Bringing Down the Walls in Sri Lanka


President Mahinda Rajapaksa, having vanquished the Tigers, faces challenges on numerous fronts.

By Rahul Sharma

Most concrete walls in Sri Lanka have been demolished in the past four years since the ethnic war ended, but the emotional barricades remain as the country battles its bloody past and tries to make peace with itself.

It’s easier said than done.

The scars of a three-decade-long war that killed tens of thousands of people and introduced suicide bombers to the world are deep and the government’s efforts to bridge the ravine that divides the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamils communities are constantly questioned inside and outside the country.

On the face of it, peace has only made a pretty country prettier.

The capital Colombo, once infested with check points manned by gun toting soldiers, is a very different place.

Parks hidden by tall walls, homes surrounded by bricks and mortars and colonial-era public buildings once guarded by armed soldiers have emerged from behind sand bags, metal gates and machine gun barricades to soothe public eyes. The concrete, iron spikes and steel wires have given way to beautifully lit walkways where people walk in the mornings and children play in the as the sun sets.

More importantly, there is discipline on the roads and the traffic is managed better than even despite an increasing crowd of vehicles. The once-decrepit, bat-infested Vihara Mahadevi Park near the beautiful, British-era Town Hall in Colombo has been cleaned up and the famous Independence Square is a must-visit place.

Old, heritage buildings nearby — once home to government offices and the military — are being converted into jazzy shopping areas with fancy retail outlets and restaurants.

Colombo, a party town even during the days of the war, is awaiting plush hotels and casinos to come up along the famous Galle Face Green. A new Chinese-developed port stretches out into the Indian Ocean, a sign of huge investments into infrastructure that the government hopes would keep boosting the economy.

Outside of Colombo, new highways to the south and the east and a new railway line to the north have once-again connected the island to allow people to freely travel to areas that were once out of bounds because of the war.

But scratch the surface and there is a deep worry about what the future holds for a country where trained former soldiers are now building roads, running restaurants and even selling vegetables. In the north, where once the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ruled, are thousands of ‘rehabilitated” former fighters thanking the government for the peace that surrounds them but at the same time looking for jobs and ways to make ends meet.

Despite new roads, bridges, seaports and airports the government has built and is building, and a consequent economic growth of around 7 percent, the mood on the street is somber, as the private sector is still battling to grow at a pace that could create the kind of jobs Sri Lanka needs.

A fat government that provided employment to 50,000 job-seeking youth last year and is battling a widening fiscal deficit can’t continue on that path for long.

On the other hand is the divide between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities. For more than quarter of a century, the Sinhalese equated Tamils with the LTTE as soldiers from deep southern villages lost their lives in the country’s north. The war might have ended, but the ethnic divide is yet to be fully bridged.

Allegations of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military in the last days of the war and international pressure to come clean on the charges has only made it difficult for the two communities to come closer.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is in his second term and is credited with vanquishing the LTTE, has consistently maintained that what happened back in 2009 was Sri Lanka’s internal matter and that it was being addressed in ways best known to and understood by the country.

However, in a historically violence-prone nation such as Sri Lanka – which not only battled the LTTE but also an attempted revolution by the People’s Liberation Front in the 1970s and 1980s – the chances of acute disgruntlement triggering another bloodbath can be considered to be high. That is what the government of the day has to worry about and ensure that the window for the peace dividend is not lost due to delays in processes.

More importantly, the international stakeholders, including Western governments, need to appreciate that the only people who will be able to solve their differences and build a better future are Sri Lankans themselves. It is easy to voice opinion in an attempt to influence events, but if Sri Lankans have to find peace they have to be left alone and allowed to put in place systems that will help mold a strong future.

Recent regional elections in the country’s north in which a Tamil party won power should be seen as a right step towards bridging the big divide. It is now necessary to build on this, as that’s the only way to bring down the emotional and communal walls.

  • Rahul Sharma, a former newspaper editor, is now President, Public Affairs at India-based Genesis Burson-Marsteller. He was recently back in Sri Lanka, where he once lived. The views are personal
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