In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal Asia, I write about the paradox of Sri Lanka’s position in the world. Three years after its military destroyed the thuggish Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the economy is booming and tourist arrivals are at an all time high.
Yet the country’s standing in the world continues to slip as human rights groups, the international media, and a well-organized Tamil diaspora batter the country for its shoddy human rights record. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva voted to push for an investigation into possible war crimes committed in the dying stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war (1983-2009). According to a UN panel, as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed.
So far, Sri Lanka has done little to address the international community’s concerns. According to Human Rights Watch, since the war’s end it has not launched “a single credible investigation into alleged abuses.” Belying promises, it has failed to hold provincial elections in the Tamil-majority north, which is effectively under military rule by the country’s overwhelmingly Sinhalese army. (Sinhalese make up about three quarters of Sri Lanka’s population, Tamils under a fifth.)
The country’s strategy of playing for time is failing. If it doesn’t move quickly to address concerns about alleged war crimes, political devolution for the north, and declining press freedom, Sri Lanka risks long term damage to its international reputation and economic prospects. If that happens, President Mahinda Rajapaksa may go down in history as the man who won Sri Lanka’s civil war, but squandered his chance to win the peace.