On 19 May 2009, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa officially declared the end of a war that had lasted nearly three decades.
Although there’s no official death toll, a number of reports indicate that in the final months of the war, tens of thousands died. Gut-wrenching photos of civilians, including children, caught up in the final stages of war recently revealed on the websites of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have rekindled painful memories.
Post-war, the relief in the south of Sri Lanka is palpable. People can catch a bus without fear of bombs. Commerce and industry, including tourism, are developing at record levels. The Government has announced multi-billion rupee plans for the development of those regions in the north and east most ravaged by the conflict. Significant support for the ruling party was registered at the presidential and parliamentary polls held in January and April respectively.
The promise of economic prosperity and development — combined with the absence of war — is packaged as a peace founded on a hard won victory. The key architects of this victory — including the President — were held in high public esteem after the end of the war last year. A year later, their popularity has only slightly waned.
And therein lies the rub. Peace is a simple construct in post-war Sri Lanka. The all-powerful government equates the end of the conflict with the decimation of the LTTE — and nothing more. There is little interest in political and communal reconciliation or transitional justice. Nor have robust investigations taken place into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity conducted by both sides during the final months of the conflict. Those who champion these concerns continue to risk their safety and security.
It is not just domestic and international NGOs who are flagging concerns over the inability of government to ensure a just peace. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva and a staunch defender of the Rajapaksa regime internationally, recently told the BBC that instead of the government reaching out to Tamil people and Tamil politicians post-war, there is "a studied silence or at best an ambiguity about the shape of the political settlement or the political reconciliation between the south and the north".
For some, democracy and human rights issues are unimportant. Commerce and industry in Sri Lanka want political stability. Tourism is booming, and few in the industry are prepared to question openly the Government’s democratic credentials.
Above all, an anaemic opposition — held back by an enduring crisis over party leadership, grassroots mobilisation and political vision — is the Government’s best friend.
The Opposition has ceded command and control of Sri Lanka’s future to the ruling party and the euphoria over the end of the war has given way to electorates in the south which are at best only marginally interested in liberal governance. There is consequently a lot of leeway for the Government to brush aside concerns — ranging from the mismanagement and misappropriation of public finances to more serious allegations of war crimes — as facets of a vast conspiracy led by Western powers hell-bent on resurrecting the LTTE and infringing the territorial sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
This rhetoric may be simplistic but it holds great emotive power and easily captures the imagination of a war-weary electorate — which is, moreover, because of unofficial media self-censorship, often ill-informed.
But should anyone care?
To remember the violence is to embrace the possibility of culpability. This is not easy to contemplate for many in positions of power — and it often leads to vehement opposition to any process of accountability. Truth and reconciliation require courageous political will — such as Nelson Mandela’s in post-apartheid South Africa.
However, after the war’s end, those in power in Sri Lanka do not have the political will to enter into a process that could engineer their demise. To call for accountability in this environment is to face, even post-war, a concerted and powerful campaign engineered by government and its supporters, one which is pegged to verbal and physical violence and to parochial, self-serving definitions of patriots, traitors and sovereignty.
Perhaps it is easier to forget and move on?
This proposition is made by many, who out of fatigue, fear or a combination of both, argue that the best way for post-war Sri Lanka to move forward is by engaging government. Certainly, this engagement is possible for those who are prepared to conform and comply, and those who, for self-gain, will turn a blind eye to the problems of post-war governance. Unsurprisingly, there is no space, no meeting point with government for those who define peace as more than the absence of war, who understand democracy as a cornerstone of sustainable development.
Post-war, the Government must win back the hearts and minds of those once under the jackboot of the LTTE. From the political to the symbolic, however, the Rajapaksa regime has failed in this regard. This is especially tragic given the historic opportunity for socio-political reform and constitutional change held by a regime which governs with such a significant electoral majority.
All of which, as we come full circle, is to interrogate exactly what Sri Lanka is celebrating a year after the end of the war.
Our children will grow up in an environment much safer than it has been for nearly three decades. To welcome the resurgence of hope is to risk disappointment in a country that has savoured too little of it.
And there are new possibilities in social, political, cultural and economic domains. Younger, dynamic new MPs have introduced a higher standard of debate into Parliament and with their fresh ideas are challenging the tired leadership of the current political parties.
It is now possible to travel to areas hitherto closed to the public. The profile of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination has risen rapidly. According to an interim report by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Sri Lanka recorded the highest growth in tourist arrivals in the world during the first two months of 2010. The Sri Lankan bourse is among Asia’s best performing, reflecting greater investor confidence post-war.
While these advances may be celebrated, many questions remain unanswered: about deteriorating security conditions in the Jaffna peninsula; about the continued alienation of legitimate Tamil aspirations; about the predominance of dynastic rule over democratic governance; and about the marked lack of progress in addressing underlying grievances that gave life and succour to the idea of "Eelam".
A decade hence, we may see this time as a slow, uneasy transition from a repressive war mentality to a more participatory democratic system. Although I remain cautiously optimistic, I fear that the essential nature of the Rajapaksa regime will return Sri Lanka to violence more virulent than what we now celebrate the end of.
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