Sri Lanka ready for the challenge
Sri Lanka’s 27-year conflict ended suddenly and comprehensively on
May 18, 2009.
Civilians fleeing the LTTE
The guns fell silent and the nation celebrated ecstatically. While
defeating the LTTE was a mighty achievement, given their reputation for
invincibility, effectively including all Sri Lankans in the
reconstruction and reconciliation processes poses a significant
Reconciliation, and fostering confidence and trust among all Sri
Lankans, was already a part of the Government’s strategy, even as it
slowly lost faith in a negotiated settlement to the conflict which had
raged for over 27 years.
It is important to remember that the Government’s decision to engage
the LTTE terrorists militarily followed the LTTE’s continued pattern of
reneging on peace negotiations to revert to large-scale terrorist
In 2006, Government delegations met the LTTE three times, with the
assistance of the Norwegian facilitators, to discuss a peaceful end to
the conflict. I myself led a delegation to Oslo. The President pledged
in public, to meet the LTTE leader anywhere to discuss peace, but was
Confident of its invincibility, the LTTE continued its acts of
horrendous violence and terrorism, exacting a heavy toll on civilian
lives and property, national security assets, sacred world heritage
sites and vital economic installations and simply outpaced the tolerance
threshold of the vast majority of the people of the country and of the
It came to a point that an elected government could no longer
restrain itself further and remain credible. However, the Government
laid down clear markers from the beginning of its renewed offensive in
2006. A clearly demarcated distinction between the terrorist LTTE and
Tamil civilians was established.
With this approach in place, the Government characterised its final
military offensive against the LTTE terrorist group as a humanitarian
rescue operation - an operation to rescue Tamil civilians from the
stranglehold of the LTTE terrorists. Its policy of zero civilian
casualties had a deep resonance among the country’s professional armed
Clearing of landmines in progress
The Government’s policy was also designed to convey to the Tamil
civilians that it would provide them with greater safety, care and
governance, in the immediate and long-term, than the LTTE.
We believe that it was because of the Government’s carefully
calibrated approach that the LTTE, as never before, was compelled to
forcibly use thousands of civilians as human shields to protect itself.
Furthermore, in 2007 and 2008, over 60,000 Tamil civilians fled from the
LTTE dominated areas to the south of the country.
Let us reflect on the nature of Sri Lankans for a moment. The
humanitarian impulse is intrinsic to the Sri Lankan people, given their
cultural and religious underpinnings and the society’s moorings in the
welfare state. Sri Lankans are influenced by four great religions of the
world and a tolerant culture that goes back thousands of years.
Even during the height of the conflict, successive governments,
setting the tone for the post-conflict period, had ensured a continuous
supply of essential goods and services, such as free healthcare and
education, to the Tamil civilians in the North and the East under the
domination of the LTTE.
For over 27 years, despite all the economic and logistical
difficulties, Sri Lanka sent food and medical supplies to the North. All
the schools and hospitals were funded and staffed by the Government in
Sri Lanka also interacted closely with the international community,
United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
and local and international non-governmental organisations to ensure
that the essential needs of civilians in the North were met.
The ICRC had access to the LTTE-dominated areas almost till the very
end of the conflict. This caring attitude towards civilians continued
and was reinforced once the conflict ended. Al-Jazeera filmed the
civilians escaping from the LTTE from a boat bobbing up and down in the
The Government’s partnership with the UN agencies and other
humanitarian actors on the ground, who had access to areas controlled by
the LTTE, was essentially based on trust. Trust would have been the
first casualty of any politicisation of this process.
Therefore, it was imperative that these humanitarian agencies carried
out their work based on the principles of neutrality and impartiality,
that they conformed to the legal and administrative framework of the
country, that their activities matched the identified policy priorities
of the Government as the host and that they were sensitive to local,
political, cultural and social nuances.
It is even more critical that their conduct was perceived as such by
the larger public. Where public opinion influences political dynamics,
and where the public is highly literate and politically conscious, the
public order and political stability ramifications are many and
Therefore, neutrality, impartiality and trust acquire renewed
significance. There were injudicious situations where actions and
statements by UN employees and NGOs impacted on this delicate balance.
But despite difficulties, the UN and the NGOs have continued to play a
vital role in the reconstruction effort.
