Sri Lanka – Small Steps Forward

Sri Lanka: Small Steps Forward

Photo by Caramel, Flickr, 5443200902_992ddda12c

March 31, 2011: Sri Lanka’s appearance in the World Cup cricket finals in Mumbai on April 2 will make hearts beat faster all over the island. In South Asia, cricket is given extraordinary power to symbolize and even foretell larger trends. So the World Cup finals put a glow in Sri Lanka’s mood, contrasting with what many Sri Lankans see as the world’s sour reception of their victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. We offer you a brief snapshot of some recent developments, under three headings: tackling Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarization; rebuilding bridges to the West; and pursuing the economic peace dividend.

 The ethnic divide is still the problem with the greatest potential for future trouble, and a sustained effort to heal it the greatest gift national leaders could give to their people. In that respect, the cricket story is a positive one. President Mahinda Rajapaksa likes to speak of Sri Lanka as “one nation.” In cricket, uniquely in that ethnically divided society, Sri Lanka comes close to that ideal. The Tamil star bowler of the cricket team, Muthiah Muralitharan, has been a national celebrity-hero for over a decade. Cricket’s ethnic inclusiveness works both ways. Our son Mike, who lived in a predominantly Tamil part of Colombo during a Fulbright year in the late 1990s, recalls hearing Tamil kids giving themselves the names of the better known players – Sinhalese and Tamil – for the pickup games they played outside his window.

Beyond cricket, of course, the reality is darker. Social relationships and friendships forged in Colombo’s elite schools are part of that reality – but so are the slights and worse that Tamils have long suffered every day in navigating life in that multi-ethnic city. Since the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has taken two initiatives that could help unite Sri Lanka. The first, establishing a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which the government says draws on the experience of South Africa, has been bitterly criticized, especially outside Sri Lanka. Its members, most of them lawyers with strong resumes, are all appointed by the government. It has a limited mandate to examine the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire and the period up to the end of the war, to assess whether “specific people” were responsible, and to recommend ways of preventing a recurrence – but without any specific reference to human rights or political reconciliation.

The commission’s hearings have produced some important, courageous, and incisive testimony. Former Sri Lankan peace negotiator (and ambassador to the United States) Jayantha Dhanapala spoke candidly and movingly about the need to create real political bridges. The Chamber of Commerce testified about the economic cost of the war, and made a strong economic case for radical reform of social and political relationships between ethnic communities. The most heart-wrenching testimony came from the hearings in northern Sri Lanka – which were ignored, alas, by the Sinhalese and English language press. The coverage in the Tamil press, translated by a think tank-sponsored web site in Colombo, was dominated by tales of personal grief, and grievance. They included families who had surrendered to the Government forces in early 2009, and had then lost everything, and women whose sons had disappeared – some after having been “taken” by the LTTE – and who asked only to know if they were alive or dead. For these people, the damage done by 25 years of conflict and repression was not abstract: it was searing and very specific. The witnesses did not spare the government just because this was a government-sponsored commission – but they also aired their grievances against the LTTE.

The commission’s recommendations are due in May. Its preliminary recommendations, as publicly reported, have apparently broken little new ground. Disarming all armed groups, addressing issues of language use and distribution of publicly held land, and speeding up the trials of detainees suspected of involvement with the LTTE are all useful. But these measures have been on the table (and in some cases stated government policy) for a long time. Sri Lanka deserves a sharper spotlight on its past and a more creative approach to coming to terms with it. Perhaps the final resolutions will go further.

The other initiative related to the ethnic divide is the presidential dialogue with the principal Tamil coalition of political parties, the Tamil National Alliance. This is widely regarded, both in Sri Lanka and by savvy observers in southern India, as the only functioning channel for building political bridges. It has met three times. So far, its discussions have dealt with economic and social issues, and the third meeting was to focus on dealing with those who are still displaced (estimated in Rajapaksa’s November 2010 interview with the editor of The Hindu , N. Ram, as 17-18,000). Few details about the discussions are available. Rajapaksa, however, has made clear that he does not have far-reaching constitutional changes in mind. In that same interview, he says “What we refused to give Prabakaran, we won’t give to others.” The only constitutional amendment he cites is his interest in abolishing the current presidential limit of two terms. These talks could turn out to be a vehicle for bridge building, most likely through making political deals. But at the moment, they seem to be dealing with small-scale issues.

