Talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India – 29 October 2010

The Sri Lankan experience of the last few years should be of enormous interest internationally. In a context in which the war against terrorism is failing on several fronts, Sri Lankan success in this respect should be a model for the rest of the world. However the discourse in what is termed the international community is quite otherwise, and indeed Radhika Coomaraswamy, the most senior Sri Lankan official within the United Nations system, is reported to have warned us that several Non-Governmental Organizations were anxious to ensure that the model would not be followed.

Why is this? After all the facts in favour of Sri Lanka speak for themselves. We defeated a terrorist group often described as the most dangerous in the world. We rescued nearly 300,000 civilians which that group had held hostage, intending to use them as human shields, killing them when they tried to get away. We have resettled almost all those civilians more quickly than in any comparable operation in the world, and we have provided them with basic infrastructure including fully operational schools.

In the period before terrorism was eradicated from our soil, we continued to provide social services to all our citizens, including those in areas controlled by the terrorists. This included free books and uniforms for school children, while we continued to conduct public examinations, which just once the terrorists tried to disrupt, only to be overwhelmed by the determination of parents to continue to benefit from what the state provided. We were able to ensure supplies of food throughout this period, and healthcare that continued through to the end of hostilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross was present throughout this period, and was able with the assistance of the Sri Lankan government and navy personnel to take away about 14,000 people to government run hospitals in the course of the conflict.

All this happened, it should be noted, while the Sri Lankan economy continued to grow, despite incredibly heavy expenditure, involving commercial loans too, not only to fight terrorism but also for the demining and the infrastructure essential to provide decent returns for the displaced.

In this last regard Sri Lanka has been moving apace to make up to those in the former conflict areas for what they suffered, most notably because of brutal terrorism, but also previously because of government neglect of those areas and the needs of the people therein. Before I look at developments in the latter areas however, I should note the appalling treatment of children by the terrorists, sacrificed with no compunction, each family forced to give up first one member, and then more as the terrorists got more desperate.

We had 11,000 former combatants in our custody after the war, of whom about half have now gone back to their families. They required little rehabilitation, since they were basically innocent youngsters who had been forced, fortunately for brief periods only in most cases, into military service. In fact we have found that only about 1000 of these former combatants will need prosecution or long term rehabilitation, and we hope that most of the others can go back home and become productive and prosperous members of society soon. For that purpose we have planned vocational training with soft skills too, because we have to make sure that those who suffered much will be able to take advantage of the new opportunities that are being developed.

This brings me to the reasons for opportunities being limited in the past. There are essentially two reasons for this, the less objectionable being sustained neglect of much of the country in the first 50 years after independence. I should note that this was not particularly targeted at the minorities, the whole country suffered because development was without equity. This has resulted in the Western Province hogging the lion’s share of per capita income, which is why many areas in the country still suffer from high levels of poverty even though the country as a whole has now moved to middle income level.

Even more regrettable were measures that in intention as well as in effect were clearly discriminatory. The most upsetting in this regard was language policy, not only the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language, but also the educational system that straitjacketed many children in monolingualism. This meant that it was generally impossible for Tamils to deal in their own language with public servants, and it also affected recruitment to the public service, with Tamils and minorities generally having far fewer representatives than their numbers warranted.

Taking remedial action in both these areas commenced some years back, even while we were dealing with the terrorist problem. This was in line with our belief that, while terrorists, if they remain intransigent and refuse to negotiate, cannot be permitted to attack civilians wantonly, it is also necessary to address the reasons for terrorism developing. For this reason the government commenced a programme of rapid development in the East as soon as the terrorists were expelled, and the fruits of this are apparent now with the citizenry there fully involved in productive economic activity and exchange at levels that could not be conceived of previously.

Even before that there was progress with regard to the more contentious issues I mentioned above. Thus the government of President Kumaratunga implemented more enlightened policies with regard to language in schools, which has been further strengthened with President Rajapakse’s determination to develop a trilingual society.  In addition the government has now made it compulsory for new recruits to the public service to learn the other official language. Existing employees are also encouraged to learn this, and steps are being taken to increase minority representation in the public service. This is happening apace in the police, which could otherwise seem an alien force to many Tamils and, with security concerns less pressing, the policy can be extended to the armed forces too.

With regard to education, one of the most important innovations planned by government is the introduction of private education at tertiary level. Previously, given the state monopoly, there had been no alternatives for those minority students who suffer because of the current policy of positive discrimination. This was of crucial significance in adding to Tamil grievances, as indeed came home to me graphically last week when I found, while in dialogue with Tamil members of the diaspora in London, that they still remembered with bitterness the introduction of discrimination with regard to University admission in the seventies. This is all the more significant in that Mr Prabhakaran’s was the first school cohort affected by the new system, even though in its overtly racist form it was only formulated in 1978.

I should add in this regard that we must work on even more radical reform of the education system so as to ensure that talents, in particular in socially deprived areas, are not suppressed. And this also holds true for other aspects of social policy that will promote national integration. Though what has happened thus far suggests a commitment to more equitable policies, these should be fast forwarded with the cooperation of all stakeholders, and in particular private investors. Higher quality vocational training programmes, greater effort with regard to soft skills and other qualifications for employment, stress on confidence and social awareness and personality skills, are all essential, and need to be pursued with vigour.

This is the more important in view of the comparative success of the government programme of infrastructure development, to make up for the years of neglect I noted above, neglect that was not discriminatory since it affected all regions equally, but which nevertheless contributed to minority grievances. The current programme not only fast forwarded compensatory work, so as to provide basic facilities before return (including demining) for those who had been displaced by the conflict, it also focused on  meeting modern expectations, with for instance much better communications and utilities, through electronic connectivity as well as roads and electricity and water supply. Irrigation facilities which had lain disused for years are being restored, and efforts are being made to train farmers in processing while ensuring better methods of distribution.

Investment is being encouraged, the plan being to turn an area which only saw subsistence agriculture into one in which the producers are economically active. But all these will need as much concentration on human resource development as on the development of the physical infrastructure. Of course this is an area in which the rest of the country too needs support, in terms of the massive changes with regard to infrastructural development taking place elsewhere too. We have already seen the increased prosperity in the East, given the developments that had been introduced even while the war in the North was being concluded. However, given the much longer period of suffering endured by the people of the North, clearly there is need for intense and concerted efforts in all the areas I have outlined above, and more.