Sri Lanka’s Tamils search for economic lifeline

Sri Lanka’s Tamils search for economic lifeline

As the Sri Lankan government continues to evade international investigations into war time atrocities, Sri Lanka’s Tamils have sought economic opportunities with mixed results.

For Sri Lanka’s Tamils, the legacy of the 30-year civil war that ended in 2009 still holds them back from a life of normalcy. The Sri Lankan military still occupies much of the northern region of the country and over 31,500 Tamils are still residing in unsanitary IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps such as Konapalam. Economic reintegration and livelihood opportunities remain elusive for the people of the civil war’s defeated side.

Sri Lanka’s economy, however, has fared better. Inflation has dropped to below 5 percent and Sri Lanka’s economy is anticipating a 7.8 GDP growth rate this year. While foreign direct investment (FDI) has fallen short of the government’s target, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, the head of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank, is confident that Sri Lanka will continue to attract international investment. As Sri Lanka’s large diaspora continues to repatriate, the government hopes FDI will compensate for  an anticipated drop from overseas labor remittances by 2017.

But the outlook is not as bright for the Tamils, as a government ban against Tamil diaspora groups will make it very difficult for Sri Lankan Tamils to obtain economic aid from diaspora organizations. Economic development may be showing signs of progress, but a UNHCR survey revealed that some regions still had inadequate access to basic services, food, and protection from gender-based violence. Infant mortality has decreased in some areas and risen in others. Much of the government’s public spending has gone towards the military’s business ventures. Local businesses struggle to compete.

The fear of military persecution of the Tamils is well-known, shown by the international community’s outrage at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s startling decision to return 153 Tamils to Sri Lanka.

Feelings of mistrust run deep. In the September 2013 provincial council elections, moderate Tamil politicians resort to invoking the name of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) late leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and the hardline Tamil nationalist coalition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), made the most gains.

A recent report alleges that violence towards Tamils has reached the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government. The government insists that the LTTE is organizing a comeback and it must maintain a strong military posture in the north.

The international response to the Tamils’ situation has been mixed. The United States has sponsored three UN resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to address violations of international law during the civil war, but the Sri Lankan government has refused to accept UN probes or otherwise address the country’s human rights record in regards to the Tamils.

India’s role in supporting Sri Lanka’s Tamils may also be diminished in the future. Despite pressure from local politicians in India’s southern state Tamil Nadu, such as MDMK leader Vaiko, a long time Tamil nationalist, India’s new Prime Minister Modi could choose to ignore the wishes of Tamil Nadu. The reliance on local Tamil parties has been greatly reduced regardless of the fact that Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK holds 11 seats in the Rajya Sabha. However, AIADMK could play a crucial role in passing BJP’s future plans for economic reforms.

While the post-war environment has proved difficult for the Tamils, there have been attempts made towards reintegration. International sponsored programs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) micro-economic initiatives and community-based livelihood support programs, began working with the government in 2014 to provide skills and training for vulnerable and physically disabled people as well as rehabilitation programs for former members of the LTTE. Over 373 former Tigers have completed the program and have become socially reintegrated.

There is an institutional push for the government to make education reform in the north a priority. A recent government report recommended plans for training teachers and strengthening educational capacity. The report outlines the disparity between the Sinhala and Tamil schools.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s governing United People’s Freedom Alliance is betting that the economic development of the northern region will keep the Tamils politically in line. The number of cars and cattle in the north has doubled, agricultural land is producing crops, and construction is booming. Recently the Asian Development Bank issued a $300 million loan to increase Sri Lanka’s sustainable energy capabilities. This includes the construction of a hydropower facility in the village of Moragolla and a boost to power infrastructure in the former war-zones of the northern and eastern regions of the island.

Meanwhile, the international community must continue to push the Sri Lankan government to adopt more inclusive policies. So far, the government’s reaction has been to pursue further crackdowns on activists inside Sri Lanka. The government’s security apparatus appears to be concerned about information escaping to the outside world. With the present climate, the healing of Sri Lanka’s wounds still has far to go.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris