Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sri Lanka's Opportunity of a Generation: Letting the Opportunity Slip Away

Part 3 of a 5-part article about what the Sri Lankan government should do to rebuild its country after nearly 30 years of civil war, and why the rest of the world has a stake in Sri Lanka's success.

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the government has acted aggressively in the months since the LTTE’s defeat and has made little progress on resolving postwar issues that could fester into renewed violence if not dealt with relatively soon.

President Rajapaksa in particular has sought to use Sri Lanka’s victory to his own personal advantage rather than to benefit the country as a whole. He held the presidential election a year earlier than scheduled in January, 2010 in order to capitalize from the end of the civil war. He won but then proceeded to arrest General Sarath Fonseka – who oversaw the Sri Lankan Army’s victory over the LTTE and then ran in the presidential election – and at least 20 of his supporters in the military for allegedly plotting a coup against him: quite a heavy-handed move considering he won the election by 17 percentage points(1).

All the while, President Rajapaksa has continued the government’s strict control over the media – with the president himself recently taking control of the Ministry of Mass Media and Information from his own minister – and its restrictions on civil liberties. Such measures may have been partly justified during the civil war, particularly given the LTTE’s ruthlessness and skill in espionage, but with the LTTE defeated and no strong political opponents, keeping such measures in place seems excessive and will likely damage Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions(2).

Most troubling of all, the government has made little progress in resettling the nearly 260,000 Tamil refugees. Instead, they have been left to languish in crowded, unsanitary, hastily-constructed camps that are both expensive to maintain and a growing source of resentment for those trapped inside(3). Perhaps during the war such mass internments were partly unavoidable and partly justified and may have very well led to the arrests of LTTE members that could have tried to infiltrate the populace and launch a guerilla campaign against the government. But now there is no excuse. The sooner the government can empty the camps the better, as it will rid them of a logistical and a political nightmare.

Further compounding the problem, the government has allowed Sinhalese families who had been evicted by the LTTE during the civil war to reclaim their land(4). Even if intended for all the right reasons, this action could antagonize the Tamil refugees, who could view it as an example of state-sponsored Sinhalese settlement in Tamil areas and of neglect and discrimination of Tamil refugees.

Such aggressive and short-sighted policies, if continued, will likely harm the current government in the short run and the country as a whole in the long run. With overwhelming support for President Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Freedom party across the country since the defeat of the LTTE – having won eight provincial elections last year and 142 out of 255 seats in parliamentary elections last April(5) in addition to President Rajapaksa’s resounding re-election – there was no need to arrest General Fonseka and to keep heavy-handed wartime measures in place. With the LTTE thoroughly decimated, there is no need to keep hundreds of thousands of Tamils detained in temporary camps. Any short-term political benefits any of these things could possibly yield would be superfluous at this point, and in the long run they risk sowing the seeds of future unrest and possibly civil war.

Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in the May 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.


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