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Coping with the legacy of war in Sri Lanka September 7, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

The international community’s continuing desire to support Sri Lanka may be seen as stemming from a desire to see the ethnic conflict being resolved in a peaceful and just manner.  The importance of such conflict resolution is that it would lead to reconciliation and long-term development.  There are, however, contrary views that are based on a different understanding.  Those who hold such views would see at least part of the international involvement in Sri Lanka as having an ulterior motive – to strengthen Tamil separatism, weaken Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and employ traditional colonial methods of divide and rule.

Such a belief in an international conspiracy reached a peak during the last phase of the war, which ended less than four months ago. At that time there was considerable pressure from sections of the international community for a ceasefire that might have saved thousands of lives, including those of the LTTE leadership.  However, many influential opinion leaders in Sri Lanka saw this as an unwarranted and biased international intervention that was primarily motivated by the ulterior motive of saving the LTTE and its leadership to fight another day.  This same mistrust continues in a new form today.

The most controversial issue today, and one that has the ability to capture international media attention, is the humanitarian crisis that revolved around the quarter of a million displaced persons in government-run welfare centres in the north.  The government has interpreted international pressure to release these displaced persons, or at least to permit them the freedom of movement, as being motivated by a desire to give the LTTE and its supporters a new lease of life. Government leaders have taken a strong stance that they will not jeopardise the security of the country by any premature release of the displaced persons, and no amount of pressure is likely to change that decision.

Another area in which the legacy of war is to be seen is in the way the debate on a political solution to the ethnic conflict has coloured broader Sri Lankan politics.  The government’s decision to pursue military victory over the LTTE required the mobilisation of ethnic Sinhalese nationalism to sustain the war effort and bear its heavy costs.  The victory over the LTTE has strengthened the forces that supported the government and vindicated the government’s own belief in its capacity to quell ethnic Tamil nationalism.  The forces of ethnic Sinhalese nationalism now make the argument that the gains of war, obtained through the sacrifice of Sinhalese soldiers, should not be surrendered through the stroke of a pen by granting greater devolution of power to the Tamil majority areas.

There are, however, two mitigating factors to this rather bleak assessment regarding the government’s preparedness to reach out to its Tamil citizens.  The first is the moderating impact of elections due to the need to obtain ethnic minority votes in the longer-term.  Today the President is riding a wave of ethnic Sinhalese majority support, due to the victory in the war.  But in the longer-term the likely scenario is the break-up of the Sinhalese electorate into the two traditional camps, one the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the other United National Party (UNP). At the last presidential election, President Mahinda Rajapaksa won with the barest majority of votes overall, with only limited support from ethnic minority areas, although he secured handsome majorities in Sinhalese majority areas.

The results of the recently concluded local government elections in the north of the country suggest that the ethnic Tamil vote in the north and possibly east and elsewhere will not go to the government unless the government changes its position on matters that affect the Tamil minority.  This is a pressure point that the government is likely to be sensitive to, as it means votes and can mean the difference between a sweeping electoral victory and scraping through at elections.  The second pressure point on the government is the international community, especially its western component, with which Sri Lanka has strong economic, trade and tourism links, and which have been generous aid donors in the past.

On the other hand, the government has shown that any reduction in aid from that section of the international community can be more or less compensated for by unconditional aid from another section of the international community, including China and Iran.  It needs to be recognised that the focus on national security and on Sinhalese nationalism is the core feature of the present government and its success.  Therefore, whatever the external pressures on it, the government is unlikely to shed its commitment to national security and Sinhalese nationalism.  What is necessary at this time is to engage with the government so that further dialogue on these issues is possible, instead of having a break in relations.

Those in the international community who seek to assist Sri Lanka in its growth and development need to adopt an approach that is mindful of the government’s core positions and concerns, which no amount of pressure is likely to change.  A strategy that the international community can consider in these circumstances would be to actively and materially support whatever positive actions the government takes that correspond to internationally accepted standards.  Financial support for the improvement of conditions in the welfare camps, resettling of displaced persons, functioning of provincial councils and independent human rights groups merit consideration by the international community.

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