Sri Lanka


When Australia issued a travel warning for Britain following three failed car bombings in London and Glasgow, a Sri Lankan minister at a Colombo press conference dryly quipped that perhaps Sri Lanka should do the same. The bombs were found in London on the same day that the Sri Lankan Navy in Trincomalee detected a truck packed with over 1,000 kilogrammes of deadly C-4 explosives. Just 2 kilogrammes can destroy a bus.

The risk of terrorist attacks has become a part of Sri Lankan people’s day-to-day consciousness once again after a lull between 2002 and 2005. For that brief period, when a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire was observed by the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there were no killings. The fighting resumed in 2005. Security forces under President Mahinda Rajapaksa have now driven the Tigers out of the Eastern Province after 13 years, and preparations are under way to hold local elections there.

Some 70,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict since 1983 between government troops and the LTTE, who say they are fighting for a separate state of ‘Eelam’ in the north and east of the country. Though Sri Lanka developed a vigorous multiparty democracy after independence from British rule in 1948, successive Sinhala-majority governments failed to arrive at an acceptable power-sharing formula with the Tamils. Leaders from both the rightwing United National Party (UNP) and the leftwing Sri Lanka Freedom (SLFP) many times came to the verge of reaching a deal with the Tamil political leadership, but were blocked by nationalist groups. Radicalization of Tamil politics began in the 1970s and developed into militancy, with the LTTE eventually killing off its rivals.

Politicians have been slow to realize that only a solution that meets legitimate Tamil aspirations for power can serve to neutralize the charges of discrimination that the LTTE exploits to sustain its violent campaign. Unlike his predecessors, who tried to negotiate only with the LTTE, President Rajapaksa has pursued a more inclusive approach, seeking to reach a consensus through an All Party Representative Committee. The nationalist People’s Liberation Front (JVP) refuses to participate.

Meanwhile, over two decades of conflict have bred a climate of impunity where human rights violations – killings and unexplained ‘disappearances’ of people – have become all too common. The perpetrators are thought to be from the LTTE, their breakaway faction called the ‘Karuna group’ or government forces. There is widespread failure to protect the dignity and security of the person. Violations in Tiger-controlled Northern areas remain largely hidden owing to inaccessibility.

In other parts of the country normal life goes on. Sri Lanka’s market-based open economy has shown remarkable resilience in the face of war and the 2004 tsunami, recording a growth rate of 7.4 per cent last year. Though rhetoric differs, there is not much difference between the economic polic ies of the UNP and those of the SLFP. Both bow to World Bank and IMF pressures relating to privatization, land and water policy, though the JVP has actively resisted these trends. In 2003 the JVP challenged a Water Services Bill in court, and blocked a licensing scheme that would have introduced water pricing and destroyed a centuries-old irrigation system of reservoirs managed by farmer organizations. There has also been strong trade-union resistance to privatization of facilities such as electricity, petroleum and railways.

Sri Lanka’s highest foreign-exchange earner is its migrant labour force. Around 200,000 workers leave for West Asia (mainly the Gulf states) each year, half of them to work as housemaids.