Friday, August 20, 2010
Sri Lanka Embarking on Troubling Political Trajectory
A year after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lanka is faced with the challenge of moving from a post-war state to a post-conflict nation. This requires the taming of the sources that drove the conflict for over three decades. The priorities should be: peace via a political settlement; reconciliation through aiding the plight of internally displaced persons; the reversal of the culture of impunity over human rights violations; and promoting unity by resisting majority domination.
However, current policy is on a different trajectory, in which economic development is posited as the panacea to achieve peace, reconciliation and national unity.
Economics is not only given precedence over politics but it is assumed that economic development will blunt political aspirations and grievances.
Civil and political rights are at best considered to be of secondary importance. In pursuing economic development with the same single-minded purpose it pursued military victory, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government intends to change the political culture of the country from the more boisterous and pluralistic one shared with India and characterized by an implicit faith in democratic norms and traditions to a more disciplined one.
While the end of the war has ensured an increase in economic activity, it has by no means guaranteed that the expected post-war boom will underpin the government’s ambitious plans to make Sri Lanka a key economic hub of South Asia. Economic projects for the former conflict areas in the north and east, designed and implemented from Colombo with little local consultation, arouse suspicions about colonization in the guise of development.
The emphasis is currently on tourism and infrastructure, with considerable dependence on increasing Chinese and Indian investment.
The government has also taken a substantial IMF loan that entails considerable reduction in the budget deficit and public spending as well as the re-orientation of economic ties toward Asia’s emerging powers.
There appears to be no urgency with regard to a political settlement of the ethnic conflict. The recent focus of constitutional reform has been on the removal of the two six-year term limit on the executive presidency. A resolution of the ethnic conflict revolves around long-stalled provincial devolution. Despite preliminary talks between the regime and the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, there has been little progress on giving more powers to the provinces within a united Sri Lanka.
The situation of displaced persons, though far removed from their incarceration in camps by the tens of thousands immediately after the war, is far from settled. Some 30,000 out of the initial 300,000 still remain in camps along with another 10,000 surrendered fighters, who have been denied access to the International Red Cross.
The majority of those let out of the camps are still in transit camps and with host families.
The government’s unwillingness to reverse the culture of impunity in dealing with human rights violations is at the heart of criticisms by local and international civil society organizations.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has set up a panel on this issue in the face of strident objections from the Rajapaksa government.
A leading cabinet minister led an attempted siege of the UN compound in Colombo and embarked on a hunger strike unless the panel was disbanded.
Ban, however, stood firm and the fast was abandoned after two days.
Sri Lanka has also lost the European Union’s preferential trade concessions after failing to ratify and effectively implement 27 international human rights instruments and labor standards.
The government’s response has been to allege infringements of national sovereignty by the West.
It says the criticisms are unfair since it has established a post-war Presidential Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation. Sri Lanka, however, has a dismal record on such commissions.
Peace without unity, unity without reconciliation, and reconciliation without accountability — these are the dilemmas that both the regime and society will have to bridge if Sri Lanka is to fully grasp the historic opportunity presented by the end of the war. Only then can Sri Lanka transform from a post-war environment to a post-conflict period of growth and reconciliation.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is the executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka. Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review, is a monthly magazine on strategic affairs, public policy and governance.