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Sri Lanka's Opportunity of a Generation: Challenges Loom, but the Biggest Obstacle is Gone

Part 2 of a 5-part article about what the Sri Lankan Government should do to rebuild its country after nearly 30 years of civil war, and why the rest of the world has a stake in Sri Lanka's success.

Tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils have existed for several centuries, but they became especially heightened after Sri Lanka’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. In the next decade, acts passed by the Sinhalese-controlled Sri Lankan parliament denied citizenship and suffrage to the minority Tamils(1) and made Sinhalese the sole official language(2) of Sri Lanka. State-sponsored Sinhalese settlement of Tamil areas further worsened tensions between the two ethnicities(3). The dissatisfaction of the marginalized Tamils naturally provided fertile breeding ground for Tamil militant nationalist groups, like the LTTE, in the 1970s.

However, by 2003 the Tamils and their language had been legally incorporated into Sri Lanka, and Sinhalese settlement of Tamil areas had slowed(4). It then fell to the LTTE – the self-proclaimed defender of the Tamils and their rights – to facilitate reconciliation between the two ethnic groups and work with the government toward a permanent political settlement.

Instead, the LTTE disrupted attempts at lasting peace and actively worked to prolong the civil war. It assassinated scores of Tamil politicians and undermined any Tamil political party that was attempting to steer a course separate from LTTE aims(5). Ceasefires with the government were agreed upon out of convenience rather than a genuine desire to resolve the conflict. The LTTE used such ceasefires to rearm and regroup and would break them at opportune moments; in 2006, for example, the LTTE’s attempt to stop the flow of water out of a major reservoir that supplied government-controlled villages(6) ended the 2002 Norwegian-brokered peace accords(7), which were perhaps the closest the conflict ever came to a peaceful resolution.

Ultimately, the LTTE became a parasite of the civil war, making it an obstacle rather than a potential means to a peaceful settlement. With the military capability of the LTTE destroyed, this obstacle has been removed, providing an opportunity for a lasting resolution to the conflict.

For the Sri Lankan government, the task ahead will not be easy. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, mainly Tamils, remain displaced and need to be resettled. Much of the north remains damaged from the closing offensive of the war and needs to be repaired and rebuilt(8). Moreover, the Tamils are still uncertain of their place in a country controlled by a Sinhalese majority, and their concerns will need to be addressed to ensure that the recently-ended civil war will be Sri Lanka’s last. But while the current challenges are tough, they will only get harder with time, and they are certainly easier now than they were when the LTTE was still at large.

Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in the May 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

(3) Ibid.

This post first appeared on Forum For Foreign Affairs, please read the originial post: here

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Sri Lanka's Opportunity of a Generation: Challenges Loom, but the Biggest Obstacle is Gone


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