincided with other 1970s events in South Asia, particularly the split of Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh.
Dr. Jayatilleka was affirmative in contending that peace there was possible: “Yes,” he replied to that question: if either the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated, or the group became amenable to a peace accord. “There is no single solution, but in the optimistic case, the Sri Lanka forces win. “A military victory is possible,” he concludes. He cites other examples where this has been possible such as El Salvador or Nepal.
“Any solution must be a unified State solution”, he insisted.
He noted that at independence Sri Lanka lacked the “unifying compact” that had led to India’s success, attributable to the vision of Nehru guiding a multiethnic State.
The wave of Tamil nationalism that was born in the 1980s instead saw its solution in a single ethnic State for 80 million people of the same ethnicity.
Dr. Jayatilleka noted the large and regular demonstrations of Tamil activists in Switzerland, including on the nearby Place des Nations in Geneva, with which he had “no problem”. But he denounced all “violent symbolism” associated with the Tigers, and the “open celebration” of suicide bombers, for example, on July 5th, dubbed Black Tiger Day.