Sri Lanka has been struggling with civil strife since 1983, largely without help from the rest of the world. Two events last year dramatically changed the country’s situation: the attack on the United States on Sept. 11 and the election of a new government in Sri Lanka in October. Formal peace talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam begin today in Thailand. But even if these talks go well, the nation needs further help from the outside if it is to translate the gain made so far into lasting peace.
Sept. 11 focused the attention of America and the world on South Asia and terrorist movements. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe took a bold decision to campaign for election seeking a mandate to end the civil war through negotiation, rather than by military force. Given the loss of 60,000 lives in the preceding 20 years, the decision was a realistic and pragmatic one, but politically unacceptable to those who looked upon it as motivated by a policy of appeasement. In the end, a war-weary electorate responded by endorsing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s fresh approach, effectively confirming their support for it in local government elections some months later, when Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Front won handsomely.
The UNF government’s achievements to date have been considerable. Through a pragmatic, step-by-step approach, Mr. Wickremesinghe has, with the assistance of the Norwegian government, concluded a permanent cease-fire agreement, signed on Feb. 22. As confidence among the protagonist continues to build, tensions between ethnic groups have subsided and there have been few serious infractions of the agreement. A large number of lives have already been saved and untold property damage avoided.
The Prime Minister’s recent visit to the U.S. and his meetings with President George W. Bush and senior leaders were encouraging. Their support for the government’s initiative was manifest in the arrival in Sri Lanka soon after of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the first high-level visitor from the U.S. in nearly 20 years.
If the government has thus far been successful, it must now be on its guard to avoid becoming a victim of that very success. Many seem to believe that the cease-fire has brought the country peace. They would be wrong. Peace lies at the end of long, hard negotiations that are just beginning. Yet now that hostilities have ended, the people have high expectations that peace will instantly bring prosperity. While these hopes are unrealistic, it is the government’s duty to alleviate the hardships to which its people became inured during the years of war as quickly as possible.
Donors hesitate, awaiting the arrival of peace to release their funds, but the lack of funds now endangers the peace process.
On at least one matter the government and the LTTE are in agreement: Economic and social development will be the key to a lasting peace along with a viable devolution arrangement which meets the aspirations of all Sri Lankans. Losing no time, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has initiated a plan for the country’s redevelopment, calling it “Re-gaining Sri Lanka. “The plan provides for the stabilization and growth of the economy, to be balanced by efforts to produce a “peace dividend”, or the tangible benefits of peace, as soon as possible.
The task before the government is a formidable one. As it sets about implementing an extremely challenging stabilization program prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank, hard work and patience will be called for as we embark upon the processes of reconstruction. But that won’t be enough. Fresh resources will be needed to fund massive programs to resettle some one million internally displaced persons as well as those who fled the country because of the war, and to assist in their rehabilitation, which would include providing housing, schools and employment. The task of removing some 1.5 million anti-personnel mines too will require funds and technologies that lie beyond our capabilities.
With the country’s economy shattered, the government cannot meet the cost of these reconstruction and rehabilitation processes from its own resources. Donor countries have shown a willingness to help, yet their aid programs are targeted mainly at the hoped-for post-conflict period and are not necessarily available now while the conflict is in the process of being resolve.
Here, then, is a dilemma of classic proportions: Prospective donors hesitate, awaiting the arrival of peace to release their funds, but the lack of funds now endangers the very process by which that peace is to be achieved. Assistance is urgently needed now to maintain the momentum of the peace process. Even as the government rallies the people to meet new demands, it must take measures to temper current hardships that threaten to obscure the promise of peace and undermine confidence in the fragile, ongoing process of peace-making. This is a time of critical sensitivity, when public impatience or disillusionment could plunge the country back into a fratricidal war.
There is much that friendly countries can do at this critical juncture. Direct aid, both bilateral and multilateral, would make a substantial difference. Technical assistance, including the loan of experts, is vital. Market access for Sri Lankan exports would not only help the economy grow, it would attract foreign investment linked to the country’s resolute efforts to reform its economy.
Ours was, until recently, a forgotten war. We ask that the world take note of our efforts and lend us support as we make our determined bid for peace.
Mr. Moragoda is Sri Lanka’s Minister for Economic Reform, Science and Technology. He is one of the government negotiators working on the country’s peace process.