By Simon Denyer
The defeat of one of the world’s largest and most lethal terrorist organizations — and the end of a three-decade civil war — should have heralded a bright new dawn for the tropical Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka.
The economy is one of Asia’s fastest growing, and tourism is booming. But three years after the war ended, human rights groups and opposition leaders warn that the country is descending toward dictatorship, with dissent brutally crushed, the media cowed and the minority Tamils, whose insurrection caused the war in the first place, still treated like second-class citizens.
The United States and India, Sri Lanka’s two main trading partners, had largely looked the other way as the government crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels three years ago in a campaign that left between 7,721 and 40,000 people dead, according to U.N. estimates. But the two countries have expressed frustration at the lack of postwar reconciliation and urged Sri Lanka to do more to protect human rights.
At the same time, Washington and New Delhi have found themselves increasingly marginalized, their leverage limited as the government in Colombo has forged close economic and diplomatic links with China and Iran.
“The Sri Lanka government have the wind in their sails, and they want to define the future of their country on their own terms,” said Harsh V. Pant, who teaches at the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College in London. “It is going to be very difficult for outsiders like India and America to influence anything domestically. And if Sri Lanka has problems in international institutions, they know they can rely on China.”
At the height of their power, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran vast swathes of Tamil-dominated northern and eastern Sri Lanka as a virtual mini-state. But they had also turned a struggle for the rights of the island’s Hindu and Christian Tamils into a terrorist campaign involving suicide bombers and child soldiers — assassinating anyone who stood in their way, including thousands of moderate Tamils, a Sri Lankan president and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
But after a long stalemate, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the war to the Tigers with unprecedented ruthlessness and single-mindedness.
As the scorched earth campaign entered its final stages in 2009, it cost tens of thousands of lives – a U.N. report called for an investigation into war crimes by both sides, accusing the Tigers of using civilians as human shields and the Sri Lankan military of indiscriminate shelling and denying civilians access to humanitarian aid.
Rajapaksa is enormously popular among the island’s Buddhist Sinhala majority for ridding this country of 20 million of the specter of terrorism and war, but critics say he is in danger of squandering the peace.
The military still runs northern and eastern Sri Lanka, with locals complaining that its control of every aspect of daily life is deeply intrusive and humiliating, and that anyone who challenge it risks deadly retribution.