The NI Interview
Vanessa Baird meets a man dedicated to stopping wars before they start.
If there was a traumatic turning-point in the life and consciousness of Kumar Rupesinghe, it was the pogrom against the Tamils in his native Sri Lanka in the late 1970s which led to the outbreak of civil war in 1981.
‘It was for me a period of trying to understand why so many of my dear friends had to die. A lot of them died on both sides. This pogrom was unacceptable; that people were killed like this in my own neighbourhood, was unacceptable. I was ashamed of being Sinhalese. I was ashamed of being Sri Lankan. I had to re-examine most of my assumptions about fellow human beings and their rationality.’
He had already gone into exile in Norway. As a leading member of the progressive Bandaranaike Government who stood up for the rights of Tamils, he had become a target for right-wing extremists.
For Rupesinghe and many of his contemporaries the outbreak of ethnic violence was a shattering of illusions and beliefs.
‘You see, we all thought there was democracy in Sri Lanka. Because there was 95-per-cent literacy and we had a parliamentary system with different parties and we had a high quality of life, we assumed that things were going well.
‘When this explosion of ethnic violence started... the concept of imperialism as the devil incarnate had to be redefined. It was our own people who were the perpetrators of evil against our own people. We could not blame colonialism and imperialism for what was happening.’
He and his generation of intellectuals had been following the Marxist ‘dependency’ theories of Franck and others. Suddenly, faced with ethnicity and nationalism, they had to find explanations which anti-imperialism did not necessarily provide. Nationalism had up to then been seen as a good thing, a defence against imperialism.
‘We had to look within ourselves and when we did that we saw that we had inherited a lot of stereotypes about Tamils. We had notions of what it is to be Sinhalese. I was brought up thinking I was of pure race, of Aryan origin. It was not just something the Germans inherited, it was universal.’
There were other difficult questions to ask. ‘We asked ourselves: could we have prevented it? The answer of course was “yes”. There was information going round that people were planning a pogrom against the Tamils but we had not really focused enough to do what needed to be done.’
At this point his interest in conflict became more sharply focused. While in Norway he started a database on the causes of conflict and how to stop it, at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. ‘The whole Sri Lankan issue impelled me to look at why it had not been prevented.’
He has been dedicated to the task of prevention ever since. Today he heads the London-based organization International Alert, a non-partisan bridge-building initiative which works to unite peoples divided by ethnic and internal conflict, to prevent war and enable mediation and dialogue to take place. Recently its main focus has been Burundi.
What drives Rupesinghe is the conviction that wars can be prevented. The trouble is the international community tends to get involved when it is already too late. Then there is a massive and costly humanitarian response, as seen recently in Bosnia and Rwanda. What the international community needs to do is put funds and energy into conflict prevention. This does not require a crystal ball – in most cases there are always clear indications that trouble is brewing.
This is a fairly radical agenda. But Rupesinghe, who was a student activist at the London School of Economics during its revolutionary heyday in the late 1960s, looks an unlikely radical now. A smartly-dressed man in his early fifties, he looks more like a UN official as he makes high-level phone calls around the world. He comes across as someone capable of exerting considerable influence at high levels and pulling strings where needed.
Besides, he nowadays distances himself from the ‘radical’ label: ‘I have become quite sceptical of political colours. I think we are departing from the traditional dichotomies of Left and Right. Since the end of the Cold War we have been moving into an area where on the one side we have states; on the other we have a tremendous multicentred universe of non-governmental organizations, corporations and non-state entities, which has grown immensely and has its own way of intervening politically. It’s not just political parties and states that determine politics now. It is citizen-based movements, popular movements too.’
But he also sees a dangerous aspect in the fragmentation, parochialism and militancy of ethnic groups.
‘I think it’s crucial to recognize the importance not only of transformation outside but your own transformation too. The very deep, psychologically traumatic experience of the war and pogrom in Sri Lanka brought me to this thinking. I have tried to find out within myself whether I could have contributed to this scenario.
‘My own feeling is that the dignity of a people depends on how it treats a minority. This idea has dominated my thinking in the past 10 or 15 years. If you defame others, if you oppress the other, you cannot have the dignity of a human relationship.’
International Alert can be contacted at 1 Glyn Street, London SE11 5HT, England. Tel: (0171) 793 8383. Fax: (0171) 793 7975.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995