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January 18, 2006

Sri Lanka: How self-serving politicians have squandered hopes for post-Tsunami reconstruction and brought the country to the brink of renewed all-out civil war

Posted by Clifford Bastin

One year on from the Boxing Day Tsunami, Sri Lanka is in a perilous position - the country stands on the brink of renewed civil war. It was hoped that the need for reconstruction after the Tsunami would enable Sri Lanka's political leaders to put their differences aside. Yet, Clifford Bastin argues, the self-interest of these political leaders has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of renewed all-out civil war.

It is dispiriting that in Sri Lanka the first anniversary of the tsunami should coincide with a dramatic upsurge of bloodletting. What had long been an imperfect ceasefire between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the Sri Lankan Government is indubitably over, putting the cap on what has been a dismal year in the island's history.

Since the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as the new President on 17th November, fifty soldiers, sailors and police and thirty five civilians have been killed. A clash at sea on 22nd December between the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) and Sea Tigers resulted in the deaths of three SLN sailors. The next day in the single most deadly attack since the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), 15 SLN personnel were killed in the North. The attackers hit the sailors bus with anti-personnel Claymore mines and rocket propelled grenades. This was the third such ambush in little over a week and made any pretence of an ongoing ceasefire unsustainable. The Tigers deny any involvement in the attacks and categorise them as spontaneous acts of resistance by autonomous groups. Outlandish public statements are made on all sides and uttered without a hint of embarrassment despite the certain knowledge that they will be received with weary incredulity. It was the opinion of the Scandinavian led SLMM (Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission) that the perpetrators were indeed the LTTE.

Violence has continued unabated during the Christmas and New Year period, including 26th December, a day of ceremonies commemorating last years tsunami. On Christmas Eve, Joseph Pararajasingham, a senior Member of Parliament for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a group supportive of the LTTE, was gunned down. He had just received communion at midnight mass in the Batticaloa district of Eastern Sri Lanka. The LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran swiftly attributed the killing to Tamil paramilitaries working in collusion with Sri Lankan military intelligence and conferred the title of maamanithar (Great Man) on the dead politician. Implausibly the government accused the Tigers of killing the MP to divert attention from their own recent attacks and indignantly described the killing as an assault on democracy. In a further escalation ten more Sri Lankan Army (SLA) troops were killed in another Claymore attack in the northern tip of the Jaffna peninsula on 27th December and the violence shows no sign of abating entering the New Year.

The European Union, Japan, United States and Norway represent the international community in the peace process. They comprised the major participants and donors at the 2003 Tokyo Conference, which generated $4.5 billion in aid pledges conditional on progress in peace talks that has never been made. These Co-Chairs remain engaged and are understandably alarmed by recent violence. The LTTE has been urged to put an immediate end to their attacks and the Government has been told to stop working with anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitaries. Both sides have been implored to resume negotiations but, as yet, no agreement can be reached on a venue let alone an agenda. The LTTE insists on Europe, preferably Oslo and the Government, an Asian venue, but quibbling over the destination merely suggests that one or both sides thinks that there is little to be gained by talking.

In September following the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the EU banned LTTE delegations visiting member states and has threatened to implement a full ban on the organisation. The LTTE did not help its case when its cadres shot at a helicopter assigned to pick up the Italian Deputy Foreign Minister on a visit to the Amparai district early in December. The Government itself may not escape penalties as the International Community becomes further exasperated at perceived intransigence in its attitude to talks and on the disbursement of tsunami aid. The decision of the World Bank not to proceed with five loan commitments worth $214 million may be a straw in the wind and represents the loss of funding for the improvement of ports, postal services, housing and power supply.

Earlier the displeasure of the international community had been incurred over the suspension of the P-TOMS (Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure). The P-TOMS agreement for channelling international aid to the tsunami affected areas of the North and East, was a mechanism demanded by the co-chairs and finally agreed between the LTTE and Government in June. It was thwarted by the objections of hard-line Sinhalese nationalist parties who petitioned the Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled it unconstitutional. The new President has pledged not to revive P-TOMS but its loss has meant many aid commitments have not yet been realised and reconstruction in the North and East has been impeded.

In the twelve months since the tsunami, recovery throughout the island has been painfully slow. The numbers are contentious but the Government's reconstruction body TAFREN says 275,000 remain in tents and temporary shelters along the coastline and only a fifth of the homes damaged or destroyed have been rebuilt. International aid has amounted to $2.1 billion in firm commitments, ample for relief and reconstruction. However the country's capacity to absorb aid quickly is limited and so far disbursements have been only $600 million. The lack of a joint mechanism with which to channel funds to LTTE controlled areas, shortages of land, skilled labour and material coupled with confusion concerning a coastal buffer zone within which rebuilding was forbidden, have all served to hamper reconstruction. In September the Auditor General released a report revealing that large amounts of aid had been misspent or had simply disappeared. In Negombo, just north of Colombo, a town lightly affected by the tsunami, 599 families were displaced but 15,843 families received assistance.

