New Internationalist

Sri Lanka

October 2007

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.

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Sri Lanka Fact File
Leader President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Economy GNI per capita $1,160 (India $720, UK $37,600).
Monetary unit Rupee.
Main exports Tea, rubber, coconut, spices, garments, petroleum products, precious stones. Rice is the main agricultural crop. Tourism started to recover from damage caused by the 2004 tsunami, but was then hit again by security concerns.
People 21.1 million. Population growth rate 1.0% per year. People per square kilometre 321 (UK 247).
Health Infant mortality 12 per 1,000 live births (India 56, UK 5). People readily visit doctors for the slightest ailment. Health services are available free, but fee-based ‘private practice’ for doctors is also allowed, so there is unevenness in the quality of services delivered.
Environment Biodiversity is threatened by loss of habitat, introduction of invasive species, and theft. Coastal erosion and marine pollution are also concerns.
Culture Sinhalese 74%, Sri Lankan Tamils 12.6%, Moor 7.1%, Indian Tamils 5.5% (separate from the Sri Lankan Tamils, these live in central rather than northern areas), others 0.8%.
Religion The Sinhalese are mostly Theravada Buddhist, the Tamils mostly Hindu. Moors and Malays are Muslim. Christians (mostly Roman Catholic) form a significant minority among the Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers.
Language Sinhala and Tamil are official languages. Tamil is spoken by Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims. English is widely understood, but spoken less.
Sources World Guide, State of the World’s Children, Human Development Report, Central Bank of Sri Lanka Annual Report 2006.
Sri Lanka ratings in detail
A deteriorating security situation has undermined the rule of law. Emergency regulations were reintroduced in August 2005. A trend of unexplained killings, abductions and ‘disappearances’ continues. Journalists are increasingly under threat.
Income distribution
5.6% of the population live on less than 1$ a day; as many as 41.6% live on less than $2 a day.
Life expectancy
74 years (India 64, UK 79).
92.5%. Education is free from primary through to university level, but only 14% of those who qualify for university can be accommodated.
Position of women
An attempt to decriminalize abortion in 2005 was thwarted. Representation of women in Parliament and at higher management levels is poor. But Sri Lanka has the best gender-related development indices in the South Asian region.
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal and imprisonable for 10 years. Yet attitudes range from intolerant to liberal: gay cabinet ministers pass without comment and drag parties are held openly in Colombo.
NI Assessment (Politics)
A crossover by 18 members of the opposition UNP strengthened President Rajapaksa’s hand in January. He faces attack from disgruntled members of his own party whom he sacked. The UNP continues to participate in the all-party conference on devolution. Differences persist over whether the state can allow for a federal constitution and satisfy Tamil aspirations. The ongoing effort is supported by the donor co-chairs to the peace process: the US, the EU, Norway and Japan.

This column was published in the October 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Life expectancy4
Position of women3
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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