Patching Up Paradise

Patching Up Paradise

Sri Lanka Struggles to Recover from Conflict and Disaster.


The port city of Galle fronts the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island nation in the Indian Ocean. Gleaming on a promontory in the bright sun, the whitewashed buildings and stooped palm trees of its Fort neighborhood shelter a quiet landscape of pedestrians, shops, stray dogs, and courtyard gardens. They are ringed by massive stone walls that daily fend off waves, as they have for the 400 years since European colonists first began construction.

Though the fort walls have witnessed many assaults, two recent ones are not easily forgotten: in December 2004, pulses of water from the Indian Ocean tsunami reached this area, suddenly flooding nearby markets at the height of a holiday shopping day and killing thousands. About two years later, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked a nearby naval base, abruptly bringing the country's unresolved civil war uncomfortably close to this World Heritage Site.

The cultural treasures of Galle (pronounced "Gaul") should be natural draws for tourists from around the world. But Sri Lanka tourism promoters face a special challenge: convincing foreign tourists that it is safe to visit. During more than two decades of civil war, in which government forces dominated by the ethnic majority Sinhalese fought to suppress LTTE factions, Sri Lanka's tourism industry has lost more than US$6.3 billion in potential revenues. A 2002 ceasefire brought respite from the fighting, but the ceasefire fell apart in 2006 and the violence and unrest returned. Thanks in large part to Western government advisories, fear is once again keeping foreign tourists away from the palm-studded beaches and coral reefs of Sri Lanka's southern coast, as well as its hill temples and ancient spiritual sites.

In reality, most of the violence is in the north and east, where the LTTE has carved out a de facto separate state. But in recent months, the Tigers have also attacked Galle harbor, an oil refinery in Colombo, and Katunayake Air Force Base, which adjoins the country's only international airport. Bomb attacks against buses have also terrorized civilians, and kidnappings are increasingly common.

So to visit Colombo is to enter a bustling seaside capital city dotted with camouflaged checkpoints, from which uniformed policemen and military officers keep watch on all major roads. From the checkpoints' sandbagged walls, gunbarrels point unflinchingly at passing pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. Most military installations are surrounded by high fences and layers of barbed wire. Even the facades of government buildings are off limits to camera-wielding visitors.

It was within this context that we embarked on a series of interviews and site visits during a research visit in January 2007. We wanted to better understand the rapidly changing situation in a country still recovering from arguably the most devastating natural disaster in recent history, and now sliding toward renewed civil war as well. In a situation so volatile that it could barely be accurately reported in most desk analyses, we saw firsthand how the work of political analysts, aid workers, and foreign diplomats was redefined almost daily by the changing security conditions.

Our colleagues shared a common, and increasingly ingrained, sentiment about the war: things would likely get far worse before they might get any better. Moments of hope that Sri Lanka's long-festering conflict could finally be resolved-first in 2002, when the ceasefire was signed, and then again after the December 2004 tsunami triggered spontaneous acts of solidarity across the dividing lines-had faded.

A "Lightning Rod" for Conflict

The origins of Sri Lanka's current plight are more than half a century old. After the country (then called Ceylon) regained independence from Britain in 1948, a series of governments dominated by the majority Sinhalese sought to correct what officials regarded as preferential British treatment for the ethnic minority Tamils, which constitute 15 percent of the population. Tamils perceived such post-colonial language, educational, and religious policies to be discriminatory, and with successive governments seemingly unwilling to redress their grievances, Tamil politics became increasingly radicalized. By 1983, assassinations, communal riots, and state repression led to civil war. By the late 1980s, the separatist LTTE had risen to prominence using ruthless tactics against other Tamil groups. The Tamil Tigers became notorious for their suicide bombings, forcible recruitment of child soldiers, and brazen attacks. In two decades of fighting, at least 60,000 people died and more than 21,000 were reported missing. Both the LTTE and government forces committed severe human rights violations.

When Ranil Wickremasinghe was elected prime minister in late 2001, he brought with him the first glimmer of peace in more than a decade, having secretly begun negotiations with the LTTE prior to his election. Wickremasinghe quickly orchestrated a ceasefire in February 2002, with Norway playing a key role as mediator.

