Learning from Sri Lanka

How one war-torn island nation has set an example for peacemaking, reconciliation and rebuilding. 

An LTTE bike platoon in 2004.The world has a lot to learn from Sri Lanka. This island nation, south of India, was torn by a vicious civil war for twenty-six years, which ended in 2009 with a clear victory for government forces over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since then, the ruling authorities have done a remarkable job forging reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation with the Tamil minority. This is truly an example of how military victory needs to be followed up by forgiveness and peacemaking.

Without a doubt, the LTTE has been one of the most vicious and dangerous terrorist organizations ever. It was formidable militarily, complete with a navy (the Sea Tigers), air force (the Air Tigers) and a highly developed intelligence capability. The last push against it was relentless and bloody, claiming significant casualties on both sides. When the war ended, nearly three hundred thousand displaced Tamil civilians were left in the government’s care. These were persons who the LTTE dislocated from their villages and whose land was strewn with hundreds of thousands of mines (across five thousand square kilometers of land), making their resettlement impossible. An immense demining effort took place; now, three years later, only 5,424 internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain in a temporary welfare village awaiting their return home on completion of the demining process.

The Sri Lankan government proceeded to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure in the LTTE controlled areas of the island. It constructed a network of new roads, bridges, schools and hospitals and provided economic and vocational assistance to the returning IDP resulting in over 20 percent annual growth in the northeastern parts of Sri Lanka.

Particularly impressive was the government’s treatment of the nearly twelve thousand LTTE fighters who surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army. Given the bloodiness of the protracted fight, the heavy casualties suffered by the military and the murderous track record of the LTTE, the surrendees feared the worst (our interviews indicate). They were in for a shocking surprise. President Rajapaksa publically instructed the army "to treat them as your children." Rather than being imprisoned or punished, a vast majority of the LTTE cadres were put in rehabilitation centers where they were offered vocational education, artistic activities, psychological and spiritual counseling. The 549 LTTE child soldiers were put in a special program cosponsored with UNICEF and received psychological counseling and catch-up education.

Systematic empirical research we have carried out with thousands of detained LTTE fighters yielded encouraging results. Over time, Tamil attitudes toward the Sinhalese have significantly improved; this seems attributable to the rehabilitation programs rather than the mere time away from the “killing fields.” Of the twelve thousand initial inmates of the rehab centers, over ten thousand have been released to their villages, and efforts are being made to reintegrate them into their communities.

To be sure, the process wasn’t perfect. Unfortunately, as often happens, numerous civilians (used by the LTTE as human shields) perished in the final fight. At present, members of the international community, including the United States, are questioning the intensity of the army’s onslaught and accuse the Sri Lankan government of human-rights abuses. The Sri Lankans, for their part, feel disappointed by what they see as hypocrisy and betrayal by nations they had considered allies in the global war on terror.

As academics, we are unwilling to take sides in that debate. We would like to bear witness, however, to the remarkable reconciliation efforts by the Sri Lankan government that we saw on several recent visits to this country in our capacity as terrorism researchers. We held informal conversations with Tamils and Sinhalese, including members of the Tamil diaspora and of the Tamil Nadu community in Southern India. We interviewed commanders of the Sri Lankan Army and ministers in the Sri Lankan government. We talked with members of an international NGO assisting in the reconstruction efforts. Most importantly, we carried out empirical research with over nine thousand former LTTE members, visited their rehabilitation centers and interviewed senior former LTTE fighters released into their villages. All these studies add up to an impression that what has been happening in the post-2009 years in Sri Lanka is truly unique.

A great deal remains to be done, hopefully with the full participation of the international community. The tasks ahead are challenging, yet there are reasons for optimism. To quote Winston Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The world would do well to pay attention to the case of the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The United States urges the Pakistani and Afghan armies to crack down harder on Taliban and other extremists, but does anyone have a plan for what to do after the war on terror is won? Sri Lanka does.

Arie Kruglanski is a distinguished university professor and Michele Gelfand is a distinguished scholar reacher at the University of Maryland, College Park. Both are senior researchers at the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism.

Image: Sir James/Qz10