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Our interactions with Americans are always friendly
[March 24, 2004]

(Reproduced from the Daily News, March 22, 2004)

Welcome address by Lakshman Kadirgamar, PC, Chairman/BCIS at the inauguration of the seminar on "The Role of the US in South Asia" on the March 19, 2004

This seminar is more than an event on the calendar of the BCIS. It is an important milestone in the life of the Centre which was founded in 1974 by the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman Prime Minister who chaired the Council of Management until her death in October 2000. This seminar is a milestone because never before has a seminar on the United States of America of such reach and depth been conducted by the BCIS with the participation of several international personalities. Indeed, I am given to understand that no comparable seminar has been held in Sri Lanka in recent memory, if at all.

Let me begin by referring to the many distinguished personalities who are going the participate in this seminar as lead speakers. First, as chief guest, the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jeff Lunstead, who has warmly supported and encouraged the concept of this seminar. Thank you Jeff.

Let me greet next Professor Karl Inderfurth, Professor of the Practice of International Relations, George Washington University, and former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia who undertook, and thankfully completed without any mishap, a heroic journey which brought him to Colombo at 6 o'clock this morning. He is no stranger to us. He is held in high esteem throughout the region. Rick, I owe you a very special word of thanks for taking the trouble to be here. I know you had a difficult decision to make. You made it in our favour.

Barbara Crossette is a well-known name in the world of journalists and political analysts. Her articles in the New York Times are eagerly awaited and carefully read. She knows our region. She is a former New York Times bureau chief of South Asia. Her expertise on the United Nations is widely respected. Thank you Barbara. Your presence is greatly appreciated.

Former Ambassador Peter Burleigh, now Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of Miami had two spells in the US Embassy in Sri Lanka. Peter, it is good to see you again on turf that you know so well. Surely, I speak not only for this audience but for your wide circle of friends and admirers in Sri Lanka when I wish you a warm welcome back to the country.

Dr. Walter Andersen, currently Associate Director, South Asia Studies, John Hopkins University, former US Assistant Secretary of State is well-known to students of international relations in our country. His name stands high on any list of US experts on South Asia. Thank you Walter for being with us this weekend.

I also greet warmly our speakers from closer home. From Bangladesh we have Shafi Sami, a former Foreign Secretary and currently a Member of the UN International Civil Service Commission. He has been deeply immersed in the US-South Asia relationship over many years in different capacities. Thank you Shafi for being with us today.

Kanwal Sibal retired from the post of Foreign Secretary of India only a few months ago. Before he reached the apex of his career in the Foreign Service he held many diplomatic positions including ambassadorships in important countries. Thank you Kanwal for accepting my invitation.

Kunda Dixit is well-known in political, academic and journalistic circles in the region. He has been closely connected with the Nepal Times. Thank you Kunda for accepting my invitation to participate in this seminar.

The three lead speakers from Sri Lanka are well-known personalities Professor Amal Jayawardena, Javid Yusuf and Dr. Saman Kelegama. As Chairpersons and Respondents we have an impressive list of local and foreign personalities, including four US nationals. To each and every one of them I convey the appreciation of the Council of Management of the BCIS for their agreement to take an active role in this important seminar.

I wish to say a few words about our collaborator - the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission which was established in 1952. The Commission's essential purpose remains the promotion of mutual understanding between the United States and Sri Lanka through an exchange of scholars under several educational and cultural programmes. This seminar is an excellent example of such mutual exchange. And there is an added bonus. Here we have a regional focus - the promotion of understanding between the United States and South Asia as a whole. Through the 2003-2004 academic year, a total of nearly 1,000 students and scholars - Sri Lankans and Americans - have participated in these exchanges. The United States Government has generously borne the brunt of the costs associated with these academic programmes - approximately $12 million to date. Since 1994 Sri Lanka has been making modest annual payments towards the rental costs of the Commission.

It is also pertinent to note that among the participants in this seminar are distinguished Fulbright alumni - Rick Inderfurth, Sudarshan Seneviratne, Dayan Jayatilleke, Kunda Dixit - to name but a few. I would not be at all surprised if some of you in the audience happen to be Fulbright or Humphery scholarship beneficiaries.

