Sri Lanka’s Fragile Gains In The Balance

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Sri Lanka’s Fragile Gains In The Balance

Much progress has been made since the end of its civil war but ethnic tensions remain.

In May 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka drew to a close. It had been a sanguinary conflict claiming anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 lives. Not surprisingly, there was a palpable sense of relief amongst the majority Sinhala population. Even the Tamil population, many of whom were not active supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had reasons to celebrate. They looked forward to no longer facing the routine suspicion, periodic harassment, and occasional searches of their homes.

Three years after the war’s end, on a visit to Colombo as well as other areas in the vicinity, one no longer confronts routine check points, the military forces are not starkly visible and using public transportation is no longer fraught with the the risk of concealed bombs. More to the point, the tourism industry is clearly flourishing with busloads of visitors from East Asia and Western Europe arriving en masse to Sri Lanka’s historical sites, marvelous beaches, and hill resorts. It is also evident that foreign investment is starting to increase if only gradually.

All these developments should point to a more roseate future for the South Asian country that has long had far superior social indicators than all the other states in the region. Sadly, the very military success of the regime in effectively vanquishing the LTTE has now resulted in a form of crass ethnic triumphalism. Based upon conversations with dispassionate and thoughtful observers Sri Lankans, it appears that any attempt to reach out to the Tamil community has been mostly cosmetic.

To its credit, the country has created a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Although its report has been made public, its contents have yet to be translated into the country’s two main languages. Furthermore, in substantive terms, the report has effectively dismissed any claim that the Sri Lankan Army may have used excessive force or targeted civilians as the war drew to a close in the Jaffna peninsula. Finally, the regime appears to be in no particular hurry to implement its relatively anodyne recommendations.

Instead the regime seems determined to avoid even the LLRC’s most modest recommendations, and has sought to demonize the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) resolution passed last March, which called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and investigate alleged human rights abuses in the final days of the conflict. There are also widespread claims that the regime has been quite intransigent toward any civil society group that has chosen to speak out on behalf of the aggrieved Tamil population.

Unless the present government, facing stronger international scrutiny and pressure, chooses to reverse course and integrate the Tamil community into the mainstream, the invaluable opportunity the end of the civil war presented to Sri Lanka will be lost. Worse still, an alienated Tamil community facing  institutional barriers could once again spawn a violent movement that plunges the country back into a civil war. This is an outcome no one desires.

In sum, although Sri Lanka has ostensibly made great progress in the three years since the civil war ended, these gains remain fragile. Unless the government acts to address the unresolved ethnic tensions plaguing the country, Sri Lanka’s future could conceivably look a lot like its brutal, unforgiving recent past.

Sumit Ganguly is the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a regular contributor to The Diplomat’s Indian Decade blog.