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To return to international respectability, Colombo needs to deepen its democracy.
On the face of it, Sri Lanka has much to celebrate this week as it marks the third anniversary of its military victory over the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After that scarring 26-year civil war, which was among the bloodiest in modern Asia, ended, the economy is the hottest in its neighborhood: Last year GDP grew by 8.3%, the fastest expansion since independence in 1948. Tourist arrivals were up about 30% from a year earlier. In President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka boasts a leader whose regional peers can only envy his popularity with the masses and robust parliamentary majority.
And yet, on his visit to Washington this week Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris will likely encounter more brickbats than bouquets. International censure is rising against Mr. Rajapaksa’s alleged violations of human rights. His government has also failed to bring about national reconciliation since the war by postponing provincial elections that could allow the Tamil-majority north to express its political choices.
In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva voted 24-15 on a U.S.-led resolution to press Sri Lanka to investigate the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the closing stages of the war. Over the past year, two powerful documentaries by Britain’s Channel 4 have battered the country’s reputation by claiming to show abuses by the Sri Lankan military. Perhaps sensing blood in the water after the UNHRC vote, human rights groups show no sign of losing interest in the country.
Most ominously for Sri Lanka, India—arguably the country’s most important diplomatic ally in its long struggle against the LTTE—can no longer be counted on for unquestionable backing. Facing pressure from Tamil political parties at home, Delhi voted with Washington and against Colombo in Geneva.
For many Sri Lankans, particularly in the dominant Sinhalese community, this outpouring of international opprobrium raises hackles. As they see it, their country faces attacks by assorted do-gooders simply for ending the menace of the Tamil Tigers. Had Sri Lanka taken the advice of well-meaning diplomats and activists during the war, the argument goes, it may well have been readying today for its fourth decade of conflict rather than its fourth year of peace. Human rights violations or not, most Sri Lankans—minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese alike—aren’t exactly mourning the thuggish LTTE, best known for pioneering the use of suicide bombers.
So the Sri Lankan government and its supporters tend to react to criticism with displays of outrage rather than introspection. After the UNHRC vote, ministers in Colombo railed against the U.S. and India, and angry demonstrators took to the streets. The media, the least free and consequently most jingoistic in the region, helped bolster the national narrative of injured pride.
Sri Lanka faces a stark choice. It can continue its shrill inward turn and increasingly place its faith in authoritarian friends like China and Iran. Or it can mend its ties with the West, India and everyone else by keeping its promise to devolve power to the Tamil-majority north, punish the most egregious human rights violations of the war and end its clampdown on freedom of the press.
Those who believe Sri Lanka can just ride out this wave of negative foreign opinion are wrong. A powerful web of human rights groups in Washington, London and beyond have established a virtual monopoly on conversations about the country. With a population of only 21 million, Sri Lanka, unlike say China, has neither the economic heft nor the strategic significance to match its adversaries. To add to these woes, a well-organized Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, largely made up of exiles who fled violence and systematic discrimination, will not forget excesses committed during the war any time soon.
Memory of the LTTE will fade. As that happens, chances are the horror of the Sri Lankan army’s actions becomes more widely known, and word of what the International Crisis Group calls “a de facto military occupation” of the Tamil-speaking north will trickle out faster. Public opinion in India’s Tamil Nadu state, home to 60 million Tamils, will continue to harden against the Rajapaksa regime. Broader Indian opinion may shift decisively as well, and perhaps create a gulf between the two neighbors that can’t be bridged. Colombo may find itself isolated.
This will also hit Sri Lanka’s economy. The outsized importance of tourism and textile exports to Sri Lanka means it can scarcely afford to ignore public opinion in the West. Two years ago, the European Union withdrew preferential access to its markets over this issue, a direct blow to an apparel industry that provides tens of thousands of jobs.
To be sure, national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and with it an end to international censure, won’t happen overnight. But by addressing fears of permanent militarization of the north, scheduling provincial elections, addressing at least the most egregious human rights abuses from the war and restoring the independence of the country’s once feisty press, Sri Lanka can make a start. If it fails to do so, Mr. Rajapaksa may go down in history as the Sri Lankan leader who won a famous war but squandered the peace that followed.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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