Urge to Reconcile and Bind a War Torn Society Leads to Visible Role in Sri Lankan Government

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The Sri Lankan Minister for National Languages and Social Integration and Ethnic Affairs, Vasudeva Nanayakkara (right) visited Houston recently with a colleague and fellow minister Walter Wilegoda. They gave an exclusive interview to Indo-American News in the Galleria on October 7.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It was a civil war that lasted 26 years and tore apart the fabric of the country, with death and destruction wreaking havoc far from the Jafna Peninsula, the epicenter of the conflict, to the streets of Columbo, the Sri Lankan capital on the western seaboard. Countless people were caught within the spiraling fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lankan military forces, and thousands of innocent lives and families were caught in the crossfire. By some accounts, close to 100,000 people lost their lives.

It was a war based as much along linguistic lines as on harsh economic realities and many Tamils caught in the fighting in the northeastern Jafna peninsula moved up into the central highlands to continue their lives. Many more who were inter-racially married found their personal allegiances challenged by the nature of the conflict between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.

The conflict made certain their demands for political and economic equality of the Tamil minority were heard, and it exposed the fissures that lay within Sri Lankan society and the political hierarchy of the lack of inclusivity, laying bare that much work had to be done to avoid a repeat of the conflict after the war was finally over. With the war over in 2009, the process of healing the wounds and bitter memories had to begin, a process that Vasudeva Nanayakkara is a veteran left-wing Sri Lankan politician, former presidential candidate and current Member of Parliament and Minister is now leading the government’s efforts to establish a process in a style reminiscent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa to heal that country’s apartheid era wounds.

“The conflict has a linguistic basis in relation to claims as the Tamils felt Ceylonese  but did not feel Sri Lankan when the country changed its name in 1972”, said Nanayakkara in an exclusive interview with Indo American News on a semi-circular balcony open to the atrium of the Galleria 3 Financial Center on Tuesday, October 7. “One way to resolve this resolve this is by becoming truly bilingual and offering everything in Tamil and Sinhalese”, he added.

Nanayakkara, 75, was on a week-long trip to Houston to visit his son Chiranjaya Nanayakkara who is an attorney here as well as give a speech on the subject of reconciliation at the Asia Society (see IAN dated October 17, 2014) organized by attorneys Rajneesh Chaudry and George Willy. He was accompanied on the trip by his colleague in politics, friend of 35 years and his Coordinating Secretary Walter Wilegoda. Nanayakkara became a Minister for National Languages and Social Integration in 2010 and represents the sole seat in the Government from the ten year-old Democratic Left Front, which is part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, a member of the coalition government that rules the country.

“We need to change the attitude of the people regarding the differences, inequalities and gaps in traditionally inherited divisions of labor”, said Nanayakkara, “and promote ethnic harmony between the Sinhalese, Tamils, Hindus, Christians and Muslims in the country”. He hastens to add that the reconciliation effort is not the same as in South Africa, as the people do not hate each other. Of the 20 million people on the island, roughly 11 percent are Hindus and mostly Tamils, 6 per cent are Muslims and another 6 are Christians; but of the whole, almost 80 per cent of the people are relatively poor to very poor. Staring in 1956, ethnic cleansing by Sinhalese gangs and ultra-nationalists led to this problem, though now there are less of their followers.

Nanayakkara started his career as a criminal lawyer and worked with the labor and tribal movements in the southern district of Galle. From an early age his leftist leanings and concerns for the growing inequalities in society led him to join the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1958 and he was elected to parliament in 1970. After changing several parties, he was proscribed in 1982 and forced into hiding with other left-wing politicians until 1985. He ran for president in 1999, and won a seat on the Columbo Municipal Council in 2006.

“A large part of the conflict has been ‘Who owns Sri Lanka? Who has the right of dominance?’”, said Nanayakkara. “It is a question of a single state to the exclusion of the minorities”. He is proud that he and his Alliance have been able to get lots of things done to help the poor, like the fertilizer subsidy to small farmers; competitive purchasing by the state of agricultural products; stopping the privatization of all lands and bringing them back to state ownership and helping the small and medium farmers to get cheap loans.

Nanayakkara also worries that foreign investment has been low – about $2 billion – and has not met targets, but is going to other lucrative markets in Asia and that the IMF complains that the state interferes in the markets. “The state tax policies are light for the rich and harsher for the common man”, Nanayakkara said adding that he would like to see that change to corporations carrying 30 per cent of the tax burden and the poor much less. A large number of workers continue to send remittances from service in the Middle East.

“The solution to integration is making sure that bilingualism – Tamil and Sinhalese – becomes official in all parts of the country. More Tamils speak Sinhalese than the other way around”, emphasized Nanayakkara. “Our cultures are very similar and through a lot of inter-marriage we are related to each other. Poverty has no ethnic distinction. Our chief problem is governance”.