The Allure of Hate

A lecture delivered in New York, 18 May 2023

· social-political,history,musing,Social commentary

Honoured guests,

I was asked to speak for 45 minutes or so, on a subject of my choosing, and I’ve prepared a piece that is personal, professional, and political.

As I often emphasize to my teenaged daughter, life is political because as biologically social animals, we individuals organise through collaboration. It’s how we build the world we want.

I follow tonight in the footsteps of a Nobel Laureate, political leaders, and high-level experts in the fields of human rights and law, all of whom have addressed this forum.

While these are the imprints of giants, I trust that my effort will also prove purposeful and, more importantly than anything else, will be of use to you.

I was told when approached with an invitation to speak to you that I’m considered a trusted and respected interlocutor, which is high praise, and I thank you from my heart for this accolade.

At first, to be frank, I refused the invitation. I haven’t spoken on this issue for a decade, and I’ve never appeared before a body of such decided political persuasion.

Then, upon reflection, I changed my mind, and for reasons which I hope will become clear.

Changing one’s mind is central to my address in fact, and I ask that you bear this in mind as I speak for the next while. Changing one’s mind is deeply human, as my story will divulge.

My role in your national disaster, which culminated at Mullivaikkal in May 2009, was two-fold.

Firstly, I was the UN’s spokesperson, charged with shaping that great organisations’ public-facing response during the final three years of Sri Lanka’s civil war. This role was functional, bureaucratic, and practical.

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Secondly, and the primary reason for which I’ve been invited here tonight, I authored a book called “The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.”

Against all expectations, it was translated and published around the world. It has sold tens of thousands of copies, and was lauded as balanced and rigorous by august reviewers across the political spectrum, from The Economist and the Wall Street Journal, to Noam Chomsky, as well as by significant Sri Lankan publications.

Even when still in manuscript form, prior to publication, it served as a resource for a number of internal and external investigations – both those conducted by the UN, and by national governments.

When Charles Petrie, the diplomat charged by the UN Secretary-General with appraising the role of the UN in Sri Lanka began his work, he says that the first thing he was handed was a copy of my book.

I mention these things only to emphasize the credibility of this document.

Very few if any of you will know, however, that in 2012, after writing that book, I established, along with a number of lawyers and experts, an organisation in Australia called the International Crimes Evidence Project.

In 2012 I convinced a single Australian philanthropist, Graham Wood, to provide the seed funding for this war crimes investigations body.

Over two years, with investigations, prosecutorial, and forensic experts drawn from the Hague Tribunal, this organisation compiled eyewitness testimony from dozens of Tamils then refugee in Australia.

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Not only that, but our efforts were supplemented with evidentiary documents supplied by key governments with which we cooperated.

The brief of evidence compiled from those witnesses directly contributed to the eventual passage of a UN Human Rights Council Resolution in 2014, calling for the establishment of a war crimes investigation process in Sri Lanka.

In short, following the end of the war, I rejected the offer of promotion to a more senior UN role, left the UN to author this book, and subsequently volunteered my time, expertise, energy, and finances to pursue what I regarded as a just and vital cause.

So why did I choose this path? Why am I here tonight? What is it that impels somebody to trace an arc that is against their immediate self-interest?

Believe me, in my darkest moments I have sometimes been provoked to wonder.

But in the final analysis, the reason is quite a straightforward one, and it’s the reason that so many people act on behalf of others: I simply felt that your freedom was my own.

That sense of shared freedom spurred me to write that book and start The International Crimes Evidence Project because, to quote that most beautiful Biblical passage,

To everything there is a season,

A time to every purpose under heaven.

To describe this purpose, my season of writing, I want to tell you a bit about my own family history, a history which led me to a closeness to your cause beyond just “doing my job.”

Perhaps this seems an indulgence. Yet, our entire lives roll out from origin stories that are consciously or unconsciously indivisible from our subsequent actions. We’re either in action or reaction to these kinetic origins, a pendulum of perpetual motion until our final days.

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My origins are like many of you who are here tonight in some distinctive fundamental respects.

I’m the son of an immigrant and a refugee to Australia. My parents both arrived there when they were 17, my mother escaping a wealthy but unhappy home in New Zealand, my father arriving by boat as a refugee from war-torn Czechoslovakia.

From cutting timber, my father eventually became a lawyer, and my mother is today an admired judge, recently honoured with an Order of Australia for her work in the law and mental health, a blue-stocking pioneer if you will.

