In its 62 years of independence, Sri Lanka has never had a better chance than it has now to stamp out the last fires of ethnic hatred, violence and mindless chauvinisms that have left over 80,000 people dead in civil wars across one of the most physically beautiful countries in Asia.
Tragically for all Sri Lankans, it looks as if its increasingly autocratic president, reelected in January on a surge of Sinhala triumphalism following the defeat of a Tamil rebel army, is determined to let this hopeful moment pass. Not only a lasting peace between the Tamils and Sinhalese is at stake but also the multiparty democracy that set the country apart from many of its neighbors.
Why should a descent into misgovernment in a nation of 21.3 million people on a relatively small island off the coast of India matter to people anywhere else? This isn’t Zimbabwe or Bosnia or Haiti. Not yet. But it is one of the newest examples — streamed live on the Web if not much present in the American media — of a post colonial collapse. Kenya is another. It is a phenomenon worth study.
Sri Lanka was once the most advanced nation in South Asia by measures of human development. Literacy, education levels and social services are all still higher than in neighboring Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The country has no external enemies. Women have held high office for decades. There was a lively press and a functioning two-party system, albeit dominated by mostly people drawn from elite families.
Now journalists live in fear, are killed, disappear or flee. (The president has just named himself information minister, to make matters more menacing.) The leader of the opposition party who dared to challenge the incumbent in the January presidential election has been detained, so far without formal charges. The Tamils, who voted overwhelmingly for him, wait fearfully for the payback.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted all the credit for the defeat last year of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the death of its ruthless leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rajapaksa decisively defeated his opponent, the war hero Sarath Fonseka, in part because he was rewarded by Sinhala voters – who comprise more than two-thirds of the population — for being the leader who made the country safe again.
The Tamil Tigers were a totalitarian movement that instilled terror with mass indiscriminate killing of civilians, and introduced suicide bombing to assassinate a generation of leaders, both Tamil and Sinhala.
Poor people were often the victims. They had to ride the vulnerable buses and stand in lines at government buildings or on train platforms that were always at risk of being blown up. Innocent Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus died. The Tigers assassinated numerous ministers and one president, and tried but failed to kill another. They murdered Tamils who questioned their tactics, among them the country’s leading human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam, and a respected former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.