Photo: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power meets Northern Province Governor H. M. G. S. Palihakkara at the Governor's Secretariat in Chundikuli, Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 22 November 2015. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

Sri Lanka Needs a Consensus Builder – Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Viewpoint by H.M.G.S. Palihakkara *

The author is a Sri Lankan civil servant, diplomat and former Governor of Northern Province. This article first appeared in The Island and is being republished in view of its fervent plea for ‘building a culture of consensual governance’. – The Editor.

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) – Many concerned citizens are seen to describe the current state of our Republic as being at a crossroads. It is not difficult to join this conversation, not least because the challenges involved are multiple and touch upon all strata of our national life.

What stands out in this discourse however is the fact that an abundance of analysis is confronted by a paucity of solutions, consensual ones in particular. This is disturbing and some may even say frightening, given Sri Lanka’s history of adversarial politics and our propensity to shed blood as a means of problem solving.


The inconvenient truth is that Sri Lanka’s post-independence history is one punctuated by periodic bloodletting in which thousands of our youths had perished. What is striking is that this happened under the watch of successive governments ‘democratically elected’ by the oldest practitioners of universal adult franchise in this sub region.

Obviously, this occurred in quite complex circumstances and the victims belonged to all ethnic communities, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other. Among those thus perished must have been our bravest and brightest irrespective of whether their compulsions were ill-founded or well founded. Our own generation, which is in its terminal phase now, had endured no less than four cycles of such bloodsheds, the last one lasting over three decades.

Many studies were done and several Commissions reflected on ‘the root causes’, remedial measures, non-recurrence strategies etc. Many thoughtful and constructive recommendations emerged. While the analytics have continued unabated, most recommendations have predictably remained un-implemented. Consequently, the challenges remained largely unaddressed.


A key contributor, if not the prime one, to this mounting inventory of challenges –economic, social, governance, peace and security – is the abysmal leadership failures our fellow citizens have been obliged to endure since we gained independence. Leadership is not only about winning elections. It is not about building coalitions of self-serving political desperados either. It is about building consensus, especially on difficult issues. It is also about hammering out compromises necessary for solving those complex problems.

Compromises are not about making everybody perfectly happy. They are about making all concerned parties reasonably content and ensuring that no one is deeply happy or unhappy. This is how democracies become habitats in which diversity and tolerance happily coexist to enrich Nations so that Nations can move on in this fast-tracked world.

Visionary leaders liberate critical ‘national issues’ from election politics. They are courageous folks who can summon political will to fight elections on other public policy issues. This is the wise and tested bipartisan track that had helped solve what were termed as ‘intractable’ national ‘troubles’ that bedeviled many other developed and developing countries ranging from Britain – Northern Ireland to Bangladesh.

Culture of consensus had indeed been conspicuous in its absence among the majority of the Sri Lankan political ‘elite’. That deficit transcended several changes of government from the late 50s to date. It has virtually countervailed the free Franchise the men and women of our country have been practicing for nearly a century now!

It was this political rot people like the late Lakshman Kadirgarmar sought to address when he exhorted his Parliamentary colleagues…” we must never forget that people are always looking at us and saying what are the legislators from all sides of the House, whom we sent to parliament, doing?… ultimately people are not going to be fooled… they are going to say, surely they will rightly say, these people are behaving irresponsibly… People expect, I do not draw lines here, all of us to put our heads together and hammer out a compromise. If we fail, we are failing the nation, and we are failing them, in a disastrous way… How much bloodshed is to go on until this opportunity comes again?” (8 Aug, 2000, Hansard)

Referring to democracy – Sri Lankan style – he said “… there is perhaps arguably an inherent flaw… which from time to time asserts itself to the detriment of all… this is the syndrome that makes democratic parties yield to the temptation to play politics with issues that could otherwise be dealt with by all of us together”.

He appeared to ask the offending politicos including those in his own party ranks, to practice consensual governance and to desist from the lure of parochialism at least on the ‘national issues’ – pragmatically implying that ‘business as usual’ can continue on other electoral issues!

