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My Thoughts: Ambassador Karu Hangawatte

Sri Lanka recently named criminal justice professor Karu Hangawatte its ambassador for France. Find out more about the longtime professor's native country, his past diplomatic work, and what he hopes to bring back to UNLV when he returns to teaching.
People  |  Apr 22, 2013  |  By Brian Sodoma
Karu Hangawatte will represent Sri Lanka in France and at the United Nations. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Karu Hangawatte is spending at least the next two years in Paris, but it's certainly not a vacation. The criminal justice professor is taking a leave of absence from UNLV to become Sri Lanka's ambassador for France. His native South Asian country is still recovering from a 26-year conflict that started as a guerilla war and escalated into a war against terrorism. He has gained diplomatic experience as an expert consultant to the United Nations and as a member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that dealt with the aftermath of Sri Lanka's war. But he has his fingers crossed as he enters this new life chapter.

[Interviewed April 11, 2013]

People carry their politics with them even when they leave a country.

In the 1970s the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were a budding terrorist group. Many treated them as boys and didn't pay much attention to them. They organized as a guerilla group with assistance from abroad. Then in 1983, they killed 18 soldiers. Their bodies were brought to Colombo (Sri Lanka's capitol).

The public outrage led to a mob reaction. The mobs attacked innocent Tamils in Colombo and its suburbs. Many of the targets were public officers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen or their kith and kin.

So the exodus began.

There are over 100,000 Sri Lankans in France now. My objective is to somehow unite the community. After the war ended in 2009, I served on the government's reconciliation commission. It helped me understand human suffering and how public policies can help or hurt.

Tamil professionals left (for Europe and Western countries) with their memories -- memories that don't go away easily. These memories are the stories they tell their children.

It's easy for others to preach healing. But it is not that easy for those who have suffered from the mob violence or the atrocities perpetrated by the LTTE.

Some of my friends say 'Why don't you go someplace that's easy? There are too many problems in France.' I'm nervous. I know I may not succeed fully in my objectives. But I like challenges. Otherwise life can be boring.

Expanding Science

Being ambassador to France is prestigious, but I am more excited to also be the permanent ambassador to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It opens up possibilities to help the helpless, expand educational opportunities, and promote science, arts and culture.

Many countries lag (the U.S.) in the use of science for policymaking. They value natural sciences but don't recognize social sciences yet. In this respect, UNESCO can make significant contributions by bringing more social sciences into policymaking. It will be very gratifying, as a professor, to be a part of that.

Before America

I came from a very rural neighborhood [in Sri Lanka]. My father was the chairman of the village council, the equivalent of an American mayor. I observed how he worked. He told me from my childhood to not go after money or wealth -- that well-educated mind cannot be stolen.

Before I came to the United States, I was the assistant secretary of justice [in Sri Lanka].

In 1971 we had an insurgency driven by extremely leftist ideals. It led to something like 18,000 people being arrested and overcrowded jails. It was becoming a huge political problem. In 1974 the minister [of justice] asked me to take on the subject.

We decided after many meetings that those we should release those against whom there was not adequate evidence to prosecute and those who had committed misdemeanors . But I knew this would not solve the problem if they were ostracized and could not find gainful employment. I suggested that those who had been gainfully employed at the time of arrest should be paid their salary in arrears for the time they were in jail and they should be reinstated in the jobs they were holding at the time of arrest or helped to find similar jobs. We did that for thousands of people.

I still meet people today who say, 'You released me from prison. You helped me.' These people went on to have families and lead productive lives. I was blessed to have done that.

Sri Lanka is not a developing country anymore. It's classified a middle income country with a rapidly expanding economy. It's an English speaking country with a very high literacy rate. It ranks high on the human development index and on the happiness index. It's a beautiful country.

Classroom Learning

I decided to come to Las Vegas for the most irrational reasons. Growing up in Sri Lanka, we used to watch a lot of Hollywood movies. They depicted California as this great beautiful place with beautiful people. There were no openings in California, but UNLV was only three or four hours away.

When I first became a professor, like many, I started lecturing from written notes. That didn't work well. What I learned over time was to keep my course emphasis on learning rather than knowing something. Once they have learned something, they can apply it to different situations.

When I return to UNLV after my term in France, I'll have the experience of this diplomatic post to share. I believe it will enrich the conversation with students.

When I started teaching about terrorism [in the 80s] there wasn't much interest. Students thought terrorism occurred elsewhere. This changed after 9/11. [His classes now often include people currently in law enforcement or the military, including members of special anti-terrorism units.]

After 9/11 I paid more attention to terrorism control and prevention -- how to do it with domestic policy, policing, foreign policy, military, crime policies, different legislation. You have to attack terrorism on different fronts.

One thing I focus on is to show the differences between terrorism and other types of violence, such as war, riots, civil disobediences, and ordinary crime. Terrorist violence has no well-defined end. For example, hijacking a plane full of innocent civilian may bring a terrorist group publicity, but it will not achieve their political objective.

Anglo-American jurisprudence makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Self-defense is considered legitimate violence while retaliation is considered illegitimate.

Terrorism is violence for the sake of violence. It brings about further violence. It's endless.