“While building the nation, we have set aside all differences and divisions. As a result there is today a new political and development culture before the country,” Sri Lanka’s media reported President Mahinda Rajapaksa as saying in his New Year’s message. “Further consolidating this, we must forge ahead in the New Year. Having won freedom and peace for the people, we are committed to give them progress and happiness, too.”
The question many Tamils are no doubt left wondering, four years after the country’s brutal civil war ended, is whether this commitment includes their own happiness. And right now, many appear to have their doubts.
A survey released in November by the Centre for Policy Alternatives suggested that more than a quarter of those hailing from the country’s Tamil minority say the government has done “nothing” to address the root causes of the conflict, while half feel a little has been done, but “not enough.”
Yet the opportunity for Rajapaksa to fulfill his New Year’s pledge is there, if only he has the political courage to seize it. Indeed, by taking a four step, holistic approach that tackles the political, economic, social and psychological challenges of reuniting his country, President Rajapaksa will be able to regain the initiative and right the drift in what U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has described as an “increasingly authoritarian” direction.
There are four steps Rajapaksa should look to implement as soon as possible:
Give the Tamil minority a legitimate role in politics. It’s no secret that politics is a Sinhalese-dominated and family business in Sri Lanka. Nothing can be done about that in the near-term. But the country can still work toward more inclusive politics now – in fact it’s already happening.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 out of 38 seats in the northern provincial council elections in September with a 68 per cent voter turnout. This was a huge step forward to give the Tamil minority a legitimate political stake and a boon for the country’s ongoing democratic development.
But the perception of having power is simply not sufficient in a post-war Sri Lanka. A November 13 report from the International Crisis Group highlights the “reluctance” of the government to devolve power to the TNA. There were also reports of some citizens being intimidated by the military and certain party officials during the voting process (although officials denied this). Threats against journalists, activists and government critics do not help matters. Something has to change for lasting peace.
Give the Tamil minority a significant stake in the country’s post-war economic boom. Yes, the economy has been booming – an average GDP growth rate of 7.5 per cent since 2010 is nothing to be sniffed at. But tackling ethnic inequality – real or perceived – should be the top priority.
Are all Tamil minority as a whole feeling the benefits of the island’s post-war economic boom? It’s not an easy question to answer. But we know the former conflict areas in the north have enjoyed over $3 billion in infrastructure investment and an average nominal annual growth of 20 per cent since 2010.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t always led to job creation. One estimate suggests unemployment is as high as 30 per cent in the region compared with the national rate of about 4 per cent. In two northern districts still recovering from the war, almost seven in ten households are described as “food insecure.”
The CPA survey meanwhile, suggested more than 50 per cent of Sri Lankans feel the economic situation is “somewhat bad” or “very bad.” These figures will hurt any chances of lasting peace – or at least serve to undermine the legitimacy of the Rajapaksa government.
Push to end the ethnic and sectarian violence that keeps bubbling up. Yes, the war is over. The Tamil Tiger rebels surrendered and many have been rehabilitated (even if many still feel lost in the shuffle). But there are still reports of Sinhalese-orchestrated violence against the Tamil minority (a little over 10 per cent of the population). In April, the offices of the Tamil-language daily Uthayan were attacked in both Jaffna and Kilinochchi, according to global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. And Tamil women continue to face sexual harassment and violence at the hands of the military in the north.
Meanwhile, there is also an extremist contingent of Buddhist monks who have been attacking the Muslim minority. Attacks have occurred at a number of sites, from a law college with Muslim teachers, to a slaughterhouse and a mosque. The Christian minority (about 7 per cent of the population) has not been spared either – in September, a mob led by Buddhist monks attacked a Christian church. There have been 45 anti-Christian incidents this year.
This violence is obviously not comparable to wartime levels, but the government should still do what it can to nip it in the bud to reduce the potential for greater social instability.
Publicize policies that can specifically benefit the Tamil minority. There have so far only been limited attempts to develop the Tamil-dominated north, both politically and economically, since the civil war ended. With this in mind, the government should make clear how the Tamil minority can benefit from the country’s democratic and economic development. A public communication strategy specifically directed at the minority could help ease existing concerns over ethnic discrimination that may no longer be rooted in today’s realities, at least not to the same extent.
It’s a deceptively simple strategy that would only help with the psychological component of post-conflict reconciliation.
Speaking in November, President Rajapaksa outlined his dual goals of attracting $2 billion in foreign direct as well as making the island nation a middle income nation by 2016. If such lofty economic goals are to become a reality, Sri Lanka will need all of its people on board.
Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics (adjunct) in the MA program of NYU’s Politics Department, a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and advisory board chairwoman of Afghanistan’s first university e-mentoring program (New Silk Road Generation). The views expressed are her own.