Prof. Savithri Goonesekere, a member of the Council of Management of the BCIS is a Sri Lanka Government appointed member of the Board of Directors of the US-SLFC. The Commission's Executive Director, Tissa Jayatilaka, is Honorary Editor of the new BCIS journal titled "International Relations in a Globalising World" to be launched in July this year. In 2003, I myself had the honour of serving at the invitation of the Fulbright Association in Washington DC on the international panel of three judges that selected the recipient of the Annual Fulbright Prize. For all these reasons and more, I am most pleased to have the collaboration of the US-SLFC in the organization of this seminar as part of its varied activities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright programme which fell in 2002. I thank the Board of Directors of the Commission including its Honorary Chairman, Ambassador Lunstead, for their warm support of this seminar.

The people of the United States of America have countless friends and admirers all over the world. We the people of South Asia must remember that our interactions with the American people have always been friendly. They and their governments harboured no colonial designs against us. They did not stand in the way of our own drive for independence. The society they have built for themselves is a magnet to which others elsewhere are irresistibly crown. America has throughout its history provided a home for the oppressed in search of refuge. It has been a land of hope and opportunity for those who yearn for a chance of leading a better life, in a country where talent is accommodated and encouraged to flourish, where hard work brings rewards. We must not forget that America has been generous. It has spearheaded astounding progress in every avenue of human endeavour. Her friends would wish to see America remain a strong, confident and benevolent champion of democracy. That is why so many were so disturbed that the image of a fair and just America has been damaged by the events in Iraq. Notwithstanding those events the community of democratic States must always remain in dialogue with American governments and the people of America, so that America will never be allowed to feel abandoned, isolated and lonely. When we differ from American policy our criticisms should, in my view, be tempered with understanding. A giant should not be left friendless, bereft of honest counsel, lest it be tempted to use its enormous strength in irrational and harmful ways. Here, India whose relationship with the United States has entered a new phase of warmth and co-operation, has a vital role to play in keeping in touch with America at every level. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of South Asians now live and work in America. They profit from, but also contribute greatly to, the wealth and prosperity of that great country.

And in the struggle against terrorism, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen which America must perforce lead, the democratic community must stand together; otherwise, each democratic State will be in danger of falling separately. I sought to express this thought in the following words in a speech at Warsaw in June 2000 at a Ministerial Conference on the theme "Towards a Community of Democracies". This is what I said: (quote) "A democracy standing alone cannot possibly survive a sustained terrorist onslaught because democracy is vulnerable, it is fundamentally constrained, limited by the demands of democratic practice and tradition. A democracy even at a time of war has to remember the rule of law, the freedom of the press and all those requisites of a practising democracy. How then do we fight, how then do we survive? My plea is a very simple one. Please do not forget that unless the democracies of the world stand together and fight together and always come to the aid of a member in peril, democracy will not servive. A challenge to democracy anywhere in the world is a challenge to democracy everywhere. The great liberal democracies must wake up to the fact that it is their duty to come to the aid of a democracy in peril in practical ways, with moral support yes, words and declarations, but also by a demonstration of political will that sends a message to the terrorists of the world that their days are numbered, that there will be no succour, no solace, no safe haven, no place to hide, nowhere to run when all of us, the democratic States, stand together and fight together." (unquote).

We must not forget that the trauma of September 11 is still fresh in the minds of the American people. They had never before been called upon to face terror in their own homeland, the kind of terror that overshadows our daily lives in South Asia. For them it was a new experience that has coloured their view of the world and brought to them a sense of insecurity that they had never experienced before. In judging the foreign policy motivations of an American government we must be mindful of the fact that America is a deeply wounded society after September 11.

I cannot let this occasion pass without saying something about relations between Sri Lanka and the United States. There had been a formal presence in Ceylon of an official US Government agency for more than 150 years. Not many people in our respective countries know that. The United States had maintained a Commercial Agency in Ceylon since 1850 initially to service American shipping interests. The Agency moved to Colombo in 1870 and continued here without interruption until 1948. Indeed, our first contact with the United States could be said to have taken place almost 200 years ago when an American merchant ship called at the Galle harbour around the same time that the new American Republic adopted its Constitution. American missionaries from Massachusetts arrived in Ceylon in 1810. The British government decided to hand over schooling in Ceylon to Christian missionaries from any part of the world who were prepared to come here. This was a very early example of the privatization of education with a large element of globalization and with no responsibility whatsoever to Parliamentary Committees either before or after the event. Tenders were not called for in those days.

