Karunyan Arulanantham Headshot

Sri Lanka: The Road to Peace Requires Western Courage

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Buried deep and largely unnoticed in the trove of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last December was an extraordinary note detailing the Sri Lankan government's alleged support of paramilitary groups involved in killing, abducting and raping Tamil civilians and in forcibly conscripting child soldiers.

The message sent home by then-U.S. Ambassador Robert O. Blake Jr. -- who is now Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs -- was all the more stunning for the revelation it included at the end: the political officer of the embassy, Blake wrote, had listened to a recording in which Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, "was effusive in his praise" for the most ruthless paramilitary group and the "benefits" it provided the government.

The cable helps explain why today, almost two years after the brutal end of Sri Lanka's 26 year war, so little progress has been made toward reconciliation. Culpability strikes too close to home, and the government clearly doesn't want a thorough, independent investigation that will hold people accountable -- an essential step for a durable peace. As current U.S. Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis wrote in a January 2010 cable: "There are no examples of a sitting regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers."

Ignoring this unambiguous indictment, the United States and other countries continue deluding themselves with the claim that the "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" Rajapaksa empanelled to investigate the war needs more time to finish its work -- despite nine previous commissions in Sri Lanka that never held anyone accountable. This diplomatic cowardice is providing the cover and the time for a massive government program to build new military bases and colonize the Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island with Sinhalese -- a phenomenon graphically chronicled in a recent New Yorker magazine article. The longer this campaign continues, the more difficult it will be to ever reconcile the island's deeply divided population.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa is rapidly creating an imperial presidency, appointing family members to key posts (one newspaper on the island tallied almost 100 government departments controlled by the Rajapaksa brothers), stifling a free press, jailing his main political opponent and abolishing term limits. The push to consolidate power is occurring alongside a willful inattention to the underlying causes of the war -- the marginalization of Tamils by the ruling Sinhalese.

In the aftermath of the war, this problem is clearly illustrated by the government's refusal to engage in power sharing with Tamils, grant greater local governance to Tamil communities, include Tamils in redevelopment plans or provide Tamils with equal access to government aid and services. The Tamil areas being repopulated with Sinhalese are experiencing a development boom -- particularly hotel construction along the island's pristine beachfronts that is ruining the livelihoods of local fishermen. But many other Tamil communities that were destroyed and displaced by decades of warfare desperately need new schools, houses, hospitals, churches and temples, ports and roads.

The problems in Sri Lanka have been festering for years. What's needed is the courage and conviction to solve them. Western and democratic powers should stop ceding the field to China and win back the confidence of the Sri Lanka people with serious redevelopment aid that can give well-meaning foreigners leverage over the government. International NGOs need to find their critical voices and stop hiding behind the fear that they'll be kicked out for speaking the truth. Businesses need to "know their client" and insist that their investments benefit all of the island's people equally, and do not empower a discriminatory regime. And the international press needs to recognize the hazards that their Sri Lankan colleagues live and work under, and travel to the island to report about what's happening there.

Everybody can be part of the solution in Sri Lanka. But first, while there's still time to heal the wounds, everybody needs to stop finding excuses for doing nothing. As recent events in the Middle East show, that's a poor substitute for a real policy.

Karunyan Arulantham, M.D., is a member of the Tamil American Peace Initiative, a group of Tamil Americans formed to help bring lasting peace, justice, democracy and good governance to Sri Lanka, and to focus attention on the destruction of Tamil communities and culture caused by the war.