Sri Lanka holds a series of ceremonies this week to mark the first anniversary of the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels and the end of a quarter-century of civil war. The return of peace has generated widespread optimism in the island nation, but concerns remain that ethnic reconciliation remains an elusive goal.
Tourists are flocking into Colombo and other beach resorts on the Indian Ocean island. Hotels are packed and many businesses are formulating expansion plans.
Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Hotels, calls it a “fantastic time” in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil guerrillas were crushed last May after a prolonged military campaign. “The first four months, up to end April, has been the best ever. We have had situations in February where we could not handle the business that was coming to the country. So, if this continues, 2010 is going to be one of the best years Sri Lanka has experienced in tourism,” Cooray said.
The fear of terrorism and suicide bombings by a ruthless guerilla group, which fought for an independent homeland for the minority Tamil community, has vanished. Efforts are under way to rebuild the Tamil-dominated north, where the guerrillas were based and which was devastated by the war. Tens of thousands of war refugees have returned from camps to their villages.
The powerful president of the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government crafted the campaign which crushed the guerillas, has been re-elected by a huge majority. His party has a firm grip on parliament. He has identified development and reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils as key goals.
But despite the calm, key concerns remain. Some political analysts say the two communities continue to be polarized and not enough has been done to bridge the country’s ethnic divide. They feel the issues which stoked the civil war, such as sharing of power between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, are not getting sufficient attention.
Critics also point to some controversial steps taken by the government, such as the bulldozing of cemeteries of the Tamil Tigers. The government says it is erasing rebel landmarks because it wants people to put the past behind them.
But the head of peace advocacy group, National Peace Council, Jehan Perera says this decision has stoked anger in the Tamil community. “This is a very difficult, complicated question, because those cemeteries that have been bulldozed also contain the remains of children of Tamil people, children who may have been forcibly recruited. As a result of these actions there is I think a lot of dissatisfaction among the Tamil people which those in the south, in the rest of the country, the Sinhalese majority, and maybe in the government are not so sensitive to,” Perera said. “But which are not going to be conducive to the type of reconciliation we need in our country.”
Human rights groups accuse the government of being intolerant of dissent. They say the government threatened journalists and activists, which the government denies.
Many people see the detention of General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the troops in the war against the rebels, as an example of intimidation of opponents. After unsuccessfully challenging the president in the January elections, the general now faces court martial because of allegedly planning his entry into politics while still in power, and for improper procurement.
Perera says a climate of uncertainty still persists, and people are not sure about the real attitude of the government. “There is a uncertainty about how much tolerance there is and how far dissent can go. There is a long way for this country to go before people feel, before all people feel that they are safe and that their interests are being looked after.”
However, despite such concerns, many people are reaping a peace dividend, a year after the war ended. They crowd markets, travel to the north and are optimistic about the government’s promise to rebuild the country into an economic powerhouse.
Cooray explains the mood, “That is just purely because of the confidence the people are having, the freedom to spend, freedom to travel, all that has changed the way Sri Lankans look at life here.”
The Tamil Tigers were one of the world’s most ruthless guerilla outfits. At the height of their power, they controlled nearly a third of the island’s territory and virtually ran their own state in the north.