I want to share a photo of my father with you, to bring him to life for the purposes of the points I want to raise with you tonight.

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Melbourne, January 1948

Here’s my father with the friends he travelled with by ship, caught in this rather striking pageant of dishevelled refugees arriving on their first day in Australia in 1948. It’s an epic refugee tapestry, an Odyssean canvas.

All of these children – they were aged between 14 and 18 – were survivors of the Nazi extermination and concentration camps.

I knew them as I was growing up – people who held their wounds silently inside. Outside, the only marker of their terrible voyage, and the crimes inflicted on them were the tattoos on their wrists.

Like many of you, having suffered fear, repression, and expulsion into exile from their homelands, they accepted their fates. They got on with their lives far from the villages and cities in which they had been born.

They often achieved dizzying heights of success. On the other hand, destroyed by their trauma, several of the group you see in this picture were driven to insanity, or fell by the wayside in various ways.

They’re almost all dead now, their tears forever dry, their dreadful memories only dust. I had dinner with the last of the group in this photograph, Andrew Bondy, aged 94, just several weeks ago in Sydney.

For reasons I won’t go into here, my father evaded the concentration camps, but most in his family did not.

Last year, when I was working in Poland, I made a personal pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp just outside Krakow. I went to pay homage to the 58 members of my family who were murdered there.

That’s 58 people of my blood – the aunts, uncles, cousins, and infant children my father knew, played with and loved, coldly murdered.

58 people sacrificed to a homicidal and perverse idea that that their lives were beneath contempt. My father’s father was among them. This is the dreadful power of wicked ideas.

If you’ve never been, I urge you to make the journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and to recall my words tonight. I was the first and, thus far, the only member of my living family to do so.

I walked the railroad that fed my relatives inexorably into the furnaces all those decades ago, and it felt as though it had happened yesterday. War raged across the border in Ukraine and I was alone.

Humankind’s inhumanity to our own kind echoed across that grotesque Eastern European winter wasteland.

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In October 1944, the very last train transport reached Auschwitz. It contained Jews from Prague. After the war, the Polish guardians of that memorial preserved a display of the items stripped from these people on this last transport when they arrived in Auschwitz.

You’ll probably have seen the notorious pictures. The clinically neat sorting of the clothing, spectacles, shoes, and other personal effects of these doomed people into separate categories of items.

These macabre middens were still there when Russian forces liberated the camp in January 1945, so they sit today where they were found.

Among the piles of suitcases, to my shock that day, I spotted a suitcase with my family name on it. If you ever visit, you’ll see it still there – WEISS.

In a pile of hair shorn from children and their mothers are plaits the wheaten-blonde colour of my three sisters. I have a photograph I took of those skeins caught in a shaft of light that day.

Indeed, in that little mountain of hair that was destined to stuff the chairs of German families, there is hair that is the coppery colour of my own daughter’s autumnal tresses. You can see the photo I took that day.

Skeins of hair, Auschwitz-Birkenau, March 2022

It's not for nothing that the Holocaust remains the emblematic crimson stain on the conscience of humankind.

It illuminates what we are capable of, why we must remain forever vigilant and alert to our species’ capacity for mass murder, and why we must fight back with tooth and claw and sword when wolves would destroy our flock.

You’ll note, I am not a pacifist.

I happened to be close to Auschwitz last year because when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, my personal reaction was one of profound resentment.

I felt the invasion as though my own country had been invaded, and as though my own people were being killed.

Once more, the spectre of fascism raising its foul black fist in Europe, affairs being settled in bloodshed, an army rolling its tanks over the innocent, and crimes against humanity once more afoot in the Bloodlands, as the historian Timothy Snyder called them.

Once again, I felt unreasonably impelled to do whatever I could. I spent much of 2022 in and around the theatre of conflict in Ukraine, doing one thing or another to help the war effort where possible.

Ukrainian freedom is truly our own, and the combined war effort against this brutality, is one for all of us who value democratic progression.

What strikes me most forcefully about Putin’s war of imperial conquest is that it’s a monstrously reactive throwback to a medieval past fed by superstitious origin fantasies, engorged on nationalistic narcissism.

Sri Lanka’s Tamils will know what fervid origin stories and nationalistic narcissism means for communities excluded from those stories.

We cannot know today where this war will lead, beneath the shadow of the doomsday fist that Putin waves in our faces.

But we do know that the Ukrainians will fight for their freedom to the bitter end. That’s what embattled peoples do, because in freedom – as those in this audience know – there is an intangible quality that is sometimes worth dying for.

