Duraiswamy Kumaran Thangarajah is a Lankan Tamil professional who has returned to Sri Lanka having left the country in the aftermath of the July ’83 riots and after nearly 30 years abroad during which he has rendered service to the world, especially during a stint with the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.
Kumaran is no ordinary person either as he is hailing from a political stock dating prior to the country’s independence. His father and grandfather had easily transcended race barriers and worked closely with all communities and especially with the Sinhalese.
He now hopes to uplift the poverty stricken in the former war torn areas, but appears to have run into some invisible barriers. He speaks his mind to The Island without treading on anyone’s corns.
Q: Although the war ended more than five years ago, the Tamil leadership of the North appears to be still preaching politics of hate and it is poisoning the relations between the communities and getting us nowhere. You seem to be a person who looks at things out of the box having lived abroad for so long. How do you propose we should handle this?
A: The concept of confrontation and hatred is mainly revolving around the leadership of the community. The political leadership needed the confrontational rhetoric for them to survive. So I think the time has come and also history has taught us that confrontational politics has not worked. It has not worked in the South with JVP uprisings and we have seen recently that it has not worked in the North with the LTTE. What we need, I think is for the communities to engage positively and a constructively with empathy, passion and pragmatism, considering the less advantaged people in the North. For example there are still a large number of people, who have not got access to employment opportunities. This is a huge problem and none of these groups who are talking about the welfare of the people have been responsible for establishing any enterprise that provided substantial employment opportunities in the past. Starting from 1950s, the Federal Party, the TULF and then the militant groups- ten to 15 of them, and subsequently the major militant group; none of them have ever established an industry or an enterprise, which has created significant employment opportunities to so called people they claim to be representing. What I am asking is if they are representing the interests of these people isn’t it fair for them to have embarked on projects which benefit them.
Q: Probably due to this continuing politics of hate lots of Tamil youth are lost in worlds of their own. Even the Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran at a public function few months back decried the aimless lifestyles of many Tamil youth who want to watch videos or play video games the whole day, they had no respect for their elders etc., unlike their forefathers who believed in hard work.
A: First of all I don’t know what exactly the Chief Minister said, but I think I know he is very keen to encourage and implement welfare programmes for the community. With regard to the youth I like to say that the present day youth in the North are very much more progressive. They have the potential for hard work. However, I think they feel betrayed due to loss of opportunities. So it is not a blame game, but the fact is that they have limited opportunities to progress. That is the cause of this erratic behaviour.
Q: In your book titled TRADITIONAL AGRICULTURAL MICRO-KNOWLEDGE ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND RAPID LIVELIHOOD DEVELOPMENT you have called for a paradigm shift in tackling poverty alleviation through innovative livelihood development approaches. So what is holding you back from implementing those proposals since being back here for some time? Is it corruption, bureaucracy…?
A: I find that in theory there are no handicaps or obstacles towards implementing any poverty alleviation projects. But in a practical sense the bureaucracy, the number of people involved in livelihood development, I think is almost equal to or close to a fair proportion of the poverty stricken. Leaving that aside, in moving forward what we need may be a private-public partnership approach. For example the University Grants Commission has come forward with a concept of collaborating with ground level organisations to implement poverty alleviation programmes. The concept of traditional knowledge and based on that to establish micro-knowledge enterprises came about because in Sri Lanka the large number of poverty stricken population have access to traditional knowledge passed on from their ancestors. What I am saying is that this traditional knowledge has got value and they need help to package and promote this knowledge. Just as much as we are now establishing products based on industry and agriculture, the approach that I am proposing or have tried out is that we can establish intellectual products based on traditional knowledge belonging to the poorest sectors of the community and market them both nationally and globally. This can apply to people all over Sri Lanka.
Q: There are some obvious things that can help to make the economy of take off the North immediately like the strong toddy industry already there, which was vibrant even during the war. We still don’t see commercial quantities of finished Palmyra products like arrack, which would have a good market in the south being exploited or why are they not setting up a fish canning factory at a place like Velvettiturai to process large quantities of fish caught by northern fishermen. Why isn’t anything happening to kick-start the economy there?
