By M.A. Sumanthiran –
Vickramabahu Karunaratne once told me that I would have no problem making speeches in Tamil, but that it is only if I, like Raviraj, start making speeches in Sinhala that I would have to be careful. The Sinhala political leaders, he said, did not want to tell Sinhala people the truth. They feared that if the people came to know the truth, it would become dangerous for them.
Sadly, the reverse is also true. There are Tamil politicians who wish to keep the Tamil people ignorant. According to some analysts, this is the cause of our ethnic conflict – Sinhala political leaders only addressing the Sinhalese people, and Tamil leaders only addressing the Tamil people.
I have been asked to speak on the relevance of soft power in today’s globalised world. Both hard and soft power seek to influence countries in the world to take a particular course of action. Hard power uses either military force, or money to induce a country to adopt a course of action that it dislikes. It is ‘carrot and stick’ power. Soft power by contrast, is where one changes the course of action of a country by changing what the country desires.
For hundreds of years in the international political arena countries adopted the use of hard power. But since the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations, soft power has come to play a central role in global politics. Moral power, as opposed to force or money, has often succeeded in persuading people to change their views, and ultimately their actions. Ideas have been sold to people, and people in turn have bought them. I will very briefly outline a few cases where soft power has led to victory for oppressed peoples.
A good example of soft power is the Dalai Lama. Look at the Tibetans, do they have arms or money? No. But they have moral power. It is this that garners for them international support. They have no arms and no money but their goal is just, reasonable and therefore supported. Another example is Martin Luther King. Today the United States of America has a black President – but when Martin Luther King began his non-violent struggle all he had was moral power. He was able to bring people together through the force of his convictions and the justice of his cause. Closer to home, Mahatma Ghandi – who lived and worked in slightly different times – is also an example. We all know how he changed the fate of a nation through the development and exercise of moral power.
But I would like to dwell on the example Nelson Mandela. Mandela differs a little from the previous examples I discussed. He employed the use of hard power to the extent that he headed the African National Congress’ military wing. When given the opportunity to speak at his trial he said that at the time, the African National Congress took the decision to take up arms because the situation then was such that the black South Africans had no other way of protecting themselves. He said that he didn’t think the Court would understand this decision – and that he didn’t expect it to. However, when change finally came to South Africa it was with the “Free Mandela” movement employing the use of soft power.
Mandela’s experience is very relevant to us today. We can learn a few lessons from him. Today, in our situation, there is no space for hard power. No one should misunderstand what I’m saying. I am not saying that there was no role for hard power in the past. It was employed – and employed to the maximum. I’m not saying these attempts were wrong. Those who lost their lives in these attempts, gave their lives for us, not for themselves, and thus we will always remember them. This aspect of our history can never be disparaged. But today we only have soft power. Even if one wants hard power, it is not available. That is the truth.
Do we have the characteristics of soft power? The first characteristic is one that we have – a leader respected the world over. I generally avoid praising the leadership of the party. I was thus reluctant to say this today, but will do so because it is necessary in order to make my point.
I have known Mr. Sampanthan for a long time, and it is only out of respect for him that I entered politics. I have observed him closely since 2010. In 2011 we visited the United States for a set of meetings. It is after these meetings that the international profile of the Tamil struggle changed. It is after these meetings that that the US government brought resolutions concerning Sri Lanka. At an important meeting with a Deputy Secretary of State Mr Sampanthan spoke for 45 minutes without interruption on the grievances of our people. When he ended, she stated “your people must be a privileged lot to have such an eloquent voice speaking on their behalf”. In that one meeting he was able to convince her that the United States of America – a global super power – had a moral responsibility to assist the Tamil people. He told her, ‘if even you let us down where else will we go?’. Upto that time the only resolution had been the resolution of 2009, which praised the Sri Lankan government. There had been nothing that was critical of the government.
Our soft power is that we are able to convince countries like this, who have hard power, to act on our behalf. The reason this is necessary is that at present we don’t have enough soft power to convince the Sri Lankan political leadership of our cause.