When the conflict ended, resettling the displaced, who had streamed
into the camps prepared in advance by the Government, was the immediate
challenge to a government which had a policy goal of embarking
immediately on the reconstruction phase.
The humanitarian operation
First, the Government was confronted with the massive task of
housing, feeding and ensuring healthcare for 294,000 IDPs (Internally
Displaced Persons) and also responding to a virulently negative
Certain interested parties who should have known better, including
elements at the UN, the media, and the NGO community were making dark
statements of Tamil concentration camps of a permanent nature, the
possibility of widespread epidemics and food shortages. One should
recall that the persons displaced in the Eastern Province in 2007,
187,000, were returned to their homes within months.
Despite all the reservations expressed at the time, especially by the
NGO community, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees) these IDPs were successfully returned to their villages and
towns because the Government took an early decision to return them to
their homes for social and economic reasons.
Despite the cost of over US$ 1 million a day to feed them three meals
a day, this was done. The UN, the bilateral donors and the NGOs played a
Today over 95 percent of the original 294,000 IDPs in the North have
returned to their villages. Of those remaining, many, about 17,000, have
been permitted to leave, but have chosen to remain because of the
facilities available in the welfare camps.
A serious challenge to returning IDPs continues to be posed by
unmapped LTTE minefields in the North. This task is being handled with
the assistance of the international community.
The Government has purchased 15 flailing machines and over 500 mine
detectors. The recent floods have complicated matters. The Government
estimates that there are over 402 Sq. kms. of minefields to be cleared.
Over 1.5 million mines had been laid. Seventy percent of the demining
has been achieved by the Sri Lankan Army. Japan, Australia, Norway,
India, the US and the UN and many of our bilateral friends have assisted
in the demining process.
A French deminer with an NGO paid with his life as he served this
worthy cause. The Government plans to build over 100,000 houses, with
Indian assistance, for the returnees.
With the defeat of the LTTE, a remarkable level of confidence has
returned to the country contributing to the reconstruction effort. This
is particularly evident in the business community. The Government for
its part has firmly focused on economic development as a key element in
the reconciliation and reconstruction process.
The record upward movement in the stock market and increased inward
investment flows reflect this confidence. The stock market has continued
to surge and has improved by over 180 percent.
Inward tourism has rebounded by over 50 percent since January 2010.
Considerable interest has been shown by foreign investors, including
large hotel chains. Shangri-La has agreed to invest over US$ 500
million. The agricultural and fisheries production in the former LTTE-controlled
areas has continued to surge.
A massive increase in fish production, 70,000 tons per month, has
There are innumerable opportunities for the private sector also to
engage itself in the development process. Many Sri Lankan companies
established overseas have already expressed interest in exploring the
opportunities opening up.
Special tax incentives are provided for investing in the North and
the East. This is in addition to the incentives provided for all
investments from overseas. The agricultural infrastructure that was
destroyed by the LTTE to build defensive earth works and trenches is now
Hundreds of miles of roads have been widened, electricity is being
re-connected or connected for the first time, shop fronts are being
spruced up, new restaurants and hotels are being opened and economic
activity is resuming at a feverish pace. Real estate prices are
Reaching out to the people politically, the Government has continued
to enlarge its support base, winning a series of elections emphatically.
The President was re-elected with over 58 percent of the ballot.
In fact, no government has enjoyed so much popular support after five
years in office and the governing party won close to two thirds of the
seats in Parliament at the elections held in April 2010.
Now it controls over two thirds of the seats. There is very little
doubt that the vast majority of the people in the country are solidly
behind the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its policies.
The same economic, social and political opportunities enjoyed by the
54 percent of Tamils who live in the South must also be available to all
those displaced as they return to their homes. Many are grasping these
opportunities quickly. For them and their children, the return to
normalcy is paramount.
To ignore these political and economic realities and keep scratching
the old wound to exert political pressure on the government from the
outside, as is evidenced by the international manoeuvring of some, is to
miss an unparalleled opportunity in history to help all the people of
the country to heal their wounds and move forward.
To maintain the rage may be the goal of some - a goal that is not
shared by all those who remember the nightmare of terrorism and,
certainly, by the people living in the country.