Like the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the Ukrainians remember very clearly the Holodomor and other forms of vainglorious horror gifted by Soviet bad ideas on Ukrainians – even though these crimes stretch back a century, and the direct victims are all dead.

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People don’t just forget.

The Kremlin is a poster child for Umberto Eco’s “14 Features of Fascism.” The Putin cabal exemplifies the primitive human instinct for murder, land theft, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Worse, this war leaves the heaviest and most grim legacy for Russia’s children who are innocent of the crimes of their elders, but who will suffer the consequences.

Let me delve into the consequences of the sins of our elders, because it reflects on my own experience of cycles of hatred and violence.

We live in precarious times. We confront the twin marvels of our own capacity and apparent impulse to destroy ourselves through climate extinction or nuclear warfare, and the dazzling accomplishments of science, art, politics, and other forms of human creativity and ingenuity.

Among this marvellous parade of achievements is the discovery of epigenetics. This is the emerging study of the impact of traumatic events on successive generations. This theory of epigenetics posits that gene expression is mutable through trauma, and that these mutations are then passed down to one’s children.

In other words, at some level, we inherit the pain of our forebears. We inherit the pain of our forebears.

It's an extraordinary idea – but one which many of us would say that we always felt in our bones, in our marrow.

I think that Sri Lankan Tamils would say this about their own inheritance.

For reasons we couldn’t hitherto explain, we viscerally feel the pain of our ancestors, if not their precise misfortunes. We haven’t experienced these traumatic events ourselves, and yet they are ours by legacy.

Not a legacy we would freely choose, but one which is somehow, genetically, a part of us.

Whispers of our ancestors carried up in eddies by the winds of the past, a constant refrain in our ears.


My father urged me all my life to hate Germans.

As a child in Prague during the war, my father was expelled from school because he was a Jew, hounded by Germans, and lived in constant fear in the streets of Prague while his father and family were picked off one-by-one by the occupation forces.

My father refuted the idea that Germans were distinguishable from the Nazis, or that there was any such thing as an ‘innocent German.’

When I asked him what Protectorate Prague under the Nazis was like, all my father could say was, “I only remember the fear, the fear.”

As I grew up, my father’s hatred was constant and unrelenting.

As a result, a high sensitivity to the murder of my family has always been with me, throughout all the fragrant summers of my Australian youth, and beyond.

But, I have known and worked with – and sometimes loved – many Germans. Not least of these people was my beloved old friend Dr. Susanne Begemann of Charlottenburg, Berlin, who passed away just months ago.

But to my father, my friendships, such as that with beloved Susi, were a form of naivete at best, and treachery at worst.

My father was very Old Testament about it all. He would pound the desk and holler: “They are cursed and stained with blood for seven generations.”

Why seven generations I don’t know, apart from the Biblical rumblings of those words that play one’s bones like Elgar’s cello concerto.

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But it’s interesting that the phrase contains within it the inherent suggestion of epigenetic seeds. In other words, the curse of the perpetrators – the bloody mark of Caine – is suffered generationally.

It’s the curse of those who inflict violence, that they should in turn inflict the stain of their sins on their progeny.

In this sense, I believe that my father’s Biblical pronouncements rang with a certain truth.

My father refused a pension from the German government and would criticise his friends for buying anything that was German-made.

The only exception was when Aldi’s, the great German supermarket chain, moved into Australia and opened a store close to his home. My father began to buy the bargain-basement goods he could get there. His justification? “The prices are so good, I feel like I’m stealing from them,” he told me.

He often told me that he thought of his murdered father every single day of his life.

Indeed, for the first years after the war, as a young refugee in Sydney, he wistfully imagined in tricks of the mind that he had caught fleeting sight of his father’s head in the crowded streets.

But he also knew, beyond a doubt, that his father had perished.

Most people have things like “Gone but not Forgotten,” or “Cherished memories” inscribed on their headstones.

My father’s obstinate distress, anger, defiance, and memory was so profound that when he died four years ago almost exactly to this day, he had carved upon his tombstone,

“Here lies Zdenek Weiss who survived while 58 members of his family were killed by the Germans.”

I loved my father deeply, admired his resilience and intellect, his life journey, and I believe that he was in his essence a kind and decent and gentle man.

But I want to convey to you how deeply and frankly my father hated, and how profound a part of his mental map the destruction of his community, country, and our family remained throughout his life.