A: I think there is a large interest amongst financiers and national leaders to do something along lines you have suggested. As to the bottlenecks, the biggest in my opinion is the bureaucracy and also to some extent vested interests blocking the process. How we can overcome these obstacles is the question. Initially the quickest way would be I think is to set up an ombudsman or even a hotline, where anyone who has got a problem related to poverty alleviation programmes or employment generation can call this number and this number needs to be coordinated by a neutral body. It can even be handled by the Grants Commission, because here we are talking about intellectual products. The middleman for intellectual products has to be by default educated people and the people who are coordinating this function will be from the universities around the country. We can get the lecturers of the universities involved in this development process so that they become facilitators and they manage knowledge exchanges all over the country and so they can facilitate this programme. The advantage of this programme is that the benefits can accrue to the target audience within a short period of time and therefore we are cutting through the middleman’s role and also we are giving them immediate benefits.
Q: How sincere are the northern leaders in wanting to solve the immediate problems of the people? What we hear is that often there are brick walls that one runs into, because certain petty interests are not satisfied. This is even the case in some other areas of the country. Shouldn’t there be a person who can intervene to clear such brick walls.
A: I am not familiar with these types of activities, but judging from what you are saying I think it’s an excellent idea to have a sort of monitoring cell at the National level. I remember during President J.R. Jayewardene’s time, when we had the Ministry of Plan Implementation, where I was working as the Assistant Director (Food Policy) we had a unit whereby we had representation in all agriculture sector corporations in the country with a veto power. Our job was to monitor performance all round in addition to all the other checks and balances that were in place. May be based on what you are saying a similar thing could be useful. I don’t know whether you already have such things, but to my knowledge there are too many of such things and that is also a problem because if you are going to have a monitoring body it should have one primary monitoring cell reporting directly to the Chief Executive.
Q: In your book you talk about innovative thinking. In Thailand you had helped to set up a bio-diesel manufacturing facility. Isn’t it possible to set up similar facility in Vanni, where there are vast extents of land where you can grow the required vegetation?
A: We can do such things. The Thai project at that time was very successful, but due to market trends and the oil prices came down the impetus to develop that was lost. Therefore at the moment the priority in the North might be towards simpler and short term projects because we need to show results to those who have been affected and those who need income generation activities right now.
Q: You are hailing from an interesting political family. Your maternal grandfather was Sir Waitilingam Duraiswamy who was the longest serving Speaker (1936-47) of the then State Council, the predecessor to the post independent parliament, having won the support of the three main communities. Then your own father Saravanamuttu Thangarajah was one of the founder members of the SLFP. What are your plans to reunite the two people?
A: We need to forget our differences and think of the fact that all of us are human beings first and foremost. Then only we can progress as a country because that is how it was in the past. Differences in the minds of some people led to differences in behaviour. But I think fortunately the trend is changing now because we all know that all those who amassed lot of wealth through ill-gotten means, to my knowledge never lived to enjoy such wealth. I believe even their families were not able to do so.
Q: The whole world is becoming a global village, but here in this country we are still divided on parochial lines. So do you have genuine hope for this country having been here for the last three years? Sometimes you sound very negative. Have you lost faith?
A: My faith is unwavering. I have absolute faith. In fact the faith has increased over this period. I believe it is mainly an attitudinal change, which is required first because as I was saying freedom, happiness, and satisfaction all these are states of the mind. So if we are content with what we have, then happiness sets in immediately. I am not saying that it applies directly to the poverty stricken population. To them it is a case of providing their core needs. I think it is important for us to understand the root of the problems if we are going to solve them. I like to give an example of an incident that happened more than 40 years ago. When the first JVP insurrection was quelled by the government in ’71 they had these rehabilitation camps in the universities. The JVPers were very good agriculturists. They grew home gardens and their crops were so successful even as good as best farmers in the country. So the Minister of the day, I believe it was the Prime Minister who wanted to reward them and they wanted to pay a visit. So when the dignitaries were planning to visit one particular camp, where I believe there were about 3000 detainees, what they did overnight was not to sleep, instead they spent the night uprooting all their labour and replanted them upside down. When the irrigation engineer visited the place early morning to see whether everything was perfect, to his surprise he found everything upside down. When he asked them why they did such a thing, their response was now that the leaders of the country are coming to us we would like them to see the root of the problem. So they showed the roots and buried the harvest.