Politicians had been distracted for much of the year by the prospect of a Presidential Election, which took place in November. Mahinda Rajapakse of the incumbent Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP) was elected by the narrowest of margins. Rajapakse, who was Prime Minister had gained the support of the Marxist and hard-line Sinhalese nationalist JVP (in English, The Peoples Liberation Front). The Rajapakse-JVP policy agreement rejected federalism and sought a renegotiation of the existing cease-fire which they contended favoured the LTTE and imperilled national security whilst fostering separatism. The Rajapakse-JVP agreement alleged of the peace facilitator:

Norway has shown unprecedented bias and partiality towards the LTTE.
It then strangely went on to state that it would only reconsider if the Norwegians should continue.

Rajapakse also garnered the support of the Sinhalese nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya or National Heritage Party (JHU) of Buddhist monks who are equally resolute in opposing devolution and weakening the unitary state. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumuratunga who Rajapakse wished to succeed was displeased that agreements with the JVP and JHU had been made without her consent and especially as they contradicted SFLP policies on P-TOMS and federalism. For the remainder of the campaign she proffered Rajapakse only tepid endorsement.

Initially it was thought that her brother Anura had been made Prime Minister designate in a future Rajapakse administration and thus the Bandaraniake dynasty would continue to be represented in the top echelons of Government. During the campaign Anura remained as aloof and ambivalent as his sister and ultimately was offered only the Tourism Ministry.

Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) was Rajapakse's main opponent. "Ranil", as he is popularly known is another Sinhalese Buddhist but with a sharply differing vision of how to tackle the ethnic issue. He had been Prime Minister between 2001 and 2004 and had signed the cease-fire agreement with the LTTE early in 2002. Wickremesinghe was backed by The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) and two party's representing Plantation Tamils in Hill Country. While popular amongst the minorities, for many within the majority Sinhalese community, who comprise 74% of the population, Ranil was too prone to make concessions to secure peace. In the past he had entertained the establishment of an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the North and East - a key demand of the LTTE but seen by opponents to be a stepping-stone to de facto secession. Ranil was additionally handicapped by being an awkward campaigner and a member of the Colombo elite which played badly amongst the rural and urban working class.

In contrast the ever smiling and relatively charismatic Rajapakse, with his national dress and hallmark red scarf, had greater popular appeal amongst ordinary Sinhalese. He was regarded as pro-poor and more likely to safeguard the interests of the majority community. For many Sinhalese he was Ape Mahinda (Our Mahinda), amongst the minorities he was anything but, given his alliance with the strident Sinhalese nationalism of the JVP and JHU.

Had he not acted pre-emptively in September the Rajapakse campaign might have been hobbled from the beginning. The Sunday Leader newspaper had alleged that the Prime Minister Rajapakse had acted suspiciously in siphoning $820,000 sent by international donors for tsunami relief into a privately run "Helping Hambantota" Fund, which happened to be his parliamentary constituency. Police investigations were initiated but the Supreme Court ordered them to be halted when the Prime Minister petitioned that his fundamental human rights were being infringed.

It wasn't solely the ethnic issue that dominated the election. Prominent also was the frailty of the economy and in particular the accelerating cost of living. It is sobering to think that in the 1960s Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore aimed to emulate Ceylon's per capita income and enviable high literacy and life expectancy rates. Then Sri Lanka had similar per capita income levels relative to South Korea and Thailand. Now Sri Lanka's $1,000 per capita GNP is a tiny fraction of that of Thailand, Singapore and South Korea.

Growth for 2005 was around 5.5%, which is respectable given the tsunami, the sharp rise in oil prices and the end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement which impacted greatly on the garments sector. Sri Lanka's growth however is still insufficient to significantly reduce poverty and unemployment and lags considerably behind the 8% expansion achieved by India and Pakistani. The National Debt is greater than 100% of GDP and this year state spending will exceed revenues by around 9%. A 30% rise in the defence budget and pre-election public sector pay hikes, have added to the deficit. In addition fuel subsidies equivalent to 1% of GDP, and the huge borrowings of loss making public sector enterprises such as the Ceylon Electricity Board inflate the public sector deficit. Against the backdrop of poor infrastructure, political instability, inflexible labour markets and a lack of fiscal rectitude, Sri Lanka fails to attract significant Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2004, when the cease-fire was still intact, FDI rose 1.7% compared to 31% in South Asia as a whole.