My father’s abiding trauma is hardly alone. Like America, like this grand city of New York in which I once lived and where my daughter was born in nearby Roosevelt Hospital, the great social experiments of The United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are composed of people who came from elsewhere. More than half of all Australians are the children of immigrants, or were born overseas themselves.

Not only did many flee war, poverty, discrimination, torture and disappearance, and institutional oppression endured in their homelands, but they discovered in Australia that they were building their new lives on the ruins of indigenous cultures wrecked by colonisation.

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New lives being built on the grounds of old crimes.

This year, Australians will consider an amendment to our constitution by referendum. The so-called Voice to Parliament would be a permanent advisory body to our Federal Parliament that carries little actual power, but which in spirit and through national consent recognises the Aboriginal need for – and right to – healing. An effort to staunch the inherited pain of memory.

That pain of memory.

This referendum, if successful, will not undo the past. It won’t ease all of the pain. Nor will it redeem the massacres of Aboriginals by soldiers and settlers all the way into the 20th century. It won’t compensate for the taking of land, the pollution of waterways central to the story-telling of the Aboriginal people, or the actual destruction of artefacts and sacred sites.

However this Voice to Parliament is potentially deeply redemptive for the Aboriginal people – and for us, their co-citizens.

We were not the people who committed crimes against humanity, but we are unquestionably the inheritors of the responsibility to make amends for past wrongs.

We can’t be free until they are. Their freedom, is ours also.

The great social progress that underwrites this referendum was powered by committed progressive elders and accepted as just “normal” by new generations of Australians.

I mention this because power, and how we apply it to reach consensus, is central to your cause, and to my words tonight.

Like the Tesla, everything begins as just an idea of course. We’re the one’s who transform ideas into tangible facts.

When I was making a decision in 2010 about whether or not to write my book on the Sri Lankan civil war, I had to make a decision about where to fruitfully apply the limited power, finances, and intellect available to me in my short life.

My framework was a simple one, given my dearly held instinct that we are moral animals, and that altruism is biologically embedded – and that your freedom is mine.

I asked myself these questions: Who might have stood up for my grandfather, my father’s father, in the circumstances of a Mullivaikkal?

Who would have said, “My freedom is your freedom?”

And most poignantly of all for me, what would I say to my daughter, who was then 5 years old, when she was eventually a young woman, about my choice?

Well, my Gen-Z child is now that young woman, fully conscious of the choices her father made.

Writing that book was my effort to thoughtfully and fairly analyse Sri Lanka’s national traumas. That effort to write your story, and that of all Sri Lankans, brought me here to you today.

How quickly things have changed though, only little more than a decade since Mullivaikkal. I look at my daughter and wonder at Time’s swift flight.

As everybody in this room knows, our children are a part of an extraordinary generation that is very different from our own – and I mean that positively, not pejoratively.

This new generation sees the world significantly differently from us.

These kids have grown into a world of pandemic, climate crisis, hyper-inflation, hyper-connectivity, renewed Big Power tensions and war, as well as the nuclear threat that always reels above us all like a grim bird of prey.

Polls from Pew, Ipsos, and Deloitte consistently show how the young wrestle with a conundrum: the natural optimism of youth, balanced against a pessimism and an epochal despair about the future – best illuminated by Greta Thunberg’s fiery indignation at our failures and irresponsibility.

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Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has passed through extraordinary changes.

The Rajapaksa political dynasty hasn’t gone away, but their brand of religio-mystical nationalism is in retreat – for now at least.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has been brought back to the office of Prime Minister.

He’s restored a semblance of stability to Sri Lanka’s economy after the country teetered on the edge of a Weimar-like hyper-inflation that has cast millions of people back into generational poverty.

The Tamil resistance to oppression has changed too. Armed resistance as an answer to majoritarian domination and injustice has failed.

However bravely the Tamil Tigers fought under Velupillai Prabhakaran, their military defeat was thorough and complete, and it cannot rise again from the ashes of May 2009.

One reason for that defeat, I believe, was simply generational, or epochal. I wrote about all this in my book.

As Time shifted through the long years of the armed resistance struggle, the Tamil Tigers found themselves fighting yesterday’s battle with yesterday’s tools.

The so-called “Overton Window” of what was politically acceptable in the 20th century had shifted by the 21st.

Despite the ingenuity of the Tamil Tiger resistance, they lost not only the physical battle, but the communications battle.

The message wasn’t fit-for-purpose in the new Millennium.

I believe that many Tamils have accepted this reality, but I know it’s painful for you to hear me recount this.

