Demilitarizing Sri Lanka

Demilitarizing Sri Lanka

The South Asian island nation may take its biggest step yet toward reconciliation


Sri Lanka’s tourism officials paint a picture of their sunbaked island that evokes images of the world’s finest getaways. Visitors bask in “nearly 1,600 kilometers of palm-fringed coastline,” making Sri Lanka the “ideal destination for beach bums worldwide,” the tourism website boasts.

It’s a bold image makeover for a nation that spent nearly a quarter of a century waging a bloody civil war that left 100,000 dead and many of those beaches unreachable. Now, eight years after the war’s end and as tourists return, Sri Lanka embarks upon possibly its most important journey toward peace —
getting the military out of
daily civilian life.

Sri Lanka’s announcement in July 2016 that it plans to demilitarize the country by 2018 could dramatically improve civilian life and boost international acceptance of the country’s government, experts say.

There’s only one catch: It has to follow through.

“Any time you have a military presence, you are still on a war footing,” Alyssa Ayers, senior South Asia fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, told FORUM. “The military activities extend into commercial enterprises, and that chokes off opportunities for the private sector.”

Legacies of War

Large deployments of the Sri Lankan Army have remained in the island’s north and east since the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatists and the majority Sinhalese government ended in 2009, according to Agence France-Presse.

Not only were military forces policing the country, they were deeply ensconced in private enterprise, running everything from luxury hotels and beauty parlors to retail stores.

Tourists relax at the world-famous resort city of Hikkaduwa, which is known for its beautiful beaches and has attracted international visitors since the 1970s. [istock]

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in July 2016 that the military already had relinquished some businesses and would completely withdraw from private industry by 2018, Agence France-Presse reported. Former military leaders also have been replaced by civilian governors in two turbulent provinces, he said.

The military-owned enterprises forced many small-scale vendors out of business and drew criticism from the United Nations. “It’s time to open it up to the private sector and let entrepreneurship bloom,” Ayers said.

Now, as the military pledges to become less visible in civilian life, the government faces an even bigger challenge. It must investigate members of the government and military — on both sides of the conflict — for human rights abuses.

In 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a consensus resolution that called for Sri Lanka to include foreign participation in these probes. Sri Lanka has started to address some points of that resolution, but it has been cool to the idea of foreign oversight.

Its recent announcements include:

Sri Lanka established an Office of Missing Persons to look for people who were never found after the conflict ended in 2009. Although critics assailed the government for a lack of transparency in setting up this office, it has been welcomed by some relatives of the missing, according to Reuters. Sri Lanka acknowledged in June 2016 for the first time that as many as 65,000 people were missing from its war with Tamil Tiger rebels and a separate Marxist insurrection. In a September 2016 report to the U.N., Sri Lanka said it would give the Missing Persons Office its own witness protection unit to encourage wary relatives to come forward.

Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva said the government decided to sign the 1997 U.N. treaty banning the use and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. Sri Lanka had been among a few dozen nations to resist the treaty, known as the Ottawa Convention. “We decided to sign the Ottawa Convention because we have no intention of going to war again,” de Silva told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.

The Sri Lankan government in September 2016 also told the U.N. that it amended death certificate laws to allow for “certificates of absence.” These certificates allow families of missing people to apply for benefits under social welfare programs. They also allow them to temporarily manage the property and assets of the missing person and act as provisional guardians for dependent children.

Sri Lanka also said it plans to have a special court set up in 2017 to begin hearing allegations of war crimes.

Ayers contends the Sri Lankan people want to move forward expeditiously with all of these efforts. She points to a December 2011 report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which said Sri Lanka’s government should do all it can to locate missing people and bring human rights violators to justice.

“There is an urgent need to assist the victims and their families to overcome the trauma they suffered due to the conflict, and to bring the perpetrators of any human rights violations to justice,” the LLRC report said. “There is also the essential need to ensure that lessons from these past incidents be learnt in a manner that they will never be repeated again.”