But the 2002 ceasefire did not presage lasting peace. In fact, it was arguably driven more by a military stalemate and the pressures of a severe economic crisis than by readiness for a true political compromise. The ceasefire was also fatally flawed in two ways. First, it focused narrowly on the two main actors-the prime minister's governing party and the LTTE-and failed to build a strong constituency in favor of peace. Second, it ignored the fractious nature of Sri Lanka's population groups. All ethnic groups are marked by important internal divisions, and significant portions panned the ceasefire-especially those politicians, paramilitary groups, and businesses that profited materially or politically from the conflict.

On top of it all, the government's free-market policies, which were urged by international donors, constituted another de facto obstacle to peace, as poorer sections of society experienced economic hardship during the years of the ceasefire. In general, "the peace process acted as a ‘lightning rod' for wider political and societal tensions," concluded Jonathan Goodhand and Bart Klem in a 2005 study from the Asia Foundation.

By the time the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, two years after the ceasefire began, many people feared a seemingly imminent return to warfare. The Tigers had pulled out of ongoing negotiations, ostensibly over a political snub but more likely out of worry that peace might endanger the group's iron grip over Tamil society in the Northeast. Indeed, in March 2004, the dynamics shifted significantly when the LTTE's eastern commander defected and the new Tamil Karuna faction challenged the LTTE in a shadow war. The following month, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe's government was defeated at the polls by a hard-line candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse.

Brief Calm

The tsunami killed half as many people in one day as had been killed in 20 years of civil war, and the visual effects remain, even after more than two years of recovery, regrowth, and reconstruction. With little or no warning, fishers and tourists alike were swept from beaches around the east and south coasts of the island. One can only imagine the emotional scars that persist as well. In Colombo, which was largely spared, residents and tourists clambered to higher ground to watch the incoming waves and wait for some clarity amid the chaos.

While we hear about the remarkable international response to the disaster, the incredible outpouring of domestic generosity was less publicized. Factories in Colombo reportedly shut, workers were mobilized to provide relief, and a stream of trucks was dispatched to badly affected areas. Some Sri Lankans reminisce about this three-week period immediately after the tsunami as a time when there seemed to be no divisions. The country suddenly faced an unprecedented opportunity to use relief and recovery efforts as a means to promote reconciliation.

Such popular expressions of goodwill, however, were short-lived. Moreover, they were not meaningfully reinforced by politicians, who proved largely unresponsive to public opinion polls indicating a strong preference for peaceful conflict resolution. When then-President Chandrika Kumaratunge prevented then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan from visiting tsunami-affected areas held by the Tigers-a highly symbolic rebuff-Sinhalese hardliners hailed the decision as her finest moment.

Within weeks, the honeymoon was over and rifts emerged over the vast sums of international aid that poured into Sri Lanka. The LTTE funneled outside funds and private donations through its Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, a reportedly efficient aid mechanism that aggressively took control of many camps housing tsunami victims. There were credible reports of LTTE recruiting children who lived in these camps.

Control over aid distribution became an intensely political issue, closely interwoven with the question of how Sri Lanka should be governed. Prompted by international donors, the government and LTTE did agree to an aid-sharing agreement (the so-called Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure, or P-TOMS) in June 2005. But Sri Lanka's Supreme Court quickly ruled some provisions unconstitutional and suspended the agreement. P-TOMS was effectively abandoned after Prime Minister Rajapakse won presidential elections in December 2005.

Such developments reinforce the fact that aid may not be effectively mixed with other motives, such as peacemaking. Though there has been international donor pressure regarding the conflict and Sri Lanka's human rights practices, for example, it remains unclear how much power the donors really have. Several analysts we interviewed stressed that aid is not as important for Sri Lanka as some donors might like to believe, given, for example, that Sri Lankans living abroad send back remittances. The LTTE, meanwhile, has proven skilled at mobilizing financial support from the international Tamil community.

And it is not clear that international donors have a cohesive goal. Japan, the most important donor, is not following the same policy as Western governments, nor is India, and Sri Lanka is able to rely on the support of a range of other countries. It has received soft loans for military purposes from China, and has purchased jet fighters from Israel even as it maintains good relations with the Arab world.

At present, President Rajapakse aims to resolve the conflict through military victory. His government felt encouraged in taking a hard line by the fact that in 2006 Canada and the European Union decided to do what India, the United States, and Britain had done earlier: designate the LTTE as a terrorist organization. (This despite the fact that earlier this year, the U.S. ambassador disavowed his interest in a military solution to Sri Lanka's conflict.)