He also appealed — in vain as it turned out—, “we must seek to bring ourselves back on to the rails of decent conduct, of understanding, of sympathy and respect for each other.”

It was this same leadership default that ‘externalized’ one of the most pivotal national issues of Sri Lanka – the so called ethnic conflict. Simple hindsight on my part led to the following observation some years ago (April 10, 1997. Hansard):

‘a consistent pattern of leadership failures’ in Sri Lanka was the primary reason for externalizing what was essentially a domestic issue’.

Little did I realize that this ‘consistent pattern’ would continue throughout the post conflict period as well. Nor could one imagine that the proof of it would come so thick and fast during the years that followed touching on a wide range of nationally important issues e.g. accountability, reconciliation, human rights, economy, foreign policy and governance in general. (Prof J.E.Jayasuriya Memorial Oration- 14 Feb 2012. SLFI, Colombo.)

Having ended the conflict without external interference, the former Government failed to meet the clear and present need for crafting a national consensus that embraced all victims – civilians and soldiers alike – with empathy. It unwisely disregarded or failed to comprehend, a way forward for such a consensus carefully formulated by the LLRC which enjoyed by far the widest national and international acceptance.

Neither the then Government nor the then Opposition was interested in ‘putting their heads together’, as the late Lakshman Kadirgamar put it, to build a consensus on the common denominator presented by thousands of our citizens who appeared before the LLRC. What the LLRC report signified was a rare citizens’ consensus, first of its kind in recallable memory but callously wasted by our leaders on all sides.

That was how our ‘leaders’ let our post-conflict peace building initiative migrate abroad. Consequently, a hostile Diaspora and aggressive foreign interlocutors became the drivers of the process. Thanks to our cult politics, it happened by default.

In 2015, the Sri Lankan electorate made yet another promising offer to their ‘so-called’ leaders asking them to take the Nation to consensual territory in which all will have the space to work happily together on a host of long standing and pressing issues – ranging from accountability to economy; foreign policy to fiscal policy; constitution to corruption, and so on.

We lost it again. Our ‘leaders’ were either unable or unwilling to seize the momentum. Both major Parties along with their Northern and Southern fellow travelers were on board but common approaches to those pressing issues were rare and self-serving partisan bickering became frequent. The country witnessed yet another failure of leadership where much was promised but little was delivered.

True enough, the Government deserves appreciation for restoring and respecting citizens’ rights and freedoms as well as improving transparency and some governance aspects. However, popular mandate was virtually unraveled on other issues of national importance.

The Government could have used this bipartisan platform to develop common ground on reconciliation and accountability at the national level based on a home-grown framework (e.g. LLRC) on which there was much national and international convergence. Instead of a national consensus, the Government spent its political capital advocating a new external consensus that entailed domestically undeliverable commitments and unwarranted ‘watching briefs’ to external entities.

Ironically, this approach intensified local polarization rather than promoting reconciliation. It also created divisions in the Government itself. Consensus became elusive within the Government, let alone at the national level. The Sri Lankan electorate voted these ‘leaders’ into power to do bipartisan governance but they got mired in partisan bickering.

Those opposing the Government naturally saw all doom and no good at all in this approach which was allegedly based on a ‘flawed consultation process’. They lost no time in exploiting this in their Government toppling game which is still ongoing and may succeed eventually. Opponents in the North argued it was too little too late. The Government had little political capital to carry this through.

A domestic consensus on accountability robustly negotiated with the internationals, rather than shouldering an international wish list sans any ‘give and take’ negotiations, would have been the more prudent public policy stance. This is because a basic framework of the former was already available while the latter and the sponsoring Government could both unravel at the next election!

Once again, we had allowed human rights problems to become foreign policy problems. A Government that did much to defend human rights of its citizens did not have to defend its human rights record like this – failure in leadership and diplomacy!

