From our partners at The Agonist
Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war and terrorist bombings are now behind it. The economy is growing. But this island nation of some 20 million people needs to face multiple serious problems squarely in order to secure its future.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has utilized victory in the civil war to entrench himself, his family, and his party. Sri Lankan governments of all stripes have frequently abused the power and the resources of offices to their advantage. Nonetheless, Sri Lankans exercised their right to change their government through the ballot box–a cornerstone of any democracy.
Whether Sri Lankans can still do now seems cloudy. After President Rajapaksa handily defeated opposition candidate Sareth Fonseka–a general and key architect of Sri Lanka’s victory against the LTTE–the government arrested Fonseka. Though he has since been released, he has lost his civic rights, including not surprisingly the right to run for president again in the next election.
Sri Lanka also appears fortunate that President Rajapaksa has so many brothers and other relatives. Otherwise, the country would seemingly lack ministers. One brother, for example, holds the critical defense portfolio. And the President’s smiling visage shines down from many a poster around Sri Lanka.
Hand in hand with the concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family is, at the very least, a continuation of serious corruption that prevents Sri Lanka’s economy from advancing as quickly as it might. It’s an added cost to major projects. And thus also adds to Sri Lanka’s high foreign debt.
Long a feature of Sri Lanka’s political campaigns with many different participants, it continues. While I was visiting the country, the car of a candidate of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress was blown up at her home. Numerous complaints were filed with the election commission in the provinces holding elections with particular problems in Batticaloa and Anuradhapura.
After three decades of a very bloody and nasty civil war with an ethnic basis, its not exactly surprising that wounds have far from healed after only three years. In America, parties urged people to “vote the way they shot” long after our own civil war ended–and they did for many decades.
Securing Sri Lanka’s future requires winning the peace as well as the war. It would be wrong to ignore the positive steps that the government has taken. More displaced Tamils have been resettled in permanent homes, though not quickly enough. The government is gradually holding elections for provincial councils and claims to be reducing troops Tamil-dominated Northern Province.
Yet it’s not nearly enough. For Sri Lanka to move on successfully, its minorities–not just Tamils but Muslims, Christians, Malays and Burghers–need to be meaningfully included in government. And the means of achieving this goal needs to be decided by Sri Lankans. Any effort at minority inclusion will only work if it gains buy in from Sri Lankans, though outsiders can provide options and nudges in the right direction.
Not that these nudges are appreciated. The government went bonkers in response to a very mild U.S. sponsored U.N. resolution calling for Sri Lanka to move forward with the reconciliation process that it developed. A journalist for a pro-government paper asked me “why America hates the Sinhalese.” (Americans don’t and the American government considers Sri Lanka a friend.) His boss argued that President Obama has rigged the landing of the Mars rover to benefit his reelection–an accusation that even the Republicans seem to have overlooked.
Lasting peace will require concessions not just by the Sinhalese majority but by minorities as well. Many Tamils seem oblivious, or at least uninterested, that demands to unite Northern and Eastern provinces into a single highly autonomous unit seem almost uniquely designed to exacerbate Sinhalese fears of ethnic separatism. It also does not take into account concerns by non-Tamils–not just Sinhalese but also Muslims–in Eastern Province. At the same time, the government does not appear likely to pursue richer decentralization or other forms of meaningful minority inclusion.
Political strategy explains why. President Rajapaka depends entirely upon Sinhalese support, particularly Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. Indeed, he would have not won the first time if the LTTE had not prevented Tamils from voting as their votes–which would have surely gone to his opponent–could have easily swung the balance. Of course, the opposition United National Party must also appeal to the majority Sinhalese to win elections.
Problems lie not just on the side of the government. The LTTE’s systematic murder of more moderate Tamil leaders during the civil war cut down many of the people who could be the strongest advocates both for ethnic Tamils and for peace, Many minority leaders are as content to stir the ethnic nationalist pot for political gain as any Sinhalese nationalist.
Sri Lanka is at the cusp of a real opportunity due to the end of civil war and the picking up of the economy. Moreover, President Rajapaka bestrides Sri Lankan politics like a colossus to borrow a tired phrase. If he desired, he could use his power to fight corruption and assure a lasting peace through meaningful minority incorporation to the benefit of Sri Lanka’s long-term economic prospects.
More likely, corruption continues as President Rajapaka works to ensure the entrenchment of his family and reconciliation continues at its current very halting pace. Sinhalese will not mind–and may indeed like–the government’s policy towards Tamils. But embittered Tamils will likely feel that the Sinhalese “made a desert and called it peace.” Violence may not break out again soon due to the power of the military and the exhaustion of the Tamils, though some think those who make this claim are wrong.
Sri Lanka’s economy will likely continue to grow at a moderate pace, better than during the civil war, but below its potential.