A government could give away anything that caught its fancy! The British, however, American independence not yet having been forgiven, directed the American missionaries to the Northern Province, the hottest, most arid, the driest and most geographically inhospitable part of the country, far away from Colombo, the seat of Government, in the hope, perhaps, that the Americans would give up and go away. But the tenacity and the determination of those doughty American missionaries made the desert bloom in a few years. Between 1816 and 1848, one hundred and five Tamil schools and 16 English schools were founded in Jaffna. In 1823, they founded the Seminary at Vaddukoddai which later became the famous Jaffna College. They provided educational opportunities for women, a radical concept at that time. Mrs. Harriet Winslow, a great-great-grandmother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, founded the Uduvil Girls' School in Jaffna in 1824. It was the first girls' boarding school in the whole of Asia. The American Mission started the first printing press in the North in 1820 and in 1841 the island's second oldest newspaper, the Morning Star, was founded by my own paternal ancestors.

In later years, when the American interaction with the South of Ceylon began two outstanding personalities will always be remembered - Dr. Peebles, who happened to be in Ceylon when the famous 'Panadura Debates' between Buddhist monks and the Christian clergy took place in 1873, was thoroughly impressed by the intellectual content of the debates and wrote eight articles on them titled "Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face" which reached the United States and caused a stir; and, secondly, a remarkable man, a Colonel in the Civil War from the small town of Orange in New Jersey who came here in 1880. His name was Henry Steele Olcott.

Unlike the Missionaries, Olcott came not in search of souls; not to convert, but to learn. He was studying various religions to find out whether a new religion comprising all the best elements of human thinking could be formed. What Olcott and his associates ultimately formulated was called Theosophy. He formed the Theosophical Society and became its Secretary. With him started an era of Buddhist renaissance. In him the Buddhists of Sri Lanka found a redoubtable champion. He drafted and published, in consultation with the Buddhist clergy, a Buddhist catechism. To provide Buddhism with a unifying symbol, he designed a Buddhist flag to incorporate the six colours of the aura which, according to tradition, surrounds any place where the Buddha walked. He petitioned the British authorities and campaigned successfully to have "Vesak", the day which commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment and Death of the Buddha, recognized as a public holiday. Olcott campaigned tirelessly to bring Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism closer together. Having observed at first hand the lack of opportunities for English education among the vast majority of Buddhists, he felt the need to match in the South the excellence schools system that the American missionaries had established in the North. Working with the great nationalist and religious leader, Anagarika Dharmapala, Colonel Olcott established Buddhist Schools in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala, all of which have celebrated one hundred years of existence and have become leading schools in the country. When he died, his sandalwood pyre was covered with the American flag and also with the Buddhist flag he had designed which even today is flown during Sri Lankan Buddhist festivals. A statue of Olcott stands before Colombo's main railway station, in the street named after him, and another statue of him was dedicated in Galle.

One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship between two peoples is their ability to laugh together. We not only share a language; we share a sense of humour. I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the diminutive Ambassador who was all of 5 feet tall - he might have been a Sri Lankan for all I know - who was instructed by his Foreign Minister to deliver a stern message at the State Department in Washington. He duly went to that august building. When he arrived he asked for a chair. When the chair arrived he stood on it to the bewilderment of his host. When asked why he was standing on the chair he replied with impeccable precision, "my instructions are to deliver a protest at a high level".

The politicians of the United States and Sri Lanka have much in common. Both breeds have a habit of making promises which they have no intention to fulfil. In both countries the members of the Government and the Opposition systematically behave like a pack of rowdy schoolboys. The press in both countries is free, intrusive, raucous and no respecter of persons. God bless them. They claim to have a divine mission to reveal their version of the truth.

One thing that unites and also divides us is that we play games of some complexity and mystery. For the Sri Lankans it is cricket which most of the world does not understand. For the Americans it is baseball. Both games concentrate on hitting a small ball out of sight and out of the stadium, if possible. Both games use a stick and a ball. Thousands of people flock to these games and cheer riotously at what, and why, only their devotees know.

The liberty, indeed the right, to speak frankly to each other is a mark of friendship. True friends look each other in the eye and give each other frank and constructive advice. I hope the governments of Sri Lanka and the United States will always behave as their peoples naturally behave toward each other - in an open, warm and friendly manner. Our two countries are far away from each other - one a country of nearly 250 million people, powerful, influential, the strongest in the world; the other, very old, small, with 18 million people, an island in the Indian Ocean. But there are overarching bonds that bind us. Let them bind us together for all time.





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