On paper, the 2002 ceasefire still exists; on the ground, it means little to either the government or the LTTE. An estimated 5,800 people have been killed between January 2006 and June 2007. The ceasefire had originally allowed some 436,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return home. But since April 2006, more than 300,000 people have been freshly displaced (see chart).

The government portrays its renewed military campaign as one of self-defense against terrorists, denying the need to address underlying grievances. Those skeptical of such claims and worried about the corrosive consequences for democracy are denounced as LTTE sympathizers. The February 2007 "Peace Confidence Index" published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives shows only 46 percent of Sinhalese in favor of peace talks, while support for a military defeat of the LTTE grew from 26 to 35 percent in just four months.

Tiptoeing Across the Aid Divide

Following the major coastal highway south, in village after village tsunami ruins sit next to newly finished houses. The highway is literally lined with signs announcing rebuilding projects funded and staffed by organizations from around the world. Twenty-six months post-disaster, about 77,000 houses had been built, 65 percent of the number required. Each sign has been jostled into place for maximum visibility along the road, reflecting the rifts between organizations fighting for beneficiaries in relatively easy-to-reach areas.

Looking just under the surface of the rebuilding reports, we see vast regional differences. The southern districts of Galle, Matara, Kalutara, and Hambantota have fared very well, slightly exceeding the reconstruction targets. But the conflict-affected areas lag behind, with 41 percent of reconstruction yet to be completed in the Eastern Province (as of March 1, 2007), and 72 percent unfinished in the North.

The Northeast, already saddled with weak public services and poor infrastructure, is increasingly difficult to access due to the conflict and has far weaker political representation and influence in Colombo. An added obstacle is the double, or even triple, taxation of reconstruction materials as they enter or exit areas controlled by the government, LTTE, and Karuna factions.

Inevitably, there are perceptions and allegations of bias in the allocation of reconstruction aid, and the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery did find some significant inequities in the amount and quality of shelter, food, and compensation payments provided. The government's own data show that as of December 2006 the eastern Ampara District had sustained 24 percent of all housing damage but received only 14 percent of reconstruction funds. Such discrepancies can quickly fuel ethnically charged allegations of favoritism or neglect.

These developments and perceptions need to be seen against broader trends, however. Virtually all economic growth over the past 20 years has been concentrated in the Western Province, a result both of the civil war and deliberate government economic policies. While the region around Colombo features a world market-connected economy, the South has reacted with resentment to its relative misfortune. Large parts of the North and East, meanwhile, are desperately poor.

The twin blows of the tsunami and the resumed conflict have meant that aid groups must shift from proactive longterm development projects to more subsistence-oriented relief work. Just getting food, medicines, and other supplies to those in need is increasingly difficult because of closed roads, checkpoints, and violence and intimidation against aid workers. As escalating fighting triggers a humanitarian crisis, civil society is squeezed into a rapidly vanishing slice of political space.

Animosity toward both local and international nongovernmental organizations is boiling over. Colombo newspapers regularly carry inflammatory articles warning against the sinister motives of NGOs, certain foreign governments, and the United Nations. The government has threatened to expel "white Tigers" (foreign NGOs tarred as LTTE collaborators). Aid workers we spoke with referred to the case of the Dutch group ZOA-Refugee Care, which was falsely accused of aiding the LTTE. And fresh in all minds is the murder of 17 local workers employed by French group Action Contre la Faim, executed in the eastern village of Muttur in August 2006.

Amid these difficulties, select local NGOs have fared better. Mahinda da Silva, senior advisor at the Sewalanka Foundation, explained that his group has managed to avoid a politicization of its aid work through fastidious communication with both the government and the rebels. With a combination of Sinhalese and Tamil workers, Sewalanka notifies the appropriate forces of their movements anytime staff travels to a disputed area or to Colombo.

Sarvodaya, a Sri Lanka-based NGO that works in 10,000 villages across the country, has focused on resident-level exchanges to overcome ethnic and linguistic barriers. It runs an exchange program called "Village to Village, Heart to Heart" that brings together Sri Lankans from diverse (and often conflict-divided) parts of the island. In paired villages, residents travel to help each other with manual tasks while gaining an understanding of common interests and needs.

