Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former president of Sri Lanka, painted a sobering picture of an island nation recovering from civil war during a talk at CGIS yesterday.
Kumaratunga, who led Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005, described her administration’s unsuccessful attempts to resolve through peaceful negotiations the long-standing conflict between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations.
Sri Lanka’s first female president attributed the challenge in part to a “mentality of siege” that has become entrenched in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people.
“For 2000 years we were a very strong nation ... but we underwent nearly 500 years of Western colonial rule and were completely subjugated for 450 years,” she said.
This, she argued, helps explain why war, not peace, has held the day.
Identity politics has long been the bedrock of political conflict in Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million located in the waters off India’s southeastern coast.
Confronting this identity crisis “would require that we manage existing diversity,” Kumaratunga said, “and redirect the richness of that diversity towards positive change.”
Kumaratunga also addressed the failures of previous Sri Lankan administrations.
One “major mistake” that exacerbated identity politics was the now-defunct Sinhala Only Act, which recognized the Sinhalese tongue as the country’s sole official language.
This created a major setback for Tamils and other minority groups seeking equal opportunity in jobs and education, she said.
“We brought all kinds of rules that made it more difficult for the Tamils to get into schools,” said Kumaratunga.
She concluded her talk by discussing the challenges faced by the Sri Lankan people since their civil war ended in 2009.
“The people are fatigués, as they say in French ... fatigued,” she explained.
“The leadership will have to come from fresh, new people.”
At the end of her talk, one audience member asked what American students can learn from Sri Lanka’s history of political conflict.
“They can learn how paradise was lost,” Kumaratunga lamented.
The former president’s lecture was sponsored by the Harvard International Negotiation Program, the Global Institute of Health, the South Asian Initiative, and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.