On a radiant Wednesday afternoon in October of 2014, a splendid yellow and blue “Yal Devi” train arrived at the Jaffna station in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka for the first time in 24 years. The train, decorated with banana plants and draped with Sri Lankan flags, was met by a hopeful and eager crowd. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the first attendants on the newly opened 358 kilometer route. “This is not just a train journey but a bridge between north and south,” Rajapaksa said.
The reopening of the Yal Devi Express, which closed its lines to the Tamil north in 1990 in the midst of a devastating ethnic civil war, was widely welcomed as a symbol of the nation’s new unity. The express line will once again link Jaffna, the former headquarters of the Tamil insurgency, with the Sinhalese-dominant southwestern capital of Colombo, running four times a day between the two cities. With the new infrastructure, jobs in the southern urban area will open up to northern residents, and families and friends distanced by geography will be connected. While considerable tensions remain between the Tamils and Sinhalese, the re-inauguration of the train line is representative of the bustling economic growth that has been occurring in Sri Lanka since the war. Sri Lanka appears destined to transcend its ethnic troubles and become an economic success story.
Sri Lanka appears destined to transcend its ethnic troubles and become an economic success story.
Not everyone is happy with the changes. C. V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, boycotted the inauguration. He cited concerns that the rail line, instead of uniting the people of Sri Lanka, will simply tighten Colombo’s control over the repressed northern and eastern regions. Since coming to power in 2013, the first year that the Northern Province was allowed to hold elections, Wigneswaran and his Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have relentlessly fought for a further devolution of power, citing Rajapaktra’s unmet promises to allow more provincial control and to remove the national military that continues to occupy the region. In general, the TNA regards federal actions in the Northern Province with suspicion.
Sri Lanka ended its 26-year Civil War between the Sinhalese government and Tamil rebel fighters in 2009, but tensions have continued since and may never fully dissolve. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE; Eelam is the Tamil word for “Sri Lanka”) began guerrilla warfare in 1983, and from this point up through the first decade of the 21st century, violence on the small island nation was persistent. The LTTE, seeking an independent Tamil state, were widely supported by the north and the east, but labeled a terrorist group by the Colombo government. During the war, Tamils and Sinhalese were forced to support their respective political groups or suffer harassment or persecution by those of their own ethnicity. Even the small Muslim population in the east was forced to pick sides; most chose to support the Sinhalese, and subsequent LTTE attacks targeted Muslim settlements. According to a UN estimate, at least 40,000 Sri Lankan civilians in total were killed during the 25-year war.
When a peace was brokered in 2009, Rajapaktra declared that Sri Lanka had eradicated its “terrorism,” but nonetheless began to institute changes that would cede some power to the Tamils. Rajapaktra declared he would take steps to make Tamil one of the official state languages (along with Sinhalese), and would also create provincial governments under a federal system. While both of these promises were met nominally, the TNA believes their jurisdiction in the Northern Province is too limited. While some decentralization has occurred, the fact that there is still a military presence in the northern Jaffna Peninsula is proof that the ethnic conflict has not yet been fully resolved.
Even with tensions simmering, the future for Sri Lanka appears bright. According to the World Bank, the Sri Lankan economy has grown at a remarkable annual rate of 6.4 percent from 2003-2012, and even more impressively, a great deal of the growth has occurred at the bottom of the income distribution. Per capita consumption by the bottom 40 percent has grown at an average of 4.3 percent from 2002-2009, compared to 2.6 percent for the top 60 percent. Unemployment is at an enviable 4 percent, compared with 8.8 percent in neighboring India. Finally, In early October, President Rajapaksa optimistically laid out his “Mahinda Vision,”a state-led plan targeting growth in the financial sector while attracting investment domestically and abroad.
Unemployment is at an enviable 4 percent, compared with neighboring India’s 8.8 percent.
Economic growth in the nation has been admired by think tanks in Washington, India, and China. In fact, the two Asian giants, looking to extend their trade hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, are investing heavily in Sri Lanka’s potential. It was India’s US$800 million loan to Sri Lanka that built the reopened express line, and other northern tracks are in the planning stages thanks to Indian support. In addition to investing in infrastructure projects, India is also financing a US$270 million housing project for northern regions affected by the war, and renovations to the Kankesanthurai Harbour, Palaly Airport and Duriappah Stadium are forthcoming.
China is also making bets on Sri Lanka. Last month, President Xi Jinping visited Colombo and attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Colombo Port City, a US$1.4 billion Chinese-funded project envisioned as a hub for imports and exports. The site of the planned offshore trade city is conveniently located by the Colombo International Container Terminal, another US$500 million Chinese-funded investment.
However, on the island of Sri Lanka, blue skies do not always mean that there is not a storm brewing nearby. The results of an ongoing UN inquiry into war crimes in the waning days of the Civil War threaten to widen the divide between Tamils and Sinhalese. Ominously, Rajapaksa has prohibited foreigners from visiting the war-torn north in an attempt to barricade the investigation. However, this obstruction leaves the world with an uneasy feeling. The Sri Lankan media is among the least free in the world, and reports imply that Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have increasingly censored the media’s activities in anticipation of the UN probe. Repression of the probe while memories of the war are still fresh does not bode well for Tamil-Sinhalese relations moving forward.
While the UN study may bring about increased ethnic antagonism, it seems unlikely that they will threaten what Sri Lanka has managed to accomplish economically in the wake of such a horrendous war. Rajapaksa, while certainly not an advocate for Tamils, realizes that he must loosen his political control over the Northern Province while promoting economic integration and cooperation. In 2013, the first Northern Province elections took place, with an enthusiastic 70 percent turnout. If Tamils in the North and East continue to buy into the Sri Lankan state, the country will continue to sustain growth. With the joyous greeting of the Yal Devi in the heart of former rebel country as indication, it appears that most Sri Lankans are ready to move on from their nation’s violent past despite the ongoing ethnic tensions. Now it is time for Sri Lanka to spread its wings.