New Hopes for Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

published in Embassy newspaper. Jan 2015.


We live in a troubled world, whether we are talking of Syria, Gaza
or our own Parliament building. However just days ago there was a bold and almost totally unexpected political transition. In Sri Lanka we saw a peaceful election in which an all-powerful president who had thrived on jingoism and cronyism for a decade or more was defeated by an ex-colleague, who only two months earlier had been his health minister, but is now empowered as President Maithripala Sirisena.

The question for every Sri Lankan, including the 150,000-plus living in Canada, is what sort of new politics will emerge? Can the country finally find peace and communal reconciliation?


But first, some context. For maybe 2,000 years this beautiful island on the tip of India, famed for its tea, was the peaceful home of three communities: a large Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority, a substantial Tamil-speaking minority of Hindus and a smaller segment of Muslims, mainly also speaking Tamil.

With independence it became a vibrant democracy and an unusually successful model of equitable development. However, by the late ‘70s that democratic vibrancy had turned into bloody communal violence.

A cruel and long civil war emerged between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, with at its heart a dispute about something that will mystify ordinary Canadians: the right of the minority to have devolved government, their own province in the areas where they were a large majority. Sound a bit like today’s Quebec?

In 2009 the Sinhalese-led government finally won the war of attrition with the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). Its much larger military fuelled by foreign arms finally overpowered what was always a small if effective and brutal rebel force. In the intervening years ordinary Tamils had lost livelihoods, homes and most cruelly children to the conflict.

The manner of the war’s ending ensured that reconciliation was most unlikely to mate- rialize. In the closing week many thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped between the two by now hopelessly unequal forces. They were mercilessly shelled, maybe by both, but mainly by the government. The government ignored pleas from Western and United Nations leaders who were welcoming the imminent end of the war but demanded that the trapped Tamil civil- ians must be first allowed to escape.

The government refused, instead imposed victor’s rights and has done little over the five years since to promote reconciliation. To this day the government has kept troops all over the Tamil north. The government has consistently rejected pro- posals for an independent inquiry.

The election

Fast forward to November 2014. Two-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa had organized a constitutional amendment giving himself more powers, including the abolition of a traditional two-term cap. He had a cabinet made up of boot-lickers and brothers and strutted around being described as almost a king. He announced the date for what he saw as a third-time electoral coronation.

But to his shock just a few days later one of his own ministers, Maithripala Sirisena, stood up in public and said he and about a third of the Rajapaksa cabinet had reached a secret deal with all the opposition parties to switch sides and stand against him.

Rajapaksa soldiered on, but looked worried. The Tamil communities, Hindu and Muslim, he had ignored were perhaps a quarter of the electorate. In gossipy Colombo the press and bloggers were “seeing” Rajapaksa plots everywhere. The fear was that he would use the police and army to block Tamil voters by scare tactics or order the electoral commissioner to declare their votes invalid. Just rumour or maybe fact, the Sirisena government is now to formally investigate a secret midnight meeting on elec- tion day of security chiefs with Rajapaksa.

The good news is that key public institutions—army, police, election commission— for reasons of integrity or survivalism, did not bend. Rajapaksa simply conceded on the day after the elections, even before the full vote was counted. Sirisena is president and indeed claims he now commands a majority in the parliament due to desertions from the government party to him.

Many Sri Lankans, especially Tamils, are pinching themselves to see if it is not all
a dream. Can they believe the promises of more transparency and an anti-corruption campaign or a new compact cabinet drawn from across the political spectrum, including those representing minority groups?

The Indian government is doing the same: having sat unhelpfully on the fence for the last few years, members wonder if the new words of friendship from Sirisena are real, a new beginning, especially when Rajapaksa had made so many deals—financial, political, even military—with an assertive China, which has multiple new investments in the country including industrial ventures and new ports. China is also no doubt worrying whether it is going to have to write off the cash and politi- cal influence. By a felicitous coincidence the Pope arrived this week to immediately plead for action on reconciliation.

Canada, as most major governments, has quickly congratulated the new president. We also want action on devolution. What is less clear is what concrete support we might offer. Devolution in particular will need new or massively rebuilt infrastructure and institutional capacity.

Will we even help finance some of our expatriate Tamil citizens to return and invest in new commercial ventures? For several years now Sri Lanka has been a non-priority for the aid folks in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

What is the value of maybe 100,000 Tamil votes in Ontario? Have we now $10 million a year of new aid to help with communal rec- onciliation in Sri Lanka?

John Sinclair, a Cambridge-educated economist, has worked as a development practitioner at the former CIDA and the World Bank. He lived in Sri Lanka for several years.