It is four years since the end of the brutal war between government forces and the now militarily defeated Tamil Tigers (LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The expected peace dividend however, including a much anticipated investment boom, has not materialised. The general population have come to see the seeds of a new war being sown. Why has the international community - especially former colonial power Britain, key stakeholder India, and major investor China - failed to create a framework of incentives for peace ?
Visit Jaffna, Vavunia, Trincomalee and Batticaloa towards the middle of 2013, as I did recently, and the depressing path of the war's aftermath is clear to see. New roads and bridges have been built (to ease, locals say, control from Colombo), but much of the North & East remains in a state of dereliction. (The last time I was in Batti, it was being bombed). Makeshift camps for the 90,000 displaced still dot the smaller roads in the northern countryside.
Whilst many of the crumbling houses are due to fled, evicted or deceased owners, the absence of any signs of 'renewal' is deeply shocking. In these cities the tensions are palpable. There are none of the occasional signs of modernity which have become manifest in the rest of Sri Lanka over the last decade. Mine clearing has been fast but the return to agriculture has been painfully slow. Countless times I was pulled into houses in the North and told in hushed tones by families gathered, of land grabs by military personnel and confiscations by well-connected regime loyalists. Glum and silent faces on sweaty 60's era public buses sighed at me despairingly and whispered of trouble to come.
A key expectation of the international community since the war was that political and economic power would be devolved to the North and East - amidst generally reduced centralisation, and a more relaxed and open polity. In addition, gestures and practical measures were expected to consolidate Sri Lanka as an ethnically inclusive state. After a third of a century of war, these steps were needed to show that Sri Lankan society had outlived the need for military protection for Tamils, Muslims and other minorities.
Instead, the Rajapaksa government has taken only token steps to treat Tamils and others as equal citizens, or to accept long-standing demands for autonomy in the North and East. An independent judiciary is a key peace-building measure and necessary for increased investment, but the regime's attacks on the judiciary (eg a clearly politically motivated impeachment of the Chief Justice) and crackdowns on the opposition and moderate Tamil politicians, have taken the country in the other direction. Relations with the UN have soured. The regime has yet to comply with the terms of the 2012 Human Rights Council resolution on 'Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka'. On the contrary, the President has made speeches imploring the young to be proud of Sri Lanka 'as a Buddhist State'.
In September 2010 presidential term limits were removed and the independence of government oversight bodies was severely curtailed. Land grabs have accompanied a continuation of military rule in the North and East. The President and his two brothers, Defence Secretary Gotabaya and Economic Development Minister Basilower have made it clear that more power will be transferred to centrally-run authorities and to the military governor of the northern province, retired Major General G. Chandrasiri - who has already issued regulations restricting UN organisations.
The 'Three Brothers' and their military colleagues seem determined to enjoy 'the spoils of war' rather than consolidate long term peace & prosperity, regardless of the consequences. Only the international community can halt the slide to a rekindling of the conflict. With the UN under siege it is time for the UK to step forward. The UK as former colonial power in some senses contributed to the fissures which have dogged the country since independence. The UK also stands to benefit from a peace dividend if it manages to reverse the downward slide. Action is needed now.