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Sri Lanka: Will Developmental Projects Solve Political Problems?

Dr Gulbin Sultana is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 10, 2011

    Much water has flown down the Mahaveli since President Rajapaksa made his swearing-in speech, on November 19, 2010, wherein he indicated that he would adopt a developmental approach to ‘enhance Sri Lanka’s greatness in the world’, and his first task would be to ensure lasting national unity and sustainable, permanent peace in Sri Lanka. After a brief exhortation to ‘move towards a future that is trilingual’, he returned to the theme of ‘development’ and inferred that his government had “carried out development work in the North and East as never before in the history” and this process had led to “a closure of the highways to terrorism”.

    Rajapaksa also stated that he “strongly believe(d) that this infrastructure to banish poverty [was] major part of a political solution”. Will it really work? Or will it alienate the Tamils further?

    The President intends to expand roadways, install power projects, modernize all areas of employment, and turn Sri Lanka “into a hub of development” in the fivefold areas of maritime capability, aviation, commerce and trade, power and energy and knowledge. Sri Lanka, under Rajapaksa, is aiming to become one of the top thirty countries most attractive for doing business by 2014.1

    In this regard, Rajapaksa’s entire team is busy strengthening relations with old friends (India, China, Japan, Pakistan, UK, South Korea) and cultivating new ones. During his visit to New York in September 2010 to attend the 65th UN General Assembly session, he met the leaders of Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Malaysia, Jamaica and Spain and sought assistance in the field of energy, infrastructure development and investment in housing and tourism. Sri Lanka is also trying to improve trade and economic relations with Kuwait, Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa, Oman and Singapore.

    President Rajapaksa received a positive response from these countries because Sri Lanka is considered one of the best places to do business with in the post-LTTE period. Sri Lanka’s economy is growing at a considerable rate and in the year 2010, the economy grew at 8 per cent, the unemployment rate fell to 4.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2010.2 UNDP’s Human Development Report 2010 placed Sri Lanka at 91 in the human development index among 169 countries surveyed. According to the New York Times it is among the top ten growth economies in the world. An additional attraction for FDI in Sri Lanka is its Free Trade Agreement with India and Pakistan whereby the investing countries can avail of the Indian and Pakistani markets.

    In his first term Rajapaksa vowed to end terrorism and achieved that objective. Going by that record, he should be able to achieve his stated objectives for the second term as well. Numerous development activities have been already initiated in the entire country with assistance of India, China and Japan. Some of the important development projects in the North and the East under Uthuru Wasanthaya program (Northern Spring), Nagenahira Navodaya (the Eastern Awakening) are: Iranamadu (development of road and irrigation projects), Maga Neguma (road development), NECORD, TARRP etc.

    Undoubtedly, these development activities will solve many of Sri Lanka’s socio-economic problems. But the question needs to be asked whether these developmental projects are good enough to resolve all the problems the country is facing today?

    President Rajapaksa does not seem to focus on solving the Tamil problem, which has shattered the country for thirty years and has the potential to revive yet another militant movement if the root causes are not addressed soon. Earlier on May 19, 2009, in his address to the nation Rajapaksa had promised to come up with a political solution if he was elected for a second term. However, the fact that he chose not to touch on this issue during his second swearing-in ceremony indicates that he does not accord enough importance to this issue any longer.

    Let us briefly dwell on the issues raised by the Tamils for a long time. One of the major causes of Tamil resentment was the government’s language policy. Rajapaksa had indeed recognized it and tried to address it with his trilingual policy. His government apparently started working on it with Indian help. It was hoped that he would take this up seriously and implement it soon. Some efforts have been taken in this regard but the pace of progress seems to be too slow to convince the targeted audience of the sincerity of his intentions. Moreover, it is still unknown how the radical parties like JHU and JVP would react to this issue. Even if Tamil language has been given official status since the 1990s, the progress on this front has been very poor. The ten year master plan announced by the government will require lot of devotion and commitment for its successful implementation.

    There are other factors which need to be addressed as well, such as, the lack of Tamil representation in the military and police. Reportedly, 500–600 Tamil police officers have been recruited from Jaffna peninsula for the first time this year since 1978.3 This is commendable, but no Tamils have been recruited yet into the armed forces. Another sensitive issue for the Tamils was the case of state sponsored colonization of the Tamil areas by the Sinhalese population. It seems similar kind of feeling is again coming to the fore among the Tamils. According to a recent TamilNet report, civil society circles in Jaffna feel, “Sri Lanka government is using Sri Lankan Army to grab lands in the North with the view of colonizing them with Buddhist Sinhala families”.4

    Development activities in the Tamil majority areas should aim at winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. Sri Lanka does need development, but development has to be people-centred, driven by the people themselves. However, the people in these areas seem to be alienated from the developmental activities. In fact, the representatives of the Tamil Political Parties Forum (TPPF), during their meeting with President, registered their grievance that the people of the North and East were being ignored in the many developmental projects. A section of Sri Lankan Civil Society also echoes the same view.

    There is a widespread belief among the people of Sri Lanka that the Tamils need to have equal access to education and employment opportunities for their children which will enable them to lead their lives with dignity and without fear. The development of the North and East is important but mere emphasis on “infrastructure development to banish poverty” cannot be a “major part of a political solution”, as has been pronounced by Rajapksa. Apart from economic development, the Tamils also require social and political rights. Emphasizing on economic rights alone will not solve the problem.

    There is a view in Sri Lanka that “assessing Sri Lanka through the lens of the Tamil question is misleading”. However, assessing Sri Lanka’s overall development without laying due emphasis on the problems faced by a sizable section of the people will not lead to the results desired.