What has not changed is the Tamil sense of grievance. I include the profound grief that comes from deaths, sacrifice, displacement, property loss, the shock of defeat, and ongoing discrimination and domination by the state, particularly in the Tamil homeland.

For, as a Sinhalese friend of mine remarked recently, it seems that brute force is still considered a civic virtue in Sri Lanka.

Tamils are still left with a sense that they are second-class citizens in their own country ­ – not with weakened identities through defeat: quite the contrary – more aware of their identity than ever, in a polity in which they feel that their dignity is under incessant attack.

And I want to especially acknowledge the Tamil single mothers and widows who have struggled to survive in these circumstances since 2009.

Like women everywhere protesting against tyranny today, whether in Russia or Iran, these Tamil mothers faced and continue to face twice the dangers of men – the sacrifice of their bodies, the exposure of their children to discrimination, the menace of poverty, casual violence, and so on.

Several months ago I met with a young Tamil couple in Australia, Gen-Zers and very active supporters of the Tamil cause. They left me in no doubt that for many in the next generation, including in the diaspora, this sense of national grievance continues to bleed through.

I’m not surprised by this, given my own experience and identification with my family’s catastrophic encounter with fascism. As I wrote in my book, “memory, or grievance, is passed from one generation to another like a talisman, it and shapes our present.”

As I mentioned before, the personal is always political – and the political is always personal.

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Sri Lankan Tamils must be allowed to live in full dignity as equal citizens in a unified polity with the Sinhalese majority.

The reality is: that goal is yet to be achieved.

This audience tonight represents a powerful and committed sector of the worldwide Sri Lankan Tamil community.

Like choices between electric and hydrogen, you have a choice over which kind of power to deploy, and how to apply that power so that it is most efficient and most useful. It’s here that I wish to address some choices.

I know that the Nobel Laureate, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste, has raised some of these choices in this very forum.

So, given my extensive past work on Sri Lanka, I’d like to highlight four issues:

The first is that retributive justice in pursuit of strict accountability doesn’t strike me, today, as a useful solution.

I don’t think that a war crimes process is the path to a better future for Sri Lanka’s Tamils, and nor do I think that it is good for most Sri Lankans.

Given my work in setting up a war crimes investigation process, I suspect that this will surprise you.

But I just don’t see it as a salve for the wounded nation, one generation on from the war.

In fact, I always regarded the push for a war crimes mechanism as political leverage for a political settlement, rather than constructive in and of itself for the Sri Lankan body politic – of which the Tamils are a constituent and indivisible part.

In dealing with a state that claimed a clear military victory, and where the heavy hand of the state still lies heaviest on the defeated, a war crimes process is a blunt force instrument that won’t stoke collaboration, or advance a political process that supports the Tamil cause.

Apart from the fact that any process would necessarily also involve the prosecution of Tamils accused of war crimes, the sight of Sri Lankan soldiers and politicians in the dock would work counter to your interests.

It would stoke the fires of extremist religio-nationalist forces that have receded these past years, and which will only burn Sri Lanka’s Tamils if set alight again.

Secondly, and very frankly, I don’t think that the push for separatism is a viable or likely solution.

To energise for a political longshot so remote, seems to me to be applying this body’s considerable power and unity of purpose to the wrong engine.

Nor, incidentally, do I generally think that separatism in Catalonia, Texas, or Scotland, or other forms of schismatism such as Brexit are wise political choices in the 21st century, given the collective issues facing our Gen-Zers.

As antique as it seems, Westphalian sovereignty remains the basic Lego block of international relations.

The 20th century was preoccupied by bloody international wars of conquest and decolonisation.

Meanwhile, the greatest planetary challenges facing humanity – those of the global commons – quietly festered.

From today’s clearly delineated national boundaries springs the national confidence required in our millennium to cooperate for climate change solutions, and other emerging existential destructive forces.

Any political body that places separatism in front of collective solutions to the existential challenges of the global commons that Gen-Zers face, in my view risks looking sclerotic, and ultimately obsolete.

Thirdly, let’s discuss the future of Tamils as a constituent and equal peoples in Sri Lanka.

And by equal I mean with the full and authentic protections of, and unimpeded rights to, participation in the state as fully free citizens.

Whatever its shortcomings, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be serious about addressing the implementation of the long-proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution, bringing meaningful devolution of powers to the Sri Lankan Tamil homeland.

