Factors that spoil Sri Lanka’s image

by Jehan Perera

(August 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over a year and a quarter have elapsed since the end of the war. Sri Lanka ought to be well positioned to successfully project itself as a country that is on the mend. The government’s determination to hold the Indian International Film Awards in Colombo in May this year was to send such a message to the world. This effort turned out to have mixed results. The film industry in South India opposed the event on political grounds. They highlighted the fate of the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons who still remained destitute. On the other hand, the event went off without any security hitch, which showed the world that Sri Lanka was once again a safe country for tourism and investments.

Despite such successes Sri Lanka’s international image is still accompanied by a question mark. The end of the three decade war ought to have brought a sparkle to Sri Lanka’s image. But instead the image is not of a happy and united country, as observed by Singapore’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew. There continue to be controversies that have dogged the country and spoilt its international image. The manner in which the LTTE leadership met its end in the closing stages of the war may yet pose the government leadership with its most formidable challenge. But in the meantime the antics of a minister who tied a public official to trees and the detention of the opposition Presidential candidate will not be reassuring to those who equate democracy with the rule of law.

The latest incident that is harming the country’s international image is the one involving a ship carrying 492 Tamil refugees, including women and children, and which entered the Canadian waters. While Canadian media has given front page prominence to the story, other international media has also been following it. The influx of refugees in such large numbers and outside of established individual asylum procedures poses political problems in the countries to which those refugees seek entry. On the one hand, many in the host population get disturbed at these irregular entrants who jump the queue of other asylum seekers, and who compete with them for scarce welfare resources and jobs. On the other hand, the laws in many developed countries are liberal, with countries like the United States, Canada and Australia being havens for those fleeing oppressive political situations in their own countries.

Boat People

Boat people are frequently a source of controversy in the nation they seek to immigrate to, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia. Unlike the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and early 1980s, most boat people arriving more recently in Western countries, Australia, or the United States have purchased their passage on large but overcrowded and frequently unseaworthy boats from illegal immigration operators, who may demand considerable sums from their desperate clients. Sri Lanka is the latest country from where boat people originate, which is hardly a positive advertisement internationally.

The Sri Lankan government has every reason to be displeased with this development that puts the country into a negative light, as a country from which people are willing to flee at any price, including their lives. The government’s position is that with the end of the war there is a return to normalcy, no terrorism and the prevalence of the rule of law. The boat people however give another message that is more convincing to the international audience as their perilous journey is itself evidence of what they escaped from. The Canadian immigration official hearing the case of the 492 Sri Lankans have permitted the media to come and listen to their evidence. This official ruled that opening the hearings could give the public a better understanding of who the migrants are and how they chose to undertake a difficult, illicit and expensive journey across the Pacific.

Wrong Tactics

The fact that so many people are willing to flee Sri Lanka at grave risk to themselves is a negative reflection on what is happening today in the country. The refugees will obviously claim a maximum of harassment and that their lives will be at risk if they are returned to Sri Lanka. No government of a self-respecting country will wish its citizens to flee and claim refugee status in other countries. The Sri Lankan government is no exception in this regard, and is cooperating with other international governments to prevent human trafficking. Ironically, some of the statements of government spokespersons have made the claims of the refugees appear real.

For instance, in their bid to discredit the sincerity of the claim of the refugees to foreign asylum, government spokespersons have claimed that those aboard the ship are LTTE members, and hard core ones at that. There is evidence that the ship that arrived in Canada is part of an LTTE-linked human smuggling operation. But to say that the Tigers might be trying to regroup in Canada, a country that has historically been a large source of their fund-raising is unlikely to influence the outcome of the decision that the Canadian authorities will make. In a similar incident in October 2009, 76 Tamil refugees arrived on a ship to Canada where they were held but eventually released after none were determined to belong to the LTTE.

While this tactic of linking the refugees to the LTTE might work within Sri Lanka, it will not work so well out of Sri Lanka, where those adjudicating these claims and counter claims are not under Sri Lankan government influence. Further, government spokespersons have said that they were arresting LTTE cadre at a high rate in the welfare centres in Sri Lanka, numbering no less than 1,500 in recent weeks. Such statements can be shown by the fleeing Sri Lankan refugees to be evidence of the dangers that await them should they be returned to Sri Lanka as they too may be considered to the Tiger operatives and imprisoned.

Unmet Challenges

Sixteen months after the end of the war Sri Lanka has much to commend itself to the world. Unlike its neigbouring countries of South Asia, Sri Lanka has been totally free of terrorist attack. People are not been killed randomly or wantonly. Nor are they being persecuted on a mass scale. The government has been improving its relations with the United Nations after it plummeted with the death fast by a government minister regarding the appointment of an UN advisory committee on war crimes. The numbers of internally displaced persons in the camps has been further reduced. The UN recently reported that it helped 852 out of more than 70,000 Tamil refugees based in India to return to Sri Lanka in the first half of this year. Although these figures may be small in relation to the total refugee population, the UN also stated that more than 1,000 refugees in India returned on their own, which indicates improvements on the ground.

However, the government has to so much more to improve its performance with regard to two important issues if it is to turn around world opinion. It needs to show evidence of systematic progress in the resettlement of internally displaced persons. At the moment it appears that the government is satisfied with simply getting them to leave the welfare camps. But this is not enough. They need to be provided with houses to go to and to viable means of livelihood. Although the Indian government pledged to build 50,000 houses for the displaced persons, there has been a failure to facilitate its implementation on the ground. Land for the housing projects and lists of beneficiaries have not been identified by the Sri Lankan government even though more than three months has passed since the Indian offer was made. The appearance of neglect on the part of the Sri Lankan government arouses concern that its interest is more in putting more military bases in the North than in caring about the welfare of the people.

The second major issue where the government is failing to win over the international community is with regard to an acceptable and just solution to the political grievances of the ethnic minorities. Due to this failure, the government is not able to win over the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, either in Sri Lanka or in the Diaspora including Canada. A just solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities that would devolve power to the provinces in which they live, and the greater sense of control they will enjoy over their security, could win over the Tamil people.

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