The Presidential candidates offered a sharply diverging economic worldview. Wickremesinghe presented a programme based on a commitment to economic liberalisation and an open economy. His stewardship of the economy as Prime Minister between 2001-2004 saw inflation tumble and business confidence rise as the ceasefire he secured impacted positively on the economy. Wickremesinghe lost the Parliamentary election of 2004 forced on him in a constitutional coup of President Kumaratunga, largely because in the short period of his tenure the benefits of growth were slow to trickle down to ordinary Sri Lankans.

In hoc to the JVP and the powerful Trade Unions that it controls, Rajapakse's programme demonstrated little enthusiasm for the market. Privatisation and labour market reforms were rejected and subsidies were to be extended. The fiscally reckless budget delivered a week before the election amounted to an unsophisticated bid to win votes and was followed by an equally profligate revised budget shortly after Rajapakse's election. Jobs were to be created in the public sector and specifically 10,000 unemployed university graduates would be recruited to government departments. Public sector employees were promised generous pay increases linked to the cost of living. This group of workers is not noted for their productivity and typically are entitled to 45 days paid holiday, 25 days of Public Holidays and 7 days paid sickness leave. As a "sweetner" eligible public servants were granted the entitlement to import vehicles at a concessionary import duty rate of 25%, as opposed to the usual 150%.

The campaign ebbed and flowed with neither candidate seeming to have a clear advantage. In the final days the financial markets came to expect a Wickremesinghe victory and the stock market rose and the currency firmed in anticipation. In the event Rajapakse emerged the victor with 50.3% of the vote as against 48.3% for his opponent. Victory for the UNP was made less likely by the decision of the LTTE and their political allies the TNA to announce a boycott of the polls.

The justification for abstention was that the two candidates were seen - as the Tamil Guardian put it - to be "birds of a feather" and from a Tamil perspective to be indistinguishable. While indicating that Tamils in the North would be allowed to make their own decision the reality was that few dared ignore the boycott in areas under LTTE control. In Jaffna turnout was derisory and in Killinochchi only one person from an electorate of 66,596 voted. In the Eastern districts of Trincomolee and Batticaloa the boycott was far less effective and in those areas Wickremesinghe polled heavily within both the Tamil and Muslim populations.

The SFLP candidate swept the Sinhalese Southern provinces and in Colombo the vote was roughly split. Relative to the 2004 parliamentary election, Wickremesinghe lost 517,000 votes received by the TNA, UNP and SLMC and hence the LTTE's influence proved decisive to the outcome. In imposing a boycott and depriving Wickremesinghe of vital votes it appears that the LTTE wanted a hawk in power and not a relative dove with whom they would find it harder to resist international pressure to resume negotiations.

Despite the boycott, overall turnout at 73.7% comfortably exceeded that of recent British elections, indicating that despite many Sri Lankans viewing with cynicism the performance and motivations of their politicians there is still a high level of popular engagement. The strength of communal rivalries ensures turnout is high as voters cast their ballots defensively to safeguard narrow ethnic interests.

One voter who chose not to exercise his franchise was the Election Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake. He claimed he had not voted since 1963:

I voted at village council elections because I did not know much about politicians at the time, but since I got to know politicians I decided never to vote again.
Immediately after his election Rajapakse called for direct talks with the LTTE. The President proposed holding discussions with all concerned parties in the search for a consensus but broad consultation is anathema to the LTTE who claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamil people and have a low tolerance for dissent. His appointment of Ratnasiri Wickremanayake as Prime Minister was not conciliatory. The 73 year old had served as Prime Minister from 2000 to 2001, and while known as Jolly Seeya (Jolly Grandfather), he is a known hawk. He has opposed family planning policy as its success has meant there were fewer young Sinhalese available to fight the Tigers. The Prime Minister has also been a vehement critic of the Norwegian peace facilitators and in the past suggested they should end their interference in the country's internal affairs and pack their bags.

Rajapakse quickly reiterated his campaign themes, rejecting both a Tamil homeland and federalism while offering maximum autonomy within a united (unitary) Sri Lanka. It would not be enough for the people of the North and East to accept or reject an eventual settlement. Instead the endorsement of a majority of Sri Lankans would be required. The P-TOMS joint mechanism agreement signed by his predecessor was not to be revived and the cease-fire agreement of 2002 was to be re-negotiated - especially those provisions relating to the recruitment of child soldiers and political killings. While the President welcomed international mediation, the Norwegians appeared to have been dropped. Whether his utterances on the peace process had merit or not, the reality was that almost everything he said would make the LTTE unlikely to resume talks.

