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Development Assistance and Conflict in Sri Lanka - Lessons from the Eastern Province
Development Assistance and Conflict in Sri Lanka - Lessons from the Eastern Province
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere
Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere
Report 165 / Asia

Development Assistance and Conflict in Sri Lanka - Lessons from the Eastern Province

Violence, political instability and the government’s reluctance to devolve power or resources to the fledgling provincial council are undermining ambitious plans for developing Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

Executive Summary

Violence, political instability and the government’s reluctance to devolve power or resources to the fledgling provincial council are undermining ambitious plans for developing Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. The east continues to face obstacles to economic and political progress and offers lessons for development agencies and foreign donors considering expanding their work into newly won areas in the Northern Province. While there is still potential for progress in the east, it remains far from being the model of democratisation and post-conflict reconstruction that the government claims. Donors should adopt a more coordinated set of policies for the war-damaged areas of Sri Lanka, emphasising civilian protection, increased monitoring of the effects of aid on conflict dynamics and collective advocacy with the government at the highest levels.

International attention is currently and rightfully focused on the need to protect upwards of 100,000 civilians at risk from fighting in the northern Vanni region, but at the same time, there are still important challenges in the so-called “liberated” area of the Eastern Province. Even now, the Eastern Province is still not the “post-conflict” situation that development agencies had hoped it would be when they started work there in late 2007 and early 2008. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and police in the east, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have proven able to launch attacks on government forces and on their rivals in the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP). There have also been violent conflicts between different factions of the pro-government TMVP, and impunity for killings and disappearances, many of them apparently committed by government security forces and/or their allies in the TMVP. Extortion and criminality linked to the TMVP also remain problems. Insecurity and fear are undermining the ability of agencies and contractors to implement projects. 

Violence between Tamils and Muslims has been kept to a minimum since June 2008, but tensions between the communities over land and political power remain high, and there seems little prospect of reconciliation so long as current government policies remain in place. Tamils are largely alienated from the government, thanks to the heavy hand of government security forces and TMVP activities. Many Muslims feel threatened by TMVP control of the provincial council and what they see as Tamil domination of the provincial administration. Both communities continue to suspect the government has plans for large-scale “Sinhalisation” of the east. Sinhalese villagers, students, contractors and government employees have, in turn, been victims of violent attacks.

The government still has not devolved power to the Eastern Province, as required by the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution, which established the provincial council system in 1987 in response to Tamil demands for regional autonomy in the north and east. The governor of the province, appointed by the president, is blocking the council’s initial piece of authorising legislation, and development planning and implementation continues to be run from Colombo and central government ministries. The government has yet to articulate any plans for a fair and lasting distribution of resources and political power that would satisfy all communities.

In this environment, development of the east remains affected by the conflicts and threatens to exacerbate them. Despite the need for development, there is a danger of funds being wasted or misused. Donors should not be treating the situation as a typical post-conflict environment. Instead, there is a need for additional monitoring and additional coordinated political advocacy. This is all the more important now that donors are considering assistance for the reconstruction of the Northern Province, once security conditions allow.

Bilateral and multilateral donors need to work with the government in a coordinated way and at the highest levels to ensure that its policies provide for effective and sustainable development. This should include a written agreement on basic principles, to be signed during a high-level donor development forum and prior to the commencement of any new projects. The government should agree to provide the basic level of human security necessary to successful development work by ending impunity for human rights violations and placing its counter-insurgency campaign under strict legal accountability. 

It should establish a political context conducive to addressing the inevitable future conflicts over land and development in the north and the east by empowering the respective provincial councils to address development and security needs. In the north, this must begin with free and fair elections that feature the full range of Tamil political parties and are conducted with international monitoring. Independent representatives of all communities, including from opposition parties, should be given a significant role in key development decisions. Finally, Tamils and Muslims need assurances that there are no current plans for Sinhalisation – either of the east or the north – and that demographic issues will be dealt with only through negotiation with independent representatives of all three communities as part of a settlement of the larger conflict.

At the same time, donors and development agencies need to establish stronger procedures to understand the political dynamics in the east and in the north and to monitor the effects and uses of their development projects, so as to limit the risk that their assistance will aggravate existing conflicts or provoke new ones. To do development right, it will have to be done slowly, carefully and with greater political investment. It will also require additional staff and resources. Major donors should form a joint donor task force or monitoring unit to analyse current conflict dynamics in the east (and when possible, in the north) and develop the shared principles for more “conflict-sensitive” work which the government would be requested to adopt. 

For these efforts to work, development agencies need to defend the work of local and international non-governmental organisations more vigorously. Threats and intimidation are crippling the necessary information flows, and general insecurity undermines meaningful project monitoring and public consultation. Multilateral donors in particular need to send strong messages to the government that harassment and denial of visas to international humanitarian and development workers and intimidation of local NGOs and community activists undermine their ability to do responsible development work and must stop.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 April 2009

Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere

Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine

The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.


In January 2015, the shock electoral defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, rescued Sri Lanka from a slide into increasingly harsh nationalist authoritarianism. The victory of a broad coalition representing Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims gave hope that the country could begin to address its longstanding political challenges: remedying the 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power in the Sinhala majority island and restoring for all the rule of law, damaged by decades of politicization, bitter ethnic bias, and impunity for grave abuses committed during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

The momentum of the early months soon slowed, as deep political dysfunctions reasserted themselves in the face of reforms meant to shake up entrenched political practices and policies. Two years on, the bloom is off. Time is running out for any reform at all. Government leaders should remember how easily they were sidelined when Rajapaksa’s triumphalist majoritarian politics held sway. For their own survival and to deliver on at least some of their big promises, they must collectively reject narrow chauvinistic politics and daily bickering and invest their remaining political capital in promoting an inclusive vision to build a more accountable political order and mitigate the risk of future conflict.

Sirisena’s first nine months as president saw real progress. With his electoral coalition, anchored around the United National Party (UNP), strengthened by the support of a large section of his – and Rajapaksa’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he won the needed two-thirds parliamentary approval for a key electoral pledge: a constitutional amendment to reduce the presidency’s enormous powers and restore the independence of oversight commissions for the police, judiciary, and human rights. The government ended censorship and intimidation of the media and partially scaled back the heavy military presence in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the island. The military was convinced, reluctantly, to return some of the huge swathes of private land it had seized during and after the war.

Sirisena’s election was followed in August 2015 by the narrow victory of a UNP-led coalition over a grouping led by former President Rajapaksa and including much of the new president’s Sirisena’s own SLFP. This allowed Sirisena to reassert enough control over the fractured SLFP to convince the majority of the parliamentary group to form an unprecedented national unity government with its long-time rival UNP, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The grand coalition reaffirmed the parties’ ambitious agenda to revive the beleaguered economy, investigate alleged corruption and political murders under the previous regime, promote reconciliation and, most important, draft a new constitution. Key aims of constitutional change were to check centralization of power in presidential hands, adopt a new electoral system and expand the powers devolved to provinces to address Tamils’ long-standing demands for autonomy in the north and east.

Read the full text at The Diplomat Magazine