Patching up paradise: Sri Lanka struggles to recover from conflict and disaster.

AuthorRenner, Michael

The port city of Galle fronts the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island nation in the Indian Ocean. Gleaming on a promontory in the bright sun, the whitewashed buildings and stooped palm trees of its Fort neighborhood shelter a quiet landscape of pedestrians, shops, stray dogs, and courtyard gardens. They are ringed by massive stone walls that daily fend off waves, as they have for the 400 years since European colonists first began construction.


Though the fort walls have witnessed many assaults, two recent ones are not easily forgotten: in December 2004, pulses of water from the Indian Ocean tsunami reached this area, suddenly flooding nearby markets at the height of a holiday shopping day and killing thousands. About two years later, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked a nearby naval base, abruptly bringing the country's unresolved civil war uncomfortably close to this World Heritage Site.

The cultural treasures of Galle (pronounced "Gaul") should be natural draws for tourists from around the world. But Sri Lanka tourism promoters face a special challenge: convincing foreign tourists that it is safe to visit. During more than two decades of civil war, in which government forces dominated by the ethnic majority Sinhalese fought to suppress LTTE factions, Sri Lanka's tourism industry has lost more than US$6.3 billion in potential revenues. A 2002 ceasefire brought respite from the fighting, but the ceasefire fell apart in 2006 and the violence and unrest returned. Thanks in large part to Western government advisories, fear is once again keeping foreign tourists away from the palm-studded beaches and coral reefs of Sri Lanka's southern coast, as well as its hill temples and ancient spiritual sites.

In reality, most of the violence is in the north and east, where the LTTE has carved out a de facto separate state. But in recent months, the Tigers have also attacked Galle harbor, an oil refinery in Colombo, and Katunayake Air Force Base, which adjoins the country's only international airport. Bomb attacks against buses have also terrorized civilians, and kidnappings are increasingly common.

So to visit Colombo is to enter a bustling seaside capital city dotted with camouflaged checkpoints, from which uniformed policemen and military officers keep watch on all major roads. From the checkpoints' sandbagged walls, gunbarrels point unflinchingly at passing pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. Most military installations are surrounded by high fences and layers of barbed wire. Even the facades of government buildings are off limits to camera-wielding visitors.

It was within this context that we embarked on a series of interviews and site visits during a research visit in January 2007. We wanted to better understand the rapidly changing situation in a country still recovering from arguably the most devastating natural disaster in recent history, and now sliding toward renewed civil war as well. In a situation so volatile that it could barely be accurately reported in most desk analyses, we saw firsthand how the work of political analysts, aid workers, and foreign diplomats was redefined almost daily by the changing security conditions.


Our colleagues shared a common, and increasingly ingrained, sentiment about the war: things would likely get far worse before they might get any better. Moments of hope that Sri Lanka's long-festering conflict could finally be resolved--first in 2002, when the ceasefire was signed, and then again after the December 2004 tsunami triggered spontaneous acts of solidarity across the dividing lines--had faded.

A "Lightning Rod" for Conflict

The origins of Sri Lanka's current plight are more than half a century old. After the country (then called Ceylon) regained independence from Britain in 1948, a series of governments dominated by the majority Sinhalese sought to correct what officials regarded as preferential British treatment for the ethnic minority Tamils, which constitute 15 percent of the population. Tamils perceived such post-colonial language, educational, and religious policies to be discriminatory, and with successive governments seemingly unwilling to redress their grievances, Tamil politics became increasingly radicalized. By 1983, assassinations, communal riots, and state repression led to civil war. By the late 1980s, the separatist LTTE had risen to prominence using ruthless tactics against other Tamil groups. The Tamil Tigers became notorious for their suicide bombings, forcible recruitment of child soldiers, and brazen attacks. In two decades of fighting, at least 60,000 people died and...

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