27th November is Heroes' Day in the LTTE calendar. On this day the movements 17,000 fallen are commemorated and Prabhakaran uses the occasion to make a major policy speech. This year he threatened that if the government failed to present a "reasonable" political framework, in 2006 the Tigers would intensify the struggle to establish a Tamil homeland. Interestingly he revealed that in late 2004, in the absence of progress, he had been preparing to break the ceasefire when the tsunami intervened. Curiously Rajapakse chose to interpret the speech as "extending the hand of friendship", heartened that Prabhakaran had described the new President as a "practical and pragmatic" leader and had not announced an immediate return to hostilities.

As indicated the situation on the ground has deteriorated rapidly since these initial post-election policy pronouncements. In anticipation of a resumption of attacks in Colombo, Security Forces have been mounting search operations followed by large numbers of arrests in areas heavily populated by Tamils. In the past the LTTE regularly sent "Black Tigers" (suicide bombers) to the capital to attack political, civilian and economic targets. An attack on the Central Bank building in 1996 killed over a hundred and the attack on Bandaranaike International Airport in 2001 destroyed military aircraft and - with serious economic consequences - half the fleet of Sri Lankan Airlines. Unless the peace process can be resuscitated these attacks are likely to resume, as are large set piece battlefield confrontations between the Tigers and armed forces.

The respected defence analyst Iqbal Athas who writes for the Colombo Sunday Times and Jane's Defence Weekly has warned that the country is heading back to war:

If the attacks go on there will come a time when the army has to retaliate.
The Head of the SLMM has observed that:
war may not be far away.
As the New Year commences it is hard to keep pace with the fresh acts of violence committed by both sides. Cadres from anti-LTTE Tamil groups have been abducted and murdered. The LTTE has accused an army Deep Penetration Unit of infiltrating its territory and assassinating Major Jeyanthan, a senior rebel, in what it has described as the gravest cease-fire violation yet. A group of five Tamil youths in Trincomolee have been shot dead. Initially the army accused them of being LTTE cadres who had accidentally blown themselves up with their own grenade. The LTTE and TNA insist the SLA shot them and autopsies have indeed determined that the five died from gunshot wounds. The defence ministry has announced an inquiry and tension in the East coast town is very high. A Tamil businessman has been shot dead in the Capital in what is thought to have been a political killing. Each day brings news of fresh violence and it appears that the situation is spiralling out of control.

In Thailand the destruction wrought by the tsunami has been seen as an opportunity to rebuild, and reconstruction has proceeded rapidly often improving upon what had been lost. Although the 130 year conflict in Aceh was thought more intractable than Sri Lanka's 22 year civil war, the tsunami has proved the catalyst for a peace agreement between the Indonesian Government and Acehnese separatists. Sadly natural disaster in Sri Lanka has served to compound man made miseries. Opportunities to foster trust and reconciliation have been squandered in a depressingly cavalier fashion and it is hard to envisage a better opportunity to heal ethnic divisions presenting itself. If peace is to be salvaged it will require a willingness on both sides to make concessions that are distasteful and entail risk but there is little indication that either side is prepared to move beyond their deeply entrenched and mutually incompatible positions.

Conflict resolution can be assisted but cannot be imposed from outside. There is a danger that through exasperation and constant rebuff the interest of the international community in the islands plight may dissipate, according to the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister:

interest is already beginning to melt at the edges.
Prospects for an internally generated settlement are extremely bleak. While it is possible to be critical of the double-think and brutality of the LTTE there has been little emanating from the Southern Polity to lure the Tigers back to negotiation. The new President has limited room for manoeuvre given his dependence on the JVP and JHU. Rajapakse is an arch political opportunist and is not generally regarded as being irredeemably dogmatic, but only by accepting the UNP's offer to support peace efforts would he have sufficient support within the Sinhalese community to moderate his avowed hard line stance.

Sri Lanka should be a resplendent nation but is saddled with a political culture that has engendered enmity and immiseration. The island is well acquainted with the waste and savagery of war and tragically it is on the cusp of a renewed conflict that may be more intense than what has gone before. It is to be earnestly hoped that this not the fate that awaits the Sri Lankan people in 2006 but urgent avoiding action is imperative and the auguries are not good.

To read Clifford Bastin's previous reports from Sri Lanka, see Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.


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A sobering piece. I know that there are many organisaitons trying to effect change in a part of the world that, because of the attention grabbing crises elsewhere is not getting the attention it deserves.

Posted by: yoyosan at January 19, 2006 06:27 PM
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