Letter from Sri Lanka
Published in IISS Politics and Strategy Date: 17 September 2013
Unawatuna, on Sri Lanka’s southern tip, was named the world’s best beach by the Discovery Channel in 2004 – but like much of the south coast, it was destroyed by the 26 December tsunami only months later.
The town and the beach, a tourism magnet for decades, have since been rebuilt. Perhaps too quickly: travelling with a group after attending a friend’s wedding in Colombo, we noticed that a string of guesthouses – possibly including our own – violated regulations and had been built right on the sand. As the main tourist season drew to a close and the rains approached, workers were trying to beat back the approaching ocean by fortifying the buildings with large rocks, but swathes of the beach were already engulfed by a rough surf.
Still, the town itself was thriving. In addition to pursuing growth and attracting foreign investment, Sri Lanka has been working hard – both internationally and at the grass-roots level – to repair its tourism industry, which was damaged by the civil war. Sri Lanka threw itself into post-conflict development after the 26-year war came to an end in spring 2009.
In particular, the government has been promoting the north’s former war zones as tourist destinations. In June, the reconstructed A9 road connecting the central city of Kandy to the northern Jaffna Peninsula was reopened after reconstruction, and the government hopes it will be a major tourism artery.
But the tourism drive is also evident in less controversial areas. In the ‘cultural triangle’ and on the roads near Kandy and the holy caves at Dambulla, there are signs offering free Wi-Fi at guest houses whose foundations have not yet been completed. Other parts of the country were more prepared: on the south coast near Mirissa, we found some of the country’s distinctive ‘stilt fishermen’ – who, using a crossbar tied to vertical poles planted into the coral reef, perch two metres above the surface of the ocean. (Although the ones we saw were not fishing at all, merely charging tourists 100 rupees to take photographs.)
It’s hard to imagine that just over four years ago, parts of the country were still ravaged by the bitter and brutal war between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, who – fuelled by years of often violent Tamil persecution following independence – fought for a separate Tamil homeland. Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up around 70% of the population, view the island as the sacred centre of Theravada Buddhism; the more hardline Sinhalese nationalists seek to preserve Sri Lanka’s territory.
In the course of the fighting, the brutal LTTE pioneered the use of suicide bombings, and collateral damage was frequent. The United Nations reports that security forces may have killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in their final assault on the LTTE. The LTTE was reported to be preventing civilians from escaping shelling and using them as human shields. The UN states that there are ‘credible allegations’ of war crimes on both sides in the closing months of the war.
A defence seminar entitled ‘Post Conflict Sri Lanka: Challenges and Regional Stability’ was organised by the Sri Lankan Army in Colombo from 3–5 September. In his keynote address, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was keen to emphasise Sri Lanka’s post-war progress. The defence minister cited the forthcoming ‘civil administration’ in northern territories formerly held by the LTTE as evidence of the country’s return to ‘normalcy’. Elections for six of Sri Lanka’s nine provincial councils planned for 21 September will, for the first time in 25 years, include a poll for the Northern Provincial Council, which has been under military control since the end of the war.
Towns and villages on the road north from Kurunegala, the capital of Sri Lanka’s North Western Province and an ancient royal capital, buzzed with their own pre-election activity. Trees and poles were plastered with election posters, and small groups of soldiers patrolled the streets.
But it is unclear how, and to what degree, devolution will be implemented in the Northern Province, which includes the Jaffna Peninsula: recently, a parliamentary select committee was formed to review the thirteenth amendment to the country’s constitution, which governs the devolution of powers to provinces and would grant the north some autonomy. The defence minister has said there would be grave consequences in allowing a ‘hostile’ provincial administration to govern. Elections monitors began to arrive last week.
The Sri Lankan government may have defeated the LTTE, but many of the seeds of the conflict remain. The UN reports that repression of Tamils by the armed forces continues. The resettlement of 300,000 displaced Tamils has been chaotic, and many still have difficulty accessing water and shelter. Many have complained that Buddhist temples have been erected in place of Hindu ones destroyed in the fighting. A June Foreign and Commonwealth Office report mentions arson attacks on Jaffna-based Tamil newspaper offices and an increase in land seizures in Tamil areas.
The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, who last week undertook a fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka to investigate alleged war crimes, warned that the country was becoming ‘increasingly authoritarian’ – referring to legislation that abolished provisions for independent police, judiciary and human rights commissions, and gave the president the power to appoint officials to these bodies.
She also said that ‘surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.’ In 2010 the Committee to Protect Journalists named Sri Lanka the fourth most dangerous place to be a journalist. In 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of opposition newspaper the Leader, was fatally shot in his car by unidentified gunmen, days after criticising the government for its wartime conduct. In an editorial – which was published posthumously – he grimly predicted his death. Last month, there was an attempted abduction of the associate editor of the paper.
Pillay also expressed concern over the burgeoning role of the military, which ‘appears to be putting down roots and becoming involved in what should be civilian activities, for instance education, agriculture and even tourism’. Much of the east and north remains militarised. (According to The Military Balance 2013, defence spending is projected to increase in 2013, with the government needing more money to maintain troop deployment and to repay sums for equipment acquired during the civil war.)
There have been a handful of incidents in which hardline Buddhist groups – which accuse Muslims of fostering extremism and proselytising – have attacked mosques and churches, but no arrests have been made. At least one of the groups, the Buddhist Strength Force, has top-level government support, with the defence minister attending a recent ceremony held by the organisation as a guest of honour.
Members of the Buddhist clergy frequently derailed peace efforts during the war and a Buddhist political group helped scupper a 2002 Norwegian-backed peace deal which would have given Tamils limited autonomy. Some see the war victory as a natural assertion of Buddhist dominion over Sri Lanka, and their triumphalism has made reconciliation efforts even more challenging.
In his keynote address, the defence minister alluded to these hardline Sinhalese groups, warning that they threaten to ‘further fragment’ post-war Sri Lanka – but he also warned against the threat from ‘Muslim extremists’. In May, a Muslim anti-government politician was arrested under the prevention of terrorism act for a comment he made in the press. He was later released, but given that ‘war-on-terror’ rhetoric was frequently deployed during the last chapter of the civil war, this may not bode well for Muslim relations.
The military defeat of the LTTE may have emboldened the government to neglect the social reconciliation needed for a stable peace. A 2008 IISS Strategic Comment observed that President Rajapaksa believed the war could only be resolved militarily, while most outside observers believed the opposite. He may believe he was proven right in the short term, but as the International Crisis Group has commented, post-war Sri Lanka could be a ‘recipe for renewed conflict’.