Now, given past history, the Tamils have plenty of good reasons to distrust the avowals of any Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lanka’s history of broken promises, beginning with its very foundational promise as a leading Asian nation, is a long one.

But as Sri Lanka drags itself out of the financial morass into which it was drawn by a blind faith in extremist leaders, this seems the opportune moment for Tamils to work collectively and with all the might of your talent pool and resources, to a deal with the government in pursuit of the implementation of that Amendment.

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Lastly, to the pursuit of justice. To quote Yeats, and recalling the weight of memory on my father’s life:

“Too long a sacrifice, Can make a stone of the heart.”

Given what I’ve already said, I believe that in lieu of a punitive and retributive war crimes process, Sri Lanka must have a National Truth Commission.

This Commission would provide public testimony of the trauma and suffering of all communities. It would be a national confessional forum in which war crimes were revealed, suffering acknowledged, and history recorded.

This Commission would of course primarily address the longest and greatest trauma, that of Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

But it should not be limited. It should address the majoritarian suffering unleashed by Sri Lanka’s Marxist uprisings, and other traumatic events suffered by minority communities, going back perhaps as far as 1971.

As I mentioned before in relation to children inheriting the sins of their parents, such a forum would help to break cycles of violence.

And if my book was dedicated to any single end, it was about breaking cycles of violence so evident in Sri Lanka.

The purpose under Heaven, after all, is peace on earth, and the job of any political body that holds this as its central precept – something I assume as a given in the case of today’s TGTE – is to find the shortest and most effective path to that place of peace.

I was with a couple of Russian friends the other day in Prague, and they told me a joke. A couple of Russians in Moscow are out for the night, and one asks the other, “Which bar will we choose.” The other replies sardonically, “You forget, we’re Russian: we don’t have a choice.”

You have a choice as to where you place your efforts in support of the Tamils, a path that will also, as a by-product, produce greater freedom and security in Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans.

Your freedom, is also theirs.

You have a responsibility to persist in sweeping away what the Canadian executive and writer Roy Ratnaval has called, “the ambiguities of Sri Lanka’s participation in its own downfall.”

Having spoken with people who are better informed than I am of the current internal political dynamics in Sri Lanka, I believe that in the current government you have a potential partner for peace – and the best chance in a generation, perhaps two or three – to seize on a deal for authentic devolution for Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

I urge you to choose wisely, to fight the right battle with the right weapons, to be prepared to let go of redundant ghosts, and to shape your efforts to suit the times.

It’s a lot to ask, but no more than laying down ones’ life.

I want to finish by looping back to where I began.

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When my father was dying in 2019, I returned to Australia to be with him for the last months of his life.

He was such a brave guy, resisting to the end the idea that it might all come to an end. Some might call it denial, but he called it survival, that preeminent quality of his generation.

He had a favourite nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital. She’d come in and plump his pillows, and ask, “How are you today Mr Weiss?” and give him his pills and massage his feet.

She told me how much all the nurses liked him there, how polite he was – “a real old-fashioned gentleman,” she told me with admiration.

One day, when my sister was bedside, the lovely nurse came in and plumped his pillows and gave him his pills and massaged his feet.

Since she had an obviously foreign origin like many nurses in Australia, my father, ever curious and amiable, finally asked her, “And where are you from darlink?”

Of course, she said, “I’m German!” very brightly, “From Berlin.”

My father’s gently smiling smile became fixed in space. When she had left, he turned to my sister with a look of deep disgust and said, “She touched me, and my skin is crawling.”

Days later, having been told the story by my sister, I was bedside with my father when the same nurse came in. She cheerfully inquired after him as usual, plumped his pillows, gave him his pills, and massaged his feet for a few minutes.

I watched my father’s arctic blue eyes watching her with an inscrutable evenness.

When she had left, he turned to me and asked, “You know where she’s from, don’t you?”

“Germany?” I rather feebly replied.

“Yes,” said my 90 year-old father. And he paused for a long while, very, very silently, before he lifted his head, looked me square in the eye, and said, “I’ve taught people to hate Germans all my life.”

“Yet she had nothing to do with it. Her generation was innocent.”

“My son,” said this gaunt, wild old man on the threshold of death, “I’m so ashamed. I just didn’t notice Time passing.”

With that courageous expression of shame, with that sudden revelation, my father had set the children of his enemy free of the curse of their parents’ crimes, had set himself free at the finishing line, and had set his own children just a bit more free as well.

I do hope I have not given offence through word or omission tonight. Thank you for your kind attention, and goodnight.

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