Sri Lanka’s next challenge, as it seeks reconciliation and
reconstruction, is to ensure security and prosperity for all our
citizens, from Dondra Head in the South to Point Pedro in the North. We
note that hardly a sign remains to remind us of the devastation caused
by the tsunami.
For over 27 years, our resources remained under-utilised, were
diverted to the war effort, sometimes haphazardly, enterprises struggled
to survive, tourism and inward investment suffered seriously, the cream
of our youth went gallantly and voluntarily to battle and many paid with
their lives, others were maimed, while quite a few took the easy way out
and left the country.
Consequently, a country that was meant to be a beacon to the region,
stagnated in the global backwater. There are thousands of women
throughout the country widowed by the conflict. Now that the conflict is
behind us, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to stand up, dust itself, and
rejoin the world as a proud and confident country.
Targeted measures designed to assist this reconciliation process are
The former LTTE cadre in the camps 11,700 identified, were initially
separated and sent for rehabilitation. The Government, having decided to
treat most of them as victims rather than as criminals, has permitted
over 6,000 to return to their homes and communities, in less than 15
months, their rehabilitation program having been completed. They were
given training in basic life skills.
Over 1,440 are being further investigated. Over 17,000 individuals,
separated from their families, have been reunited. The Government has
implemented a clear policy to return the children to their own families,
communities and schools.
Unlike many of their colleagues who were thrown up as cannon fodder
by the LTTE and their young lives vainly sacrificed to satisfy a
megalomaniac’s deluded dream, it is everyone’s hope that these children
who survived, must grow up to be useful citizens and achieve their
dreams in their own way.
Thousands of children were recruited as child soldiers by the LTTE.
According to the UNICEF, over 5,700! HRW estimates that the number was
Child combatants who surrendered were placed in rehabilitation
centres in Ambepussa which will be closed this year. This centre has
received high praise from visitors. Children were given vocational
training and training in English and IT. The centre established in
Ratmalana trained children for the Ordinary Level examination.
All of them have now been returned to their own communities and
parents. For too long have the children of the North been regarded as a
dispensable asset in a terrible war machine. We can ensure that at least
the next generation gets the opportunities that were denied to the
The possibility of assisting these children in advancing their
studies deserves our attention. Some may need financial assistance. The
Government has designated Jaffna as a centre of excellence for IT and
The Government’s policy is to ensure that the IDPs return to an
environment where democracy prevails, where people elect their own
representatives to govern them and where no legacy of an all powerful
and eternal ‘supremo’ remains.
What is taken for granted elsewhere in Sri Lanka by way of democratic
governance must be theirs to demand. Over the last two years elections
have been held in eight provinces.
Local Government Elections are being held. The Government will not
permit a situation where freely elected representatives of the Tamil
people were murdered by the dozen simply for not toeing the LTTE line,
where dissent was suppressed and non-conformist views were buried with
those who held them.
A long line of Tamils who dissented, starting with Alfred Duraiappa,
Mayor of Jaffna, and including my deputy, Kethish Loganathan, were
eliminated by the LTTE. If what happened in the East is something to go
by, then we can have confidence in the future. In the East, a former
child soldier has been elected as the Chief Minister.
Elections in North
Elections have been held in Jaffna and Vavuniya.
There are over 1,350 NGOs registered in Sri Lanka and they play a
useful role in our reconstruction efforts. Forty-five local NGOs and
INGOs and 11 UN agencies are currently working in partnership with the
Government of Sri Lanka on rehabilitation and reconstruction programs in
the Northern Province.
The NGOs and INGOs have registered with the NGO Secretariat and have
linked themselves with a line ministry to provide identified and needed
services consistent with national policy priorities and programs.
Where necessary, the process would also mandate the NGOs signing an
MoU with a particular line ministry that would include the scope of
their work, geographic locality and subject matter.
The services provided by these NGOs and INGOs are important for the
communities they serve and the Government.
Sri Lanka firmly believes that establishing parallel services to that
of the government by NGOs, which are not sustainable, cannot have a
long-term bearing on the welfare of the people they intend to serve.
Unless NGOs have the capacity and the funding to work with the
government on prioritised policy areas and activities, their impact to
improve the situation would be meaningless.
