Peace in sight for Sri Lanka?
By Ravi Velloor, India Bureau Chief
COLOMBO: Sri Lankans have just completed another month of introspection, as they have every July for so long now. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the country's Tamil insurgency.
After 70,000 deaths and years of despondency, however, there is a glimmer of hope that the Sri Lankan army's recent battlefield successes might presage an end to the civil war in the north of the island.
Troops have fought their way into Tamil Tiger strongholds. The feared fighters are said to have lost two-thirds of their strength. Their supply lines from sympathisers in India have been crimped by a vigilant New Delhi working in tandem with Colombo.
'Never before have the Sri Lankan forces been better placed to defeat the Tamil Tigers,' says retired Major-General Ashok Mehta, an expert on military affairs.
He commanded Indian forces in Sri Lanka's Batticaloa sector when New Delhi intervened in the civil war between 1987 and 1990, sending its troops, unsuccessfully, to subdue the Tigers.
Such assessments fall on welcome ears in Colombo as it ponders the effects of a generation lost to the civil war.
Racially similar but culturally apart, Sri Lanka's Sinhalas and the Tamil minority began drifting apart in the 1950s when Sinhala politicians made a series of decisions on language and education that were unfavourable to the Tamils.
Most people reckon the island's simmering ethnic tensions passed boiling point in July 1983, when Sinhala mobs in Colombo set upon Tamils in the streets. Hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Sinhalas were reacting to news that 13 soldiers had been ambushed and shot in Jaffna, the centre of the Tamil region.
For those with longer memories, July resonates for another reason. On July 27, 1975, a man on a bicycle rode up to Jaffna mayor Alfred Duriappah, as he was walking to a Hindu temple, and shot him. Duriappah, a Christian Tamil who stood for national unity, died on the spot.
The killer, it turned out, was a little- known smuggler named Velupillai Prabhakaran. Today, the 53-year-old Prabhakaran, as head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is the world's most durable guerilla chieftain. With other Tamil militants going mainstream, Prabhakaran alone stands in the way of the country's resurgence. He is inflexible in his demand for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamils.
The country's economic outlook 'depends critically' on an end to the war, according to the International Monetary Fund. If Colombo succeeds in vanquishing Prabhakaran, there is little doubt that Sri Lanka could be looking at renewed prosperity.
Indeed, back in 1977, when it began a programme of economic liberalisation some thought the tear drop-shaped island could turn into a Singapore in the Indian Ocean.
But the move to free up the economy by the late J. R. Jayewardene surprised India's then prime minister, the socialist-oriented Indira Gandhi, who was close to Russia. Sri Lanka's tilt towards the United States also troubled her. To counter president Jayewardene, Gandhi stoked Tamil nationalism on the island.
Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as Indian premier, intervened to quell the flames his mother had fanned, brokering a peace accord and ordering Indian troops to take on the Tamil guerillas. Angered, the Tigers assassinated Rajiv in 1991.
Nalini Sriharan, one of the remaining survivors of the hit squad that successfully targeted Rajiv, is in prison in India's Tamil Nadu state. Short weeks from now, she is likely to be released on an amnesty plea that has the endorsement of Rajiv's widow, Sonia, and their daughter, Priyanka. In their own way, the Gandhis too want closure on an issue that has cost them so dearly.
In the 25 years that Tamil separatism has raged, Sri Lanka's enormous potential has been shackled. Its US$28 billion (S$40 billion) economy, suffering some of the worst inflation in Asia, is dependent on tea exports, tourism and overseas remittances.
But despite all its troubles the economy has been growing by more than 6 per cent annually in recent years. In the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, Sri Lanka outscores every significant South Asian economy, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Dr Nihal Samarappulli, executive director of the country's Board of Investment, told The Straits Times that realised foreign investments passed US$700 million last year, a 15 per cent jump from 2006.
'This is an economy waiting to take off,' says Mr Mahen Dayananda, who stepped down two weeks ago as chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. 'If investors wait for the entire problem to go away before coming in, they could be too late.'
Who knows what may have been if the island had avoided its ethnic convulsions. Such are the thoughts passing through the minds of people in Colombo who have known better times.
Mr Tissa Devendra, the government agent in Jaffna when Duriappah was murdered, recalls the late mayor pointing to the remains of his car, gutted when a booby trap set for him went off as the mayor approached it.
'At that time, I thought booby- trapped cars existed only in Mickey Spillane novels,' he says.
Sri Lanka may yet gain back its economic muscle but its return to innocence may be a while coming.