It was this failure to build national convergence that obliged the weak governments of the country to let foreign governments, foreign facilitators, mediators et al, become invasive role players in our internal affairs throughout the history of our internal peace-making efforts. The collapse of a flawed Ceasefire Agreement – the so called MOU of 2002 – was a case in point.

This phenomenon became more pronounced and more abrasive in the post conflict period. Politicians on all sides (southern and northern as well as governmental and opposition) failed to build on the success of ending the armed conflict. They thus allowed the conflict by other means to continue. Basically, the ‘victorious’ Government did not want to share the credit and an irresponsible Opposition did not want to acknowledge the achievement. The sacrifices made by the victims and the soldiers were not capitalized on.

As it turned out, our leaders stumbled again when the issues of accountability and reconciliation which were accepted as a sovereign affair of Sri Lanka (Ref. the last paragraph of the Joint Statement by United Nations Secretary-General, Government of Sri Lanka., were allowed to migrate and morph into a series of domestic and diplomatic controversies involving hybrid courts, universal jurisdiction, Diaspora, electric chairs and so on.

True to form, the Opposition busy as it is with the government toppling game, lost no time in exploiting this unwarranted ‘externalization’ yet again in order to polarize the local polity against any form of accountability as a ‘sell out’! The opportunity was lost and the opportunists of different political hues gained.

Most of this would have been avoidable, had there been quality leadership striving for genuine consensus building on those national issues. Such efforts were glaringly manifest on matters like the legislators’ perks, but not on those national or public policy issues.

A few lines would not do justice to what all this would have entailed for the well-being or its absence in our country. As we wallow in these costly failings and spend more time in endless analyses and hind-sight appraisals, the rest of the world had moved on. A sober and simple description in a recent Article by a former Executive Director of the NCED seems to capture the cumulative socio-economic cost of this ‘consistent pattern of leadership failures’ thus:

“We have heard that the great Lee Kwan Yu wanted Singapore to be like Sri Lanka way back in the sixties. Today, Singapore is a $349 billion economy whilst we are at just a quarter of that value at around $85 billion. Then we consider ourselves to be better than Bangladesh. Once again, way back in 1990, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam were at just $2 billion in export revenue. Today, Bangladesh is at $37 billion and Vietnam is at $213 billion whilst Sri Lanka is at just $11.5 billion.

Now we see that Myanmar – a country which was in the closet until 2010 due to the issue of ethnic cleansing – has touched 6.7% GDP growth in 2017, with tourist arrivals crossing 3.4 million and exports passing the $ 13 billion mark, beating Sri Lanka on all fronts. Many are asking if this is the performance we expected from the progressive government that we voted in January 2015.” (Rohantha Athukorala, Has Sri Lanka been beaten by Myanmar?

Of course this is a question that needs to be raised not only with the current Administration but with many, if not all, successive Governments and their ‘Oppositions’ who squandered away a string of opportunities to build a culture of consensual governance.

It is rather painful to reflect on how diminished we all feel about these deficits and their mounting costs, especially where our leaders had conflated national interests with parochial ‘Party interests’, and where they failed to bring at least a semblance of decency and truth into play in this ghastly practice called power politics in this country.

The Position is advertised. Sri Lanka needs a consensus builder!

* H.M.G.S. Palihakkara was Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in August 2008, serving until August 2009. In May 2010 President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed him a member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Current President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Palihakkara Governor of Northern Province on 27 January 2015. He resigned in February 2016. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 November 2018]

Related articles:

Sri Lanka President Told Not to Trample on Parliamentary Democracy and the Rights of People by Friday Forum

The ‘CRISIS’ In Sri Lanka – Invented by the Western Media by Dr Palitha Kohona

West’s ‘Democracy’ Clash With Peoples’ Concerns in Sri Lanka by Kalinga Seneviratne.

Photo: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power meets Northern Province Governor H. M. G. S. Palihakkara at the Governor’s Secretariat in Chundikuli, Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 22 November 2015. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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