Colombo Telegraph

Middle Level Leaders: The Centre Of Gravity In The Reconciliation Process

By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

Dinesh Dodamgoda

Words of appreciation came from the Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who introduced the key note speaker, the former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair who shared his experiences of fostering reconciliation in Northern Ireland, on the occasion of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture held at the Kadirgamar Institute, a few days ago. Mr. Samaraweera said“However, at times Lakshman (Kadiragamar) has been misunderstood by some who claim that he believed in a military solution. This is far from the truth. Having had the honour of knowing him and working closely with him I can confidently say that Lakshman did not believe that there was a military solution to the crisis that this country faced.” 

It is interesting to note that Mr. Samaraweera who is now appreciating a non-military approach to the War had once, in the 2004, successfully derailed the non-military approach to the war that was initiated in 2001 by then the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe led UNF government. In 2004, Mr. Samaraweera was a key figure in the opposition political group that toppled Mr. Wickramasinghe’s 2001 UNF government that signed the Norway brokered Cease-fire agreement with the LTTE. I do not call Mr. Samaraweera a hypocrite, because I do not wish to adopt a normative approach to politics. Instead, I would like to perceive this as the reality in Sri Lankan politics which we all will face when initiating the proposed reconciliation process.

It is a pity that we live in a country where we have politicians that tend to use even nationally sensitive issues to gain political power in a less civilised way. Here is the danger; as the recently concluded Parliamentary election shows, a ‘kind of hostile politics of the enemy-friend bi-polarity’ has been created in terms of intended socio-political reforms and the proposed reconciliation agenda of the new government. An analysis of the election results would show that a little over 50% of voters are for reforms and a little less than 50% of voters are against reforms. Hence, there is a great danger; there can be a serious ideological resistance to political reforms and to the proposed reconciliation agenda by almost half of the population that voted for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). How should we move forward?

Professor John Paul Lederach who worked with peace building initiatives in Northern Ireland, Somalia, Colombia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and the Basque region of Spain has developed a model for ‘sustainable reconciliation in divided societies’ from ‘the standpoint of a practitioner rather than a theorist’. In his model he divides the society into three major leadership groups, namely, Top Leadership, Middle-Range Leadership, and Grassroots Leaderships.

The Top Leadership comprises political, military, religious leaders with high visibility that focus on high-level negotiations. The Middle-Range Leadership comprises leaders respect in sectors that they represent such as ethnic / religious leaders, academics / professionals / intellectuals, and civil society leaders that include NGOs who can influence grassroots as well as the top leadership. The Middle-Range leaders have the capacity in shaping opinions in the grassroots as well as the top leadership. The Grassroots Leadership comprises local level socio-political and religious leaders, leaders of indigenous NGOs, community developers, local health officials etc.

If we believe in initiating the reconciliation process through the Top Leadership, the approach is called the ‘top-down’ approach to peace building. If we believe in initiating the reconciliation process through the Middle-Range Leadership, the approach is called a ‘middle-out’ approach to peace building. If we believe in initiating the reconciliation process through the Grassroots Leadership, the approach is called a ‘bottom-up’ approach to peace building.

The ‘top-down’ approach would mainly rely on the Top Leadership in successfully implementing the reconciliation process. The ‘middle-out’ approach would mainly rely on the Middle-Range Leadership in successfully implementing the reconciliation process. The ‘bottom-up’ approach would mainly rely on the Grassroots Leadership in successfully implementing the reconciliation process. Yet, which level of leadership is the most reliable and instrumental in successfully implementing the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka?

Let me change the order in evaluating the three approaches. First, let me focus on the ‘bottom-up’ approach that mainly rely on Grassroots Leadership in initiating the reconciliation process. Second, let me focus on the ‘top-down’ approach that mainly rely on Top Leadership and finally, let me focus on the ‘middle-out’ approach that mainly rely on Middle-Range Leadership in initiating the reconciliation process.

It can be noticed that most of the time groups that claim themselves as ‘practical’ people are eager to have a so called ‘bottom-up’ approach or as they called it “practical” approach) in promoting reconciliation. Their belief is that we need to have grassroots community level engagement programs (such as sports events, north-south exchange programs etc.) in promoting reconciliation. However, they are sceptical about things that start from anywhere else. I agree, taking the ‘bottom-up’ approach at its face value is somewhat convincing. However, as ample evidence derived from international experience suggests that a mere ‘bottom-up’ approach is too linear and doesn’t work in promoting reconciliation at least due to the following empirical realities the peace builders have experienced globally.

1. The grassroots refers to a massive number of people. Hence, more often those programs and activities we intend to carryout will not reach grassroots unless those programs and activities do represent points of contacts with the masses. In fact, it is a huge, complex and a difficult task to identify points of contacts that represent and comprehensively cover grassroots. Furthermore, this task warrants a huge infrastructure which we cannot afford. Unless one has such a comprehensive approach aiming at the grassroots actors, a bunch of isolated activities will not make an impact in reconciling the society, although those programs may generate some kind of publicity.


