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‘The West needs to allow Sri Lanka to forge its own course’

Nearly four years after the bombs fell silent and the Chinese-made Multi-Launch Rocket systems put into storage, the myriad ‘campaigns for justice’ in Sri Lanka keep multiplying.

Quite apart from campaigns by the UN, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, among others, a multitude of smaller movements – financial accounts proudly displayed on their home pages – keep popping up, calling for an array of punitive measures against the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean.

One of the latest is by a London-based outfit demanding a boycott of British tour operators, including Virgin Holidays, STA Travel and Thomas Cook who are allegedly “offering holiday packages that provide commercial benefits to alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses.”

Having grown up during the bloodiest phases of Sri Lanka’s Civil War in the 1980s and 90s, having witnessed first-hand, the exhaustion of people clawing desperately at normalcy in the midst of an outrageously brutal conflict, there is nothing more irksome than the sanctimonious sounds that emanate from plush offices calling for those same people to be punished a little bit longer in the name of ‘justice’.

The military checkpoints and roadblocks, it seems, are being replaced by new barricades arrayed against a country attempting to make up for thirty years of missed opportunities.

An appalling conundrum

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was marked by its longevity and brutality.

Similar to wars that have ravaged former colonial possessions of Great Britain, the roots of the conflict lay in the scramble for power in the aftermath of the Island’s dismemberment from the Empire in 1948.

The country’s enterprising Hindu Tamil minority, who represent approximately 16% of the population and who were favoured by the British, had begun to feel increasingly disenchanted at the nationalistic sentiment brewing within the Sinhala Buddhist majority since the departure of the masters from London.

Tensions came to a head when, in 1956, the Oxford-educated Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, pandering to the majority, enacted the ‘Sinhala Only Act’, which caused widespread disenfranchisement of minority Tamils. Under the Act, Sinhala replaced English as the official language of the nation while conspicuously excluding Tamil which was spoken by a sizable minority.

Twenty five years later, after intermittent clashes between government forces and various rebel groups, full-scale war erupted when Tamil militants united under the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE.

The conflict claimed the lives of more than 120,000 people, including a string of Sri Lankan and Indian political leaders, in addition to crippling the Sri Lankan economy.

Every government bombing raid in the Tamil-dominated north and east of the Island was reciprocated by the LTTE with a suicide mission to Colombo; among the targets, the Sri Lankan national carrier, the country’s only international airport, the main petroleum storage facility in Colombo and the Central Bank complex in the capital.

From the arms dealers, who imported rusty T-55 battle tanks from the crumbling Soviet Union, to the Tamil asylum-seekers turned LTTE agents in East London demanding protection money from shopkeepers for the ’cause’, the war also proved immensely profitable for many.

Sri Lanka’s current president Mahinda Rajapakse – first elected in 2005 – and his extended family, however, realized that peace would be even more lucrative.

The First Family
A lawyer by profession, Rajapakse, 67, hails from a rural village in Hambanthota, a district on Sri Lanka’s picturesque southeastern coast.

His father was a renowned political activist and independence campaigner and Rajapakse himself was known for his tireless social justice work and liberal values early on in his career.

After becoming president, thanks to a slim majority in 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse quickly surrounded himself with an inner circle of confidants led by younger brother Gothabaya Rajapakse.

A former Lieutenant Colonel in the Sri Lanka Army, Gotabhaya Rajapakse had migrated to the United States after retiring from the service in the early 1990s.

He proved a brilliant military strategist, drawing on his extensive military experience whilst also exploiting regional political divisions.

When the Indian government, fearful of alienating coalition partners from South India who were sympathetic of the LTTE’s cause, refused military assistance to Colombo, Gothabaya turned to China, which gleefully accepted the opportunity to encircle India with political influence, having already won over Pakistan with cheap new fighter jets.

Armed with everything from Chinese-made assault rifles through howitzers to fighter-interceptors, the Sri Lankan military launched a sustained campaign to finally eliminate the Tamil Tigers.

As the army encircled the LTTE, tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting, even as several other thousands were forcibly held back as human shields by the rebels who found themselves being cornered into a fast diminishing spit of land.

With an end in sight to one of the longest-running conflicts in modern history, the government rebuffed calls from the international community – spurred on by the exceptionally efficient Diaspora LTTE PR machine – to back down.

Journalists were barred from the front and aid agencies were told that their safety could not be guaranteed. All but one – the ICRC – were forced to flee as the LTTE refused to allow civilians to leave and the government refused to stop the sustained shelling.

The horrors experienced by those trapped between the belligerents during the final days of the war will perhaps never be known. An estimate puts the number of people killed at 40,000.