I think the key to solving any issue, whether it is at the family, community or country level, there is a need to address the root of the problem and not the symptoms.
Q: There are hidden forces instigating and stoking the fires from behind the scene. It appears what they really want is for the Tamils to hate Sinhalese and vice versa, though outwardly they speak of high ideals and objectives. You having lived abroad for so long can look at the wider picture more dispassionately.
A: I think in the present era the dynamics have changed so much and become so complicated that one of the effective ways of solving it may be to just go ahead and do what is necessary for the upliftment of the people and if that is the case there is no need even to negotiate. There is nothing to negotiate if a head of a family finds that one of the children has got a need I think the best thing the head of the family should do is to address that and provide for it. Unless you don’t know what the problem is its easy to solve it provided there is a genuine intention to do so. So I believe and I like to believe there is a genuine and sincere intention on the part of the leadership to address the issues faced by all the minority groups in the country. When I say minority groups I mean Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, the disadvantaged women, disadvantaged children and even the unemployed youth. So we are talking about all these disadvantaged minority groups, who need to be assisted and to do that I am asking the question does the government call for negotiations with the women’s groups and all that to the same extent and is it politicized to address their needs. If that is the case then it is fair for them to do so. This has been going on for more than 30 years or even 50 years and it has not worked. I think now the time has come for the government to go ahead and do what they think is necessary in the interest of the disadvantaged groups.
Q: Obviously one of the keys to solving the problem is to increase the size of the economic pie. If we are to end youth unrest whether in the South, North, East or anywhere else they must be economically emancipated by providing opportunities for them to settle down in life. Therefore we must get big investments, so starting little employment projects may not be the answer. So why not look to a Singapore style solution with strict laws to ensure no community is favoured and no airing of divisive issues? Will that work?
A: Of course it will work. It is ironical that in 1965 Lee Kuan Yew said he would like to make Singapore like Ceylon and today it is the opposite. You are saying the need for economic emancipation and citing Singapore as an example, it is a perfect example and I would go one step further that Singapore is today one of the leading countries in Asia that came right up from the bottom and I am proud to say that Tamils have worked very successfully hand in glove with the Chinese and the Malays to come to this stage and there is no reason why the Tamils cannot work together with the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka as they did in the past and bring Sri Lanka as close to Singapore as possible.
Q: So a solution might be found by thinking out of the box. By looking at other options, instead of what the two sides have been looking at so far and striking a compromise that way might be the answer.
A: I think you are hitting the nail on the head because the solution need not be complicated. The approach has to be made simple. All we need to do is to unite and focus on the end and forget our differences and concentrate on what unite us. If we continue with this confrontational approach of subjugation and what I mean is subjugation of any group based on differences of opinion. There are so many subjugated groups in Sri Lanka based on political differences or other differences, but only Tamils who claim to be subjugated. And also it is an interesting fact in history that people who have been subjugated the most historically that is the Jews by the Germans, have become one of the most influential groups in the world. What I am saying is that subjugation is actually a blessing for the victim rather than the people who are inflicting it, because by now the people should learn that lesson the discrimination or subjugation of any kind, towards any group is completely unwarranted and unnecessary in the interest of enhancing the quality of life of people everywhere.
Q: Post independence scenario has been a case of politicians on both sides taking extreme stands and playing to the gallery. Again we see that laws are such in Singapore that politicians are not allowed to play any such tricks.
A: Some aspects regarding freedom of expression are debatable, but I think what Singapore has done in other aspects in terms of social cohesiveness, unity and harmony, I think is exemplary. Similar to that even in Australia it is interesting to note that there are about 150 different communities living in total harmony. The uniting factor there is a guarantee of fair play given to every citizen by the government. So I think once that is ensured everything else follows: people unite, they become more patriotic, and then they work towards a common goal of developing the country. I think the precursor to all these is to have a sort of constitutional, legislative and implementable guarantees of fair play. I do not know what mechanisms can do that, but once that is assured, everything else is automatic. There is no need to have political negotiations to establish fairness.