By Dayan Jayatilleka –
This event is the commencement of my process of transition. I have begun my farewell with this gathering of friends from the Sri Lankan community in Paris because my wife Sanja and I shall be leaving France, somewhere early in the New Year in January. My two year term has come to an end or will come to an end in January.
Now it is not that I love Paris less but I treasure my autonomy and independence as an academic more. I think those of you who know me would be able to fill in the blanks as to why I have chosen to leave at the completion of this term rather than make a request for a third year’s extension.
We do this with a heavy heart, because we love Paris, we love France and we have greatly valued the experience we have had, the warmth that we have shared with all of you. And just this evening, I happened to show some friends here, Ramani Eriyagama and a few others, some very old photographs because I found this among my parents’ belonging after they have passed away. These are old photographs and I remembered that these were taken in Paris, rue Perronet, in the summer of 1973. So I was pretty sure that Ramani was on one of those in the photographs and today she confirmed it.
We have valued our time in France for many reasons. Firstly, because of what France and its capital mean in terms of intellectual life and civilization: many of the ideas that all of us cherish, the ideas of universality, of equality, liberty and fraternity, are ideas that originated here. Very few capital cities, give the same pride of place to writers, intellectuals, musicians, that Paris does as you can see from every street name. So, as somebody whose profession is that of a university academic, I leave Paris with a heavy heart, but more than that, there is so much more that Paris means in terms of civilité.
Now it has been our good fortune, to have the understanding and support, the solidarity of all you and those others who have been unable to attend this evening’s farewell function. Sanja and I value this, especially because it has been in a certain sense, a challenging and difficult time. It has been a struggle. I used to say when people asked me “How are you? How was your day?”, my day is divided between the time during which I engage in diplomatic work which is to do with the French State, the French society, the think-tanks, universities, UNESCO and so on, which is very good and very productive, and then the part of the day that I have to deal with petty minded bureaucrats and parochial prejudices which is really that part of the day that I have to interact with certain elements.
Now, I am not new to Paris because my first visits were as a boy in the 1960s and then again as a teenager in the ’70s–some of you might remember when Mr. Balasubramanian was Deputy Head of Mission here, and then as I said in ’73 when Ambassador Tissa Wijeratne served here. By the way, one of the people in that photograph I have is Mr. Omar Nawaz. So I know how the Embassy and the Sri Lankan community have evolved. I also have friends here who have served as Ambassadors such as Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake, whom I first met when he was a student in London. So as I said, I am not a stranger to the Sri Lankan community, the Embassy and their interactions.
I was however faced with certain situations or combination of factors which you are well aware of. Now I will not go into that but I will just say that what I have stood for here has been the following. And it is by standing for these principles and these ideas that we have enjoyed your support, understanding and solidarity. I have stood for the idea that the main duty of a Sri Lankan Ambassador in any part of the world is to represent his or her country in the country or State to which he or she is accredited. Now this does not mean the neglect of the Sri Lankan community but that is not the primary function of a Sri Lankan Ambassador.
My second principle was that the ‘Sri Lankan community in France’ meant just that, the Sri Lankan community. It was not my job and in fact it would go against the spirit of what I was doing, to identify myself with or serve one political party, or one faction or one family, or one religious denomination, or one linguistic community, while representing my country that is democratic, that is multiparty, which is multi-faith, multilingual, multicultural and pluralistic. My wife and I thought that it was our duty to represent the totality of Sri Lanka, not simply this or that component which thought that it was by definition privileged, or should be. We were totally opposed to the idea which was implicit among some but explicit in the writings and publications of others, that there should be unequal treatment; that certain elements in the community should have privilege, if not a monopoly, for a variety of reasons, be they politics, ethnicity, language, religion, or whatever. I really did not care about that because that is not what Sri Lanka means. I represent the country, and parochial prejudice is not what being Sri Lankan is or should be. Certainly if one had functioned in that way it would have been the worst possible message to the people and Government of France about what Sri Lanka stands for. My diplomatic practice has been informed by these ideas. I saw absolutely no incompatibility between the ideas of what a democratic Sri Lanka are and the values and ideas of France.