These recommendations didn’t come from the U.N., Ayers noted. “These are recommendations from Sri Lankans.”

Gaining Respect

The tilt toward democracy is yielding some diplomatic bounty. The U.S. and Canada, both sharply critical of human rights violations during the war, have embraced Sri Lanka’s steps toward good governance.

Atul Keshap, U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, said the 2015 elections encouraged the U.S. to work with Sri Lanka in many areas, including development programs, demining activities and human rights training, according to a report in the Colombo Gazette online newspaper. “We are working to strengthen our relationship with all of the different facets of the Sri Lankan government, including the military, because we believe that a professional military is essential to the development and the success of any viable democracy,” Keshap said.

Canada, which has one of the world’s largest expatriate communities of Tamils, also appears to be warming to the island nation. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion visited Sri Lanka in July 2016, officially re-engaging a government his country had sharply criticized after the war. Canada said it downgraded relations with Sri Lanka following the war because Tamils continued to face persecution after the conflict was over.

Many of Canada’s estimated 200,000 Tamils said they welcome the re-engagement but want Canada to push Sri Lanka to show more respect for minority rights, according to a report by The Canadian Press, a multimedia news agency. “It’s a good step in the right direction, but we want more to be done,” said David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress.

Investing In Paradise

Sri Lanka’s lush landscape permeated popular culture long before the country’s recent reconciliation efforts.

The English new wave band Duran Duran, which helped revolutionize music video in the 1980s, filmed Hungry Like a Wolf and Save a Prayer in Sri Lanka while the civil war still raged. The videos featured band members running through jungles, playing with elephants and visiting ornate temples. “Tourism is a huge revenue boost for Sri Lanka,” Ayers said. “It is a spectacularly beautiful country.”

Investors are taking notice. To bring visitors to lush spice gardens, tea plantations and those world-class beaches, international hotel chains have come back to the teardrop-shaped island in droves. Outside investment, however, isn’t limited to tourism.

India remains one of the largest foreign investors in Sri Lanka, contributing U.S. $844 million in investments between 2005 and 2015, according to Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment. These investments are in multiple sectors, including petroleum, technology, financial services, real estate, tourism, food processing, tires, cement, glass manufacturing and infrastructure. India further pledged to invest U.S. $2 billion in Sri Lanka over four years, and it supports a plan to link the countries’ electricity grids to improve the reliability and stability of the Sri Lanka power supply.

China investors also are turning to Sri Lanka, most notably by financing the Colombo Port City Project, a U.S. $1.4 billion reclamation and development project, according to media reports. When completed, about 252 hectares of reclaimed land will be turned into a sustainable lifestyle hub where affluent people can work and live. The project is expected to generate more than 80,000 jobs and will include a marina, yacht club, sea view apartment complex, five-star hotel, shopping center, office space and miniature golf.

Colombo Port City was conceived by Sri Lanka but is now completely financed by China. Colombo Port City is intended to make this logistical heartland into something more than just a place to transship containers. It is designed to be a major financial center, rivaling Singapore to the east and Dubai to the west, providing direct access to the markets of the Indian subcontinent while boosting Sri Lanka’s intake of foreign capital and increasing local employment in the process, according to Forbes magazine.

Skepticism Remains

As Ayers pointed out, the path toward good governance includes transparency and follow-through. Many ethnic Tamils have criticized the reconciliation process as too slow and too secretive.

More than 100,000 Tamils can’t access their homes because they were either destroyed by fighting or their land is still occupied by the military, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

During a September 2016 visit to the island, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration for taking steps to address human rights abuses, but he added that more can be done — and it can be done more quickly.

“I also urge you to speed up the return of land so that the remaining communities of displaced people can return home,” he said, according to a report by Channel NewsAsia. “In parallel, the size of the military force in the North and East could be reduced, helping to build trust and reduce tensions.”

Ban said more progress in addressing human rights abuses would help restore the country’s international reputation.

“Sri Lanka is still in the early stages of regaining its rightful position in the region and the international community,” he said.