Colombo Telegraph

Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Relevance

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

In an article published in The Nation last Saturday (May 2), Gunadasa Amarasekara comments on and questions the state of reconciliation today. He accuses President Maithripala Sirisena of violating the Constitution by allowing the national anthem to be sung in Tamil. He then accuses the Opposition and even the general citizenry of pleading ignorance with this.

He also extrapolates and charts the pacts signed with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam right until the P-TOMS under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government and states that the reconciliation body she heads at present will (I think) reflect every failed separatist attempt made since independence. Badly.

Now it’s easy to insinuate. Easy to name names. Easy to allege and accuse. Substantiating allegation is another matter altogether, however. But while he doesn’t offer substance the way his detractors want him to, his article retains a certain relevancy.

Amarasekara and to a larger extent Nalin de Silva have always been called chauvinists. For years if not decades, those who criticised in-name-only peace were branded with that name. Every government-sanctioned reconciliation move was to be accepted without question. I believe Malinda Seneviratne got it right when he wrote of how we should be thankful to them for having pointed out that the LTTE had to be defeated at any cost. But I’m digressing here.

What concerns me is Amarasekara’s choice of words. He titles his article “Is reconciliation relevant anymore?” At first glance it appears to be a blanket “shrugging off” of any reconciliation attempt. But that isn’t true. What he does in this article is what Professor Nalin has already told us: that the purpose of reconciliation as is understood here no longer holds sway. Why?

According to him, what the United States (and presumably the West) demands is not reconciliation but accountability. Now accountability is not reconciliation. This we know. To adopt a Sinhala saying there is a heaven-and-earth gap in-between. Reconciliation is easy. It presupposes acknowledgment and addresses grievances both real and imagined.

Accountability goes beyond this. It involves placing and accepting unconditional blame. Judging by the US’s stance on the civil war we can be sure that it wants accountability placed squarely on the government. The LTTE goes off cleanly, for the Americans at least. To Amarasekara, this may well be the first step of R2P, invoked whenever it is “felt” that a country’s sovereignty must be violated on “humanitarian” grounds, never mind how self-contradictory and ridiculous that sounds.

What makes all this relevant? John Kerry describing our 30-year war with terrorism as a war against Tamils makes it relevant. Ed Miliband’s Sinhala(-less) and Tamil New Year address makes it relevant. Perceived fears that national security is being compromised make it relevant. Much of these fears are force-fed by those who seek political gain, yes, but this hardly puts off legitimate paranoia provoked by Kerry’s and Miliband’s conduct.

I would like to believe that what Amarasekara is saying is unfounded. It is and it is not. Amaraskera seems to forget that times have changed. The political Other has become moderate. The TNA has effectively split on ideological lines, with the moderate faction gaining more substance. That is to be welcomed, no doubt. R. Sampanthan is not Amarthalingam and Sumanthiran is not Chelvanayakam. While I do have reservations with some of their politics (their preference for a united as opposed to unitary state, for instance), nothing really warrants comparison between them and their predecessors.

But while moderates may be gaining credibility this does not completely marginalise the extremists. In this regard Amarasekara’s criticism of reconciliation stands to reason. C. V. Wigneswaran’s genocide resolution is just one example. The moderates have not prevailed to the point where such conduct can be dismissed. It is this which injects relevancy into Amarasekara’s assertions, reason-driven as they are.

Not that this validates all his assertions. He considers reconciliation a bogey and largely unneeded. I refuse to believe that, particularly in light of his (presumed) agreement with Tamara Kunanayakam’s statement that the LLRC is “necessary for the island to unify our people.” But this does not de-validate everything he has written.

Neither the SLFP nor the UNP can be cleared of what Amarasekara accuses the government of sanctioning. The SLFP to him is a headless cadaver, bending before the UNP in a context where the latter seems to be embracing extremism. That is not true, but if we are to extrapolate this then even those who are “with” Mahinda Rajapaksa while having accepted ministerial portfolios are to be condemned. Then again, it is true that some of those who “supported” what extremists love to call “war crimes” are now with the UNP or with those who defected from Rajapaksa last year. Who’s to be condemned and who’s not?

The bottom line to all this is that Amarasekara’s relevancy stems not from his assertions but from how outside realities are vindicating them. Both John Kerry and Ed Miliband have added credence to them. That is worrying.

Amarasekara’s take on reconciliation troubles me, however. He doesn’t just view it with disfavour. He seems to doubt its legitimacy. He accuses its representatives of preying on imagined grievances. Like Nalin de Silva he views Tamil “aspirations” as a euphemism for separatism. Acknowledging the one, he argues, would be acknowledging the other. It’s that simple. For him at least.

As someone who has always agreed with him whatever the context, I would however respectfully disagree here. Some call reconciliation a veil for separatism. Some say it’s the be-all and end-all for ethnic harmony. I’d say that if it’s a choice between unity and separatism, I wouldn’t consider reconciliation as a cover for the latter. Cartesian “dvikotika” logic which dictates that the one is the other with no room for compromise won’t do. There’s a middle ground somewhere, I am certain.

Achieving reconciliation therefore, at least genuinely, doesn’t duplicate separatism. Conflating the one into the other may well be the biggest problem those who badmouth President Sirisena’s efforts must resolve. In this sense Amarasekara’s statement appears to be unfounded.

But I withdraw critique from here on. This isn’t because I accept what he says, but because not accepting some of his assertions doesn’t mean disagreeing with the rest. As I wrote before, outside realities continue to add credence to them. Shrugging them off just because some of his beliefs are founded on Cartesian premises would itself be an acceptance of Cartesian logic.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at His articles can be accessed at

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