When we met the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, he gave us some advice – including suggestions to build international support, and also to build support locally among the Sinhalese people. Mr. Sampanthan began to say that we accepted his advice when he interrupted saying ‘these are merely my thoughts, not advice. You are the most respected leader in this region. How can I advise you?’
We possess the first necessary characteristic of soft power – that of a leader respected the world over. It is our duty to make the most of this by making it clear to the world that he has the support of his people in treading the political path he is leading them on. Unfortunately, we are often sabotaged in this endeavour not from outside, but from inside – we ourselves sabotage our efforts by sometimes seeming to undermine the mandate and support of our leader.
Secondly, soft power requires sincerity and credibility. It should be something all people can relate to. If we only struggle for the rights of our people and ignore the oppression of other peoples, we will not be seen by the world as sincere. Of course, our voice must first be raised for our people. But if we ignore the oppression of others, our voice will never be heeded by the rest of the world. Soft power requires sincerity. If our actions do not match our words we will be easily found out as hypocrites. The reasoning we adopt for ourselves should be true for others as well.
Sadly, this is not a characteristic of soft power that we possess. If we give voice to other oppressed people we are questioned. ‘Why are you speaking on behalf of the Sinhalese; the Muslims; the Upcountry Tamils? You are here to represent us, aren’t you, to speak for our concerns, not theirs?” For example, a year ago I participated in a rally in Colombo protesting against the abuse of women– many women’s groups were present. A week later I addressed a meeting in London, and an elderly lady asked me why I participated at this protest alongside women’s organisations that were silent when Tamil women were raped and abused in the North. I asked her if she considered the silence of these groups at that time right or wrong. She said it was definitely very wrong. I then asked her why she wanted me to commit the same wrong.
It is true that we may feel betrayed by those that did not speak on our behalf, but what we feel is not what is important here.
The third requirement of soft power is that our actions should be, as described by the Tamil word, ‘nithaanam’. I am not aware of an English word that fully encapsulates it’s meaning. Perhaps there is no western concept that means exactly the same thing as ‘nithaanam’ but it is akin to acting reasonably, soberly, cautiously, in a measured manner, etc.
The Sri Lankan Government has invited us for peace talks several times, and every time we accept this invitation and go. The President similarly invites Mr. Sampanthan for talks and he too goes every time he is invited. Each time this happens we are questioned. Why is Mr. Sampanthan going for talks? Why are we going for talks? When I talk about this to Mr. Sampanthan he says ‘Why is everyone getting agitated? I am only going to talk. What is wrong with talking to him?’ And I realize that he is right. If we refuse to talk, the whole world will call us terrorists; extremists, rash, unreasonable. So no matter how many times the Government acts deceitfully, we will go and talk when we are invited. And there is some justification to this.
Just because they are unreasonable 10 times in a row does not mean that the 11th time they cannot change their mind. This does not mean that we are being deceived. It is only deception when one goes with some expectation. We know that this is merely the Government playing a part for the world to see. We have to play along, because it must not be said that we are the reason for the breakdown of talks. Even today, no one can point a finger at us and accuse us of any wrongdoing in this regard. For the last three years we have not gone to the Parliamentary Select Committee and no one has asked us to go – not India, not the United States, no one. This is because we have been able to demonstrate to the world that our behaviour is reasonable, and the world has been convinced. So I am not saying that one needs to go for everything we are called for; only that we need to be aware that when we do not go, we need to have an explanation as to why that behaviour is reasonable and not extremist.
The final characteristic of soft-power is one we lack. That is the ability to attract the people of our country – the Sinhala people – to our way of thinking. It is for endeavouring to do this that Raviraj’s life was brought to an end. If we are able to do this successfully, change will come easily.
This change will not come overnight. It will take time, but when it comes it will be long-lasting.
A steadfast kind of change is what we should work for. The obstacles to this endeavour often come from within ourselves; our people. We must begin to act with political maturity. It is only then that we can truly experience the benefits of employing the use of soft power.
*The Relevance of Soft-Power for Tamil Politics: An authorized summary of M.A. Sumanthiran MP’s address at the Raviraj Memorial Lecture (November 2014).