Can Prosperity Bring Peace to Sri Lanka?

American diplomat offers measured praise, with reservations

L to R: Palitha T.B. Kohona, Jamie Metzl, and Robert Blake at Asia Society New York on March 14, 2011. (Asia Society)

NEW YORK, March 14, 2011 — In a spirited, sold-out program last night at Asia Society New York, top Sri Lankan and American officials debated the prospects for peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka two years after the end of its bitter civil war. Asia Society Executive Vice President Jaime Metzl opened the discussion by raising the question: "Sri Lanka has made significant progress in the two years since the end of conflict, but will this progress lead to healing?"

Metzel was joined by Ambassador Robert Blake of the US State Department and Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Palitha T.B. Kohona to discuss the future of Sri Lanka.

"It's very important to keep our eyes focused on the future, while recognizing that there is also a past," said Kohona, who acknowledged the pain of 27 years of conflict, but chose to focus on the future rather than the past. "Scars caused by war do not heal in a hurry, they linger on for a while. But our effort must be to encourage the healing, not to encourage the wound to fester forever."

Instead, Kohona underscored the positive change in Sri Lanka over the past few years — a huge boost in the stock market, increased tourism, and improved democratic framework, as exemplified by recent elections.

Another positive outcome has been the improved economy: "Today people who subsisted on government handouts are actually making a living on their own... Economic marginalization, in the past, since independence and before, is considered to be one of the major factors that caused disenchantment in the north and in the east."

He also addressed terrorism, stating that many former terrorists have been returned home and that "the governing principle is that these people are not perpetrators of crimes, but victims of circumstances."

Blake also highlighted many great strides Sri Lanka has taken, such as the 265,000 displaced civilians who have returned to their districts of origin; the considerable progress made in removing hundreds of thousands of land mines, and the reduction in the number of areas considered to be "High Security Zones."

But Blake also expressed reservations. "The end of the conflict has presented an incredible opportunity to build a peaceful, just, democratic, united Sri Lanka. The US is concerned, however, that some developments are shrinking the democratic space and respect for human rights in the country."

"Nearly two years after the conclusion of the fighting, substantial parts of the emergency regulations remain in place, the north continues to be heavily militarized, and the role of the armed forces appears to have increased, with the Ministry of Defense assuming responsibility in non-traditional areas such as urban development."

He also touched on the need for a free press and, perhaps most critical of all, a full accounting of individuals left unaccounted for at the end of the war.

"Economic prosperity and development are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for lasting peace and healing in Sri Lanka. Economic growth will indeed help Sri Lankans to realize their dreams for themselves and their children. But the solution for lasting peace needs to include not just economic opportunity, but a political climate in which every Sri Lankan feels he or she has an equal stake in the country's future and the ability to realize his or her potential in an open and just society."

Reported by Rachel Rosado