Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sri Lanka Don't ban Ban Foreigners should press Sri Lanka’s government to accept a UN inquiry into the war

A YEAR after the end of the long and terrible civil war between the Sinhalese-run government and Tamil separatists, Sri Lanka has returned to a sort of normality. The killing has stopped and people have, mostly, returned to their homes. Tourists are turning up in droves—Sri Lanka is the New York Times’s top tourist destination for 2010—and foreign investment is beginning to trickle in. In many ways, the prospects for Sri Lanka are looking better than they have for three decades.

There are, however, two areas in which things are not going well. One is at the centre of government, where power has been parcelled out between four members of a single family. Mahinda Rajapaksa, pictured, who won the war and was returned to power as president with a stonking majority in January, is also minister of defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation and highways. He shares the defence ministry with one brother, Gotabaya, the defence secretary. A second brother, Basil, is economic development minister, and controls the boards charged with promoting investment and tourism. A third brother, Chamal, is speaker of parliament—which is handy, because of the importance of the speaker’s role in the unlikely event of an attempt to impeach the president.

Sri Lankans’ willingness to criticise these arrangements openly has been diminished by the murder last year by unknown assailants of the editor of the main dissenting newspaper; still, the question of how they are governed is largely a matter for them, and having just voted for the Rajapaksas in one election, they will one day—it is to be hoped—have the chance to sling them out in another. Foreigners could, however, have a little more influence in the other area where things are going wrong—reconciliation, or the lack of it.

Dreadful things were done during the war, many of them by the Tamil Tigers, but many—though the government stoutly denies it—by the army. A report published last week by the International Crisis Group says that the army intentionally shelled civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations during the vicious campaign at the end of the war to finish off the Tigers. The ICG reckons that 30,000 or more people may have died in the last months of the war.

A nicer place to run

The government has appointed an internal commission to investigate, behind closed doors, not these allegations specifically, but the final seven years of the war as a whole. This will not persuade Tamils that their grievances have been fully investigated. More promising is a panel being set up by Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations’ secretary-general.

Sri Lanka’s government says this move has “no moral justification”. But outsiders—especially the Americans, who are hosting Sri Lanka’s foreign minister this week—should forcefully explain to the Rajapaksas that a UN investigation is in their interests. The idea is not absurd, for two reasons. First, any outfit that looks into Sri Lanka’s recent past is likely to find the Tigers as guilty of war crimes as the army, and if the Tamils see their supposed protectors’ brutality credibly exposed, they may be less inclined to canonise them. Second, the Rajapaksas are clearly planning to be in power for a long time. Running a peaceful and prosperous country is pleasanter and more profitable than running a ravaged, war-torn one. The only guarantor of long-term peace is reconciliation, and the best way of bringing that about is to let Tamils’ grievances be fairly aired. The Economist

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