Those fortunate enough to have escaped the fighting were placed in squalid camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

Their suffering was swiftly masked over as a nation – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher alike – rejoiced, many unable to believe that the nightmare that they had known as their only reality was finally over.

The celebrations were so deafening that a resounding victory for Mahinda Rajapakse in a hastily called election went barely noticed.

When the noise of the fire crackers subsided and the ticker tape was swept away, Sri Lankans looked on in bemusement as the president amended the constitution, enabling him to rule for an unlimited number of 6-year terms; he had also taken over the running of the Defence and Finance Ministries. His eldest brother Namal was the Speaker of Parliament; younger brother Basil had been appointed to the now crucial position of Minister of Economic Development with Gotabhaya continuing as defence secretary.

Even the most sceptical Sri Lankans paid little heed to the expanding Rajapaksa hegemony.

They could now travel anywhere they wished to on their beautiful little island nation. The stock market was booming at one point in 2010, becoming the best performing index in the world. Chinese money was pouring in; the government was even moved to peg the Sri Lankan rupee to the Yuan instead of the US Dollar.

The country’s first motorway was being built alongside a string of other infrastructure projects, from fancy new ‘flyovers’ through thousands of new hotel rooms and cricket stadiums to a brand new port and international airport.

The optimism was intoxicating, as was the power it generated.

Control
Spurred on by the seemingly limitless opportunities available, the Rajapakse clan began moving beyond the public sector, extending its tentacles into every aspect of Sri Lankan life.

Despite the end of the war, the government expanded the defence budget, purchasing arms from a private contractor owned by Gotabhaya Rajapakse; another firm owned by the Defence Secretary was given a contract to provide security at government buildings and installations.

Even the national past time of cricket hasn’t escaped; a company owned by one of the president’s sons recently won a 3-year rights deal.

The previous time limit for rights holders was 12 months.

Public funds have been routinely misappropriated and badly mismanaged; the $1 billion port in Hambanthota was opened to much fanfare only for engineers to discover the small matter of a massive rock just seven metres under the surface at the entrance to the harbour.

Above all else, however, any manner of dissent, whether against government corruption or executive nepotism, has been suppressed, often brutally.

Political opponents have been jailed on drummed up charges: the most noteworthy being General Sarath Fonseka, the victorious army commander who dared to run for political office against his former masters.

Dozens of journalists have been targeted, several killed, including Lasantha Wickrematunga, the former editor of the campaigning newspaper The Sunday Leader, who was gunned down in broad daylight. Others have fled overseas.

TV stations have been set on fire, printing presses closed down and journalists routinely harassed. When intimidation doesn’t work, the government chooses subtler methods; the anti-government Sunday Leader was taken over by an investor with links to a junior minister who allegedly helped open a generous line of credit from a state-owned bank to the new owner.

Complexities

The effects of all of this on the general population are yet to prove tangible and the sense of optimism remains. The IDP camps have closed down and there’s a disciplined sheen to Colombo that would put any city in India to utter shame. There is a sense of unbridled pride.
Stability, so elusive to my generation, is now a fact of life in Sri Lanka.

There are opportunities galore, particularly in sectors such as tourism and construction. The ‘white elephant’ infrastructure projects have created thousands of new jobs, especially for those in rural areas where the only way to earn a stable living had previously been to join the armed forces.

Hambanthota, in particular, a region that was hit hard by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, has been rejuvenated.

Fishermen living along the pristine, untouched stretches of coastline in northeastern and northwestern Sri Lanka are now earning a comfortable living off some of the more than 1 million tourists visiting the country annually. Prior to the war, their meagre incomes had been slashed in half by LTTE taxes.

Despite their country being in the early throes of what is, in essence, a dictatorship, Sri Lankans are finally, enjoying, just living.

In such a complex context, it is futile to infuse Western morals, so neatly and conveniently demarcated between right and wrong, black and white.

Sri Lanka boasts a 2500-year-old history and yet as a nation it is a mere 64 years old; half of which has been spent battling its ethnic demons. One form of intolerance has now merely given way to another.

It will perhaps take another half century for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to espouse the ideals envisioned by those campaigners sitting in their plush offices in London and New York, poring over reports and statistics.

By all means speak out but don’t denigrate and lash out at a people attempting to rebuild their lives and their country. We need the time and space to learn our lessons, educate ourselves and above all, to make our own choices.

One day, much like in North Africa and parts of the Middle East, we too will choose the ‘right’ path whatever that may be.

For now, caught between moralizing and enjoying some of the luxuries that most people take for granted, the choice for Sri Lankans is all too easy.

– Viji Alles

This article was first published on www.fairobserver.com.

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