The third important notion that I have and I had is that if we are in fact to privilege anybody within the Sri Lankan community, it should be the young people, the educated youth. After all, all of you who are parents came over here with an important objective and goal, the education of your children. And you can be proud of what you have achieved. I have had the opportunity to interact with some of these young people and in fact I told them, look, your parents were not always this age, they were younger than you and it must have been difficult for them to come over here and make their mark, to fit in to this society, to build foundations and then provide those foundations for the next generation. But you have done that and you have produced talented, educated, wonderful young people. I thought that that was really the most important segment that, as an Ambassador, I should focus on within the Sri Lankan community and in our interactions with the Sri Lankans. That interaction had, and I repeat, had, to be devoid of any consideration of ethnicity, or class or political affiliation. As you know I actually do not know the political affiliation and opinion of many of you. I just don’t. It has hardly ever come up. We do talk politics but I have never asked any of you who and what you support or tried to convince you. Party politics or factional politics has never been what I do or what I am trying to do. We have had the privilege of working educated young people who belonged to the French-Sri Lankan community. Of course, it was not easy. Not because it was difficult to work with them but because there was resistance from those who had other ideas within an ossified system; within this strange relationship of highly politicized, over-politicized groupings within the Sri Lankan community and our own structures here. Instead of welcoming and treasuring these young products of the interaction between Sri Lanka and France, there was a kind of resistance which these youngsters had to face and we had to either ignore or overcome. But it is fitting that with our term here ending we have been happy and proud to see how successful these young people have been. I am glad that some of the key initiators of this Youth Forum have been working with us in the Embassy, but the educated youth have organized themselves as an independent forum. I must say that in my fairly long if sporadic interaction since the 1960s with the Sri Lankan presence in France, this I think is the first time that I have seen such a high profile in the Lankan media, of the Sri Lanka-French community, from the Lankan Diaspora in France. Of course, there have been other outstanding occasions but the kind of coverage that these young people and their conference this October obtained in Sri Lankan media has been a high point in the history of the French Sri Lankan Diaspora.
Another positive experience we have had is that we have been able to have a dialogue; have an interaction across the kind of barriers that has grown up here during the years of the war, such as the ethnic barrier. And here I must thank courageous people like the Rajendrams who head the large, strong Tamil association in the Parisian suburb of Bondy, have made their own transformations and transitions. All of us undergo change and change is something that requires us a lot of courage. So to move away from certain established position one held and to do it on your own, reach out across the ethnic divide; that takes a lot of doing. That also for me gives a lot of hope.
There were people in the community who understood and supported us against the prejudices that have grown up, the establishment practices, the dominant political networks and so on. The fact that there were educated young people who organized themselves in the community and spoke out on a number of matters, the fact that we were able to cut across the ethnic divide and interact with no problem at all, all of this goes to tell me that we have succeeded. I say in conclusion that we have succeeded in strengthening the ties, reinforcing the bridges between Sri Lanka and France in the period we have served. We have done so not only with the French Government and State, which we have been able to do overcoming certain provocations from extremists from both sides but we have done so with French civil society, French educational institutions. We have been able to talk with French scholarly and student audiences and we have been able to do so with the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora; especially its youth component. They are the future and that is the real bridge between the country of our origin and the country in which you live. These bridges and the traffic along these bridges have to be encouraged. I urge all of you to interact as much as you can with Sri Lanka; communicate as much as you can. You have the benefit of your education, you have done really well, you know, all of you, the ones who are academics, the ones who are professionals, of all generations, the artists, the cinematographers, everybody. There is so much you have learned here and you are the product of more than one culture, two sometimes three. France is also within Europe. You are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher; you are Sri Lankan and you are French; you are European. You know there is a fantastic mix if you only tap in to all of those diverse routes that go to make up this community and each individual. And that is what you can contribute not only to Sri Lanka but also the world. So once again, Sanja and I thank you very much for your support, solidarity and friendship.
* Speach given by Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka at the Embassy premises to say farewell to the Sri Lankan community in France on November 30, 2012.
Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka and Sanja Jayatilleka with members of Sri Lankan-French Youth Forum, What’s Next!