2. The grassroots people are in a daily struggle for survival in terms of finding food, shelter and safety. The ‘ground reality’ is that ideas of reconciliation and peace are seen at this level as an unaffordable luxury, although they want a peaceful context. In fact, it is a paradox.

3. The intensity, sincerity and effectiveness of engagements in grassroots level communities are indirectly but effectively controlled by their ‘own’ middle-range and top-level leaders’ opinions and attitudes towards reconciliation approaches and activities. My own experience as a former MP suggests that communities have their ‘own’ (ethnic, caste, religious or regional)
middle-range and top-level leaders  and those leaders are decisive in shaping positive or negative opinions, despite the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ direct work one would have done for ‘grassroots’ communities. In fact, they would ultimately start avoiding you unless you are ‘sanctioned’ by their ‘own’ leaders. Therefore, grassroots community is a very ‘unreliable’ social segment to mainly rely on even in promoting reconciliation.

Therefore, my opinion is that a linear ‘bottom-up’ approach will not deliver ‘serious’ results in reconciling the post-conflict Sri-Lankan society. However, I am not for the ‘top-down’ approach as well at least due to the following two reasons.


1. This approach is evidently futile as it costs a government in 2004 to then Premier Ranil Wickremasinghe. The top-level agreements those leaders reached were not relevant as well as was incapable of convincing people into converts at the local levels. It proved that top-level leaders are not the exclusive power holders of the society and power is more diffused and fractioned than generally perceived.


2. Top-level leaders are generally ‘locked into’ politically popular opinions and thus, do not have a much of freedom of manoeuvre in challenging the status quo that fuels ethno-social polarisation. In fact, more often they are the maintainers of the status quo as their political survival is very much depend on the status quo. Therefore, top-level leaders and approaches are unreliable in promoting reconciliation and may not challenge the status quo they try to maintain in terms of their own survival. Foreign Minister Mr. Mangala Samaraweera’s changing stances that I mentioned in the beginning of this article on two different context is a classic example to my claim.

Therefore, my proposition is to have a ‘middle-out’ approach as the Middle-Range leadership is the best medium to reach grassroots and the top-level at least for the following reasons.

1. The middle-range leaders are positioned so that they are connected to both top and the grassroots levels.

2. Although the Middle-Range Leaders have contacts with the Top Leadership, they are not bound by the political rationales that control actions and decisions made at the Top Leadership.

3. Moreover, Middle-Range Leaders understand the situation at grassroots level and are sensitive enough to grassroots experiences. Unlike the grassroots communities, the middle range leaders are not disturbed by the day to day survival mentality and grassroots’ emotional urgencies.

4. The middle-range leaders often have already established relationships with their opposing counterparts, for example, through intellectual, professional and civil society organisations that they represent.

Therefore, with regard to an appropriate approach, my proposition is that
the UNF government should have a Middle-Range approach and need to build Middle-Range
Leaders’ capacity to carry out reconciliation process and messages to the grassroots, because as successfully theorised, the lines of group identity in contemporary divided societies are more often drawn vertically than horizontally within the pyramid.

The Middle-Range Leaders are the Centre of Gravity (COG) in Clausewitzian terms in the proposed reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. Hence, the UNF government should identify and build relationships with Middle-Range Leaders in various ideological populations as contact points to reach the respective grassroots and the Top Leadership and to shape their attitudes.

As noted in the beginning of the article a little over 50% of voters are for reforms and a little less than 50% of voters are against reforms. Hence, there is a great danger; there can be a serious ideological resistance to political reforms and to the proposed reconciliation agenda by almost half of the population that voted for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The question that I tried to answer in this article was ‘how should we move forward?’ in terms of finding an approach to tackle/handle former President Rajapaksa led ideological opposition.

In my opinion, both opposing groups, UNF Government and the former President Rajapaksa led group, should create a context of political and personal co-existence for both groups that would guarantee UNFG’s smooth functionality at least in terms of proposed political reforms and the reconciliation agenda. However, it will not be so easy to achieve this context of political and personal co-existence for both groups unless both sides work hard, strategically and patiently. There are a few things to note. Since the hostile attitude in both sides is relatively high, a middle ground should be created to facilitate initiating a constructive dialogue. The best way is to utilise proxy groups or ‘behind the scene strategists’ in both sides to open up a dialogue. This is the Centre of Gravity or the Middle-Range Leaders that can initiate the reconciliation process. Hence, the most important task would be to reach an agreement between Middle-Range Leaders in the UNF government and the former President Rajapaksa led groups to be constructive and then to bring the level of hostilities in political actors of both sides at least to a less destructive point. This is the starting point. If this is possible, we can have a hope at least in terms of bringing intended political reforms into reality and implementing a reconciliation process successfully.

*Dinesh D. Dodamgoda, a Fulbright scholar and a lawyer, has a M.Sc. degree from the British Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham (Cranfield University) on Defence Management and Global Security. He was also an MP from 1995-2000.

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