Looking beyond Sri Lanka, relations with the West and with the international human rights community have been poisonous since the end of the war. Outsiders’ focus on human rights has long been resented in Sri Lanka (and in other countries as well): the condescension stings, especially after Sri Lanka won a victory no one expected over a terrorist organization that was universally reviled in those same places. A good illustration was the response of the international human rights organizations to the LLRC. Three of the best known international human rights organizations refused to testify before the LLRC because it did not meet the standards they expect of such commissions. This was a mistake, in my view – a classic case of letting the best be the enemy of the good.

There are a few signs of thaw. President Rajapaksa has said that the LLRC was prepared to receive the UN Commission established over Sri Lanka’s vehement objections to study accusations of atrocities at the end of the war. The dialogue with the United States, which had been in the deep freeze when the war crimes issue became the center of U.S. policy, is starting to loosen up. One hopes that the two governments will be able to talk not only about human rights but about the other issues that matter to both. It is striking that even traditionally peacenik Sri Lankans, such as Jehan Perera, are publicly urging both Western governments and human rights organizations to find a more effective way to communicate with Sri Lanka. Both groups failed to recognize the challenge of communicating with a country traumatized by decades of terrorism, and their words fell on deaf ears. To have a positive impact on the human rights picture, they need to put themselves in their hearers’ place. 

The final theme in this short snapshot is economic. Is there a peace dividend, and does it matter? So far the evidence of an economic renaissance is mixed. A quick look at the  Central Bank’s figures for 2010 shows GDP growth up, especially in the industrial sector (up 8.8 percent). Exports are up 15 percent, but imports rose twice as fast. This is inevitable if investment is rising, but nonetheless suggests balance of payments trouble ahead. The tourism sector is expanding: up 46 percent above the 2009 levels. However, as the Chamber of Commerce noted in its brief to the LLRC, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has grown only about one-tenth as fast as Thailand’s in the past two decades. So the payoff in that field will come not from two years of peace but from a much longer time horizon. Sri Lanka joined the telecom revolution earlier than its neighbors. Overall teledensity is now estimated at 96 percent, a remarkable achievement.

Is Sri Lanka out of the woods? Can it be confident that the LTTE and terrorism are gone forever? Alas, no. It can probably count on a few years of peace. But Sri Lanka has a tough history. Its other terrorist organization, the Sinhalese-dominated JVP terrorized the island twice, in 1971 and in the late 1980s. On both occasions, the JVP was completely defeated. After the first defeat, it rose again. It is now a legal (and unarmed) political party. There are lots of reasons not to look on the JVP and LTTE as parallel organizations. My only point is that taking victory for granted isn’t necessarily a good bet. Sri Lanka’s leaders need to invest their best efforts and creativity in all the areas discussed above, but especially in ethnic reconciliation, to make sure this troubling history does not recur.

To look back at the picture in mid-2010, see my July 2010 article “Sri Lanka: Talking Past Each Other.”

Teresita Schaffer

2 Replies to “Sri Lanka – Small Steps Forward”

  1. My take away from this informative commentary–a point for rumination really– is what are the lessons for other countries in South Asia e.g.
    for India re. Kashmir, Pakistan re. the Balochis and so on.

    1. I’m not sure which of these lessons are transferrable.

      But let me share two comments from Sri Lankan friends: Muralitharan, it turns out, was awarded the designation of Sri Lankan of the Year in a contest run by the Lanka Monthly Digest in 2010.

      And another Sri Lankan friend worries about the “downer” the country will suffer if Sri Lanka loses the World Cup match. So there’s a lot riding on Saturday’s game!

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