Along the south coast, aid groups seem to have considerably fewer worries. In tsunami-devastated communities, many of which focused on processing coconut husks (or coir) into value-added products, the waves wreaked havoc on basic machinery and destroyed raw materials. Several microfinance programs have proved successful in helping families recover. We spoke with Amal Kumar Pramanik, regional manager of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). Thousands of BRAC loans of around $100 to tsunami survivors and their neighbors support a variety of businesses, mostly related to restarting coir processing, lace-making, and other handicrafts, and retail sales of fruits and vegetables. As we met with several loan recipients at their homes in the small town of Devinuwara, they proudly showed their finished products, and often expressed interest in taking out additional loans. A modest man with a ready smile, Amal beamed when he told us that the loans he manages boast a nearly 100-percent repayment rate.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administers another effective program, under the acronym "Strong Places," that supports community-based organizations at a time when most international aid tends to flow through a select group of large national NGOs. Convinced that local grassroots organizations can play key roles in recovery and future disaster prevention, UNDP provides seed funding to build capacity at this level.

UNDP field officer Niel Kusumsiri took us to visit three such organizations around the southern district of Matara, each composed of women from clustered villages. Sitting on benches or swept ground, children in hand, many of the women described how they utilize UNDP funds to buy raw materials to kick-start small businesses. When we asked them what they hope to eventually do, they described founding women-run coir-processing mills or building community meeting spaces where they could more comfortably hold their biweekly meetings. The groups' determination to improve their families' lives by working together rang through every remark as they described setbacks and achievements.

Northwest of Matara District, a carefully planned cluster of houses occupies a vacant hilltop above a rubber plantation. On land donated by the central government, identical dwellings are set back slightly from the road, skirted by verandas and small vegetable and spice gardens. A central common area houses a library, a pre-school, and a Buddhist shrine. Although the roads are unpaved, the houses are modest inside, and there are no cars in view, the tsunami-affected families now living there say they are happy with their new homes. Each has a small solar panel mounted on the roof, every two or three houses share a terracotta rainwater harvesting tank, and the community recycles its waste.

Billed as an eco-village by the founding NGO, Sarvodaya, the community offers refuge for 55 families of tsunami survivors whose homes at the coast were washed away. The banana plants and palms are still too small to offer any shade against the sweltering sun, and supplying this community with drinking water-not to mention the ability to find livelihoods-is a major challenge. Many of the people resettled here were fishermen, and they now find themselves marooned some four kilometers inland, without a reliable or affordable means of transportation to the sea. And so the village offers both hope and a sense of the ongoing challenges for those who survived the onslaught of the waves.

Lost Opportunity

We left Sri Lanka chilled by the recognition that many colleagues, aid workers, and journalists take their lives in their hands through their work. Since our return, the capital has been plunged into blackouts, disappearances have increased, and there are indications that Tamils are being expelled en masse from Colombo.

Rather than becoming an opportunity for a breakthrough in favor of peace, the tsunami amplified Sri Lanka's conflict dynamics. The country's recent trajectory has diverged dramatically from that of Indonesia's Aceh province, which also suffered a double blow from the tsunami and a long-standing armed conflict. As soon as the waves receded in December 2004, observers expressed hope that the urgent relief and rebuilding needs in both places would awaken a spirit of cooperation to overcome decades of violence and hatred. That is indeed what happened in Aceh (see "Unexpected Promise," World Watch, November/December 2006).

But Sri Lanka's experience underlines the fact that goodwill does not easily or automatically overcome ingrained polarization. The cold calculus of political or material benefit from violence, which motivates the island's dominant actors, will take years to overcome. Courageous leadership is needed to address core conflict causes and build the foundations for a stable peace. Whereas Indonesia's leaders grasped the tsunami's unique opportunity to drive forward a broader process of democratization, Sri Lanka is in danger of a reverse process: one in which endless conflict will erode its democracy and undermine its economy. While grassroots efforts, such as those we visited along Sri Lanka's southern coast, hold temporary promise for the hundreds or thousands of people that they reach, a similarly innovative approach to the entire country's future is needed if peace is to reign once again on this island.


Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at Worldwatch Institute. Zoë Chafe is a research associate at Worldwatch. They traveled to Sri Lanka in January 2007 to assess the country's post-disaster experiences and better understand the effects of the civil violence there.