Sri Lanka: Challenges and Opportunities
Three years ago this month, Sri Lanka’s armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers), a militant separatist organization seeking an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority. The LTTE’s fall brought an end to a 25-year civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives and ravaged Sri Lanka’s economy and environment.
Until May 2009, according to Sri Lankan external affairs minister G.L. Peiris, the main challenge facing Colombo was “the reign of terror” unleashed by the Tamil Tigers. Today, the government must address new challenges of development and national reconciliation. At a May 15 Asia Program event, Peiris spoke of these new challenges as well as the opportunities presented to his country as it transitions from an era of conflict to one of stability.
Many postwar challenges are being met, Peiris said. He reported that 98 percent of those displaced by the conflict have now been resettled, and that more than 90 percent of necessary de-mining work has been completed, with assistance from 14 foreign governments. Meanwhile, 98 percent of LTTE ex-combatants have been reintegrated into society after having received extensive vocational training.
Turning to development challenges, Peiris stated that the economies of Sri Lanka’s northern provinces are currently growing at more than 20 percent, thanks to “sustained investment” in infrastructure, health care, and education.
Peiris also highlighted his government’s work on reconciliation issues. One example relates to land. During the civil war, the LTTE evicted people from their land. Yet now, said Peiris, landowners “are coming back to claim what is owed to them.”
Reducing divisions over language is another reconciliation priority, according to Peiris. Neither the Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority) nor the Tamils speak each other’s language, and he identified this linguistic divide as a major factor “leading to an aggravation of tensions” during the war years. Today, the government is recruiting more Tamil-speaking police officers (700 have been appointed in just the last month), and is making efforts to increase the use of the Tamil language in judicial proceedings.
Peiris closed with a discussion of Sri Lanka’s opportunities. He spoke of the possibilities of increased cooperation with Washington, noting that the United States is already a major market for Sri Lankan apparel exports and that many young Sri Lankans are studying in this country. At the same time, Peiris underscored that Sri Lanka’s postwar recovery must be seen as a locally driven effort, and not one to be influenced by other countries. Ultimately, he said, the country’s policies and strategies moving forward must be “homegrown.”
This caution about the need for “homegrown” solutions was an indirect reference to the fact that the UN Human Rights Council recently approved a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling on the government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of a Sri Lankan commission created to facilitate national reconciliation. The Sri Lankan government vehemently opposed this resolution as unwarranted interference in the country’s internal affairs and an inaccurate rendering of the actual reconciliation process. Subsequent comments from the audience in the Q&A portion of this event underscored the fact that Peiris’s claims about the extent and success of reconstruction and reintegration of the Tamil community are widely contested both in Sri Lanka and by prominent human rights groups around the world.