The need to streamline processes related NGO and INGO activity in Sri
Lanka is conditioned by the experience of NGO involvement following the
December 2004 tsunami emergency response and recovery.
The massive influx of INGOs following this mammoth disaster, dubbed
by the national press as the “second tsunami”, overwhelmed the country’s
administrative apparatus, and the economies at the local and national
levels and skewed the policy and programmatic focus.
The subsequent report card on the work accomplished by most INGOs and
NGOs in the recovery phase revealed that many lacked the funds and the
capacity to respond to the scale of the needs of the recovery phase and
that the overall work of a majority of the INGOs and NGOs lacked
effective coordination and program coherence leading to a lack of
responsible use and management of resources and program outcomes.
The Tamil community scattered around the world is an important factor
in the reconciliation and reconstruction effort. Many of those who have
returned to their villages have relatives elsewhere in the world. There
are many in the diaspora who have been fed a constant diet of anti-Sinhala
propaganda by the LTTE and by a willing media ever searching for cheap
Journalists who sacrifice their principles and impartiality to
advance personal agendas, even those who may not have experienced the
horrors of 1983, or have been to Sri Lanka recently, may have lived a
life filled with such propaganda.
One of the key challenges will be to reassure the Sri Lankan Tamil
community overseas that today’s Sri Lanka will not tolerate anything
like 1983 again.
It is a fact that despite the LTTE’s repeated bloody provocations,
like the attacks on the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha
and the Sri Maha Bodhi, two of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world,
or the massacre of Muslims at the Kaththankudy Mosque, there have been
no reprisals aimed at Tamil citizens elsewhere in the country.
The civilian reprisals so desperately sought by the LTTE as part of
its devilish strategy, did not eventuate. Minorities have continued to
prosper in Sinhala-dominated areas of the country, including Colombo.
Tamils constitute over 40 percent of the population of Colombo. Some
of the leading business houses in Colombo are minority owned. Many of
the leading professionals in Colombo come from the minority communities
and no restriction exists on their lives, socially or economically.
The inconveniences faced by those with no familiarity with Sinhala or
English will disappear in time with the implementation of the Official
Even the nuisance of road blocks and sudden searches have become a
thing of the past with the all pervading fear generated by LTTE suicide
bombers gone and a greater level of confidence restored.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly invited Sri Lankan Tamils
from around the world to return to their homeland and become parties to
the nation building effort.
The Government has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation
Commission (LLRC) consisting of a number of eminent persons.
This Commission, constituting of very eminent personalities including
from the minorities, has a wide mandate, to look into the factors that
gave rise to the conflict and infractions of international standards,
and make recommendations to avoid similar situations in the future.
So far the LLRC has had a number of sittings in various parts of the
country and has invited anyone, including critics from abroad, to
present evidence before it.
Hundreds of persons from within and outside the country have appeared
before the Commission. It even invited AI, HRW and ICG to present any
evidence of infractions of global standards. These organisations have
jointly decided to decline this invitation. We, for our part, are very
A set of interim recommendations have been made and are being
implemented by an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the Attorney
General. It is hoped that the LLRC will address the concerns expressed
by interested persons, primarily with a view to facilitating the return
to normalcy and helping the country to recover from its 27-year
nightmare of terrorism.
The Government is also determined to reach out to all our friends and
even critics, as it sets about the task of nation building. Sri Lanka’s
attitudes will be conditioned by national interest and principle.
In a fast changing world, the goal is not to establish friendships of
convenience. It is a time for friends to help in healing the wounds -
not keeping them open. There are many lessons for the world from this
epic struggle and the response designed to facilitate a quick return to
There are many lessons for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s policy of clearly
distinguishing the civilians from the terrorist LTTE was crucial. The
zero civilian casualty policy was very important. Sri Lanka is at a
critical juncture in its history and has a unique opportunity to bring
its people together and make their island home a better place for all.
As the Bard said, time and tide waits for no man. Sri Lanka must grab
this chance and ride the tide as it rushes in. Having dealt with the
tragedy of the tsunami far better than most others have dealt with their
own natural calamities, I am confident that we will deal with the
aftermath of our victory over terrorism equally well.
Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona is the Permanent Representative to the United
Nations, New York. The above was from a presentation he made at the John
F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.